Review Canon 85mm F1.2L (Mk1) Lens

Les McLean

In Memoriam
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Maker/Provider: Canon

Product: 85mm F1.2L LENS (Mk1)

Price: New-£1700 (Mk2), s/h-£800-£900 (Mk1), £1200-£1300 (Mk2)

Overall Rating: 9.5/10

Overall Summary: Canon's ultimate portrait lens, that offers exceptional image quality with a background blur (bokeh) to die for.


Detailed Review

Reviews are very much a personal thing, influenced by where you are coming from, what your needs are, and where you want to go with the particular bit of kit you are reviewing. So this review reflects my views on this particular lens, which I'm sure could well be very different from other's experience, and just as valid.

I won't be detailing all the bells and buzzers , or providing an overly technical review, there are enough of these out there anyway. Although I will be considering the background blur against other lenses, I won't be conducting 'Compared to.....' kind of tests.

In Use

The first thing you notice is the size-it's big, heavy and definitely has a presence about it, and feels very comfortable sitting on a 1 series body. The hood is deep, and clips on securely to the lens body.

Image quality is exceptional, even wide open at F1.2, the only lens of mine that comes anywhere close is the 135mm F2L lens.

As previously mentioned, this is an absolute bokeh machine, the creaminess of the blur is a pure delight, particularly around F1.2-F2.0

Here is a the range of bokeh from F1.2-F2.8, with a large (4500x1000 pixel) image link provided (2mb):

Background blur compared to 135m F2L and 24-70 F2.8L , at F2 and f2.8 respectively, large image link provided (2mb)

The main use of the lens is in portraits, where I particularly like using the lens is street portraits (for example Whitby Goths), the ability to kick the background out of focus is essential when it's very busy, and you are unable to control the surroundings, I don't think any other lens can do it so well.

Although the IQ remains exceptional at F1.2, it's rare that I shoot at that aperture, I know everybody that has this lens shoots at F1.2, mainly because you can , the depth of field is as thin as a fag paper, so the margin of error is huge, accurate focusing is very very difficult. So I'm happier shooting at f1.6-F2.0, the only exception is in very low light, in the example below, the light was poor, I was able to shoot handheld at around 1/90 sec at F1.2, I stood back a bit and cropped the image heavily to maintain a reasonable DOF. Trust me though, shooting at F1.2 is not for the faint hearted.

Build Quality
Very good, big, bulky, heavy and well engineered. It has a rubberised grip surface which helps stability when hand holding.

Canon call this lens their 'definitive portrait lens' , I don't think I can argue with that, it is also a great 'get out of jail' lens, it's ability to function at workable shutter speeds in low light is incredible.

Probably the most discussed weakness of this lens is it's (relatively) slow autofocus, compared to say a 135mm F2 lens, it's markedly pedestrian, but you quickly learn to live within is boundaries, so for example it would unlikely be a lens of choice for indoor sports. I understand the 85mm F1.2 (MK2) lens has faster autofocus than the MK1.

The 85mm F1.2 is my least used but also my favourite lens. The analogy I frequently use is that it's like having a vintage Rolls Royce in your garage, for everyday driving you tootle about in a Mondeo, only bringing the Rolls out for special occasions, that's how this lens feels to me, it's special, and as a colleague of mine once mentioned, unless you have hands on use of this lens, you can never realise just how special it can be.

On the other hand, would I buy a brand new MK2 lens at around £1700? , if I was an out and out portrait or wedding photographer, it would be an irrefutable yes, but as I'm not any of these I couldn't justify the cost. The lens I bought was a s/h MK1 lens, for considerably less than the new price, and without any shadow of doubt it's been my best lens investment.
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Nice review and good to see comparison, I used to love this lens and frequently used it at 1.2 which as you mention is very hit and miss with a razor thin Depth of field.

I much prefer using the 135L for outdoor work and the 50L for indoors these days. I just find having a subject half in and out of focus all the time doesnt look very good. Full lengths at 1.2 can often look stuck on/floating in the scene..