Canon 85mm Lens Faceoff

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Canon manufactures two different 85mm EOS lenses. The Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM sells for about $2,000. The Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM is still wicked fast, and sells for about $400. Can one prime lens REALLY be five times better than another one from the same manufacturer? I decided to find out.

The Test

The 85mm prime is primarily intended for use in portraiture, so in the course of shooting the tutorial that I posted earlier this week, I shot the same portraits with both lenses, in order to make a fair comparison.

Here’s a headshot taken with the f/1.2 lens wide open at 1.2. As you can see, the depth of field is so thin that not only is one eye out of focus, but even half of the eye that’s in focus is out of focus! That’s what I call selective focus.courtney_12_at_12-9960

With the subject facing the camera straight on, I managed to get both eyes tack-sharp at f/1.2, while the hair and shoulders fell off into buttery softness.

This is definitely a VERY nice lens. It’s also very heavy; while trying to dial in perfect focus, I noticed my hands shaking a bit, because the lens weighs 2.26 lbs, and made my camera very front-heavy.

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Next, I took the same shot with the f/1.8 lens wide open at f/1.8. This is approximately one full stop less than the f/1.2. Here, even though only the eye closest to the camera is in focus, the whole eye is tack-sharp, and the other eye isn’t distractingly blurry. In every other way, it’s difficult to tell the difference between the two shots. I did, however, notice that the 15oz f/1.8 lens – less than half the weight of the f/1.2 – balanced with the camera much more comfortably in my hands.

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In reality, it’s rare to shoot any lens “all the way open.” So, I took another shot, this time with both lenses set to f/2.8. Aside from the slight vignetting on the f/1.8, I couldn’t tell the difference at all.

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It’s worth noting that all the photos you see here were taken with manual focus. I am so used to focusing manually that it doesn’t even really occur to me to use autofocus. However, I did test the autofocus capabilities of both lenses, and this was definitely an area in which the more expensive product showed its mettle. Autofocus on the f/1.8 lens was much like the autofocus I expect from a typical lens: it gave me images in which the focus was usable, but not perfect. The autofocus on the f/1.2 lens, on the other hand, resulted in consistently sharper images. If you rely on autofocus, this might be a factor to consider seriously.

Conclusion

There’s no doubt that the Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM is a beautiful piece of machinery. If you’re the kind of person who accepts nothing but the best (or who needs top-of-the-line autofocus), and is willing to pay for it, you’ll be very happy with it. If you’re willing to settle for a lens that is merely fantastic, rather than stellar, the Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM is probably a better choice. It can take razor-sharp images with a fully-open aperture, it’s comfortable to carry and hold, and its pricetag is a lot more accessible.

In my opinion, the Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM is a great lens, and offers great value.

6 Replies to “Canon 85mm Lens Faceoff”

    1. Great questions! Yes, all photos were taken with the full-frame Canon 5D Mk II. I did not use a tripod. Since I was using such a wide-open aperture, my shutter speed was more than sufficient to shoot hand-held.

  1. Also wanted to congratulate you on your website, very good tech stuff on it. Keep on the good work!

    I also had to chose between 85L and 85 1.8 and chose the last. Now i have 35L, 135L and 85 1.8, a very good trio

  2. I also recommend the 1.8. It’s a beautiful lens, with wonderful bouquet. Yes, I use it for portraits, but ironically it has become my favorite lens for large multi-image panoramic images. I will expose up to between 5 and 160 individual images (for a very large scene) using the 85mm 1.8, using only a tripod. No distortions, only flawless and where I wish it, razor sharp imagery. For the price, it’s quite a catch!

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