85mm f/1.2L II USM - Brilliant Lens...

Started Jun 3, 2015 | User reviews thread
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Marco Nero
Marco Nero Veteran Member • Posts: 7,249
85mm f/1.2L II USM - Brilliant Lens...
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I have quite bit to say about this lens... The Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM lens is one of the finest and most unique Canon L-series lenses that I've had the pleasure to own. It renders particularly beautiful images that are often immensely pleasing to the eye. It has a particular look that no other lens is able to precisely capture although that infamously pretty "bokeh" is not without cost. It's also not quite THAT slow, regardless of the opinions of other reviewers. It's essentially no slower than the majority of non-DSLR compact cameras out there today. AF can be instantaneous (if the AF doesn't have far to travel), or it can take as long as a whole second to lock focus from Infinity. I'm sure that for complex shots it may even "struggle" for 1.5 seconds. For sports shooters, that 'one second' is almost a second too long... but this isn't a sports lens... this is a Portrait lens. And as a portrait lens it performs exactly as it should. It focuses faster than the Mk1 version of the same.
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I'm not a studio photographer by nature and I don't shoot portraits that often... so my use for this lens is very much for leisure and personal interest applications. I guess I bought it because I've really enjoyed the EF 50mm f/1.2L II USM lens and wanted to expand on the range and results. Yes, the 85mmL does offer more subject-from-background separation but know also that the 50mmL and the 135mmL make for a more versatile and less expensive (per lens) combination. I also use both of those lenses although I find that the 85mm gives me more reach and slightly stronger bokeh than the 50mmL... but is less cramped indoors than the 135mmL. The bokeh from the 85mmL is very similar to the more affordable 135mmL lens. It's probably because I own the 50mmL and the 135mmL that I wasn't as likely to be overwhelmed by the results from this lens. But I was eventually impressed with what it can do.
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FIRST IMPRESSIONS:
Heavy, Quirky Ergonomics, IRRITATINGLY out of focus.
My first 275 pictures were mostly out of focus due to bad lens copy (get it together Canon!)
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SECOND IMPRESSIONS: (with 2nd Copy next day)
Pretty, Heavy, Chunky, Satisfying, Fun.
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The following images are all JPEGS from the camera with a minor (+1) saturation adjustment via the 6D in-camera settings before resizing. This lens renders fairly warm images so I haven't needed to edit them to any noticeable degree. The picture (above) of my 6D sporting this lens was taken with the Canon G1X and a small LED flashlight. For the images on this review page:

  • All photographs were handheld.
  • All shots were taken in JPEG (no Raw)
  • Camera Setting (EOS 6D) for Saturation was increased by +1.
  • Flash used for Cat picture via Canon Wireless RT.
  • Some images had shadows lifted slightly in Lightroom 4.

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Sunrise yesterday morning at Terrigal Beach (Australia) - f/7.1 @ 1/500 sec

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What I like about using this lens:
It's fun to use and it's solidly built. It really is - and it sure looks good on the front of a DSLR... although there's quite a bit of weight on this lens (over a Kilogram of metal and glass). If you carry an extended grip on your DSLR with two batteries inside it, you'll end up with a snoot case weighing around 3.4kg+ with this lens attached. The silent AF is great. The Bokeh is smooth and dreamy and sometimes exhibits a slight background swirl, with a unique signature considered typical of this specific lens. At f/1.2 highlights are rounded and smooth... although at smaller apertures they take on a more defined hexagonal shape due to the angle of the aperture blades. I deliberately shot 95% of my pictures with this lens in f/1.2 just to get used to it because it handles a little differently to the EF 50mm f/1.2L lens and felt slightly less forgiving for some reason.
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I like the color rendered by this lens. It's typically warm and slightly more saturated than other lenses. You generally don't need to use the lens hood that is supplied with this lens although it does move freely around the lens and "clips" onto the body of the lens rather than use the usual bayonet socket connection engaged on other lens hoods.
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I really enjoyed seeing the results from my early morning beach shoot yesterday because I didn't expect to use this lens anywhere near this environment and anticipated mediocre results or failure. It would not have been my first choice of glass for this subject. The sun blew out the image slightly in a few shots but I had no ND filter and was limited to a 1/500 second exposure in order to capture the mid-tones and shadow detail comfortably.
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Supa Spectra coatings on this Mk II version of the 85mmL lens allow it to produce clean images with little ghosting or internal reflections. Lens flare is therefore quite tame although new lens design on the Mk II helped eliminate the odd "rainbow" effect that the Mk 1 was capable of producing when directed towards sunlight. I read one review last year where the reviewer commented on vignetting with this lens but I saw no sign of it in any of my shots (even with a filter in place) and my local dealers were puzzled when I raised the question.
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The man picking his nose (on the left) will no doubt be relived to be out of focus. The curved perspex shelves in the store window are bowed from heavy items... not a lens defect.

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It's not a simple lens to use...
This is because an 85mm focal range at f/1.2 requires a steady hand, sufficient and/or ideal light and a faster-than 1/100 sec shutter speed to assure a clean image. I've got a fairly steady hand but at f/1.2 your plane of focus is quite literally "wafer thin". Your body is going to move slightly ... even a few mm... with each shot. Hence you might think your camera and lens are incapable of focusing precisely when in fact it's your body shifting slightly. Faster shutter speeds can help although shooting subjects 10 feet away or more tends to be much more forgiving.
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This is NOT a lens that tolerates users who like to recompose their images after locking the AF elsewhere on the subject. If you aim for the reflection of an eyeball and then recompose, your eyeball target will likely be out of focus when you take the shot.
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For those picking up this lens for the first time, there's a few curiosities in store:
Whilst the outermost lens element does NOT rotate (which is good), it does shift in and out of the lens body as the focus is adjusted during the AF process. This is an older method for lens focusing but it is considered extremely reliable. Other surprises relate to the construction and design.
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This is a picture of a DUCK on a lake.
See that little dark smudge above the grass? That's actually a duck.

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Focus:
The 85mmL has a slightly unreliable AF in my opinion. 96% if the time, if not more, it hits the target and nails the shot every time. But there's a few inexplicable times when the AF (via the OVF) fails to lock focus accurately. Using Live View is noticeably slower at almost 2.5 seconds to lock AF, but it's incredibly precise and always gets the shot if you choose to use it. I tend to use it when I need to shoot low and close to the ground or overhead. If you ever want to see if your lens is precisely adjusted for focus, switch to Live View and then back to the OVF, taking a shot with each. You'll be able to see if one image is sharper than the other... and if your OVF shot is out of focus, then it's time to make a micro-adjustment. The process is simple and painless on cameras that offer this feature.
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The camera has a MF/AF switch as per usual. It also features Full Time Manual Focus. But unlike most other Canon L-series lenses, you need to half-depress the shutter release button during AF and THEN you can engage the outer focus ring to make manual focus adjustments. I didn't realize this at first so I contacted Canon by phone and they had no idea how the lens was supposed to work either. Curse Canon for closing their local Service Centers and sending all their phone support to a Third World Country to save on costs. (Seriously Canon, what were you thinking?). It was actually an experienced Nikon specialist who took the time to explain it to me in person. So don't think that the Full Time Manual Focus is broken ... it's just another slightly peculiar design issue with this lens that's neither good nor bad... it just is.
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Another thing that will surprise users who handle this lens is that the rear-most lens element is literally flush with the back of the lens itself. You want to be slightly cautious when mounting it to your EOS DSLR but it's also worth mentioning that the Red alignment dot is literally on the back of the lens and out of sight when the lens is mounted to the body... so in low light you'll need to take a look at the back of the lens before mounting it.
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I rarely use the AI servo but tested it with the 85mmL and found that a "two-shot (then refocus) two-shot" method guaranteed me 3/4 shots to be in focus with objects moving towards or away from me. It's VERY effective with this lens although I'd note for users to remember that using Manual Focus override when engaging in AF may cause a haphazard result if the AI Servo should kick in whilst you're making a 'Full Time Manual' Focus Adjustment whilst taking a shot.
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Auto-focus is VERY quiet with this lens... almost entirely silent. The Minimum Focus Distance of this lens is just under a meter at 0.95m (slightly less than 3 feet at 37.4 inches). This means if you are seated across the table from someone, you might need to stand up and move away from the table slightly. Same rule will apply to foodies.
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My Facebook friends will be besieged by Cat pictures that are 99% out-of-focus.

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What I don't Like:
Image quality aside, it's far from the easiest lens to shoot with and it's one that always seems to require a minor micro-adjustment in order to perfectly sync with each DSLR's AF system. Like MANY other purchasers, I was forced to return the first 85mmL lens within a day because the micro-adjustment was pushing maximum without being precise enough. This meant the lens was outside Canon's usual tolerance range and the dealer was good enough to allow me to try a second copy. The first copy was Front Focusing by about 2 inches out-of-the-box... which was a ridiculous amount. At distances of 10 meters, the focus was out by a couple of feet in some instances. The new (second copy) of this lens required an additional micro-adjustment in order to precisely nail the AF. It's dead accurate but certain subjects, if small enough, make it hard for the AF to nail, entirely due to the extremely shallow DOF. Reflective (sparkly) surfaces may on rare occasions fool the AF, just like any other camera or lens.
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4.5 Stars:
There are Four reasons why I'd give the 85mmL lens a less-than-perfect 5-Star rating and anyone offering 5 Stars for this lens should probably reconsider their verdict because this lens isn't perfect although the results it produces can be. Put simply: the image quality from this lens is very good and the aesthetic appeal of the images if produces is very high.
My rating of 4.5 Stars is due to the following:

  1. Lack of rear Environmental Seal (why, Canon?)
  2. A need to Micro-Adjust each lens to match the camera due to variance. (normal)
  3. Occasional Misfocus - more so than other lenses.
  4. The outermost element moves in and out of the lens body (old-style!)

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Choppy Seas on the rocks yesterday. Out-of-camera JPEG as usual (slight crop)

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Ease of use... (or lack thereof):
I personally don't feel that the EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM lens is an easy lens for a beginner to use but it's not so complex that it's to be ignored. I'd consider myself to be quite experienced in both equipment and theory - but I found myself puzzled by the need to nudge the camera settings much more with this lens than any other I've used. My EOS 6D is limited to a maximum 1/4000 sec shutter speed whereas 5D (and even some APS-C camera users) can squeeze more out of this lens with 1/8000 sec shutter speeds. I found that I was getting blown out pictures in bright sunlight at 1/4000 because I was attempting to shoot at f/1.2 ... the answer is of course to use an ND filter if you want to shoot wide in such bright light.
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This is a primarily a PORTRAIT lens. That's why Canon made it and that's what it was designed to do. But I just spent a couple of days shooting everything else other than portraits and I found it very accommodating. Some Chromatic Aberration is visible on SOME brightly contrasted subjects when shooting at widest apertures in bright light - but this can easily be controlled and is entirely typical of apertures around f/1.2 on other lenses. Modern DSLRs have lens profiles included in the DiGiC processor and can apply these profiles to remove CA and PF.
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Users will want to buy a quality UV filter to protect their outer lens unless they intend to shoot with the lens hood on all the time. The large diameter of the 85mmL's outer lens means it is more exposed to impact. I purchased one with modern coatings that reduce reflection and offer increased light transmission (compared to other filters) and was able to shoot towards a sunrise without any noticeable flare. Don't use Live View to shoot towards the sun (see manual for more details).
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Bokeh madness. The 85mmL is simply designed for aesthetically-pleasing shallow DOF.

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Do you need this lens?
No. Not at all. But, like me, you've probably wanted it. If you can afford it, buy one. You won't likely regret doing so. If you're a portrait photographer you'll probably consider it an essential tool. Wedding photographers LOVE this lens but you'll want to spend time with it before you take it out for a paid gig. Don't rush out to use it without spending at least two-days (minimum) to a week with it to understand its nuances and to appreciate how different it is to other Canon point-and-shoot lenses.
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SUMMARY:
I used it for about a week and took over 1,000 pictures with it before feeling comfortable writing a personal review of this lens. It's magnificent but it's also somewhat expensive. A small compact camera has more versatility than this one lens. But what the EF 85mmL II USM lens does is create magical photographs that aren't matched by any alternatives for this aperture and focal length. Using and owning this lens reminded me of that phrase from The Lion King: "slimy yet satisfying". The lens looks great, feels odd to use at first ... although it performs very well. But it's also heavy and expensive and has its quirks. For these reasons, I'd suggest this choice of lens to experienced shooters with a use for it rather than novice users with cash to burn.
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NOTE: Quite a few reviews and webpages devoted to this lens list it as having an Environmental Seal on the rear. This is incorrect and is likely the result of people copy-pasting from a single review - which in turn was copying from the wrong Canon Info page of another lens.

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DPreview would prefer that we limit images if possible to prevent clutter...
so I've reduced some of my samples below to 4x per JPEG to allow me to demonstrate a wider variety of examples. Each image is 2000 pixels across. Please ignore the EXIF information as it will only apply to the photograph in the top-left-corner of each image.

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Regards,
Marco Nero.

 Marco Nero's gear list:Marco Nero's gear list
Canon EOS M6 Canon EOS Ra Canon EOS R6 Canon EF-M 32mm F1.4 Canon RF 85mm F1.2L USM +20 more
Canon EF 85mm F1.2L II USM
Telephoto prime lens • Canon EF • 1056B002
Announced: Feb 21, 2006
Marco Nero's score
4.5
Average community score
4.7
Canon EF 85mm F1.2L II USM Canon EOS 5D Canon EOS 6D
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