Design and handling

Key Takeaways:

  • Very heavy and large, and not entirely comfortable to carry on an EOS R/RP
  • Generally high standard of build, though the barrel is easily scuffed
  • Dust- and water-resistant to the same degree as EF L-series lenses, with a fluorine coating on both the front and rear elements.
  • Good level of customization over both focus and Control Rings

Canon’s own literature says that 'there’s no getting around that this is a large, heavy lens for an 85mm, fixed focal length design', and boy is that statement right on the money. The RF line has already served up some large and weighty optics, and this 1.2 kg (2.6 lb) lens shows Canon isn’t shy to continue down that path. Naturally for this kind of money you expect that Canon will prioritize performance over portability, but it’s worth thinking about about if your intentions are to mainly use it handheld.

It makes for an incongruous partnership with either the EOS R or the EOS RP, although those using the EOS R body with a battery grip – or potentially a future EOS R-series body – will potentially find a more satisfying balance. The lens’s weight overwhelms the camera when held conventionally, and the wide diameter of the barrel means that the combination ends up at an incline when placed on a flat surface. Even larger hands would struggle to wrap themselves sufficiently around anything but the base of the barrel.

The weight also means it’s not ideal when using a standard strap, not least because the imbalance forces the camera to an angle so that edge of the base plate to digs into your stomach. Still, what the lens lacks in portability it generally makes up for in simplicity and operation. As with previous RF lenses, things have been kept relatively straightforward, with a switch that changes operation between autofocus and manual focus, and another that restricts the focusing range to avoid hunting. These are joined by a pair of rings, one fine-toothed rubber manual focus ring in the middle of the barrel and a Control Ring with a knurled finish at the front.

Both of these rings are mechanically uncoupled from the optics, which means that, should you not quite be taken by the default setup, you’ll be able to adjust each to some degree. The Control Ring can have its direction of adjustment reversed, and can be used to regulate your choice of aperture, shutter speed, ISO or exposure compensation (or nothing). The absence of dedicated physical controls on the EOS R body for the latter two makes these particularly useful candidates.

A control ring near the front of the lens allows you to quickly control aperture, shutter speed, ISO or exposure compensation.

Whatever you assign to it, this ring works well in practice; there is a very slight lag between the physical adjustment and the EOS R registering it, but the clicks from this ring are very well defined. As with other RF lenses, if you do wish to use this during video recording and you’re not so keen on the camera picking up these sounds, Canon will happily de-click it for you for a fee.

The main body of the barrel is a matte-finish polycarbonate, which picks up scuffs more easily than than the glossier black fleck common to EF lens barrels, but these can be rubbed away just as easily. It’s slightly more matte in its finish than some of the lens’s stablemates, but construction is clearly of a very high standard.

And as an L-series lens, weather-sealing is said to be extensive. The only part of this that can be easily appreciated is at the lens mount, where a black rubber seal protrudes well from the mount, although the switch panels, Control Ring and manual focus ring are all said to be backed by seals too. Flourine coatings on the front and rear element serve to keep these surfaces free from water droplets, dust and grease, and easier to clean should any of these adhere. Experience has told us that these coatings can be fairly easily scratched though, so we'd still recommend a high-quality filter on the front of the lens.

Automatic / manual focus

A lens this large and heavy might be expected to be a little tardy when focusing, but Canon has used the same kind of ring-type ultrasonic motor employed in its largest telephoto lenses to help keep AF speed nice and snappy. And so, despite the fact that the focusing group comprises 7 of the 13 elements, focusing speeds are surprisingly brisk, though not as fast as the fastest lenses with linear motors we've seen from competitors. In good light the lens is very capable of shifting rapidly between different distances, with just the briefest hesitation before focus is confirmed. It continues to work quickly in poor light, where (if you like) the AF-assist lamp on the host camera can help out.

While pleasingly fast, anyone used to the STM motors inside many of Canon’s modern lenses may find the sound of the AF motor a little obtrusive. It’s a fairly low-frequency whirring that’s not too distracting in everyday use, but there’s a fair amount of glass being shifted here and its sound is noticeable in the absence of ambient noise, such as in more formal conditions. It’s no issue outdoors, although wedding photographers may find it draws a little too much attention during quieter moments, and those wanting to use the lens for video work will be better served switching to manual focus, which will still involve the focus motor (that's just how manual focus-by-wire works) but potentially more quietly and smoothly.

The finely-knurled rubber focusing ring is roughly in the middle of the barrel, and it could do with being a little more grippable. It’s unlikely that you’ll confuse it with the Control Ring when you’re using the viewfinder though, partly on account of their different finishes, but also because Canon has specifically made the front of the lens (where the Control Ring sits) slightly wider in diameter to help the user differentiate the two. Despite this, finding the focusing ring is still a little awkward when you’re feeling for it, blind. On a lens of this size, it just gets a little lost on the barrel.

You'll want to switch to manual focus for video applications, since autofocus drives the audible motor rather quickly - enough to be picked up by the camera's internal (or nearby) mics.

Like the Control Ring, it’s possible to reverse the direction of the focusing ring through camera's menu, and also to adjust this so that it responds to the the amount of rotation, rather than the speed with which the ring is turned. The latter is the default option, but a linear response is more useful for videography. Focusing is made easier by the focus distance scale that pops up inside the viewfinder or LCD as soon as manual focusing is initiated.

A lot of photographers who end up buying this lens will no doubt use it in combination with the Eye Detect AF feature on Canon's EOS R cameras, which can work in both single-shot and continuous focusing modes. Both options work well in practice, although those using the lens towards its widest apertures – and particularly when shooting close up – may enjoy a higher hit rate when set to continuous focus because of the extremely shallow depth-of-field. It's worth noting that the Eye Detect AF system inside the EOS R/RP can sometimes focus nearer to the eyelashes than the pupils, something exacerbated by the extremely thin depth-of-focus of this lens. For critical applications it helps to check the result, or revert to a smaller AF area like Spot.

The lens hood can be reverse-mounted on the lens when not required, and both focusing mode and focus-limit switches are still just about accessible in this configuration. You’ll need to remove the hood to use the manual focus ring, though.