My lens review of the Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM is based on my experience using it in on the job as a professional photographer. You will find tips and analysis for using the lens across a broad category of professional photography applications. This review includes a selection of full resolution JPG and RAW DNG files for you to download and analyse with your own software, and a large gallery of shots that were taken with this lens.
The Canon EF 85mm f/1.2 is an exciting lens to own and use. It oozes quality and technical sophistication, and from the moment I first took it from its box I knew it was a lens to handle carefully. The rear element sits flush with the mount, and attaching it to a camera requires care not to scratch the glass against the camera. It’s heavy, surprisingly so, and because of it’s compact and round shape, I always worry that I’m going to drop it.
It is delicate too. Some years back I had it mounted on my 5DIII and slung over my shoulder when I swung it into a wall right at the start of a wedding shoot. I didn’t knock it very hard, not much more than a light bump, but it was enough to cause a fault in the autofocus system and render the lens useless.
Interestingly, when I took it into Canon in Melbourne for repair, the quote came back so high that the lens was essentially a write-off. I told them not to go ahead with the repair, but to just put it back together and give it back. I got a call a short time later to say that after re-assembly it had started working again. Two years later, it’s still working perfectly.
The focus on the Canon EF 85mm f/1.2 is electronically driven and cannot be manually focused without power. I assume this is because there are so many internal glass elements in motion that doing so with the level of precision required for such a bright lens was too difficult.
The autofocus itself is somewhat slow and calls for a steady hand to help it lock on. Once it does focus, though, it is staggeringly accurate. At f/1.2, it has an extremely shallow depth of field. For headshots, you may find yourself choosing between focused eyes or focused eyelashes.
I found the autofocus less accurate on my 7DI than 5DIII. This is not something I notice with other lenses, and have put it down to the older age of the focus system in the 7DI. It is only marginal, though, and not a reason to avoid the combination. I am also mindful that on the 7DI, this lens is the equivalent of 136mm, which, handheld at f/1.2 you would expect to find more difficult to focus precisely.
At f/1.2, the Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM achieves pixel level sharpness in the centre of the lens. That’s quite an achievement for such a wide aperture, and exciting to use in the field due to it’s great isolating potential. At f/5.6 I believe this is the sharpest lens I have ever used. Certainly, it is the lens I reach for if I need the maximum detail possible to render onto the sensor of my camera.
Often lens flare is reviewed as a fault in a camera lens. Not so the Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM. The flare achieved when shooting into the sun is beautiful, and with careful handling, and quite a lot of practice, opens up all sorts of creative possibilities. At f/1.2 with the sun towards the centre of the frame you can achieve a full circle. There is also a lovely, contrast softening glow that warms the whole frame and adds a sense of light and warmth to the shot.
Note that you can’t always see the lens flare through the viewfinder. Modern viewfinders like those in the 5DIII pass the image through a second aperture that effectively stops the image down to f/2.8 before reaching your eye. This means that you can’t see the bokeh effect of the lens wide open, and some of the flare also disappears. Using the flare creatively can take a bit of guess work unless you can shoot in live view mode.
On the topic of bokeh, the Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM has the most beautiful bokeh of any lens I own. Out of focus point sources of light maintain a round shape and are rendered without a contrasty rim. The bokeh of out of focus areas is smooth and buttery without any harsh, contrasty edges, and gives shots a lovely smooth quality.
The human eye is effectively a 50mm lens on a 35mm camera. At 85mm, the focal length of the Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM is somewhat telephoto, which means that objects in the background relative to the foreground are larger than on shorter focal lengths. This makes this lens ideal for portraiture. Noses are well proportioned, and eyes look somewhat larger than with the naked eye. The effect is subtle but does render portrait images from the Canon 85mm f/1.2L II USM with a more flattering look.
The Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM is clearly a portrait lens. However, the isolating potential when wide open, and low light gathering abilities, also suggest it will perform well in low light situations, and those where you want to isolate your subject from a busy background.
In the studio, it is the clarity and resolution of this lens, combined with its focal length, that is its greatest asset. Because a studio background is less cluttered, wide apertures and shallow depths of field are less important. In group shots, it would not even be desirable as the in-focus zone is just too narrow, and it is unlikely the whole group will be in focus.
Skin texture is particularly well rendered by the Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM. It’s not always ideal to be able to see every imperfection in somebody’s complexion, but I’d rather use a lens that captures every detail, and worry about skin-retouching later, than not have the detail at all. As previously mentioned, the Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM is the sharpest lens I own, and a master at capturing every detail with (careful focusing).
Because the Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM is on the longish side it is more suited to tighter shots than large groups, unless you have a lot of space to work with. Most of my work is done on location using a mobile studio in smallish spaces, and it is not always possible to get far enough back to shoot a group shot with this lens. For this job I’m more likely to reach for a 35mm prime.
I believe this is the most suited application to this lens. The isolating potential of the lens to blur out busy backgrounds is greater than just about any other lens available in this focal length. I can achieve something similar with lenses like the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens, but I’d need to go back a long way and work at 400mm. That’s rarely practical, and the Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM is a much better choice.
The second great strength of this lens when shooting on location is working in low light. At f/1.2 the lens gathers an enormous amount of natural light, and as it is often not practical to use a soft box or other indirect fill light, this comes in very handy. I’m not a fan of on camera flash when working on location, and unless I can find a wall or like bounce off, I prefer to work with natural light sources. The Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM is just magnificent for this purpose, and combined with the lovely bokeh, the creative potential of the lens make it exciting to use.
Weddings are a match made in heaven for this lens, and it is a must have for any serious event photographer.
The biggest limitation of this lens for sport is the speed of its autofocus. It does have a USM system to drive the autofocus, but it can take a few seconds to crank all the way from close to infinity. However, because of just how bright it is wide open, it is a great choice for action stopping high shutter speeds. Basketball games are a good example as lighting conditions are generally poor, but at court side you are close enough that 85mm will provide enough zoom to get the job done. The keeper rate for shooting fast moving objects is not as great, but set up correctly and held steady it can do the job. You also get that lovely blurred background as well.
The focal length and resolution of the Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM make it a useful tool for shooting products in the studio. The lens does tend to flare though, so if shooting on high-key backgrounds you need to make sure you haven’t brightened the background to the point that contrast is affected. The lens can handle a +3EV stop background without losing contrast, especially at f/5.6, but the margin of safety is not as great as with other lenses.
If shooting still life shots with shallow depth of field, and with softer lighting, this lens is very well matched.
When there is enough space to fully frame the work, this Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM is my first choice for art reproduction photography, simply because it has such high resolving power. When used with a tripod, set at f/5.6 or f/8 and manually focused with live view zoomed all the way in to ensure perfect focus, this lens can capture absolutely every detail in front of it.
This lens also has essentially no distortion, so when working with paintings or other objects with strong vertical or horizontal lines, little distortion correction is necessary during post-production.