August/2014 - Sometimes the “expression tool” is so powerful that it gets hard not to notice it. This is the case with the Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L USM II. Given the 85mm specification with a f/1.2 aperture, it’s alone on the market as the only 85mm f/1.2 AF ever. While several brands produce equivalent f/1.8s and some dare a f/1.4, Canon went heads on and created the f/1.2: half a stop faster; 50% more light; 50% more glass. Totally exotic. It’s a curious glass ball that renders a completely new world through the viewfinder, totally blurred. It took me two days to convince myself to purchase, and a few weeks to master it’s shallow depth of field. But is it for everyone?
At 1025g of metal and glass at 9.1 x 8.3 cm, the EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM is a pig on Canon’s line up. Jokes aside, this lens build is impressive. By having just metal and glass in such a small space, nothing is out of place. It is relatively compact, without excesses; lets say, simple. No built-in hood or tripod collar. Its shape is 100% cylindrical and therefore the only on/off switch controls the USM system, recessed in the body; as well as the MF ring that is the same thickness of the remaining lens. Do not let it “sideways” on the table because it will roll and fall on the ground.
The only two controls (button and ring) are part of the unique mechanical “feature” of the 85mm f/1.2L: its autofocus. Easier said than done, marketed and mounted on the camera. But it is exactly what involved most of the design decisions, and the great “feat of engineering” that puts the “exotic” adjective very close to this lens. First, is too much glass to be operated manually, and it all revolves around a ring type USM. Therefore the MF ring operates “fly by wire”, with no mechanical coupling between the two. This is good and bad for the same reason: the ring is super easy and light to use. Good because it is light, any touch of your fingers and it spins.
Second, “AF 85mm f/1.2” is a devil’s idea. The depth of field is very short and requires an unusual precision. So the AF/MF rotation is long, almost 270 degrees from the minimum focusing distance (0.95m) to infinity. In comparison, the AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.4G has the same MFD but turns in just 45 degrees! For this reason the Canon EF is super slow (almost two seconds from inf. to MFD) compared to the Nikon (less than half a second). It doesn’t bother much around the street, portraits and on everyday jobs. But also does not support sports and fast-paced journalism.
Third, at least it’s absolutely accurate and quiet. One of these 270 degrees surely will be the distance you need, and Canon has managed to maintain the same minimum focus than the competition. The front ø72mm filters don’t rotate but the inner tube expands almost 1″ at MFD. But you can’t see it if you are shooting with the hood that hides everything inside, and it barely sits around the MF ring; bad design choice. Some people use the hood as “protection”, but here I think it actually puts the focus ring at jeopardy: if it bumps, the pressure goes to the AF mechanism.
At the rear the metal mount and glass pieces are extremely close. I’ve never seen a lens like this and take care when mounting. Any carelessness and you can scratch it. It is so big that you can see the bearings that mount the glass inside! And the design is simple with only eight elements in seven groups, some with aspherical designs and Super Spectra coating (to reduce flaring). Unfortunately it does not have weather sealing and some dust found its way inside mine. One day I freaked out and tried to open it. I Blew the EF mount screws in the process. Do not tell anyone.
In short, it’s a totally different lens than all I have on my kit because it is big and heavy, but super simple, with smooth operation. Sometimes I wish it was smaller in order to use it more; it’s hard to get it out of the house. But if it was smaller it would be f/1.4, and I already have the Nikon AF-S 85mm f/1.4G. Finally I would like to comment on a detail about the usability of the f/1.2. The depth of field in this focal length (85mm) is very short and requires technique and practice to achieve the best results. In minimum focus distance (0.95cm) you have only 8mm of depth of field, and you can guess how difficult it is to achieve perfect focus in most photos.
With 8 elements in 7 groups, one precision aspherical piece and floating groups, the EF 85mm f / 1.2L II USM is what we call a” specialty lens”, as it caters exclusively who needs the brightness and unique depth of field. You shouldn’t buy it to use at f/1.4, f/1.8, f/2 … Other lenses make more sense for f/1.4 with better auto focus speed. So it was Canon’s obligation to deliver the best quality wide open: absolutely flawless resolution and contrast from f/1.2. And it does. Some optical flaws are inherent to the larger aperture, but is all part of this lens personality. Photos with 5D Mark II.
Yes, some chronic large aperture lenses issues are present, especially the chromatic aberration. Both axial and lateral are easy to see on most photos. Those colourful edges that did not exist in reality and are visible in high-resolution digital files (they are less noticeable on film). But that can be fixed in software and in my opinion do not really impact on this lens appeal. Even the Leica 50mm f/0.95 Noctilux-M suffers with heavy CAs. It is inherent of extreme designs.
Also if the focus is not absolutely spot on we can see some blooming on contrast areas. The image has a dreamesque appearance and hinders the details on the very short focal plane. But that’s the thing: many buy this lens because of this feature, and it is not a counter argument. Anyway, just accurately adjust the focus. What is not in the depth of field will be blurred anyway.
The wide open headline is the resolution, which remains intact from edge to edge of the frame. It’s really impressive and I have no f/1.x lens that behaves this way. It is ideal for working with astrophotography, or work under low light. It’s a unique look that only this lens delivery. Stopping down to f/2 the resolution increases to excellence in any situation. This lens is a highlight on the Canon’s L series because it differentiates the files in this regard. If you work with prints and fashion, surely the EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM has a “darling” status on your kit. I saw similar results only from the EF 135mm f/2L USM or the larger, super white telephoto US$4999+ primes.
Colours are very important on the L series, and the saturation is high straight from the camera. You don’t have to push the sliders that far on Adobe’s Camera Raw for excellent results. And the bokeh is simply the best from Canon, and I might suggest it’s best on the market. The colours on the background are blended on a colourful, smooth effect, eliminating any distraction from your subject. The contrast pops with the buttery smooth shadows and light turns any element on a fancy composition. Sometimes it’s so beautiful I shoot just that, with no sharp subject. The optical formula is optimised for that, not for chromatic aberration corrections.
The EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM is addictive and I am victim. I haven’t mentioned yet, but it was my first L series prime. Why, oh, why?! It was because of “her” that I started my Canon gear addiction, and it is even partially responsible for the existence of blog do zack. I wouldn’t have bought another “L” lens if it wasn’t for the 85mm “first impressions” performance. You’ve read on my Patreon that I’m “addicted to images”, and the 85mm f/1.2L II is the culmination of all this: cutting-edge images and equipment. You either have it or you don’t. I recommend that you do. Nice shooting!