Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM Lens

      Photo Review 8.5

      In summary

      Buy this lens if:
      – You want fast a prime lens that is ideal for portraiture.
      – You require good edge-to-edge sharpness for copying.
      – You want fast and quiet autofocusing.
      – You want a fast lens to use on an APS-C camera when photographing indoor sports and events that are poorly lit.

       Don’t buy this lens if:
       – You require built-in image stabilisation.
       – For macro photography and extreme close-ups.
       – You’re concerned about size and weight.  

      Full review

      The Canon EF 85mm f/1.2 USM L II is a second-generation product and the fastest of its type available from any manufacturer. The new lens has the same optical design as the lens it benefits from a Ring-type USM, an upgraded CPU and new autofocusing algorithms that together almost double its AF speed.


      Canon’s second-generation  EF 85mm f/1.2 USM L II lens, shown without the cylindrical clip-on lens hood. (Source: Canon.)  

      L-series lenses are Canon’s professional quality range and are designed and built to meet the needs the most demanding photographers. In its EF Lens Work III publication, Canon describes this lens as their ‘definitive portrait lens’.  Since its release in 2006, it has been seen as one of Canon’s signature lenses and a flagship of the EF lens line-up.

      Design, Build and Ergonomics
      It takes a lot of glass to provide such a fast maximum aperture so the EF 85mm f/1.2 USM L II is a large and very expensive lens. Its optical design is relatively simple with eight elements in seven groups.

      A key feature of the lens design is the floating optical system, which includes one large-diameter aspherical element that suppresses aberrations to ensure optimal imaging performance. One aspherical element is included to optimise imaging performance at maximum aperture and two high refraction elements, floating system)

      In addition to optimised lens shaping to reduce reflections and the use of anti-reflective material inside the lens barrel, the EF 85mm f/1.2 II USM employs Canon’s patented Super Spectra lens element coatings. These suppress flare and ghosting ““ more prone to occur with digital cameras due to reflection off the image sensor. By increasing light absorption, coatings reduce reflections off lens element surfaces to deliver crisp, undistorted images with natural colour balance.

      The overall build quality of the review lens was solid. It has a metal mounting plate and the outer barrel is made from high-quality polycarbonate plastic. The front element of the lens it recessed approximately 10 mm behind the filter thread and it doesn’t rotate during focusing, enabling the use of angle-critical attachments like polarisers and graduated filters.

      A distance scale is located immediately behind the front of the lens. It displays distances in metres and feet. Immediately behind it is the focusing ring, which is roughly 13 mm wide and covered with a ridged rubber grip band.

      A slider switch on the left hand side of the barrel behind the focusing ring selects between AF/MF modes but you can still adjust focusing manually with the AF setting, thanks to FTM override. The Autofocusing speed in the new lens has been almost doubled , thanks to a new CPU and improved AF algorithms.

      However, manual focusing uses the autofocus motor to adjust focus while you turn the focus ring. The camera must be powered on for manual focus to work.  The system works smoothly and feels steady and the wide, rubberised focusing ring is comfortable to use.

      The overall length of the lens changes slightly during focusing because the USM focus drive operates with a front group linear extension system. In the field, it’s barely noticeable and the front element doesn’t rotate, allowing hassle-free usage of angle-critical filters and other attachments.
       The lens is supplied with a lens hood (ES-79 II) which attaches by pressure from flexible clips on either side. You have to push these clips in to remove the hood if you want to reverse it onto the lens for storage. This could be tricky for people with short fingers and/or limited dexterity.

      Front and rear dust caps are also provided, along with the   LP1219 lens case and a printed instruction manual. The front of this lens is threaded to accept 72 mm filters.

      We tested the review lens on the Canon EOS-1DX body, which we were reviewing at the time and also on our Canon EOS 40D body, which has an APS-C sensor. Despite its size and weight it felt comfortable on both camera bodies, although it was a little out-of-balance on the smaller and lighter EOS 1100D.

      Autofocusing was fast and accurate on the IDX body and we never experienced any hunting for focus or over-shooting, even when using the lens in very dim lighting.   In bright sunlight it was often necessary to stop the lens down to f/2 (or smaller) because the camera ran out of shutter speed options, even with a top shutter speed of 1/8000 second.

      In manual focusing mode, the un-damped focusing ring turns quite freely through a large angle, providing plenty of fine adjustment control. However because the wide maximum aperture of this lens lets in a lot of light, a split-image screen is required to focus precisely between f/1.2 and f/2.

      Our Imatest tests on JPEG files showed this lens to be capable of matching the resolution of the EOS-1DX ‘s sensor and it’s safe to assume higher resolutions would be possible from raw files. While edge softening was apparent at the widest apertures, our tests showed a distinct ‘sweet spot’ in resolution between about f/3.5 and f/9, where diffraction began to affect performance.

      Fortunately, the differences between centre and edge resolution became less from about f/3.5 onwards, indicating this lens is capable of good flatness of field. The graph below shows the results of our tests.


       Lateral chromatic aberration was consistently negligible at all aperture settings. In the graph below showing the results of our tests, the red line marks the boundary between ‘negligible’ and ‘low’ CA.


       Rectilinear distortion was also barely visible with only slight barrel distortion detected. We found little evidence of vignetting at the widest aperture settings on both the ‘full frame’ and APS-C cameras we tested it with and the slight darkening detected had disappeared by f/2. (Neither of these aberrations is relevant if you plan to use the lens on a modern camera body with in-camera corrections.)

      While it was possible to force this lens to flare in extreme conditions, shots taken with the sun just inside the field of view retained quite a lot of the subject’s original contrast, while shots taken with the sun outside the field of view suffered only slightly from veiling flare. Normally backlit subjects were generally well handled.

      Although no stabilisation is provided in this lens, we were able to shoot with the camera hand-held at shutter speeds as slow as 1/15 second, which is roughly 2.5 steps slower than the recommended hand-held shutter speed for an 85mm lens. The comfortable handling characteristics of the lens played a significant role in facilitating this.

      The widest aperture settings enable fine control over depth of field, as shown in the illustrations in our sample shots section. This makes it easy to blur out potentially distracting backgrounds and foregrounds. At the widest aperture settings the plane of sharp focus can be very narrow indeed, requiring high focusing precision.

      Bokeh was at its most attractive in non-contrasty lighting. Outlining of highlights was common in strongly backlit shots with bright highlights and deep shadows.

       The 85mm focal length is particularly desirable in a prime lens because it’s so versatile. It’s great for portraiture because it provides a good working distance without introducing distortion. Wedding photographers can use it for both staged couples and group portraits as well as candid shots of guests.

      Sports photographers seek out fast 85mm lenses for indoor sports action shots, while the same characteristics make these lenses ideal for candid shots at concerts and events. Smaller 85mm lenses can even be used for street photography when you want close-ups but don’t want to get too close to subjects.

      For all these reasons, most manufacturers include at least one 85mm lens in their collections, with offerings spanning the price range from affordable to mind-blowing. The table below compares the lenses currently available in this category.


      Max. aperture

       (Diameter x L)


      RRP/Av. street price



      91.5 x 84 mm

      1025 g



      75 x 71.5 mm

      435 g




      86.5 x 84 mm

      595 g



      80 x 73 mm

      350 g




      86.4 x 87.6 mm

      725 g




      70 x 52 mm

      175 g


      Carl Zeiss for Canon


      78 x 85 mm

      700 g


      Carl Zeiss for Nikon


      77 x 85 mm

      600 g


      Carl Zeiss for Sony


      81 x 75 mm

      650 g


      n.a. indicates an RRP is either not available or can’t be estimated with any degree of confidence.  

      Buy this lens if:
      – You want fast a prime lens that is ideal for portraiture.
      – You require good edge-to-edge sharpness for copying.
      – You want fast and quiet autofocusing.
      – You want a fast lens to use on an APS-C camera when photographing indoor sports and events that are poorly lit.

       Don’t buy this lens if:
       – You require built-in image stabilisation.
       – For macro photography and extreme close-ups.
       – You’re concerned about size and weight.  


       Diagonal picture angle: 28 degrees 30 minutes
       Minimum aperture: f/16
       Lens construction: 8 elements in 7 groups (inc. 1x aspherical and 2x high refraction elements, floating system)
       Lens mounts: Canon EF
       Diaphragm Blades: 8 (circular aperture)
       Focus drive: Ring-type ultrasonic motor drive
       Stabilisation: no
       Minimum focus:  95 cm
       Maximum magnification: 0.11x
       Filter size:   72 mm
       Dimensions (Diameter x L): 91.5 x 84 mm
       Weight:  1025 grams


      Based on JPEG files taken with the Canon EOS-1DX.







      Vignetting at f/1.2 on a ‘full frame’ camera body.


       Vignetting at f/1.4 on a camera with an APS-C sized sensor.


      Rectilinear distortion.


      Close-up with an aperture of f/1.2; ISO 100, 1/2000 second.


      Close-up with an aperture of f/2.5; ISO 100, 1/500 second.


      Close-up with an aperture of f/5.6; ISO 100, 1/100 second.


      A portrait shot taken in very low light levels with an aperture of f/1.2; ISO 51200, 1/250 second.


      Close-up with an aperture of f/1.2 in strongly backlit conditions; ISO 100, 1/6400 second.    


      Enlarged crop showing slight outlining of highlights in an out-of-focus area in the above image.  



      Flare with the sun just inside the field of view; ISO 100, 1/640 second at f/7.1.  



      Slight veiling flare with the sun just outside the field of view; ISO 100, 1/500 second at f/6.3.  



      ISO 100, 1/320 second at f/5.  



      ISO 100, 1/250 second at f/8.



      ISO 100, 1/15 second at f/8.    


      RRP: AU$2699; US$2200

      • Build: 9.5
      • Handling: 8.8
      • Image quality: 9.0
      • Versatility: 8.8