Monday, October 19, 2015

Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM Review

Even though photography is a "classic" pursuit,,,timeless and discovered by each new generation... the commercial market for photographic equipment is driven by novelty. We, as photographers, tell each other that the smart money is in lenses... that lenses will be useful long after bodies have become obsolete. If that were true - and it mostly is - then the camera manufactures would have a tough time selling anything. The truth is that lenses don't become obsolete, but they are getting better as time goes by.

Unfortunately, "better" also means more expensive. Working with precision optics isn't like working with electronics... there isn't a "Moore's Law" of camera lenses. If you want a better camera lens, i8t will almost invariably be more expensive. Today's lenses are sharper and better corrected than their predecessors, but the average selling price has gone up accordingly. Which brings us to the Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM. Not a red-ring lens. Not a new lens. No fancy coatings. No aspherical elements. Not sexy like the Sony Batis 85mm f/1.8, yet this is almost a no-brainer as far as portrait lenses go for Canon users.

 Design and Build

In appearance and feel, this lens is like a stretched version of the EF 50mm f/1.4 USM. The build quality is actually not that far off from what an "L" lens would be, but the design aesthetic is not what you would call contemporary. This lens uses 58mm filters, which is helpful as it shares the same filter size as the 50mm f/1.8 and the 18-55mm kit lenses used on the EF-S bodies. Because it is Canon and because it isn't an L-lens, a hood is not included with the lens; that would be ET-65 III.


If you've used the EF, 50mm f/1.4 USM then this 85mm is like a longer version of it. Both are solidly mid-range, with the difference being that the 50mm is a bit underwhelming compared to the modern equivalents on other camera systems whereas the 85mm f/1.8 is perfectly adequate. Like all "classic" 85mm lenses, this one is more or less a uni-tasker; the main use is portraits on both EF and EF-S bodies, with the difference being that the 85mm will require more working difference on the crop bodies. In other words, if you buy this now for a camera like the T6s, 70D or 7D Mark II, it will still be perfectly revenant and usable on a future full-frame purchase.

On Canon 5D Mark III

Unlike the f/1.2 "L" version, the f/1.8 is modest and reasonable size. It sits comfortably on the 5D Mark III just as it would on the T6i/T6s.

The minium focus distance is is 0.85m, which does limit the usefulness for close-up work, but which is in keeping with the behaviour of "true" portrait lenses. However, 85mm lenses are also useful for short telephoto work, such as court-side photography for tennis or basketball.


Sharpness isn't an issue with 85mm lenses, and this isn't an exception. The truth is, almost all primes between 75mm  and 200mm are sharp. This one isn't the sharpest of the bunch, but that will hardly be an issue for all but the most demanding users. As an added bonus, sharpness is not just ample, but  lateral chromatic aberration is low, along with geometric distortion. Like some of the other older Canon primes, longitudinal chromatic aberration is apparent , though not excessive.

If this lens has one weakness, it's that the vignetting is heavier than you would e3xpect for a prime of this focal length. This especially true at f/1.8 on a full frame body, but it becomes a non-factor by f/2.8. For practical purposes, this weakness is irrelevant for a portrait lens, as the subject (heads and faces) will be placed primarily in the center of the frame anyway; a modest amount of vignetting will draw the eye of the viewer inwards to where you want them to look. 

Because lens optical performance is a complex topic, the objective description of such is beyond the scope of this blog. Though there are many aspects to quantify (resolving power, field curvature, distortion, aberrations, etc.), a general sense of a lens’ character can be determined without resorting to lab testing. The following is one aspect; bokeh and apparent background blur with the subject at short distances. The focus point on the figurine is set roughly three feet in front of the camera


The bokeh quality is good, but in keeping with the modest price point and age of this lens. There is a bit of fringing to the highlights, with a predominantly green halo, but it isn't objectionable. As is also betraying the age of this lens design, the aperture blades are not rounded, and neither are the bokeh highlights.The 100% crops are here:

Apologies, bit of motion blur in this sample.

Concluding Thoughts

There is always the matter of, "but it's not an L-Lens." There is always that, because that is how the marketing gets to you...

If you are wondering what is the difference between this lens and the mind-numbingly expensive Canon EF 85mm f/1.2 USM L II, the answer is not a lot if you are speaking in practical purposes. As in, for practical applications, the f/1.8 lens will doe just fine compared to the f/1.2 lens. However, the actual difference comes down to the bokeh... the f/1.8 has a flawed quality that can be worked-around, whereas the f/1.2 has amazing bokeh to go with its price. The (much) more expensive lens is also more consistently sharp from corner to corner, though neither would be considered sharp compared to lenses of more current design (Nikon, Zeiss Batis, etc.) If you were doing engagement or wedding photos, the f/1.8 would be more than good enough to shoot pictures as favors for friends, but the f/1.2 is what you would need to build a competitive business.

With thanks to Broadway Camera

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