Introduction: The Matchup
These two lenses represent a fairly classic ''battle for speed'' between two optics from a single manufacturer. The Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM lens sells for an MSRP of $419.95, and is a standard, short-telephoto Canon workhorse. Canon's more exotic 85mm prime, the EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM, buys you an additional stop of exposure latitude, superior build quality, extremely high resolution, and what is described as a "silky-smooth" bokeh effect. Sporting an MSRP of $2199.95, and nearly twice the size and weight of the EF f/1.8, we evaluate whether Canon's "L-Series" glass warrants the near $1,800 upgrade.
Canon's f/1.8 lens is smaller and much lighter than its f/1.2 counterpart. The f/1.8 has a 58mm filter size instead of the f/1.2's 72mm filter size, and the f/1.8 weighs half as much as the f/1.2 lens. The two 85mm lenses are similarly composed: the f/1.2 has 8 elements in 7 groups and the f/1.8 has 9 elements in 7 groups.
We tested these two 85mm Canon lenses at their maximum apertures (f/1.2 and f/1.8), at the same aperture (f/1.8), and stopped-down to f/7.1. All tests were shot with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera body.
Sharpness: The two lenses performed almost identically at f/7.1 through their minimum apertures, but the 85mm f/1.2 lens grabs the win when it comes to sharpness elsewhere in the range. The f/1.2 produces cleaner lines, but its performance advantage in this area isn't enough to justify the price.
Chromatic Aberration and Flare: With the lenses opened to their maximum apertures, the f/1.2 lens produced a slight amount of chromatic aberration, which is when the red, green, and blue channels hit different points on the image sensor when refracted through the glass. The f/1.8 lens produced more chromatic aberration than its pricier cousin, even when the f/1.2 lens was set to f/1.8. When the two lenses were set to f/7.1, their results were about equal. The two lenses didn't show significant differences when it came to flare.
Distortion: One of the biggest differences between the two 85mm lenses showed up in this test. The f/1.2 lens showed a pronounced pincushion effect, making the image appear to be pinched in from the sides, top and bottom of the frame. This distortion occurred at f/1.2 and f/1.8 settings. The 85mm f/1.8 lens, however, showed barrel distortion that seemed to elongate the details in the edges of the frame. Functionally, the distortion on both lenses shouldn't be a problem unless shooting architecture or reproduction work, in which case the f/1.2 lens would be the better option.
Vignetting: The Canon 85mm lenses both show vignetting, although the f/1.8 lens has a more dramatic falloff. Some photographers want this effect: it darkens the edges and corners of the frame, minimizing distractions from the subject (assuming it's somewhat centered). The f/1.8 lens has a circular pattern of vignetting, whereas the f/1.2 has a more oval-shaped pattern. The best lens in this case depends on your personal preference and what subject matter you shoot most often. Dramatic portraits might look great with the f/1.8 lens, while the f/1.2 lens is better suited for landscapes and copy work.
Bokeh Effect: This term applies to the quality and texture of the background that is thrown out of focus. The bokeh effect on the f/1.2 lens is described by Canon as "silky" and that description held accurate in testing. The f/1.2 lens has a smoother background, where the f/1.8 lens left edges from shapes in the background looking sharper than they were. The f/1.2's bokeh effect is much more desirable and better suited for portrait work.
The Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM lens proved to be superior in most of our testing, although often it performed only slightly better than the Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM. Functionally, they performed very similarly, the biggest difference being the texture of the bokeh effect. The f/1.8 lens left sharp shapes and edges that almost looked like a printing press error, while the f/1.2 left out-of-focus backgrounds silky smooth.
While the EF f/1.2 has the edge between the two 85mm lenses, the EF f/1.8 performed extremely well for the price: it costs one-fifth of the price of the f/1.2. The EF f/1.2 lens is clearly worth the investment if you need the additional latitude on low-light shoots. Otherwise, the EF f/1.8 lens deserves a solid look for its superior value.
For more details about the lenses and testing, read the full review on Head2Head Reviews.
JOIN THE RAW DAWGS
Life and wildlife in Madagascar