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Battle of the High End Portrait Lenses: Canon 85mm f1.2 L vs Sigma 85mm f1.4 EX

by Chris Gampat on 10/31/2011

Sigma 85mm f1.4 at f1.4 1/640th iso 125

Previously we did a quick test with the Sigma 85mm f1.4 EX and the Canon 85mm f1.2 L. Before that, we compared the Sigma lens against the more affordable option in Canon’s lineup, the 85mm f1.8. Eventually, I was able to bring the two lenses out into Central Park for a quick portrait session with Kathy. The results? You may be surprised.

Gear Used

Controlling the 580 EX II off camera were the Phottix Odin Wireless TTL radio triggers.

Ergonomics

The majority of this shoot was done on a very, very rough rock formation in Central Park. Doing any shoot on a rock formation is extremely tough: balancing on rocks yourself and having your model balance on rocks puts both of you in a bit of a state of shakiness.

With those factors considered, having a good grip on your lenses can help you achieve steadier shots if you don’t want to bring a tripod with you. I’m a big believer in ditching the tripod unless I’m shooting video.

So which lens handled better. The Sigma 85mm f1.4 EX’s matte finish provided me with better grip when coupled with the Canon 5D Mk II and I often ended up reaching for that lens more than Canon’s 85mm f1.2 L II. While the Canon lens delivers some excellent performance, it was not only a pain to get onto my camera because it being tough to hold due to the design, but it was often always heavy.

A part of me kept thinking about how I would feel using a lens like that if I had actually paid for it vs having both lenses loaned to me. A lens like that would be treated with the utmost respect and I’d be scared handling it in a rough situation like what Kathy and I were in. Indeed, as soon as you take off the lens cap and see that giant front lens element you are both astounded and afraid of just how much power you’re given when using it.

As far as ergonomics go, the Sigma 85mm f1.4 EX won my heart. It just felt so much better in my hands.

Focusing

Though this means nothing in a real life test like this, the Sigma and Canon lenses focuses on par with one another. The reason why this part of the test is null is because I had a patient model that trusted me and that posed for me. The moment is there and I can take as long as I need to to capture it. If it were a candid event, I’d probably throw both lenses away and go for my 85mm f1.8 that I actually own. This lens is said to be one of the fastest focusing in Canon’s lineup.

Sharpness

The photos for this piece were subject to minor editing in Adobe Lightroom 3. The clarity, sharpness, and radius levels were all raised the same amount for each photo to mimic real life shoots. All photos also had the lens profile correction applied. Some of the photos were cropped a bit for composition reasons.

No other retouching was done in order to not skew the results.

Test 1: with Fill Flash

Sigma 85mm f1.4 at f1.4 1/3200 ISO 100

Focusing on Kathy’s right eye (her right) we can see that the Sigma 85mm f1.4 is actually very sharp wide open at f1.4.

Sigma 85mm f1.4 at f2.8 1/800 sec and iso 100

When the lens stops down to f2.8, it becomes super sharp; more than sharp enough for most users’ needs.

Do keep in mind that both the Sigma 85mm f1.4 EX and Canon 85mm f1.2 L only show their best sharpness levels when they have been micro adjusted to work with your camera. Luckily, the copies of the lenses that I used didn’t need any adjusting. I figured this out after many tests.

Canon 85mm f1.2 at f1.2 1/5000 iso 100

While many may say, “Why would you use these lenses wide open with flash?” The reason why is because that is the only way that you can get any light on the person’s face and still have a perfectly exposed background. In order to do this shoot, I needed to use high speed flash sync.

The Canon 85mm f1.2 L is extremely sharp wide open. Keep in mind that when you shoot at f1.2, you need to stay very still. Any slight move or breath could throw off the focusing of the lens because so little is in focus. Because of this, I used the middle focusing point of the Canon 5D Mk II for each of these photos. I did not recompose afterward.

Canon 85mm f1.2 at f2.8 1/640th sec iso 100

At f2.8, the Canon 85mm f1.2 L becomes even sharper. In fact, I dare to say that it is a bit too sharp. It managed to capture slight creases in Kathy’s forehead that would need to be retouched later on; therefore giving me more work to do.

Test 2: No flash

Sigma 85mm f1.4 at f1.4 1/640th iso 125

There are lots of portrait sessions also done with totally natural light. The shade from a tree can provide you with some very soft and diffused light as well.

The Sigma 85mm f1.4 EX still showed great results when wide open. As a note, the lighting won’t matter much, but when lit correctly, your image can show more details. In the lower light of the tree’s shade, the focusing was still tack sharp as well.

Sigma 85mm f1.4 at f2.5 1/200th sec iso 125

Stopped down to f2.5, I was able to get much more detail in Kathy’s face as well. This is probably where I would stop down to if I did a full portrait session. Indeed, this is what I do when shooting photos for social media outlets.

Canon 85mm f1.2 at f1.2 at 1/800th sec iso 125

At f1.2, the Canon 85mm still shows how amazingly sharp it is. But what about at f1.4 where it is pulling in as much light as the Sigma lens wide open?

Canon 85mm f1.2 at f1.4 1/640th sec iso 125

At f1.4, the Canon 85mm f1.2 L seems to be a tad bit sharper than the Sigma 85mm f1.4 EX. As a point of reference, I was focusing on Kathy’s right eye for all of the photos. At the price point of the Canon lens, you get what you pay for with sharper performance. For best results, I’d recommend getting the lens hood to help you hold the lens better when mounted to the camera.

Canon 85mm f1.2 at f2.5 1/200th sec is 125

At f2.5, the lens once again proves to be very sharp. I also believe that I prefer the bokeh quality of the Canon lens over the Sigma.

Image Quality

First off, neither lens requires much of a profile correction in Lightroom 3. The Sigma vignettes a bit less wide open and both lenses correct for distortion extremely well. Both lenses exhibit exceptional image quality with the edge going to the Canon 85mm f1.2 L.

Conclusion

So which lens is the best?

For the price points of the lenses, the Canon still does seem a bit expensive. However, you get f1.2, focusing speed that is on par with Sigma’s despite the f1.4 being lighter, and extremely sharp results wide open and stopped down.

However, if portrait photography is your bread and butter, then the Canon should be on your camera instead of the Sigma.

Would I buy the Canon? No, because I find it too expensive for what I do. If I were in the same position I was on a year ago as a professional wedding photographer then I’d say sure. However, the Sigma 85mm f1.4 EX has me tempted to sell my Canon 85mm f1.8. Though many users would not be able to tell the difference between either lens stopped down.

In the end, the Canon 85mm f1.2 L wins this game; if you can afford it.

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