The lens you see above is a Canon 85mm F1.8 that I originally purchased back in about 1992 if my memory serves me right. It’s actually the second oldest lens in my collection and I’ve used it on countless jobs over the years. Remarkably it still feels & handles like a brand new lens, performing well in the era of high resolution digital cameras, even though it was very much intended for film use when originally designed.
From what I can tell, Canon haven’t changed a thing on this lens in the last 18 years, which is a sure fire sign that they managed to do it right the first time round. It’s still very much one of my favourite lenses.
Looking at some specifics, one of the first things you will notice when working with the 85mm lens is that the auto focus is extremely fast, smooth and precise. In fact I have no other lens that is as capable in servo mode at following fast moving objects. My 24-105L is pretty fast and able to follow most subjects in movement, but the 85mm is like greased lightning and the only lens that allows me to take crisp sharp images of a fast moving subject such as a nude model running on the beach, while I am also running.
The maximum aperture of F1.8 is fast and while Canon also make a much heralded an F1.2 version, the faster lens costs about 5 times as much, weighs significantly more and has slower AF, so on balance the F1.8 still has much to recommend it.
Canon 85mm lens with fast USM focus
One particularly nice feature on this lens is that you can manually make small adjustments even in auto focus mode and it won’t hurt the lens. Lets say for example that you are shooting a glamour image and your illuminated focus point in the viewfinder is on the neck instead of the eyes. Rather than trying to recompose, you can visually make the small adjustment by twisting the lens to focus normally and then shoot the image. Most of my other Canon lenses won’t allow me to do that when shooting in AF mode.
Having used the lens for many years I can say that it’s still more than capable of handling the resolution of today’s 20+MP cameras with no serious problems due to chromatic aberration or softness at the edges, however, I would still recommend the use of the standard large lenshood for this lens that Canon produce, because the front element is quite large and rather exposed, making it more susceptible to problems from flare or even just damage while in movement.
In terms of sharpness this lens is excellent on my 1DsII. It’s a little soft but by no means bad at F1.8, however, it’s extremely good from F2.8 right through to F22, though I tend to avoid working at the very smallest aperture on any lens because the quality will begin to suffer. The very best results are usually obtained between F5.6 – F11.
In a direct comparison test I was surprised that my 24-105L was actually sharper at the edges when working at F4, but that is more a reflection of how spectacular the zoom is at 85mm rather than the prime being particularly bad. At the other apertures they were essentially identical in practical terms and you have to remember that the zoom cannot go wider than F4.
The 85mm is generally acknowledged as a portrait lens and for good reason. At this focal length you will lose the kind of distortion that you would typically see with a wider lens such as the 50mm when shooting a closeup portrait and I have always found this to be a wonderful all round lens for all kinds of glamour, beauty and nude photography. From full length images to head and shoulder portraits, it’s an ideal focal length for flattering body and face images.
Just about any lens has a few negatives and this one is no different. For some reason I can’t quite understand, the closest focussing distance on this lens is rather limited and it literally won’t allow you to shoot closer than a classic head & shoulders portrait on a full frame camera. For anybody shooting beauty portraits this is a serious limitation and invariably a bit annoying when you reach the limits but want to go just a little closer for the perfect crop. When I know I will be in situations like this I have always tended to put on the 100mm macro or more recently the 24-105L which will focus to a nice tight head shot with no serious distortion, showing that it can be done…
The build quality is OK. It doesn’t feel like the Carl Zeiss lenses I have used on the Hasselblad or even the Canon L series lenses, both of which cost significantly more, however, it’s more than adequate in practice with normal day to day use. Certainly this lens has never given me the slightest mechanical problem after 17 years of use, but for that matter neither has the ultra cheap feeling 50mm F1.8 that is even older!
The plastic focus ring doesn’t feel quite as smooth or as sure as it could do during manual focus, but I guess Canon has never been overly concerned about this aspect with its EOS lenses, no doubt assuming quite reasonably that most photographers will work in AF mode 95% of the time. Only my original series non USM 100mm macro and the 24-105L have a smooth quality feel when used in manual mode to focus.
Overall the 85mm F1.8 is an excellent lens that should really be in just about any Canon photographer’s kit bag. It’s reasonably compact in size, fast and very versatile, so I would never sell it.