Canon EF 85 f/1.2 L Mk II Lens Review
This Canon lens is considered by most photographers to be the ultimate portrait lens especially when used on 35mm film or full frame digital cameras such as the 5D or 1Ds. It's considered to be the middle lens of the "Holy Trinity" of Canon prime lenses (35 f/1.4 L, 85 f/1.2 L and 135 f/2 L). The optics are simply amazing, providing sharp images with wonderful background blur and great color and contrast.
When used wide open, the f/1.2 aperture provides a razor thin depth of field, so care must be taken with both focus and composition. Specifically, it is definitely not recommended to focus and recompose with this lens wide open, and if you focus on the eyes, you can expect the ears and tip of the nose to be soft. The nine-bladed aperture helps to provide a wonderfully creamy bokeh and the Super Spectra lens coating and aspherical lens elements provide a high contrast, high quality image.
This is not a light lens. It weighs in at 2.2 pounds (998 grams). Most primes are much lighter, but the large aperture necessitates lots of glass which drives the heft of this lens. The large optics also make this lens slower to focus than its other L prime siblings, and much lower than its little brother, the 85mm f/1.8 EF. Canon did improve the AF mechanism on this lens compared to its predecessor, claiming a 1.6x AF speed improvement over the Mk I version of this lens, but even so, the lens definitely takes some time to focus. This isn't an issue for a portrait lens, which is its primary purpose, but this is definitely not a lens for indoor sports shooting. The Canon 85 f/1.8 EF would be a much better choice for indoor sports or for other action photography.
As noted above, the 85mm focal length is wonderful for portraits on a full frame camera, but the focal length is a bit long for studio or indoor portraiture on a 1.6 FOV crop camera. That's not to say it can't be used effectively on those bodies, but rather that you'll need a little more space in your studio for this focal length on a crop camera since it will have the same Field of View (FOV) as a 135mm lens on a full frame body.
As expected of an L lens, the build quality is excellent. The lens uses Ring type USM auto focus which allows Full Time Manual focus override. Two things to note, though, are that the lens uses an electrically driven manual focus system which requires the lens to be attached to the camera and powered (camera not asleep) in order to manually focus the lens, and that there is quite a bit of range on the manual focus ring. By this I mean that it takes slightly more than 3/4ths of a revolution to focus from minimum focus distance to infinity compared to only about a 1/4th of a revolution of the focus ring on similar lenses like the 135 f/2 L. The focus ring is not dampened and this makes it seem to move more freely than other lenses in Canon's lineup.
The ES-79 II hood fits snugly via a clip style mount and is flocked on the interior to absorb light. The hood is made out of high impact plastic and is very easy to mount. I reverse mount my hood on the lens for easy storage. Filter size on this lens is 72mm making it easy to share filters with the 35 f/1.4 L, the 135 f/1.2 L and the 200 f/2.8 L. The lens shape is unique among Canon's lineup as the optical requirements give the lens a "fat" shape that abuptly narrows at the lens mount.
I'm not much of a pixel peeper, so you won't find me shooting lens charts or doing 100% crops of the center and edges of my photos, but I do appreciate image quality in real world uses of my lenses. The photo above was taken the day after I purchased the lens, so I was still learning its quirks and limitations. The photo is unretouched except to be resized and saved for the web. I am quite pleased with the result and have subsequently used the lens great results. In fact, this is the lens that I reach for first when shooting glamour or portraits.
The photo to the left was taken as part of a shoot for a young model's portfolio and was shot in open shade under the St. Johns bridge. As you can see, the color rendition and contrast is excellent even on this reduced sized, optimized for web image. The bokeh is quite smooth, and although don't see any specular highlights in this image, I can tell you from experience that they are well rendered, round and evenly illuminated from edge to edge.
Although you can't beat this lens for image quality and low-light capability, there are some drawbacks. As I mentioned above, the AF speed is not fast. Additionally, the execution of the manual focus mechanism causes some lag. The focus ring is not dampened and feels loose, although it operates smoothly and freely with no "humps" through the range. The heft of the lens may dissuade many, but is reasonable for the amount of glass necessary for the lens design. Care must be taken with the rear element of this lens as it is fully exposed when the dust cap is removed (not inset into a baffle like many lenses).
The biggest drawback of this lens for many people, however, is the cost. As of this writing, this lens retails for $1749 USD at reputable online dealers and for close to $2000 in local shops. Is it worth it? If you are a portrait or glamour photographer, the answer is "yes" if you want the best available optics for your images. For the indoor sports or casual shooter, the Canon 85mm f/1.8 may be a better choice for you.
©2006 Mark Cohran, All Rights Reserved
Latest Revision: November 19, 2009