The benefit of buying into an established system such as Canon is the availability of options at nearly every conceivable focal length. But they aren’t merely available; each option is unique and performs well. For every budget and every need, Canon’s catalog of lenses has amassed a wealth of choices for native mount and adaptive shooters over the decades.

But, you may ask yourself….. “Self, which one is right for me?”

Canon 85mm 1.8 vs 85mm 1.2

Welcome to Part 1 of the 85mm focal range of the SLR Lounge Canon Lens Wars series. We have 7 lenses in this grouping, so in this first part, we will be discussing just the Canon 85mm primes.

Watch the 85mm Canon Prime Lens Wars Video

Equipment Used in Canon 85mm Comparisons

Canon 85mm Primes Lenses Tested

Image Quality of Canon 85mm Prime Lenses at Wide Open Apertures

Let’s start from the top at their 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.

Canon 85mm f/1.2L at f/1.2
Canon 85mm f/1.2L at f/1.2
Canon 85mm f/1.8 at f/1.8
Canon 85mm f/1.8 at f/1.8

The Canon 85mm f/1.2 II clearly shows quite a bit more bokeh at 1.2 than the Canon 85mm f/1.8 does at its WOA of 1.8. In fact, this is one of those times where the visual difference between the two lenses really couldn’t be any more extreme.

WOA bokeh Canon 85mm 1.8 85mm 1.2

But, while the 85mm 1.2 at f/1.2 does have incredibly creamy bokeh, its image is noticeably less sharp than the 85mm 1.8 at f/1.8. However, while the 85mm 1.2 is a bit soft when wide open, it is still completely usable when shot wide open at f/1.2.

WOA dress Canon 85mm 1.8 85mm 1.2

This is crucial because if a lens isn’t sharp enough when wide open, that diminishes the usefulness of shooting wide open with that lens. Case in point is the Canon 50mm 1.4, which we noted in our Canon 50mm Primes Shootout as being too soft and “dreamy” at wide open.

So, while the 85mm 1.2 is a bit softer, it is still completely usable and it has a very different visual look than when compared to the 1.8.

WOA head Canon 85mm 1.8 85mm 1.2

In addition, when wide open, the 85mm 1.2 appears to have slightly better contrast and color rendition than the 85mm 1.8.

WOA contrast trunk Canon 85mm 1.8 85mm 1.2

Image Quality of Canon 85mm Prime Lenses at Widest Common Aperture of f/1.8

So, why don’t we step them both up to their Widest Common Aperture (WCA) of f/1.8 and see if the aesthetic differences are still as noticeable.

With both lenses at f/1.8, the 85mm 1.2 still has more bokeh and a softer, creamier look to the bokeh than the Canon 85mm 1.8.

WCA bokeh Canon 85mm 1.8 85mm 1.2

The 85mm 1.2 also has a bit more vignetting which actually does a really nice job of pulling down edge highlights to add to the overall look.

WCA vignette Canon 85mm 1.8 85mm 1.2

What is most noticeable with both lenses at their WCA is that the overall contrast and color of the 85mm 1.2 is simply much better than the 1.8.

WCA contrast trunk Canon 85mm 1.8 85mm 1.2

As far as sharpness, the Canon 85mm 1.8 is still just slightly ahead of the 85mm 1.2, but I expect that to change shortly as we creep up to higher apertures. Still though, the Canon 85mm 1.8 is quite impressive because it has great sharpness and a similar look to the 85mm 1.2 at a fraction of the price.

WCA dress Canon 85mm 1.8 85mm 1.2

Image Quality of Canon 85mm Prime Lenses at Common Aperture of f/2.8

At f/2.8 is where the 85mm 1.2 pulls ahead in terms of detail, sharpness. We also see that at f/2.8 the 85mm 1.2 also has better overall color and contrast, which is expected since you are paying so much more for the L version.

f2.8 dress Canon 85mm f1.2 85mm f1.8

However, at f/2.8 the look in the aesthetic quality of the bokeh appears to level off a bit. The 85mm 1.2’s bokeh is still a bit more creamy and smooth, but it is difficult to see the difference without zooming in and comparing side by side.

f2.8 bokeh Canon 85mm f1.2 85mm f1.8

At f/2.8 you also see the edge sharpness of the 85mm 1.2 far exceed that of the Canon 85mm 1.8, but again, we have to compare side-by-side to be able to tell.

f2.8 edge Canon 85mm f1.2 85mm f1.8

Conclusion for Canon 85mm 1.2 vs Canon 85mm 1.8

As expected, the f1.2 has the “creamiest” bokeh, but in other tests, such AF speed, sharpness, the 85mm 1.4 performs best. The 85mm 1.8 IS has a respectable showing and, for the price, provides an incredible value.

In short, Canon’s 85mm lens offerings give you the choice of the “affordable” lens (f1.8) that outperforms its price. The “Premium Peerless” lens (f1.2) that offers the unique combination of quality and a timeless aesthetic. And finally, the “New Money” lens (f1.4) that provides the latest in technological advancement: image stabilization and modern optical performance.

Best Canon 85mm Prime Lens for the Money

Canon 85mm f1.8 So, what’s the conclusion? Well, for $419 you can get the Canon 85mm f/1.8. It is not only a good lens for the money, but it is one of the best values you can get in terms of prime lenses.

While you do lose a stop of low light capability, and it doesn’t quite have the same amount of creamy-licious bokeh as the Canon 85mm f/1.2L, it is still amazingly capable, very quick in low light at 1.8, and creates a beautiful amount of bokeh while also being usable at f/1.8.

This means that even if you have a Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L II or a Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L II, the Canon 85mm 1.8 still creates a beautiful look that makes it worth having in your kit, especially for its price.

Best Canon 85mm Prime Lens Overall

Canon 85mm f1.2L Now if you have $2,199 to spend, then stepping up to the Canon 85mm f/1.2L will give you a lens that can create a look unlike any other. With a maximum aperture of f/1.2 and the 85mm focal length lens compression, you get an incredible look in the bokeh which really isn’t matched by any other lens.

The Canon 85mm 1.2 is sharp enough to shoot wide open, and it also gives you a full extra stop of light when compared to the Canon 85mm 1.8, and 2.5x more stop when compared to a standard f/2.8 lens. So it is absolutely killer as a low light lens.

But that additional performance does come at around 5x the cost, which means that you need to decide if it is personally worth the additional cash for that boost in performance. For professionals and avid enthusiasts the answer is a resounding “YES” it is definitely worth the money. But, for hobbyists and those on a budget, don’t worry, because you can get 80%-90% of that quality and look out of the Canon 85mm 1.8.

Finally, the one knock against the 85mm 1.2 is its slow focusing. Although we did not use auto focus for the purpose of this shootout, when we do use the lens in general, the focusing is just not as quick as the 85mm 1.8.

When we compare our favorite zooms to these 85mm primes in part 3 of this series, I will be able to show you whether the other zoom lenses can create a similar enough look to these 85mm.

Third Party Alternative

Adding stabilization to primes is a welcomed feature in modern lenses and particularly useful for a high-resolution sensor that lacks its own. However, this feature is not ubiquitous and if it is a must-have feature for your work as a Canon shooter, your only other option is the Tamron 85mm 1.8. With this lens, you lose the f1.4 aperture, but you’ll spend nearly 50% less. Tamron 85mm 1.8 – $749