The non-photographers amongst you might want to skip this blog posting as this is a fairly detailed Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM lens review, comparing it to the Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM and also looking at a few other 85mm prime lens options. This is primarily written for other wedding photographers who may be interested in whether the new Canon f/1.4 prime lens is the right choice for them instead of the much older and cheaper f/1.8 version.
I’m a massive fan of the 85mm focal length, I shoot weddings with a two camera setup and have an 85mm on the one body from bridal prep in the morning all the way through to just before the first dance. I find the focal length is perfect for portraits, great for group shots, ideal for snapping candids and also really useful for detail shots too. The 85mm focal length gives flattering compression and great isolation from the background. You get an even more of an isolating effect with a 135mm prime but I find that the extra distance required from the subjects makes communication more difficult when doing portraits or group shots.
For the last 18 months my 85mm go to lens has been the Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM, a lens which I’m really happy with as it offers great image quality. Here’s a few sample images to show what Canon’s budget 85mm prime lens is capable of.
However, the one key feature that I feel that it’s missing from this older lens is the inclusion of image stabilisation. Once I get over the 50mm focal length I find IS to be really useful, probably partly due to my shonky technique! So at the end of 2017 when Canon announced the EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM, which would include image stabilisation, I knew straight away that I wanted one. I know lots of professional wedding photographers who also use the Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM lens so I thought it would be interesting to do some back-to-back testing against the new Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM.
One of the first things anyone asks when a new lens is released is how sharp is it? So the first thing I did was put it to the test and find out. For this test I used a Canon EOS 5D mkiv and ran the same camera body with each lens attached through a micro adjustment test using Reikan’s Focal software. Once each lens was adjusted for maximum sharpness I then ran Focal’s aperture sharpness test to enable a comparison to be made on both lenses across their full aperture range.
Each test was performed twice to ensure repeatability of results. I’ve overlaid the results in the chart below, the 85mm f/1.4 IS lens is shown by the green plot and the f/1.8 by the red. Aperture is on the horizontal axis with the Focal quality measure score on the vertical.
What we can see from this is that across the entire range the new f/1.4 IS lens is sharper than the f/1.8 lens at equivalent apertures. This is to be expected, the new f/1.4 is a Canon L grade lens which is a brand new design, where the f/1.8 is a 26 year old design which was released way back in 1992 from Canon’s standard lens range. The quality difference is more pronounced at the wide open end and narrows as both lenses are stopped down. Plotting the data a little differently, using the difference between the two lenses rather than absolute value, gives a slightly clearer picture. A positive number shows the f/1.4 is sharper than the f/1.8.
The results show that the maximum difference is at f/1.8 with the newer f/1.4 IS lens being 8% sharper, the difference falls to 0.8% at f22. If you’re looking to upgrade from the f/1.8 and hoping to see a big increase in sharpness then I think you’ll be disappointed. Yes, the new lens is sharper, but I’m going to stick my neck on the line and say that under normal shooting conditions you’ll probably not see any difference between the them. If you’re a pixel peeper, you might notice a tiny difference in some shots when zoomed in at 1:1 or greater. When both lenses are wide open the f/1.4 shows nearly 5% improvement over the f/1.8. If I’m being totally honest, I was a little surprised that the new f/1.4 IS doesn’t show a bigger sharpness improvement over the old lens.
It’s not just about sharpness though, there are many other factors that contribute towards image quality; bokeh and colour rendition being two of the most important things for me. To test these I shot the same scene with both lenses mounted to the same camera body, again using my Canon 5D mkiv. For my subject I used the very patient Penny the Penguin (the star of my previous review on the Sigma 24-35mm f2.0 DG HSM Art Lens), she’s really good at standing still, ensuring that the scene would be the same between shots. The camera was mounted on a tripod and set to manual mode with the following settings: ISO 100, f/1.8 (the lowest common aperture on the two lenses), 1/1000s. The images were all shot in RAW format and imported into Adobe Lightroom with no other corrections being applied. I’ve overlaid the images as a GIF file to make the comparison easier.
The first thing that is noticeable is that the field of view is ever so slightly different between the lenses. Note that the camera was locked off on a tripod did not move between the two shots, only the lens is changed. The lighting did not change between the shots, but despite the same settings being used the f/1.8 image is noticeably darker. I was surprised at the level of change so ran the test again just to make sure that I hadn’t made a mistake. But the repeat test showed exactly the same result with the same level of brightness shift and the same change in the field of view. I thought the brightness change might be due to the fact the f/1.4 IS is stopped down 2/3 of a stop at f/1.8 whereas the other lens is wide open and this will mitigate some of the vignetting on the f/1.4 lens. To try to remove the effects of this I applied in the lens corrections in Lightroom.
The effects are still visible with the older 85mm f1.8 lens being a little darker when both lenses are at f/1.8. There are no obvious colour shifts between the two lenses.
How the lens renders the out of focus areas is also really important. The in focus areas need to be sharp with smooth out of focus areas desirable in order to give nice separation of the subject from the background. I want the bokeh to be as free from detail as possible so that the eye is drawn to the subject. What’s noticeable from the GIF image above is that the out of focus areas do not appear quite as smooth on the older Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM. The older lens shows a little more detail in the out of focus background areas despite both lenses being at the same f/1.8 aperture.
I’ve also included below another comparison, this time comparing the new f/1.4 lens wide open at f/1.4 to the old f/1.8 wide open at f/1.8 to see the difference in background blur. This time the camera was set to match to the same exposure rather than having the same in camera settings. Also Lightroom lens corrections were applied to the files, with no other changes.
The effects of the extra 2/3s of a stop of aperture with the new lens can clearly be seen on the resulting in a much smoother, less detailed background on the new Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM lens.
Another of the key performance characteristics for me is the focus speed, it’s no good having an optically great lens if it takes too long to obtain sharp focus. This is especially important for documentary / reportage photographers who are trying to capture moments as they really happen rather than setting things up. When I did my previous lens testing on the Sigma 24-35mm f2.0 DG HSM Art lens I did some focus speed testing using audio recordings of the lenses. I actually repeated this test method on the two 85mm lenses, however, I’ve had a problem with my phone where the audio files were stored and no longer have them. I’ve subsequently sold my Canon f/1.8 so can no longer repeat the test. Although I don’t have the data I can confirm that the focus speed was very similar / almost identical between the two lenses. This is a good result for the Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM lens as the Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM was previously the fastest focusing 85mm prime lens that I’ve used.
The biggest disadvantage that the f/1.4 IS has over the f/1.8 is its weight. One of the reasons for me getting the Canon f/1.8 in the first place was the weight saving over the other lenses available at the time. On a wedding day you’re on your feet for a long time so reducing the amount of weight you have to lug around can be really beneficial. The f/1.4 IS has a significant weight disadvantage, tipping the scales at 950g, twice the weight of the f/1.8, which only weighs 425g. This is to be partly expected as a f/1.4 lens requires significantly more glass but this lens also has image stabilisation which also adds to the heft. The weight isn’t excessive, on par with having a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM on your camera. However; it is noticeably heavier than most of the other Canon shorter focal length primes.
As well as being heavier the 85mm f/1.4 is also noticeably longer than older f/1.8 lens, 105mm v 72mm long. Here’s a photo comparison of the two lenses side by side which clearly shows the size difference.
It’s not just the length that is increased as the barrel diameter is also larger resulting in a bigger filter size. I always protect my lenses with a clear filter in front of the front element, but the 85mm f/1.4 is 77mm in diameter, larger than most of the other modern Canon primes which are 72mm. This will add a bit more cost compared to the 58mm diameter filter thread on the f/1.8 lens.
Being as it’s part of Canon’s L series lens lineup the f/1.4 IS feels light years ahead of the f/1.8 in terms of build quality. The body feels very solid and is of a similar construction to the Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM. It features a metal mount and is made from high grade engineering plastic. The focus ring, which has full time manual override, is nicely weighted and operates very smoothly. The other big plus for the new lens is that it’s also weather sealed, a much needed addition to shooting weddings in the rainy UK.
The older 85mm f/1.8 doesn’t feel as well put together and doesn’t have weather sealing. It still has a metal mount but has a more plasticy, lower quality feel to the body.
The following GIF shows a 2:1 zoom in on a backlit shot of some foliage to compare the chromatic aberration of the two lenses. This is from a Canon EOS 5D mkiv RAW file with no lens corrections applied.
It shows that the new f/1.4 lens appears to have much better control of purple fringing than the older f/1.8. From this example it looks like the new lens completely eliminates, purple fringing, however; I’ve not found this to be the case in real world shooting. There is still prominent fringing visible but not quite as severe as with the older lens. I will update the review when I locate some sample images. In most cases the issue can be simply removed in post using the correction tools in Lightroom.
So what about the headline feature of this lens, the image stabilisation? I think this is actually the world’s first f/1.4 lens with IS, so it’s something of a ground breaker.
I like to keep the ISO as low as possible, not as much to minimise the noise, but to preserve the dynamic range to give more headroom for pushing the files in post processing. I generally shoot at as slow a shutter speed as possible to enable me to also keep the ISO low, usually somewhere between the reciprocal of the focal length and 1/160s. This is where the IS on the new Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM really comes into play. I’ve only shot a couple of weddings with the new lens and have noticed a higher keeper rate for the focal length.
The stabilisation is rated to 4 stops by Canon, just messing around at home I’ve found this to be about the mark as I’ve comfortably hand held shots down to 1/5s with sharp results.
There’s a couple of funny quirks with the new lens. The most annoying is the IS switch. It sits way too proud from its surrounding and can be easily caught when your camera is hanging by your side on a strap. During the first wedding when I used it I actually disengaged it by accident on a couple of occasions. I’ve remedied this by taping over the switch with gaffer tape. The switch really should be more flush with the switch surround to avoid this.
The second issue is a really minor one, but there is quite an audible “clunk” from inside then lens when you half press the shutter button. I think this noise is due to the IS engaging, it’s not a real issue but can be quite disconcerting if you’re shooting somewhere really quiet.
Other than the weight, the other Achilles heel of the new Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM is it’s price. The UK RRP is listed as £1569 but it is available on Amazon for £1379.
The Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM is probably one of Canon’s best value pieces of gear. The current UK RRP is £399 but you can easily pick up top quality used copies for less than £200. Given that it’s so cheap, small, lightweight and has really good image quality it’s a tough lens to beat.
Other 85mm prime options
I thought I’d also share my thoughts on the other leading 85mm prime lens options which are available for Canon shooters. Giving my thoughts on the ones I’ve owned and used and the reasons why I’ve not bought some of the other options out there.
Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM
The holy grail for Canon shooters looking for an 85mm lens has always been the legendary Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM. It comes with a fairly steep price of £2099, although it’s now listed on Amazon for £1640. It’s a lens I’ve never owned the but I have shot with it a couple of times. When shot wide open in the right conditions it can give stunning dreamlike images but I was always put off buying it due to the slow (some might say glacial) focusing speed. It’s also fairly heavy weighing in at 1025g.
Sigma 85mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM
I started my 85mm prime lens adventures with the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM lens but it was a lens that I never really fell in love with. It was fairly big, bulky and I found the focus a little slower than I’d like and also a little inconsistent. It was however much lighter on the pocket than the Canon f/1.2 as it cost £537.95 when I bought it in 2015. After using it for a couple of years I swapped it out for the Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM which was much lighter and felt a lot quicker to focus.
Sigma 85mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art
Back at the end of 2016 when Sigma announced the 85mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art it was a lens that turned a lot of heads. The reviews showed that it had unrivalled sharpness but it was absolutely huge. It weighed in at a whopping 1131g and was 126mm long, making it significantly heavier and longer than the Canon 24-70 f2.8! It also took a gargantuan 86mm filter on its front element. For a third party lens it was also quite expensive, having a UK RRP of £1199. Although it has been shown to be the sharpest 85mm lens available I was never tempted due to the massive size and weight. The lack of image stabilisation and weather sealing also counted against it too.
Tamron SP 85mm f/1.8 Di VC USD
The Tamron SP 85mm f/1.8 Di VC USD is a lens that I’ve never used so I can’t really pass too much comment on it. It was the first 85mm prime with IS and it is still the only stabilised lens other than the Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM. It has a UK RRP of £799 so is significantly cheaper than the Canon f/1.4 IS. For those that want / need image stabilisation but don’t have the budget for the Canon then this could be an option. However; I’ve seen some fairly mixed reviews online and don’t personally know anyone that has used it, so it would be difficult for me to recommend.
ZEISS Otus 85mm f/1.4
Prior to the arrival of the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art, the previous sharness champion was the ZEISS Otus 85mm f/1.4. A lens which picked up a raft of brilliant reviews for its image quality. However; it’s a manual focus only lens which makes it a definite no from me. Manual focusing on a DSLR without focus peaking is incredibly tough, especially when trying to capture candid moments or moving subjects. It also had a gargantuan price of £3532.
So would I recommend the Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM over the older f1.8 design? You get the extra 2/3 of a stop of light and smoother out of focus areas but I think it really boils down to how much you need / value the image stabilisation and weather sealing. For me, personally, the stabilisation is the key feature and it’s helped me improve my keeper rate at this focal length, but it’s a massive price premium to pay. If you don’t need the IS then the Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM offers great image quality (which is nearly on par with the newer lens) for such a low price that it’s hard not to recommend it. If you want the ultimate in sharpness, and don’t mind the extra heft, then the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art may be the one to go for.
Here’s a few more sample images from the Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM . . .