Archive for November, 2018

I have had quite a month gather up goodies. Last month I wrote about new full frame mirrorless cameras from both Nikon and Canon. I decided I needed a full frame mirrorless body and as I have Canon EF lenses up the wazoo, why not just dive into an all new camera system like the EOS-R? I decided to sell off my 5D Mk III at the PhotoFair on Saturday and then proceeded to buy an 85mm 1.2 L and a Leitz Summicron C 40mm to use on both the new EOS R and my M5 mirrorless bodies.

I’ll write-up the EOS-R another time though. Today I want to touch on the EF 85mm f/1.2 L. I wrote an article right here on this blog back some time ago about the 85mm 1.8 USM lens. It was a rather glowing review, click here. Today I want to talk about the amazing 85mm f/1.2 L. I owned the FD version of this lens back in the 1980s up until I switched to the EOS system in the mid 90s. I was always a bit put off by both the price and size of this lens, both of which are nothing short of enormous. As the 90s marched on I had begun to move away from the type of photography that really favored a lens like the 85 L.

A few years ago I started taking a lot of portraits and people a such again and bought the EF 85/1.8 USM. I stand by that article I referenced above, that is a great lens. A funny story about the 85/1.2 I bought at PhotoFair. I was actually interested in another lens, the EF 50/1.2 L. While I hemmed and hawed about buying, some one else did. Yes I’m conjuring up the phrase, “you snooze, you lose” in my mind, it’s a real thing! But there was that monster, that bokeh beast, that delicious 85/1.2L MK II just sitting there on the table… waiting.

I could tell a gripping tale of the harrowing battle that raged as I wrestled the beast into submission, but that was me and my wallet, not the lens. So I bought it and now I’ve shot it and what a wonderful lens it is.

The first thing one should know about this lens is that it is a bit of a unicorn. The lens is razor-sharp wide open, but there are lots of 85mm lenses that are also razor-sharp wide open. This is one of those lenses that Canon makes just to remind the world who’s the boss in auto focus photography. Frankly the little brother, EF 85/1.8 USM is perfect for most people for the thing that the bulk of 85mm lenses need to do. Which is take great portraits. This lens will do that as well, but it is ridiculously sharp right out to the corners and wide open. You really don’t need corner sharpness for most portraits unless you are shooting a real tight shot, but then you are probably using a longer lens for that. This 85/1.2 L could be a specialty lens for an astronomical photographer to use on the night sky where corner sharpness is critical and the fast aperture can reduce the exposure time by minutes rather than fractions of s second. But what it really does that few if any other lenses can is produce amazing soft bokeh where the background is an unrecognizable swirl of fuzzy color.

Showing a picture of the lens next to its smaller sibling is not enough to convey the size difference. The lens is like attaching a small sedan to front of your camera. It is massively large and heavy. It is two and a half times heavier than the 1.8 which is 425g vs 1025g! But I want to tell you about why I like it and why you may not want it.

The EF 85mm f/1.8 USM will focus faster and closer, is just as sharp in the center of the image, weighs a fraction as much, is much more compact, and has a better feel to the manual focus. All of that and a street price brand new about $350. The EF 85mm f/1.2 L is definitely better built, is genuinely impressive to look at, is actually a full stop faster, and delivers some of the creamiest and most delicious bokeh you will ever see. But it will cost around $1100-$1300 used for the Mk II and nearly two grand new. You can see the dilemma.

Before I move on, a note about the Mark I and II versions of the 85/1.2L. One of the major complaints about the Mk I lens which was introduced very early in the EOS system back in 1989, was its slow auto focus. Canon had already set the bar for AF speed and by 1989 they were the gold standard. The Mk I 85/1.2L however was pokey slow compared to other Canon lenses. This was largely due to the design of the lens using a front focusing system. The lens was originally designed for fashion and the bokeh effect was a big part of the design. The Mark II lens was introduced in 2006 and features the same optics. Canon did improve the lens coatings and most importantly, they upgraded the CPU and AF system to nearly double the focus speed. It is still one of the slowest focusing lenses in the Canon line. I would not recommend buying a Mk I unless you get it pretty cheap say less than $800 as the Mk II is definitely worth a few hundred more.

So for those prepared to dole out the hard-core cash for this 85/1.2L you have another decision to make. What? Yes in the summer of 2017 Canon launched the 85/1.4 L IS. Yes IS stands for “image stabilizer.” You give up about a half stop but gain IS. The price new is still a few hundred LESS than the 1.2. You are not saving much weight and the IS lens is nearly a inch LONGER. The optical design however is clinically sharp and probably better than 1.2L lens. I would love to have that new lens, but I haven’t seen them used yet and they are still fetching $1600 new.

There are also a number of excellent third-party lenses to consider once you have decided to reach this deep into your pockets for a lens. Sigma makes the beautiful 85mm f/1.4 ART that runs about $1200 new and Tamron has a 1.8 Lens that is image stabilized for around $700. For Nikon user the Nikkor AF 85/1.4 is optically fantastic.

For the type of shooting I do, the 85/1.4 L IS would be better suited as I shoot hand-held available light most of the time. But my minty 1.2L was acquired for much less cash than the cost of that new lens, and it is a truly legendary optic. There is something very cool about owning something as iconic as the Canon 85mm f/1.2 L.

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