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Long Term Review: Canon 85mm F/1.8 Lens

by Chris Gampat on 05/26/2011

The Canon 85mm F/1.8 is the company’s budget level portrait lens, and a heck of a lens at that. Touted by photographers, Flickr groups, and reviewers as one of the best bang for your buck options; the 85mm is a lens that most people should at least consider. I’ve been shooting with this lens for over a year but never decided to do a full field review for the reason that it’s not new. However, this single long review will encompass some of the work that I’ve done throughout my various postings on this site, and we’ll help you determine whether or not it’s for you.

Editor’s Note: Throughout my time of using this lens, I’ve used it on the Canon 5D Mk II, 7D, T2i, T3i, 1D Mk IV and 60D. This information should be kept in mind while reading this review.

Tech Specs

Ergonomics

The Canon 85mm F/1.8 lens is a fairly small lens that feels very good in the hand and that will make most Canon users feel right at home. On the lens is a distance scale, focusing ring and MF/AF switch. When mounted on any camera, I usually don’t have my entire hand cupping the lens unless the lens hood is attached. Instead, my index finger and thumb are wrapped around the focusing ring or around the lens itself.

A small peeve about the lens is the relatively small MF/AF switch. However, it is actually in a very good place because your thumb will intuitively be able to quickly make the correct setting change if needed.

Users with small hands will feel right at home with this lens and users of the nifty fifty (Canon 50mm F/1.8) will feel like this is the lens they dreamed about. The reason why is because many of these users crave small lenses with USM (so they can override the focusing manually) and for a lens with an accurate distance scale and larger/smoother focusing ring. The lens is small enough that it can stay attached to my cameras and be placed into a bag like the M-Classics Compact.

Build Quality

The Canon 85mm F/1.8‘s build quality is fairly solid. For its price point, one really can’t complain. It feels a bit more solid than the Canon 50mm F/1.4, much more solid than the 50mm F/1.8, not as solid as the 35mm F/1.4 L, and more solid than the Canon 100mm F/2.8 Macro lens. The build quality will adequately suit the needs of many studio photographers, portrait photographers, pet photographers, wedding photographers, event photographers, and landscape photographers (if they feel they want that focal length).

Though its nowhere near as solid as the Canon 85mm F/1.2 L II, it has some significant advantages over it and I wouldn’t trade mine for the F/1.2 L version even if you gave it to me for free (no…really). The F/1.8 is:

- significantly smaller

- significantly quieter to focus (and faster)

- significantly lighter and feels very balanced on all cameras I’ve tested

- less likely to be bumped by someone because of the smaller size. And if someone does happen to hit it, they’re more likely to hit the camera body or the large lens hood.

Autofocusing

Fastest. Focusing. Lens. Ever.

No seriously, it’s the fastest focusing lens in my camera bag. I’ve got the 35mm F/1.4 L, 24-105mm F/4 L IS, and 80-200mm F/2.8 L. With the exception of the last one, all of those lenses focus very quickly. However, the Canon 85mm F/1.8 is a speed demon.

That speedy focusing is also extremely quiet and often very accurate. It won’t hunt in dim light like the 50mm F/1.4 or the 50mm F/1.8.

I’ve had some hands-on time with the Sigma 85mm F/1.4 EX that Mike reviewed before, and the Canon version still focuses faster. The reason why is because of the fact that the F/1.4 lens has larger and heavier glass element that need to move. Because the element in the Canon lens are so much lighter, it can afford to also be much speedier. This applies to any Canon DSLR that you put the lens on but I’ve seen it really shine with the 1D Mk IV and 7D.

So who needs lenses that fast?

- Wedding photographers who are working with all primes and using the 85 for portraits or candids during the ceremony or reception.

- Portrait photographers working in a studio with strobes that do not have modeling lights.

- Photojournalists that just need the speed.

- Sports photographers, but in all honesty you need a longer lens even on an APS-C body.

- Concert photographers that have subjects that move around like crazy.

- Mom-arazzis that love to take photos of their kids running around. This is the perfect lens for you to catch the cub scouts frolicking around.

- Pet photographers that want to keep their distance from the animal a bit.

In Use

Over the last year, I’ve used the Canon 85mm F/1.8 for weddings, concerts, portraits, studio work, event photography, pet photography, and street photography. When I purchased the lens, I wondered if it was really a purchase that was worth making. Then I put it on my cameras and kept it on my 5D Mk II for a week and then my 7D for the week after.

I didn’t look back.

When shooting weddings, the focal length is great for candid photography, portraits, and because of the fast F/1.8 aperture I can get a better exposure from my flashes.

For concert photography, the 35mm F/1.4 L and 85mm F/1.8 are all that are in my camera bag with my 7D because of just how fast they focus and how well they work together.

For portraits, the F/1.8 aperture lets me shoot wide open and only focus on the subjects eyes. The lens is fairly sharp wide open, but really starts to become super sharp between F/2.8-F/5.6.

Image Quality and Sharpness

It’s not the sharpest lens in my camera bag: that goes to my 35mm F/1.4 L. However, it’s the second sharpest and this lens has indeed been named the sharpest bang for your buck option in the Canon lineup of glass. Wide open, the lens is soft though still fairly sharp for anything at F/1.8. Once you stop down to F/2.8 you’re in business. At F/5.6 and beyond, you’ll be in love with this lens when combined with a speedlite.

It’s not all perfect though, the lens does purple fringe at times. However, this is very easily corrected for in post-production.

In fact, I find that Canon 85mm F/1.8 pairs best with a ring flash of some sort. In the above photo, I used the Orbis to shoot that photo of my sister.

I’ve also used the 85mm for portrait/engagement sessions. To be honest, I wasn’t totally crazy about it for this because of the fact that I love to work closer to my subjects if I can.

However, it does have its uses. For the photo above, the lens was stuck onto the Canon 5D Mk II and set to F/2.8. I used it because of the fact that I wanted to get a bit further away from Kim and Dan but also wanted to capture a sense of intimacy between them. I was balancing on rocks with waves crashing to my left and right. So while performing critical balancing acts, using a prime can be a lot easier to do than using a long telephoto zoom lens.

The 85mm on a cropped sensor body becomes a 136mm equivalent and so it allows you to remain a bit stealthy during the ceremonies at a wedding. Combined with bounce flash methods, it can help you to nail better illuminated photos that will make editing a whole load easier. If you’ve ever shot a wedding or considered doing it, this a lens that you should have in your camera bag.

Since the minimum focusing distance on the lens is around 3 feet, it will allow you to get up close and personal when using this lens with a cropped sensor. The photo above was done with natural light and by overexposing the image a bit and then pulling it down in post-production, I was able to shoot this beautiful portrait of Nancy and her lovely eyes.

With that said, can you figure out what area was purple fringing before I edited the photo?

The F/1.8 aperture will also allow you to shoot photos with a razor thin depth of field with acceptable sharpness wide open. Gabe was around 5 feet away from me when I snapped this photo of him on World Pinhole Day.

For those of you that want to shoot intimately close portraits but don’t want to get close to your subjects (or are admittedly afraid to do so) you’ll be happy using the 85mm on a cropped sensor camera. Since most readers of this site use cropped sensor DSLRs, you’ll be smitten with the results that you can achieve.

The above photo was shot with the focusing on Kelly’s face and shot wide open. However, notice just how nicely the lens blurs everything out of focus.

And for those of you that just want to capture random street scenes from afar, you’ll also be addicted to this focal length. The combination of long range with small size will make it ideal for some photographers.

Do you own this lens? Please share your thoughts on it with us in the comments below, and let’s get a great conversation going.

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