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Canon 85mm Conclusion

Canon 70-200mm VS 85mm Primes – Lens Wars 85mm Conclusion – Episode 12

By Pye Jirsa on February 4th 2014

Canon 85mm Conclusion

Welcome to Part 3 of the final part of the Canon 85mm focal range of the SLR Lounge Canon Lens Wars series. Since we had 7 lenses in this grouping, in part 1 we compared the two 85mm Canon primes while in part 2 we compared the 5 different Canon zoom lenses that cover the 85mm focal length.

In this 85mm Canon Lens shootout conclusion, we will compare our two favorite telephoto lenses, the Canon 70-200 f/2.8L IS Mark II and non-stabilized 70-200 f/2.8L, and see see how they stack up against the two Canon 85mm prime lenses, the 85mm f/1.8 and the 85mm f/1.2L.

For those who are new to the SLR Lounge Canon Lens Wars series, be sure to check out the Lens Wars Teaser video, where we introduce the series and our testing methodology as well as all the other videos on each focal length.

Watch the 85mm Canon Lens Wars Conclusion Video

Equipment Used in Canon 85mm Comparisons

Canon 85mm Zoom Lenses Tested

Image Quality and Detail of Canon 85mm Lenses at Wide Open Apertures

Let’s start from the top with their aesthetic bokeh quality and sharpness at their respective Wide Open Apertures (WOA). Once again, this is a visual test of differences, not a technical test. So, we are trying to distinguish differences in appearance while viewing images full screen on a Dell U2713HM 27″ IPS monitor.

Bokeh Comparison at Wide Open Apertures

Just by viewing the full-size images below, it is very easy to distinguish which image is which. The Canon 85mm f/1.2L clearly stands out in terms of its bokeh.

Canon 85mm f1.2L at f/1.2

Canon 85mm f1.2L at f/1.2

Canon 85mm f1.8 at f/1.8

Canon 85mm f1.8 at f/1.8

Canon 70-200 f/2.8 II at f/2.8

Canon 70-200 f/2.8 II at f/2.8

In the zoomed in images below, I can see that the 85mm 1.2 at its WOA of f/1.2 simply has a beautiful creamy look to the bokeh that is unmatched by the other 3 Canon lenses.

WOA bokeh Canon 85 f1.2 85f1.8

WOA bokeh Canon 70-200 f2.8 II 70-200 f2.8

The Canon 85mm f/1.8 at its WOA of 1.8 also has a really strong bokeh-ed out background when compared to the 70-200 zoom lenses.

WOA bokeh Canon 85 f1.8 70-200 f2.8 II

In fact, as you may have read in our Canon zoom lenses comparison at the 85mm length, the 70-200 f/2.8L IS Mark II and the standard 70-200 f/2.8L without IS produced images that are extremely similar in all respects. The only factor between the two 70-200s is the Image Stabilization found on the 70-200 f/2.8L II and its subsequent higher cost.

You can see in the images below that these two lenses are evenly matched.

WOA bokeh Canon 70-200 f2.8 II 70-200 f2.8

Therefore, for the purpose of this shootout, we will just compare the two 85mm Canon primes to the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L II to keep things simple.

Detail Comparison at Wide Open Apertures

Now when it comes to comparing sharpness, contrast, and color at wide open aperture, the Canon 85mm f/1.2 is only slightly softer compared to the 70-200 zoom lenses. Nevertheless, the cropped image we see below shows that the 85mm 1.2 is still pretty sharp and has good contrast, especially considering that this 85mm prime has a very large aperture of f/1.2.

WOA detail Canon 85 f1.2 70-200 f2.8 II

The Canon 85mm 1.8, on the other hand, does not quite have the same pop as the 85mm 1.2 and the 70-200 zooms. As shown below, the image that it creates is softer and less contrasty compared to the other lenses in this group.

WOA detail Canon 85 f1.8 85 f1.2

WOA detail Canon 85 f1.8 70-200 f2.8 II

Low Light Consideration

In terms of low light performance, the Canon 85mm f/1.2L is going to give you roughly 250% more light than the 70-200 f/2.8 zooms at f/2.8, and around double the light of the Canon 85mm 1.8. So it offers significantly better low light performance in addition to the aesthetic quality of its bokeh when shooting wide open.

Image Quality and Detail of Canon 85mm Lenses at Widest Common Aperture

Ok, so that we see the aesthetic differences at their WOAs, let’s go ahead and come up to their Widest Common Aperture (WCA) of f/2.8 and compare the lenses for sharpness and aesthetics.

Bokeh Comparison at Widest Common Aperture

While the amount and aesthetics of the bokeh looks visually similar for all four lenses at their WCA of f/2.8, if we zoom in, we can see that the shape and the blend of the bokeh is just a bit softer and more creamy on the 85mm 1.2L than the 70-200mm.

WCA bokeh Canon 85 f1.2 70-200 f2.8 II

Now, when we compare the bokeh of the 85mm 1.8 and the 70-200mm zooms at their WCA of f/2.8, it is a little more difficult to see differences.

The 70-200mm zooms appears to have slightly more distinct and high contrast shapes in the bokeh, while the 85mm 1.8 appears to be just a bit softer which we can see by moving towards the left of the frame over the leaves.

WCA bokeh Canon 85 f1.8 70-200 f2.8 II

So looking at the comparison above, neither image is necessarily better than the other, and it is going to be a subjective preference. However, I do prefer the slightly stronger and more pronounced look in the bokeh of the 70-200mm f2.8. Either way, it is tough to distinguish when you are not pixel peeping.

Detail Comparison at Widest Common Aperture

Just like at wide open aperture, both the Canon 70-200mm 2.8L II and the Canon 85mm 1.2L create better color rendition and contrast than the 85mm 1.8. But that is to be expected with the L series lenses compared to regular glass.

Up close, we can easily see in the images below of our model’s dress that the 70-200mm and the 85mm 1.2L are quite a bit more sharp than the 85mm 1.8.

WCA detail Canon 85 f1.2 85 f1.8

WCA detail Canon 85 f1.8 70-200 f2.8 II

Now, when we compare the 70-200mm zooms and the 85mm 1.2 side-by-side, the difference in sharpness is relatively tough to see.

It appears that at their WCA of f/2.8, the Canon 85mm 1.2L is ever so slightly sharper than the 70-200mm zooms, which can be seen over our models dress sequins.

WCA detail Canon 85 f1.2 70-20 f2.8 II

Extending out to the right edge of the frame, 85mm 1.2L further separates itself in terms of sharpness when compared to the other lenses in the group.

WCA edge Canon 85 f1.2 85 f1.8

WCA edge Canon 85 f1.2 70-200 f2.8 II

Lens Recommendation for the Canon 85mm Lenses

So for the first time in this series, it is tough to give you a solid conclusion of the best lens because of each of these four Canon lenses does something unique enough at various price points to make them worth owning.

So let’s take a look at the pros and cons for each Canon lens.

The Low-Light Bokeh King

Canon 85mm f1.2L If you want the most aesthetically pleasing bokeh and just the most bokeh in general, then the Canon 85mm f/1.2L is the lens for you.

Even at such a wide open aperture, the 85mm f/1.2 still produces excellent overall sharpness and image quality, especially when compared to the standard 85mm 1.8 prime lens.

And of course, if you want the best low-light performer, the 85mm f/1.2 significantly allows more light because of its very large aperture of f/1.2. All of this performance does come at a hefty sum of $2,199. But, here is the thing, while this lens does give you a slightly better bokeh aesthetic and low light performance than its little brother, the 85mm 1.8 does 90% of what this lens can do for a fraction of the price!

Our Favorite Zoom Lens at the 85mm Focal Length

Canon 70-200mm f2.8 II If you want telephoto functionality, good low light performance, beautiful bokeh, and the best overall sharpness and image quality for a telephoto lens, the clear choice would be the $2,499 Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L II.

And when you pair this lens with the 85mm f/1.2, you end up with two completely unique lenses that are both worth owning in your toolkit. The 85mm is going to give you amazing artistic imagery and unmatched low light performance, while the 70-200 is going to give you an awesome focal range, great low light capability, and the ability to create beautiful and unique artistic images via lens compression.

The Best Bang for the Buck at 85mm Focal Length

Canon 85mm f1.8 If you don’t have the $2,200 budget to step into the Canon 85mm f/1.2L, then the $419 Canon 85mm f/1.8 is going to give you 90% of the performance for only around a fraction of the price. In fact, I was so impressed by the performance of this lens that I can safely say this is a must have lens for those that can’t afford to step into the Canon 85mm 1.2L. Placed side by side, it was difficult to tell the difference between the 85mm 1.8 and the 85mm 1.2L without zooming in and pixel peeping.

Even if you already have the 70-200mm zoom lens, the 85mm 1.8 is still worth owning because it is still going to give you more bokeh, it is sharp enough to shoot wide open, and it is roughly 1.5 stops or so brighter than the 70-200mm f/2.8.

The Best Alternative Zoom Lens at 85mm Focal Length

Canon 70-200mm f2.8 So you don’t have the $2,500 for the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L II? Then you could get the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L without image stabilization for around $1000 bucks less at $1,449.

Again, as long as you are ok with not having image stabilization, then you will get virtually the same image performance, the same low light functionality, and the same bokeh-liciousness that you can get with the 70-200mm f/2.8L Mark II.

Conclusion of the Canon 85mm Lenses

So all four of these Canon lenses are winners in the 85mm focal range, and personally I would choose two of them based on your budget.

Obviously, if you have the budget or you simply need the best gear possible, I would recommend the Canon 85mm f/1.2L and the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L II, which will cost close to $5,000.

But, if you are just starting out or are a little tight on cash, then the non-stabilized 70-200mm f/2.8L and the Canon 85mm f/1.8 will literally give you 90% of the image quality and functionality of the other two lenses for around $2,000.

Either way, all four of these lenses are incredible lenses within their respective price points. In particular, the 85mm 1.8!

I hope you enjoyed part 3 of the 85mm focal range in the SLR Lounge Canon Lens Wars series. Be sure to check out part 1 and part 2 of the 85mm focal length shootout, as well as the rest of the SLR Lounge Canon Lens Wars Series.

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Q&A Discussions

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  1. Drew Hills

    The weight of the 85 F1.8  is a huge advantage and the fact it is non intimidating is another. I have had to give up on the heavy zooms and. now carry 3 primes only at a time,  I have found this a better way to photograph for me personally. This was a great  comparison of all these lenses and yes the 1.2 is special  but the days I would have carried that around are long gone. 

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  2. Rob Miller

    When comparing the bokeh of the 85mm 1.2 and 70-200mm 2.8 I assume the focal length of the 70-200mm was set at 85mm?? Yes/No?? It would be interesting to have bokeh comparison results for the 70-200mm 2.8 with a focal range of both 85mm and 200mm. At 200mm there would be more lens compression resulting in better bohek. Would the bokeh of the 70-200mm 2.8mm at 200mm focal range produce better bokeh then the 85mm 1.2?? Cheers

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  3. Maarten de Boer

    The first lens I bought seperately was the 85mm f/1.8 and I had been in love with it eversince. Took it everywhere I went and put it on every camera I’ve owned (450D, 7D, 5DII, 1Ds III), done semi macro stuff, concerts, portraits, studio work, products … all sorts of things and it never let me down throughout the years. Now I’ve passed it on to my girlfriend as I was lucky to obtain a 85L (Mark 1) myself but my heart will always be with the 85mm f/1.8.

    Thank you Pye for the interesting series!

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  4. Zay Vee

    I have the 70-200mm F/2.8L II. That thing is so heavy! I’m going to go on craiglist and see if someone would want to trade for the 85mm 1.2. 1.2 would be great for low light for me.

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  5. Marius Pavel

    I just bought Canon 70-200 f2.8 L IS II – and it’s exactly like all people say, a superb lens + tank build + super sharp. Great review! Thanks – i read the Canon lens wars series before i bought it – great help! Thanks again!

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  6. Joe Marshall

    I have the 85 1.8 and I’m able to borrow the 1.2 occasionally. I truly don’t see enough difference to justify the cost, weight, and focusing speed hits.

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  7. Brian

    I have the 85 1.2 and almost never take it off!

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  8. Bob Lewis

    I own both the 85 1.8 and 70-200 2.8 II IS. Great article, but wished you would have covered focusing speed. The 85 1.8 is very fast to focus for close action shooting when you want a lighter load to carry, but the 70-200 2.8 is a super fast focusing beast – I love shooting motocross up close with it, and it’s amazing how fast it can focus in the low light of high school sports like football and baseball. I’ve read the 85 1.2 is a much slowe focusing lens, but can’t personally confirm.

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    • Hannah

      I can confirm. I do not like the 85 1.2 for two reasons: it weighs a TON compared to the 1.8, and focusing is loud and slow. That 1.2 aperture is beautiful, but not worth it to me as a wedding photographer when I have to sacrifice the light weight and quick focus of the 1.8. When you throw price considerations in there as well… I’ll recommend the 85 1.8 all day.

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  9. Hochzeitsfotograf – Fotograf

    All lenses all very nice with good Bokeh.

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  10. Joel Weiss

    Would love to see these images compared against Nikon’s similar lenses! Thanks for the terrific article!

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  11. Tommy Sebrell

    Are your results here, and with most videos, the same with a crop sensor Canon like the 7D?

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    • Jon

      Since a crop sensor uses more of the centeral part of the glass the slight edge that the prime has in corner sharpess would likely not count for as much.

      Things like bokeh, contrast, clarity, etc. would still come into play exactly the same. With the 7D tho an 85 would be more like a 136mm so if your looking for a lens with around 85mm range you are looking more at a 50-55mm lens. Personally, my experience in that range has been either shell out the money for the 1.2 or get the budget 1.8 (OR if you can find a good copy, get the 1.8 Mk I since I DID find it to be slightly sharper than the Mk II, could have just been my copy tho)

      Hope it helped.

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