Tuesday 8 July 2008

Canon EF 85mm f/1.2 L II USM lens

Canon's best lenses are given the L-designation (an abbreviation for luxury I believe). They have excellent optics, superb build-quality and cost an arm-and-a-leg. If you're doing photography professionally, however, they are well worth buying. They hold their value well, unlike camera bodies, so you can recoup most of your money if you regret your profligacy at a later date! A terrific value starting lens is the 70-200mm f/4 L lens - be warned, though, it's a slippery slope. Once you see how good your shots are - in terms of sharpness, contrast, colours and pure visual impact - it's hard to go back to non L-series lenses.

For this post I  wanted to briefly discuss the 85mm f/1.2 L lens - for a full review visit the excellent digital-picture.com. Canon describe it as their "definitive portraiture lens" (it's very popular with wedding photographers) - for a discussion on why this focal length is ideal for portraits see my earlier post 'Perspective and portrait lenses'. With a maximum aperture of f/1.2, this is the fastest lens that Canon produces - the more light a lens allows in, the faster the shutter speed you can access for a given level of light. Working down through the full f-stop sequence (1, 1.4, 2, 2.8, 4, 5.6, 8, 11, 16, 22 - multiply by the square root of 2 each time), each aperture allows in twice as much light as the previous one. Fast L-series zoom lenses have a maximum aperture of f/2.8 - f/1.2 is a huge 2.5 stops faster than this. Coupled with ISO 3200 on an EOS 5D and the low-light capability is truly astonishing. This wide aperture also gives incredibly shallow depth-of-field and leads to wonderfully out-of-focus, diffuse backgrounds - an effect known by the Japanese word bokeh (pronounced bo-ké). As a result, your focusing must be very accurate. The optical quality of the lens is just fantastic (this is purely a subjective description, I haven't run any tests on the lens) - the shot of Emily above could be printed at A2 and still look great.

The downsides? It's very slow to autofocus in comparison with other Canon USM lenses, the closest focusing distance is 0.95m (though this can be improved using extension tubes) and, the really bad news, it currently retails for £1249 in the UK. Not the first L-series lens you should be buying but a very worthwhile addition if you shoot weddings and portraits.

Check out more of my photography here: wedding photographer Kent


David Shapiro said...

Almost relieved (!) to read your complaint re AF speed as I'm making do with the Mark I version of this lens, a legacy from film days, whose slow and clunky AF is its most obvious limitation. Though I dare say the coatings on yours are better suited to densely-populated sensors. I wonder if you have any experience of the older lens?

David Fenwick said...

Hi David,

I've never used the mark I version. Those who have suggest that there is an improvement in AF speed (1.5-fold quicker if my memory serves me correctly) but it's still considerably slower that Canon's other EF lenses.
I find, however, that the lens can quickly focus when moving from one subject to the next provided that both are beyond a focal distance of about 2m. It's when moving from subjects at 0.95-2m to >2m (or vice versa) that things become slow!