“Significant” is a word I would use to describe the Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM and Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM; in aperture, in weight, in prestige and price. That last metric, price, is the most significantly disparate factor when we compare these ultra-fast lenses against their sibling lenses of equal focal length. I wanted to find out if these two f/1.2 lenses were really worth what they cost, or if they are merely status symbols for photographers with a chip on their shoulder, or more money than sense.
I’m a rare bird, in that I generally dislike anything with Canon’s name on it, despite using Canon gear in my work exclusively. This bias is baffling, considering that I’ve made some of my favorite images with their cameras and lenses. I use the 24-70 f/2.8L II and 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II on my 6D body almost five days a week in a wide variety of photographic applications, including for portraiture, product photography, snapshots and reportage. This camera and its lenses are superb pieces of gear, and they’ve admittedly helped me put a roof over my head and food on the table.
But I feel no love for them. Aside from the Canonet, I’ve never felt excited by anything with Canon’s name on it. Respect and trust are two things I feel deeply for Canon; they revolutionized photography with the EOS 650 and ushered in the era of truly masterful autofocus technology. But even as their EOS line changed the very landscape of professional cameras, when it came to things like style and product design, the brand is uninspiring. Even worse, as their characterless machines took the lead on sales, other companies fell into line, a marching line that ended in a world of bland DSLRs and nearly identical lenses. Even their website is a case study in boredom; Nikon’s sales may be comparatively weak, but at least their website is fun, informative, and aesthetically playful.
In short, Canon has made photography more clinical and less adventurous. That’s great when you’re making a living and need deliverable, consistent photos. But it also means I seldom choose a Canon camera when I’m taking a random walk or hitting the road for a weekend adventure.
Enter the 50mm f/1.2 and 85mm f/1.2. When I first saw these two fast prime lenses I had to pause and admit that I was experiencing noticeable twinges of excitement. Here were products from Canon that I actually wanted to shoot.
I knew from the experience of shooting in terrible lighting that an extra half stop of speed can be a huge help when it comes to shooting handheld between 1/60 and 1/125 of a second. That fast glass’ price tag of $1,299 was pretty staggering, especially when compared to the f/1.4 and f/1.8 fifties, which cost $329 and $125 respectively. That’s $970 for an extra half stop in the case of the f/1.4, and $1174 for an entire stop in the case of the f/1.8.
Part of that extra cost must surely come from extra materials; it takes a lot of glass to achieve f/1.2, and with 8 elements in 6 groups, the 50mm weighs close to 600 grams. That’s more than double the 290 grams of the f/1.4 and more than three times the 162 grams of the f/1.8. Both the 1.2 and 1.4 focus as close as 45 cm, further than the 1.8’s minimum distance of 35 cm.
I’m the absolute worst when it comes to testing technicals specifications of lenses. The thought of taking identical photos of something at every aperture to test subjective measurements like contrast and sharpness bores me to tears. There are people out there who enjoy it, and thank goodness for that. But I will never be one of them. So be warned that what I’m going to say about the 50mm and 85mm f/1.2s is largely couched in physical interaction and intuition.
Having said that, the f/1.2 is the greatest 50mm lens I’ve ever used. Shooters always seem to want lenses that are faster than f/2, but in truth, we use these fastest apertures less than we might think – sharpness is usually at its best somewhere around f/8. But with Canon’s 50mm f/1.2, images shot at every aperture are just stunning. But the lens’ personality really comes out when we open beyond f/2. The vignetting and contrast at 1.2 is simply sublime and even has that swirly awesomeness made famous by Russian lenses. Wide apertures are usually advertised as being conveniences during bad or low lighting — something to fix a problem. With this lens I actively want to shoot wide open, not because the light has compelled me to choose it, but because of just how wonderful this lens renders at f/1.2. Pick a roll of 200 speed film, and with this lens you can shoot all day no matter what happens with your light.
On a physical level, I took the weight of the lens as an advantage. I’m not much for straps, so I’m used to holding heavy gear for long periods of time. I’ve done it long enough that lighter gear almost feels bizarre. The f/1.2 on my 6D feels absolutely perfect — an ideal marriage of dimensions, weight and balance.
The situation feels less ideal when my camera’s wedded to the 85mm. Talk about a chunky boy — the 85mm f/1.2 is the reason husky jeans were invented. That said, there’s less difference in size and weight between Canon’s three 85mm lenses than exists between the three 50mm lenses, and a smaller gap in cost as well. Of the 85mm lenses, the 1.2 weighs in at 1025 grams, with the EF 85mm f/1.8 USM and EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM weighing 425 and 950 grams respectively. The 1.2 costs $1,849 to the $1,599 of the 1.4 and $349 of the 1.8.
It should be noted that the 85 1.4 being discussed isn’t available yet, but the spec sheet makes buying the 1.2 even harder to justify. For almost $300 less money you get a lens with image stabilization, a minimum aperture of f/22, a closer minimum focusing distance (85 cm to the 95 cm of the 1.2), fourteen elements in ten groups (to the 8/7 of the 1.2), 9 diaphragm blades (8 on the 1.2) and less weight.
Considering all of that, the only way to justify a 1.2 over the new 1.4 would seem to be image quality. From my experience, that’s probably not going to hold up as an argument either. I admittedly had far less time with the 85mm than I have the 50mm but I wasn’t floored by much of what I saw.
The 85mm is a solid, well built lens — even more so than the 50mm. It’s sharp across the aperture range and contrast is great, especially at the close distances in which it would mostly be used. But once you get it on your camera it’s obvious that it’s not a general-use lens. Focusing on any lens at f/1.2 is a challenge. The plane of focus is so narrow that focusing, recomposing and shooting is an impossibility. Add the weight of the 85mm and focusing goes from challenging to obnoxious. The fact that the lens front focuses means its autofocus takes slightly longer than other lenses — a real shame when your wrists are buckling.
When it comes to the Canon 85s, the truth is that the f/1.8 is just as good a performer as the f/1.2 at a fraction of the cost and weight. In every respect it is a more practical lens. The fact that the new f/1.4 seems destined to be even stronger on the spec sheet than the f/1.2 (and at a lower cost) calls into question the very need for the f/1.2. If you’re spending that much money to exclusively shoot portraits at f/1.2, then you’re insane.
I set out to find out if these two ultra-fast lenses are worth their relatively high price tags. In regards to the 85mm, I say it’s resoundingly not. Shooters would be much better served to spend far less money on the practical f/1.8, or wait until the new f/1.4 releases. Either of these lenses simply make more sense.
It’s a different story with the ultra-fast 50mm. Were I forced to pick one lens to use for the rest of my life, I would choose this lens without hesitation. That’s in spite of not particularly loving Canon, and not particularly preferring the 50mm focal length. But the images this lens produces are unbeatable. Technically outstanding and aesthetically unique, it turned f/1.2 into a destination aperture rather than a retreat point for my photography. For once, I was frustrated that my shutter speed couldn’t get high enough rather than it being too low. What a great problem to have.
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