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Review – Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L Mark II USM

Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L Mark II USM- Ultra-large aperture fast prime lens

This lens is a monster – in size, weight, and most importantly, output. The Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM is a very specialized lens, concentrating its prowess in portraits and selective focus control.

Image courtesy of DPREVIEW.COM

The lens is RAZOR SHARP even at f/1.2, spectacular at f2.2. Color, contrast, resolution is amazing as well, just like most professional grade prime lenses from Canon. A bit of chromatic aberration (CA) at f/1.2-1.8 around the highlights, while easily fixed in post-processing, it is quite visible. Vignetting isn’t noticeable on a crop-sensor camera but slightly visible on a full-frame (I tried looking through my Elan’s viewfinder – will post film shots soon, as soon as I get them scanned).

The huge lens sucks in a tremendous amount of light, so much that most consumer-level auto-focus cameras will have a hard time focusing correctly. The auto-focus is unusually slow (if you’ve spent almost US$2,000 on a lens) for a lens of this caliber. Consumer grade lenses, even kit lenses will feel lightning fast compared to this lens. The internal focusing mechanism feels like a group of mini hamsters running around the ring-USM mechanism. It is understandable, though, because of the weight and size of the lens element, it’ll take a much larger USM assembly to make this AF quickly.

Focus

One thing I noticed is that the 85mm f/1.2L II USM uses an electronic manual focus control mechanism where the MF ring isn’t directly hooked up to the lens elements. This feels very “disconnected”, much like those “power zoom” rings on Minolta Maxxum lenses before. The ring is too light and doesn’t give you much confidence to lock on your manually selected spot. Full-frame camera helps tremendously with manual focusing – well, almost everything is easier with a full-frame camera anyway.

Focusing is very accurate once it hits the spot, but this lens is meant to be manually focused to optimize the extremely thin depth-of-field (DOF) provided by such a wide aperture telephoto lens. By thin, I mean razor thin. At the lens’s minimum focusing distance (3.2ft), the you can’t even keep a whole eye’s width in focus, that’s how thin the DOF is.

This lens teaches you NOT to rely too much on auto-focus. There will always be auto-focus variances in ALL camera models regardless of brand, just because the AF confirm light appears, doesn’t mean the focus is exactly where you want it to lock on. I have quite a few of shots that had AF confirm (and a high shutter speed utilized – like 1/500 or higher) and still resulted to soft images due to a few mm. shift in focus plane. If your subject moved an inch or two on the “z-axis”, your focus will be thrown off.

I need to point out that this is NOT the fault of the lens, at 85mm (length) f/1.2 (thin DOF), the chances of mis-hits are quite high. That’s the same reason why a lot of newbies think their f/2.8 or wider lens are “soft” or “back-focuses” coming from smaller aperture kit lenses. As the aperture opening gets bigger, the margin-for-error increases dramatically. The shots I’ve taken at f/4 or smaller with this lens less mishits that at f/1.2, which proves that in most cases, it’s user error that’s at fault. A camera with a more advanced/accurate focus system will surely benefit more.

Ergonomics

Ergonomics is a mixed bag. The lens is really huge and heavy. Unless you’re carrying a 1d/1ds series body or a 5D with grip, chances are you’ll strain your right hand quite a bit after a couple of hours of holding the camera (note, I don’t use a neck-strap, so my camera is in my hand most of the time). It feels weird holding a wide-diameter lens with your left hand, but it’s easy to get used to. On my light, film camera (Elan IIe), I feel like I’m holding a lens with a rectangular handle.

Sample Photos and Image Quality

Don’t rant if I didn’t get technical by shooting resolution charts and test subjects in a studio. If you want to get technical about it, read WLCastleman.com’s review and The Digital Picture.com’s reviews instead.

I love this lens’ output. I don’t care about the AF issue and the relatively high rate of wrong AF chosen issue for an AF lens as a lens like this should command more attention in your shooting skills than just point-and-shoot. The focal length (about 135mm equivalent on a crop sensor) is wonderful for head/shoulder portraits on a crop sensor, full length is nice if you can take a few steps backwards. On a full-frame/35mm body, it’s highly versatile.

I shot most of my photos at f/1.2 for this review, unless I need the DOF when I’m shooting more than one person to keep them both in focus. What’s the point of testing this lens beyond f/1.2 if that’s the main, unique feature of the 85mm f/1.2L II USM, right?

If you don’t need f/1.2, the consumer grade EF 85mm f/1.8 is a lot lighter, focuses a lot faster, a lot cheaper, and amazingly sharp as well. Once you’ve tried f/1.2, though, it’s really hard to look back. The way it lifts any subject away from the background and recessed from the foreground is to die for. The three-dimensional feel of it will make you stare, not glance, at your photographs.

Enough talk. Here are the photos.

You can see the rest in my Flickr EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM set page along with their larger sizes.

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Canon EF 85mm f1.2L II USM Lens for Canon DSLR Cameras
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The photos were imported into Lightroom, corrected white balance on a couple of shots, exported with 1024px, long-edge resize. No other adjustments nor sharpening were applied.

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