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Canon 85mm prime lenses

Canon 85mm 1.8 vs 85mm 1.2 – Canon Lens Wars 85mm Primes

By Pye Jirsa on January 24th 2014

Canon 85mm prime lenses

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.

In part 2 we will be comparing the zoom lenses that can match the 85mm focal length, and then we will compare the zooms to the primes in part 3.

For those that 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 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

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.

Until then, I hope you enjoyed part 1 of the 85mm prime focal range in the SLR Lounge Canon Lens Wars series. Be sure to check out the rest of the SLR Lounge Canon Lens Wars Series.

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Q&A Discussions

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  1. Motti Bembaron

    I paused the vid and tried hard to see the differences you speak of and unless I really look closely, I don’t see much of anything. Of course the video quality does effect. We tested the Nikon 85mm 1.4G and the 1.8G and thee is no way I am paying for virtually no difference. In fact, the 1.8 was sharper :-)

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  2. Joshua Ames

    This is a very useful resource. Thank you! The 1.8 looks like a great lens and I won’t feel bad at all saving a bunch of money on buying that over the 1.2 version.

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  3. Joseph Prusa

    Thanks for posting

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  4. Alit Putra Arthadi

    hell pye, i hope you don’t using full resolution of image, i had a problem to view it
    btw my internet conection reather slow :P

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  5. Jedy smith

    I own the 85mm 1.8 and think it’s a superb lens. I’m not fussed if the bokeh isn’t supposed to be as creamy as the 1.2 as it was such a good price plus it’s a neater size for traveling with. You’d either need to be earning big money from photography or be hanging around some serious enthusiasts for the difference in the quality of the 1.2 to be noticed! I know a wedding photographer who owns the 1.8 and he says as his customers have always been overjoyed with his results, there’s no need (from a business position) to upgrade to the 1.2.

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    • Motti Bembaron

      Agree. BTW, even “bragging rights” afishionados will not be able to see the difference most times. Your clients, who most are used to photos taken by phones, will never know the difference.

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  6. Darryll Wolnik

    I’ve never used the 1.8, but I have used the 1.2L. I borrowed from a friend, as I have always wanted to use the lens. Specifically, the dreamy bokeh and the super wide aperture had me wanting to run out and buy one. I took it on a week-long trip to Utah and I put it through a multitude of shooting scenarios. The lens performed really well for landscape and portraiture. I never really noticed the AF as being an issue, but that could be because I was expecting it. I used the lens for some night shooting on my 1Ds-MKIII and was both elated and disappointed at the same time. The razor thin depth of field at 1.2 makes it very difficult to take full advantage of the wide aperture. I found myself searching for the perfect point of focus more than anything; however I suspect this would remedy itself with much practice as I find the “sweet spots” on the focus ring.

    All that being said, I would definitely take the plunge on this lens. It can be had used for around $1600, and in my opinion, is well worth the price.

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  7. Ronnie Chan

    Hi Pye,

    If money isn’t an issue.Which lens would be the best for Wedding photography. Canon 85 1.2 mark 2 or Canon 85 1.8?I photograph mostly chinese wedding,I belief you do have plenty experience in that.Does the auto focus of Canon 85mm F/1.2 mark 2 fast enough ?

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  8. Gurmit Saini

    Hi Pye,
    Great article and good info, do you have any advice on Nikon 85mm 1.4g or Nikon 85mm 1.8g? is 85mm 1.8g is a good investment or should I save up for 85mm 1.4g?

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    • Motti Bembaron

      We tested both. The Nikon 1.8 is sharper. When taking portraits, I am never below f/2.8 anyway. DOF is so thin missing focus is almost always a problem.

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  9. Jeff Morrison

    great review

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  10. Ev Sekkides

    Am I the only one seeing crazy chromatic aberration on the 1.2 when wide open? I wouldn’t call that usable. I guess with some lightroom auto lens adjustment it might be fixed a bit. But these images really don’t sell that lens.

    The 1.8 on the other hand is the bargain of the century!

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  11. cherestes janos

    I just got my Nikon 85mm and i have to tell you is one of my favs, in wedding photography.

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  12. Wendell Fernandes

    The 1.8 is a much faster lens! I love the SIGMA 85mm 1.4 though. Very sharp lens as well!

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  14. Austin Swenson

    The depth of field that you get at 1.2 has to just be super shallow and temperamental, albeit super creamy & bokehlicious when you shoot too. I have found that even when you shoot at 1.4 or 1.8 that the DOF is so temperamental when you focus that you have to be still and not move forward or backward even a little or that tack sharp focus goes out the door (depending on how far away you are of course)

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  15. Rafael Steffen

    Thanks for providing such a detailed comparison between the 85mm cameras. I think that because of the low focus, it does not justify the 4x more price tag on it. Great review.

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  16. Keyvon Smith

    I love My 85 1.8 Hopefully will upgrade to 85 1.2

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  17. Heinrich

    The 85mm 1.2 (and its predecessors back to the FD line!) has been one of my favorite lenses all along (also owned the 1.8 version, which also has its benefits).
    On the autofocus:
    Yes, it is true that the autofocus isn’t that fast, but when working with that lens on portraits and wide open, you have to slow down anyway. Why? because you really need to make sure that you have your autofocus points right. The depth of field is extremely shallow, and if you by accident focus on the eyebrow instead of the pupil / iris … well, there goes your shot. If you really want great low-light, just add an ST-E2 to your camera, it’s an indispensable addition to your kit when going for low-light in low-contrast situations.
    On accuracy: with this lens, it is worthwhile to measure it in on your camera and adjust accordingly any deviation in terms of front- or backfocusing. I don’t have any issues on the lens on either the 5D (Mk1 … still a good body) or the 1-DX.

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  18. Michal

    “very different visual look” – as opposed to aural or olfactoric look?

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  19. Lauren

    Thank you! I was specifically looking in to getting the 1.8 and to see if it was worth getting if already owning the 70-200 f.2.8 L. Nice that you actually said something about these two very lenses in the same sentence. Thanks!! Very in depth!

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  20. Shelley

    working in a Camera Store, i have access to some cool toys for both Nikon and Canon. The 85mm is a wonderful lens, i think that most people should have one. But for my money, I would not spend it on the 85mm f1.2L. both new and used, i have noticed that it is slow to focus and does more searching than other “portrait” lenses. I noticed this on all types of cameras in the Canon line up. from 1D’s to rebels. My take on the slow focus is the 8 huge optics in the design. My personal tastes are to use longer focal lengths for portraits. 135mm or 200mm. Some times for kicks the 400 f2.8 comes out.

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  21. Jay

    I’m intrigued by this Lens’ Wars on the 85 f/1.2L and the 85 f/1.8 lenses. Making it a point to read more of the SLR Lounge Canon Lens Wars Series!

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  22. Mirko

    I agree, that throwing the Sigma 85/1.4 into the mix would be very interesting. I own the 85/1.8 and don’t use it as often as my 100/2.8 macro or the 135/2.0. I’ve heard that the 1.2 has focusing problems and this (not the pricetag) has kept me from upgrading to it. Although I’m really tempted by the creamy look it creates.

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  23. joel

    Informative review Pye! I know you mentioned the AF issue briefly but I was hoping you could expand on it a little more because for me at least, that was a major deciding factor.

    I rented the 85L when I was considering upgrading from the 1.8 but I found it was really sluggish in low light. Slow and not all that accurate either. I own and love the 50L and while that’s certainly not quick in terms of AF, its never made me curse quite as often as that 85L did.

    Do you have any thoughts on the sigma 85/1.4? I think that might be the direction I go when I upgrade.

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    • Pye

      I want to try the Sigma as well. I haven’t had the chance yet to compare. I know between these two, the quicker AF is the 85 1.8. But the 85mm 1.2Ls AF performance is largely dependent on the camera body. On poor focusing cameras such as a 5DM2, it has a harder time than on the 5DM3, or say a 1D.

      That being said, I would get the 85mm 1.2L for the sheer aesthetic quality of the image it produces. I wouldn’t count on it being a fast focusing journalistic lens. For that I would rely on my Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L II.

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    • Christine

      Loved this review. The comparisons really help to show the difference. My two cents…I had rented the Canon 85 /1.2 L a couple of times, and being a fast-paced wedding photographer, and many times in very low lighting, I HATED, repeat HATED that lens. When using at reception, I would pretty much just manually focus because that worked better, until I gave up and put my 70-200 back on. I bought the Canon 85 /1.8 and used that for a couple years…I liked that it focused fast and was pretty tack sharp…but it was a little brighter, blander color, and had fairly bad aberration. It was a good work-horse lens, but required a special recipe in post to give it a high quality of the L series. So, last fall I made a gamble and bought the Sigma 85 /1.4. LOVE it! The images taken have that nice buttery look that I love out of my Canon 70-200 /2.8 L, much faster focus than the Canon 85 /1.2L (about the same as my Canon 85 /1.8)…the images are tack sharp. It also seems built very solid. So far, no complaints. (I used both Canon 5DII & 5DIII with all three lenses)

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