Is the Canon 85mm f/1.2L II the perfect portrait lens?

| March 26, 2013
portrait canon 85mm 1.2 5D mark III

Portrait – 5D Mark III, 85mm f/1.2L II, f/1.4, 1/640, Handheld

I not only like to offer my clients every ounce of creativity I have, I also like to use the highest quality equipment to produce their images. After conducting some research on the best portrait lenses, I invested in Canon’s 85mm f/1.2L II. Does this lens deliver? Absolutely, but for an expensive professional lens it also comes with a few issues that need to be carefully considered before you surrender nearly $2,000 to own one.

Why I wanted this lens in my kit:

  • The 85mm focal length creates near distortion-free images of my subject
  • The fast f/1.2 aperture allows for razor thin depth of field control
  • The 8 circular aperture blades produce gorgeous background blur
  • The lens is extremely sharp when focused properly
  • The in-camera color and contrast are second to none

Sounds good, right? Not so fast. For $2,000, expectations understandably run high for this lens so there are a few things you should know before your order one.

What surprised me when I put the 85mm f.1.2L II into action:

  • This lens is not free of chromatic aberration. For nearly $2,000 you might expect little to no color fringing. Not so. At its widest apertures, color fringing can be quite alarming, especially when shooting in bright sunlight. Good thing we can clean it up in post processing.
  • For non portrait shots, I kept trying to shoot closer than its minimum focus distance. Remember that this is primarily a portrait lens and you need to be at least 37.4″ away from your subject to focus. If I want to get closer, I find myself mounting the 100mm f/2.8 or 24-70 f/2.8 instead.
  • Focus is relatively slow compared to Canon’s other high end lenses. Fortunately, this is not a problem because portrait subjects usually don’t run about frantically. If you are expecting to use this fast lens for fast-paced sports shooting, you will likely be disappointed.
  • You can’t grab and shoot this lens like like all your others. The focus ring on this this guy is touchy. With its by-wire focus mechanism, the focus ring turns with almost no resistance. If you touch the lens willy-nilly after locking on your subject, focus can easily be shifted and blur your shot.
canon 85mm f/1.2 5D mark III

The enormous front element of the Canon 85mm f/1.2L II lens

If you are saying, “no way am I spending $2,000 on a lens with these issues,” I might try to get you to reconsider. Just as I love and will never sell a select few of my Canon lenses for their power to help me produce stand out images, I too love this lens. Once I became realistic about its purpose and learned to manage its, let’s say unique characteristics, I have come to appreciate that it provides me with additional creative freedom to produce unique, high quality portraits.

How I shoot with the Canon 85mm f/1.2L II

For the portraits in this post, I stood on a small step stool to get above my subject, who was sitting on the floor, turned to a large north-facing window, leaning on her left arm looking up at the camera. I find this pose works best when the subject is not straining to look up at the camera. Keep the chin up but not to high to create a natural gaze. For most shots with the 85mm f/1.2, you will probably be shooting at f/1.2 or close to it. Because of the razor thin depth of field at these wide apertures, it is critical to get your focus point directly on the eye. If at all possible, choose the focus point that naturally falls on the subject’s eye so you don’t have to recompose the shot. At f/1.2, the slightest movement of the camera after locking focus will compromise the sharpness or your intended focal point.

single focus point canon 5D mark III

Single focus point selected on Canon 5D Mark III

I should add that there is very little post processing on these images. In the color portrait below, I did amp up the color in her eyes a little and do some minor dodging on her skin. The blur you see in the shot is what the 85mm f/1.2 produces. I like it a lot and most clients are pleased with the way it smooths out their complexion and adds a dreamy feel to the image.

portrait canon 85mm f/1.2

Color portrait Canon 85mm f/1.2L II, f/1.4, 1/640, 5D Mark III, Handheld

If you look closely at the photo below, you can see green fringing on parts of her eyelash. This is the chromatic aberration I mentioned. This can easily be cleaned up in post processing but I am giving you fair warning that the CA can get much worse in higher contrast situations.

canon 85mm f/1.2 chromatic aberration

Chromatic aberration on the Canon 85mm f/1.2L II

Just as I would rather take a Land Rover up the side of a mountain than a Ferrari, I pick this lens for specific uses. At $2,000 is it a very expensive specialty lens but I you are looking to take your portrait photography to another level, this lens has the capability to help you do it.

canon 85mm f/1.2L II portrait

The beautiful background blur of the Canon 85mm f/1.2L II lens

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Category: Photography, Tutorials, Wedding and Portraits