Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM lens
It’s difficult to find fault with the build quality, handling and overall performance of this lens.
We also found it a lot of fun to use.
Announced in August 2017, Canon’s EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM lens is the first in its category with integrated image stabilisation, providing up to four stops of shake correction. Developed with portrait photographers in mind, this lens is designed primarily for use on a ‘full frame’ camera. Internal focusing is driven by a ring ultrasonic motor, while nine rounded iris diaphragm blades produce smooth and attractive bokeh at wide apertures.
Angled view of the EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM lens. (Source: Canon.)
Canon’s designers set out to make this lens as light and compact as possible without compromising optical performance. Integrating both a stabilising unit (which is similar in size to the one used in the much larger EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II USM super-telephoto lens) and the focusing unit presented additional challenges for the optical design team.
This diagram shows the positions of the key elements in the lens design, including the focusing and stabilising groups and the iris diaphragm. (Source: Canon.)
The optical design of this lens (shown above) is complex for a prime lens, with 14 elements in 10 groups, among them one glass moulded aspherical element, which is included to address axial chromatic aberration and spherical aberration and control curvature of field. To reduce the size of the lens, both the focus group and stabilising group must be lightweight and only move a small amount.
Canon’s proprietary multi-layered Air Sphere Coating (ASC) provides protection against ghosting and flare. Fluorine coatings on the front and rear elements repel dust, moisture and grime, making it easy to keep the surfaces clean with a dry cloth.
The small ultrasonic motor (USM) in the autofocusing unit uses durable ball bearings to enable the focusing mechanism to be moved with high speed and precision. The minimum distance of this lens is 85 cm, where a 0.12x magnification is achieved.
This lens accepts 77 mm diameter filters and the filter holder is shaped to retract on impact. A damper distributes the shock evenly when anything collides with the tip of the lens. It comes with the usual front and rear lens caps, a cylindrical lens hood and a soft carrying pouch (neither of the last two items was supplied with the review lens).
Who’s it For?
Designed for both image quality and usability, the EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM is ideal for portrait photography and should be popular with wedding photographers, who would welcome the combination of the large f/1.4 aperture and image stabilisation, which makes it ideal for handheld photography.
The 85mm focal length imparts a slightly flatter perspective than a standard lens, giving protruding parts of a face, such as noses, ears and chins, a more attractive, natural-looking appearance. However, the fast f/1.4 maximum aperture requires careful focusing since depth of field can be paper-thin with this lens.
On a cropped-sensor (APS-C) camera, the focal length becomes equivalent to 136mm, which is a bit long for portraiture and will have a noticeably flatter perspective. It will require a longer camera-to-subject working distance and deliver a slightly wider depth of field with reduced background blurring.
This lens is a bit too heavy to make an ideal companion for hiking, although it could be useful for street photography as well as photographing indoor sports like netball and basketball under artificial lighting. The 85mm focal length can also be handy for some kinds of architectural photography or for studio-based photography of appropriately-sized products.
Build and Ergonomics
As expected for a Canon L class lens, this lens is robustly constructed and attractively finished. Made from engineering polycarbonate to minimise weight it boasts a smart matte-black finish that resists fingermarking. Metal is used for the mounting plate as well as internally for strength. It is also dust- and moisture-resistant.
With a maximum diameter of 88.6 mm and a length of 105.4 mm, it weighs a substantial 950 grams. The large front element is approximately 68 mm wide and surrounded by threading for a 77 mm diameter filter.
The focusing ring is 32 mm wide and located roughly 10 mm behind the front of the lens, which carries a bayonet mount for the cylindrical lens hood. The rear 29 mm section of the ring is clad with rubberised ridging. The ring turns smoothly and is manually coupled to the camera to provide direct feedback during manual focusing. Full-time manual focusing (FTM) is supported.
Behind the focusing ring is a 30 mm wide section of the barrel where the main controls are located. Unusually for a modern lens, you’ll find a distance scale embedded beneath a transparent panel in this section, with a small depth of field scale directly behind it on the lens barrel and an infinity compensation mark to compensate for shifts caused by changes in temperature.
Around the left hand side of the barrel are slider switches that turn autofocus and stabilisation on and off. The stabiliser works with both auto and manual focusing and, when switched on, engages when the shutter button is half-pressed.
The lens barrel steps in before running straight for a further 18 mm. The 85mm focal length is stamped on the barrel in white in this section. It then slopes inwards for a further 15 mm, ending in a chromed metal mounting plate, which is surrounded by a thin rubber flange to keep dust and moisture out.
The review sample performed very well in our Imatest tests, with the highest resolution occurring at f/3.2. However, resolution remained high from f/1.8 through to about f/5.6 where central resolution began to decline, although edge resolution remained relatively steady.
Typically for such a fast lens, sizeable differences between centre and edge resolution were found from wide open through to about f/5.0 but became insignificant beyond that point. Diffraction began to take effect from about f/8 on, as shown in the graph of our test results above.
Lateral chromatic aberrations were effectively negligible across the aperture range, as shown in the graph above, which compares results for JPEG files, which are corrected automatically in the camera and CR3.RAW files, which are uncorrected. The red line separates the ‘negligible’ and ‘low’ CA bands.
Rectilinear distortion was limited to very slight pincushioning, which is fairly typical of short telephoto lenses. Also typical for this type of lens is the obvious vignetting that occurs at the maximum aperture (f/1.4). The edge and corner darkening disappears between f/2.5 and f/2.8.
With wide aperture settings this lens delivered attractive bokeh. Images captured with the f/1.4 aperture showed a very shallow depth of field in parts of the subject that were sharply focused with gradual transitions into out-of-focus areas in the frame. Slight outlining occurred around many bright highlights.
Stopping down to f/2.8 tended to increase the outlining of background highlights, which changed into rounded blobs at f/4.5. We found no bokeh fringing (purple and/or green highlight boundaries) at any of these aperture settings.
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Picture angle: 28 degrees 30 minutes
Minimum aperture: f/22
Lens construction: 14 elements in 10 groups (including one glass moulded aspherical element) plus Air Sphere and fluorine coatings
Lens mounts: Canon EF
Diaphragm Blades: 9 (circular aperture)
Focus drive: Ring USM with internal focusing
Weather-resistance: Yes, dust and moisture
Minimum focus: 85 cm
Maximum magnification: 0.12x
Filter size: 77 mm
Dimensions (Diameter x L): 88.6 x 105.4 mm
Weight: 950 grams
Standard Accessories: Front and end caps, ET-83E lens hood, LP1219 lens pouch
Distributor: Canon Australia; 1800 021 167
Based on JPEG files taken with the EOS-1D X Mark III camera.
Vignetting at f’1.4.
ISO 100, 1/400 second at f/5.
Crop from the above image magnified to 100%.
ISO 100, 1/400 second at f/5.6.
Crop from the above image magnified to 100%.
Crop from the above image magnified to 100% to show no coloured fringing.
Close-up at f/1.4; ISO 400, 1/100 second.
Close-up at f/2.8; ISO 160, 1/320 second.
Close-up at f/4.5; ISO 400, 1/320 second.
ISO 160, 1/320 second at f/9.
ISO 100, 1/320 second at f/5.
ISO 320, 1/200 second at f/8.
ISO 200, 1/250 second at f/8.
ISO 1600, 1/3200 second at f/1.4.
ISO 200, 1/250 second at f/4.
ISO 2060, 1/250 second at f/4.5.
Backlit scene; ISO 100, 1/640 second at f/8.
Backlit scene; ISO 100, 1/320 second at f/8.
Strong backlighting; ISO 100, 1/320 second at f/5.
Additional image samples can be found with our review of the EOS-1D X Mark III camera.
RRP: AU$2,299; US$1,599
- Build: 9.0
- Handling: 9.0
- Image quality: 9.0
- Versatility: 8.8