As a portrait/wedding photographer, I have spent the last couple years building up the best gear possible that fits my style of shooting. I slowly sold off all my zoom lenses and shoot nothing but fast primes now. Over the years, I have swapped out cheaper lenses and camera bodies with more expensive versions as time went on and as I made more money.
If you’re not familiar with my work, I shoot both Canon and Nikon systems. I found that by combining the two, I was able to use each of their strengths to my advantage. One of the advantages I found from shooting both systems was being able to shoot the best lenses that each had to offer. There are some focal lengths that Canon offers that are better than Nikon, and vice versa. For example, the Canon 50mm f/1.2L is a better 50mm lens that anything Nikon has to offer. I have taken my time and purchased the best lens options of each, trying not to overlap focal lengths between the two systems. I’m lucky enough to have the opportunity to test shoot a lot of gear allowing me to spend my money carefully on the gear that I know will get the job done to my style of shooting.
The 85mm Focal Length
A focal length I am currently missing in my arsenal is the 85mm. One of the more popular focal lengths for both portrait and wedding photographers, but I found myself shooting with it less and less. I bought the Sigma version for Nikon a few years ago because I couldn’t afford the 85mm f/1.4 G version. It was an all around great lens, never having any focusing problems, but it just lacked that little something special that I like to have in my lenses. Eventually I sold it off, but now I find myself missing the 85mm focal length at certain times and want to add one back into the mix. While I loved my Sigma, I wanted to go with the best that either Nikon or Canon had to offer.
Shooting both Canon and Nikon gives me the ability to unbiasedly compare lenses that each manufacturer has to offer. While there are some notable differences between the two camera bodies I used to test these two particular lenses on, both the Nikon D800E and Canon 5D MarkIII are the best each has to offer under $5000. I put the lenses through real shooting – on real shoots, with real clients. I tried to mix them up pretty evenly, testing them both under similar conditions. There would be no pixel peeping, and while most of the testing wasn’t done in a controlled environment, I did do my best to compare each lens as fairly as possible. Remember folks, this is just a fun comparison of two legendary portrait lenses that I used to help me decide which I wanted to purchase. Both lenses considered to be epic by their manufacturer’s faithful followers, both lenses extremely good at what they do.
The Best of the Best
Both the Canon 85mm f/1.2L II and the Nikon 85mm f/1.4 G are legendary lenses for their time. The crème de la crème of the 85mm focal length for each manufacturer. Finding a winner was tough, and before I get into the comparisons let me say one thing, you can’t go wrong with either lens if it’s in your budget. They are the best at their focal length for low-light shooting and an extremely shallow depth of field, giving some of the creamiest bokeh you can get. Lets face it, for the price of these lenses, they better be. These are specialized lenses that are bought to be shot wide open by rich gear junkies, prime addicts, or portrait/wedding photographers that earn a living with their photography. Being that photography pay the bills for me, I am willing to pay the price for what these lenses have to offer. So how did they perform when put up against each other? Well, let me show you.
ON PAPER – NIKON
Nikon 85mm f/1.4 G
September 2010 – 3+ years newer
Widest Aperture: f/1.4
Weight: 591g – Lighter
Price: $1599 – Cheaper by $600
Minimum focus distance: 85cm – Closer
Canon 85mm f/1.2L II
Widest Aperture: f/1.2 – Wider
Minimum focus distance: 95cm
On paper, the Nikon has a lot going for it. Not only is it newer and lighter, but it’s cheaper by just about $600. It also has a minimum focus distance that allows you to get 10cm closer to your subject. But, the big one that stands out is the widest aperture, which the Canon sports an f/1.2, something that Nikon doesn’t currently offer with any of its lenses. A number that holds a lot of value for those purchasing these lenses for their low-light capabilities and extreme depth of field separation. Being that the Canon 50mm f/1.2L is one of my favorite lenses to shoot with, this gave the Canon an edge right out of the gate for me. How much of an edge? I would have to wait and see.
WEIGHT – NIKON
The weight of my gear is pretty important to me. It’s one of the reasons I love shooting with my Nikon Df as much as I do, and one of the big reasons I enjoy shooting with all prime lenses. Heavy equipment can really take its toll on your body on long shoots, especially all day weddings which can go as long as 12 or 13 hours. While both the Nikon and Canon 85mm lenses were on the heavy side, and heavier than any of my other lenses I currently own, the Canon was massive. As much as I loved my Nikon 24-70mm, it is a big heavy lens that I was a little too heavy for my liking. The Canon 85mm is 70g’s heavier.
AUTO FOCUS – NIKON
There were two things that stood out to me with the first few shots I rattled off with the Canon 85mm, the weight and the God-awful slowness of the Autofocus. It really is that slow. Having done a little research on both lenses prior to shooting them, I had read about the slow AF in multiple reviews, but this was worse than I expected. When I put the Canon down and picked up the Nikon to feel a much faster AF, it zipped. But zippiness isn’t always better. The one thing I noticed was that even though the Canon AF was slow, it was very accurate. When it locked on, it was on. With the Nikon, it tended to be a little more unreliable. Since portraits and wedding work would be the primary use for this lens, speed is important, but so is accuracy. This took a solid month of shooting for me to compare shots, looking at the percentage of shots I nailed the focus on versus missed, and how often speed played as a factor. Overall, after hundreds of shots on each, I had a higher percentage of in-focus shots with the Nikon than the Canon, which has to be taken with a grain of salt due to user error, but the slowness did cause a few missed shots during fast-paced shooting environments. This was close, but had to give it to Nikon.
APERTURE – CANON
While I was looking forward to seeing how much of an advantage the wider aperture of the Canon would come into play, I was honestly a little disappointed. The rare f/1.2 offered by the Canon leads a lot of photographers, that love shooting wide open, to believe that there is something magical about this lens. I admit, I used to be one of them. The truth is, the difference between f/1.2 and f/1.4 is pretty negligible in real world shooting. In the case of these two particular lenses, I was honestly surprised to see that not only was it negligible, but the Nikon often showed a shallower DOF at certain focus distances. A shallow depth of field isn’t the only benefit offered by a wider aperture, the advantage in speed and low light performance does need to be taken into account. While I didn’t notice a difference in speed, I did notice a slight difference in the extra light from the wider aperture.
IMAGE QUALITY – TIE
When it came to image quality, it was no surprise that it was a little more difficult to decide on which lens impressed me more. This is where things got a little tricky. Weight and Autofocus are obviously important to me when it comes to lenses, but the most important factor to me is image quality. Both of these lenses produce absolutely gorgeous images. As far as sharpness goes, both lenses are extremely sharp. Literally from one image to the next, I would compare them side by side and not be able to tell which lens was sharper. The difference in camera sensors was taken into consideration, and straight out of the camera there was no noticeable difference in sharpness when it came to these lenses. The advantages that the higher megapixel sensor of the D800E did allow for more sharpening in post, but there was never a real need for it with either lens.
Color fringing was minimal and a non-factor, each had their fair share from time to time. Contrast and colors were about the same as well, Canon colors always are more pleasing to me, but both had nice contrast and character. As far as bokeh goes, both of these lenses are considered to be the cream of the crop, and they didn’t disappoint. Both rendered out of focus areas beautifully and I wouldn’t say that either created bokeh better than the other.
NOTE: Along with the bokeh comparisons in the sample images below, take notice to the slight advantage in DOF with the Nikon shot. Look closely at the lettered flags and crib. It’s very slight, but I didn’t expect to see that with the wider aperture of the Canon.
I shot some test shots with a harsh sun backlighting my subject to see how each performed and both had no trouble focusing, no trouble with washed out detail, and both took beautiful sharp images. Its hard to tell which is which here. As far as flare goes, they both do an excellent job of controlling it.
Deciding between two of the best 85mm lenses in the game wasn’t an easy task. Trying to compare them head to head wasn’t any easier, and the more I shot them, the tougher it got. This wasn’t meant to be anything overly technical, just real world comparisons. Since I was spending a month of shooting both of these, I thought this would be an interesting comparison to share with everyone. I took a solid month and shot the hell out of these lenses, comparing them the best I could, letting them battle it out for a spot in my bag. Bottom line, there is a reason these lenses are as popular as they are. While there are some differences, when it comes down to image quality it doesn’t get much better. Both are completely kick ass lenses.
The images each produce are stunning, and when shot wide open, both produce beautiful 3D looking images with bokeh that makes most photographers drool over. I have to admit that the wider aperture of the Canon 85mm and seeing that rare f/1.2 gave it an advantage right out of the gate, but it ended up being a non factor.
In the end, the price difference of the Canon ended up being its ultimate downfall for me, along with its extra weight and dreadfully slow AF. The Nikon 85mm f/1.4 G couldn’t have impressed me more, and when combined with the Nikon D800E, produced images with the type of character I look for in my lenses.
I have to admit that for the price of the Canon 85mm f/1.2L II, I was a little let down. Being a fan of the Canon 50mm f/1.2L, I was really rooting for this lens, but for an extra $600, there simply needed to be more. I would hope that Canon would refresh this lens in the near future, and with a faster AF, lighter body, this might be worth the extra money. For now, I’m happy to say that this is why I love shooting both systems, and I’m now the proud owner of the Nikon 85mm f/1.4 G.