If you are a serious or professional Canon photographer, there is little doubt that you would not have heard about this legendary lens. Not only it’s one of Canon’s fastest prime lenses at the moment, it also earns itself a reputation for being one of the best portrait lenses in the world.
So why 85mm?
In 35mm photography, 85mm is a focal length that many regard as the perfect field of view for photographing people. Unlike wider angle lenses, it simply renders a more natural view to the human eye. It doesn’t squash or distort anything, which is good for ‘true’ human portrait or even photographing something with lots of straight lines. I personally love this focal length. Even when I am holding a 70-200mm zoom lens, I often choose a range between 80 to 90mm for my wedding portrait work, unless when I need to bring the background more to the subject.
Being an ‘L’ lens says it all but this monster is more than just an ‘L’ lens. It’s huge and heavy. Just by reading the spec sheet doesn’t tell you anything until you actually see and hold one. It weighs over a 1kg and definitely feels like carrying a watermelon on your neck once it is mated to your camera body. It will soon become a gym workout if you are out and about with this set up for an hour or two. Beside the size and weight, it’s beautifully constructed. You can simply feel the quality by licking it… no touching it. It’s metal construction and you can see every piece of glass inside. It is as stunning as J Lo’s bottom. But since this lens has been around for a few years, it hasn’t been updated to the latest Canon weather sealing specification and because it’s focus by wire (electronica motors rather than traditional gearing), I would not suggest you use it in the rain. But perhaps this lens is meant to be used in a studio because of its size and weight (don’t remember how many times I say this). The supplied rice bowl lens hood is equally big and since the lens coating is so good at reducing flare, I seldom use it. It’s huge and heavy…
Using it in practice, good and bad
I have tried a few different 85mm lenses but none of them fires my desire as much as this monster lens. Why? Just look at the size of front element of this beast! It simply steals attention from passersby. However, this is also the downside if you want to get mugged on the street at night, when this beauty really shines.
Razor thin depth of field also means you need a pretty dawn good focusing system. Something that only the pro-spec’d cameras have. Talking about focusing, it is a superb lens on its own. It is also one of the slowest USM lenses in Canon’s current line up. It may be quiet because of the ultra sonic motor but it is slower than your girlfriend’s knitting. Focus by wire also means that manual focus is sometimes a guess work. You can just keep turning it for a few loops before you hit focus. I still prefer the traditional and mechanical gearing approach.
This lens doesn’t use internal focusing system and the front elements will be moving in and out. The movement is powered by the USM motor, which draws battery from your camera. So, when it’s extended, you cannot retract it by turning the focusing ring (because it’s focus by wire..) and you will have to power it up, point to something far so the scale goes to infinity or switch to manual focus and turn it manually. Umm, this is the only part that annoys me.
I hate to say it but I actually use this lens for street photography. I love being unobtrusive, perhaps a trait that I inherit from being a reportage wedding photographer. This lens can be very intimidating because of its huge size, if I want to use this lens for street, it’s good to keep a good distant from your subject. This focal length is also good for depth of field control and allows me to separate the subject and the background if I want to without shooting wide open.
Being a 1.2 lens also means super thin depth of field. For perfect portrait and if you want to use it wide open, I strongly suggest you to use a tripod because any movement, and I mean ANY, will make your subject out of focus. Being a short tele and heavy weight, you may also have to worry about camera shake, since it’s not stabilised. You will need anything between 1/200 to 1/500 to get tack sharp shots.
As you would expect from a Canon’s top range ‘L’ lens, it’s sharp even when shooting wide open. But I find shooting at 2.8 really brings out every detail of your subject. Another lens that I could think of with similar results are Nikon’s 85mm 1.4D AF and Leica’s 90mm Summicron Aspherical.
Well, the Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM may be a huge, heavy lens with the slowest USM speed and a sky high price tag, but its desirability, durability and construction quality make it the ‘most wanted’ for most portrait and wedding professionals. It is hard work using this lens, both physically and mentally. But once you get everything right, you will be rewarded with some wonderful pictures. I remember just how long I was staring at the first image I took from this lens. It’s better than your first date. People who want to try this focal length can consider the cheaper Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM. It’s much lighter and only cost a fraction of the ‘L’ sibling. Don’t worry though, it is a damn good lens with super fast USM focus. Ultimately, the cheaper 1.8 will do a fine job but if you want a lens that will give you an image with punchy colours, good contrast, hair splitting details and those envy glances from fellow photographers and attention from all those who walk pass you, then nothing will even come close. It’s worth every penny.
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