Shoot In Darkness: The Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM

This lens is wickedly cool. I’ve never been much of a prime lens kind of person until I had the opportunity to use this lens for awhile and realized the magic behind primes and the Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM. This is one of Canon’s most highly regarded lenses and rightly so. Read my thoughts and opinions after the jump.

Build Quality

Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM @ f/1.2
Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM at f/1.2. Click image to see it in different sizes.

There is no doubt that the Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L (purchase from B&H Photo Video here) is built solid like a tank; and weighs nearly as much at 36.2 oz. (1025 grams). If you used any Canon L lenses before, then the 85mm is nothing new, but if this is your first L lens, be in for a real treat. Everything is solidly built with no rattles. The focus ring moves a little too easily because unlike the other L lenses, the 85mm f/1.2 uses a electronic focus manual meaning that the camera must be turned on to be manually focused. I find that it rotates a bit too easily and doesn’t have the same solid feedback feel of the other full-time manual focus lenses. I’ve also noticed something interesting about the electronic focus manual on the 85mm. If you have the default AF/AE Lock setting set for your shutter button, you have to half depress the shutter button to manual focus. But if you switch the setting to AE Lock, AF (or AF-ON), you can use manual focus at anytime the camera is on. It’s a bit odd how that works out, but it does.

While the 85mm is a very well built lens, you do have to be careful as to not damage any of the expensive components such as the front and rear elements. Unlike any of the other lenses, the rear element is very exposed and incorrect mounting can result in costly repair bills. It’s also worth noting that during focusing, the front element extends a tiny bit from the barrel, so care has to be placed when removing and mounting the lens. I would highly recommend that you do not store the lens on the front element when the front element is extended or on the rear element without a rear lens cap locked securely on.

Because of such a large maximum aperture, the minimum aperture of the Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM lens is f/16.

Usage

Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM at f/1.8. Click image to see it in different sizes.

In my personal opinion, I don’t find the 85mm f/1.2L as useful on a 1.6x crop body lens, I’m sure many would disagree, but having 136mm (85mm x 1.6) is a little too telephoto when I’m looking for 85mm. If you have a 1.6x crop body, the 50mm might be a bit more useful as it will be 80mm (50mm x 1.6). Another problem I’ve ran into a number of times is the minimum focusing distance of 37.4 inches (3.1 feet), there are times where I find I have to step back further just to acquire focus on my Canon EOS 1Ds Mark II. Fortunately you can use both the Canon 12mm and 25mm extension tubes.

On a full frame sensor, the 85mm is a wonderful portrait lens and with a maximum aperture of 1.2, subject isolation is very easily attained, but getting what you want in focus is a whole other thing. At the maximum aperture of 1.2, you are working with very razor thin depth-of-field (DOF) [sample picture]. Having 45 auto focus points to select from really helps with large aperture lenses such as the 85mm as the focus-and-recompose technique may lead to some unexpected results due to the DOF.

It’s certainly not a small lens. On a Canon EOS 1D/1Ds body, it’s weight is well balanced, but on a smaller body such as Canon EOS 50D or Canon EOS Rebel XSi, it is very front heavy. As a comparison, the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L non-IS USM lens weighs 42.2 oz, or 1210 grams, which is only 6 ounces heavier given the versatility! The 70-200mm IS version weighs 51.9 oz.

One of the biggest things I love about this lens is its large aperture. Shooting at f/1.2 lets me handhold shots at lower ISO settings that I would normally be able to with slower lenses such as f/2.8. Shooting at lower ISO settings mean lower noise especially when shooting in challenging low lighting conditions (see this COBA meeting album which was all shot with the 85mm f/1.2, link). You can also see another example of what you can do with the 85mm f/1.2L II USM lens by checking out this link. This lens excels for wedding photography, low light shooting, and portraits. Because of it’s relatively slow auto focus, I certainly wouldn’t use it for sports shooting.

The colors and contrast of the images taken by lens are very, very nice. I find I have to do very little post processing.

Conclusion

The Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM is a very specialize lens and may not see daily usage given it’s weight, size, minimum focusing distance, somewhat awkward focal length on a 1.6x crop body and price, it never-

© plastereddragon/Found on Flickr.com
© plastereddragon/Found on Flickr.com

the-less is a very valuable lens to have in any collection. The images produced with this lens are nothing less than stunning and the ability to use it in very challenging lighting conditions is nothing short of amazing.

It’s younger brother, the Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM (purchase from B&H Photo Video here), is a more affordable alternative (approximately 1/5th of the price of the f/1.2L version) with image quality that is very similar to the f/1.2L version and is a great alternative for those on a budget. One thing I’ve noticed, but haven’t had much opportunity to test this more thoroughly, but  I’ve noticed that with the 85mm f/1.2L set to f/1.8 and the 85mm f/1.8 at f/1.8, the f/1.2L version had a faster shutter speed despite being at the same aperture. I’ve read in a few places that this is due to the fact that the f/1.2L has larger glass allowing for more light transmission. This same phenomenon has been reported with the Canon EF 200mm f/1.8L USM and Canon EF 200mm f/2L IS USM lenses (I’ll post the links once I find it).

The 85mm f/1.2L II USM is very sharp, even at f/1.2 but it is more prone to chromatic aberrations, which is not entirely unexpected given the large aperture. At f/1.8, it’s super sharp and doesn’t get any sharper even when stepped down.

So is this lens worth the $1,800 price tag? I definitely think so. The 85mm f/1.8 USM comes very close and does auto focus much faster, so why the f/1.2L version? The f/1.2L is the sharpest of the two, is faster, and the colors & contrast are better. This lens is certainly on my list of next lenses to acquire for good reason.

Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM Sample Images

You can see other images taken with the Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM at these links:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *