The New Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM lens: First Experiences and Sample Images

Since a week I’ve been a happy owner of the new Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM lens. I tested it in different situations and can share my first experience with it (spoiler: satisfied).

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My new lens

For years I did not own a 85 mm prime: I had this focal distance covered by the amazing Canon 70-200 f/2.8L II IS US. It fits my style of shooting and I always got the results I wanted. But as I mainly work with natural light I regularly have situations when a fast prime portrait lens would be useful.

One’s lens choice is based on a number of personal preferences and I will sketch mine. Till this summer I considered three 85 mm primes: the iconic Canon 85 f/1.2L II USM, the good old Canon 85 f/1.8 and the recent hero Sigma Art 85 f/1.4. What stopped me from getting any of these great lenses and kept me hesitating? To start with, all three of them miss two qualities that are essential for me. None of them is weather-sealed (not even the L lens) and none has image stabilization. My special attachment to my 70-200 f/2.8 IS has much to do with its excellent image stabilization: something I require at this focal length, especially with a camera sensor resolution of 30 MP.

Over the past years I often thought about the 85 f/1.2 lens with its large maximum aperture, creamy bokeh and overall beautiful image rendering. Though not weather sealed, this L lens is very robust and its wide maximum aperture almost made me forget the image stabilisation. But there were more considerations. This lens is notorious for its slow focus (at least on 5D series bodies), and many photographers who use it confess missing many shots because of this. I often photograph small children, and know too well that no toddler would wait for me to focus. Furthermore, that lens is heavy (1025 g) and would put extra strain on my back. Many users say 85 f/1.2 collects dust inside: this has to do with an extending lens element while the lens has no weather sealing. One also has to be extra careful when mounting this lens as it protrudes into the camera. Finally, it has the largest focusing distance among the lenses on my shortlist (95 cm vs 85). This amazing (and expensive) lens seemed not practical enough for my usual needs, mainly because of slow focus.

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1/500 sec, f/1.4, ISO 100. The only editing here was making the color temperature a little warmer (the photo is made on a grey day). The image below shows detail zoomed to 100%.

Sigma Art is impressively well built (though not weather sealed), is quick to focus, very silent and delivers excellent image quality. I liked its feel in my hands until I mounted it on my camera. Then it felt bulky and heavy for me (it weighs 1130 g). Although my 70-200 is still heavier it’s also thinner which makes it easier to handle. Sigma Art is approximately half of the price of the Canon 85 f/1.2 (after you add up the costs of a good 86 mm filter and Sigma’s docking station for calibration). Still, its ergonomics was for me a reason not to buy this lens.

Canon 85 f/1.8 mm is another excellent lens and the least expensive of the three. It is light (425 g) and focuses fast. However, I missed the L-series build quality, and 1.8 aperture did not seem large enough for me to put aside my stabilized and versatile 70-200. Canon 85 f/1.8 is 25 years old by now and I was willing to wait for Canon’s new release. I was very excited to hear it was an L lens with IS and that it weighs “only” 950 g.

When I ordered the new Canon 84 f/1.4L IS lens I had high expectations but had seen too few samples to decide whether I like the image rendering. In particular, I wasn’t sure if it delivered nice colors.

Before I use a lens with clients I make sure to test it enough. I challenge the lens by shooting at its largest aperture, in poor lighting conditions, at lower shutter speed (to see the IS work), and with moving subjects. So I took my new lens with me on a walk and when seeing friends.

My experience has been very positive. The lens is on the heavy side but still tolerable to carry around for a long time (even on my neck). It is very well built, has proper balance with the camera body and is comfortable to hold. The focusing ring works just perfect. The auto-focus is accurate and quick, although not amazingly quick. The chromatic aberration is well controlled and the color rendering is awesome! I like the bokeh as well.

Here are examples of images shot at wide aperture so that you can see the sharpness of the focus wide open and the quality of booked.

{ Sample images are “straight out of camera” or have basic editing, when indicated }

All sample images are clickable for larger detail }

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SOOC, 1/320 sec, f/1.6, ISO 250. The image below shows detail zoomed to 100%.

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SOOC, 1/400 sec, f/2, ISO 160.

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SOOC, 1/400 sec, f/1.4, ISO 100.

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Left: SOOC, 1/640 sec, f/1.4, ISO 100. Right: 1/125 sec, f/1.4, ISO 320, minimal editing.

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SOOC, 1/320 sec, f/1.4, ISO 100.

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Left: SOOC, 1/125 sec, f/1.4, ISO 500. Right: 1/160 sec, f/1.4, ISO 1600, minimal editing.

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SOOC, 1/125 sec, f/1.6, ISO 1250, shot in a poorly lit café.

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SOOC, 1/250 sec, f/1.8, ISO 100.

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1/160 sec, f/1.4, ISO 200; BW conversion and basic editing.

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1/160 sec, f/1.4, ISO 200; BW conversion and basic editing.

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1/250 sec, f/1.6, ISO 100; BW conversion and basic editing.

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1/125 sec, f/1.6, ISO 2000; BW conversion and basic editing.

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SOOC, 1/400 sec, f/2, ISO 200.

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SOOC, 1/400 sec, f/1.4, ISO 100.

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SOOC, 1/2000 sec, f/2, ISO 100; windy weather.

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SOOC, 1/250 sec, f/1.4, ISO 320

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SOOC, 1/125 sec, f/1.4, ISO 160. The image below shows detail zoomed to 100%.

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SOOC, 1/125 sec, f/1.4, ISO 160.

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1/100 sec, f/1.4, ISO 5000. Night photo, slight rain, light from a street lantern. Sharp detail thanks to image stabilisation. Minor contrast increase.

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SOOC, 1/60 sec, f/2.2, ISO 1000. Night photo of a shop window. The right side shows detail zoomed to 100%, sharp thanks to image stabilisation. 

My conclusion is that Canon 85mm f/1.4L IS USM is an excellent modern lens that is comfortable to work with. It will be in my bag on many assignments.

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Another magic tool in my bag.

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