Canon FD 85mm F/1.2 L – Finding My Ideal Focal Length with Canon’s Legendary Portrait Lens

Canon FD 85mm F/1.2 L – Finding My Ideal Focal Length with Canon’s Legendary Portrait Lens

1800 1013 Stephen Hennessy

I have a superpower: within a fraction of a second, I’m able to blur my surroundings into a smeared mess of undifferentiated texture with hardly any semblance of context. Faces melt, light sources form surreal discs, and textural patterns dissolve away, allowing me to concentrate on what matters most to me (which sometimes is nothing in particular). You might think this superpower comes from owning the Canon FD 85mm F/1.2 L, but I’m actually describing my experience as one of the estimated 22% of the world’s population diagnosed with myopia, or near-sightedness.

Ever since my observant first-grade teacher noticed me stopping down (squinting) my eyes to read the blackboard, my vision has been augmented by a twin array of single-element/single-group lenses of slightly different (but annually increasing) powers, modifying my natural focal range of 0.07 to 0.14 meters to a more utilitarian range of 0.13 meters to infinity. These corrective lenses are secured in a wire frame, which is held firmly in place by two pads resting on either side of the nasal bridge in conjunction with two armatures secured around both ears.

Everywhere I turn my head, my vision is adjusted within a narrow field of view that I often take for granted, and I go about my life free to ignore how limited my natural sight truly is. But like many others, since taking up photography I have often considered the question of what it means to translate the phenomenological experience of human vision to a still photograph. When it comes to selecting a lens for full-frame systems that closely fits the angle of view of the human eye, folks much smarter than I have determined that a lens with a focal length somewhere around the common 35mm and 50mm primes yields the most natural results. For this reason, these lengths are go-tos for general purpose shooting, and many popular fixed-lens rangefinders can be found with 40mm-or-so lenses.

The research is compelling, but objective numbers are rarely ever the whole story. From an aesthetic standpoint, I find that tight framing and distinct subject separation are traits more accommodating to my lived experience of sight, and that 50mm or shorter lenses (even if their angle of view is more natural) rarely capture what I’m feeling from a scene. How did I determine that 85mm was my ride-or-die normal lens?

Precious Red Ring

Having gotten comfortable with taking film pictures during a trip to Alaska, I sought to expand my lens collection beyond the 28mm and 50mm prime lenses that I owned to include a lens that would be appropriate for portrait work. Since I was also branching out into video and headshots with my Sony A7III, I wanted to prioritize a lens that would work on that system, but this was the extent of my research on the matter. I had been eyeing inexpensive third-party auto-focus options, but a freak Google search brought up a listing for a Canon FD 85mm F/1.2 L in acceptable condition for a steal of a price. With no more justification than the flexibility to use the thing on both my digital and analog systems, I immediately jumped for it, oblivious to the storied history of this fast prime lens.

In the early 1970s, Canon released a trio of 24mm, 55mm, and 85mm prime lenses for their FD mount that featured their state-of-the-art aspherical elements; precision-manufactured glass that corrects for spherical and chromatic aberrations as well as astigmatism. In addition to sporting the very best coatings and materials available at the time, these lenses also had the fastest apertures in the lineup at F/1.4 for the wide-angle, and F/1.2 for the normal and medium-telephoto entries. These were among the fastest, best-corrected lenses ever made to that point in time. When the lenses were updated for the New FD mount, they were anointed with the red ring that marked the premium L series, and homogenized the look of Canon’s professional line into the iconic image that we know today.

Evidence to these lenses’ incredible performance, when the autofocus EF mount was introduced in the mid-80s Canon immediately adapted the new FD 50mm and 85mm F/1.2 L primes to the revolutionary autofocus platform (though the rare 24mm F1.4 L would not emerge on the EF system until 1997).

Likely First Subjects

In retrospect, I see that I was totally unprepared and had no concept of what I wanted out of this new lens. Shooting the great expanses of Alaska with a wide angle was so far from my normal circumstances that depth of field was still a foreign concept. It was still foreign when I mounted the 85mm to my mirrorless camera. I immediately stood mystified as I witnessed my hapless roommate’s face rendered in focus only one orifice at a time. This, I discovered, is shallow depth of field.

With detented dials and ridged focus rings that slam to a stop, manual focus lenses are already the ultimate fidget toys. But couple that tactile experience to a digital camera that lets you explore the possibilities of such narrow DOF to the limit of your storage capacity, and you have a recipe for hours of… wasted shots.

The learning curve for any fast medium-telephoto lens is steep, and leisurely mucking about with manual focus in front of pet cats and dogs while on holiday is not always the best practice. It only took one lackluster attempt at a photoshoot filled with out-of-focus eyes for me to realize just how much discipline it takes to effectively use a lens of this rare ability. Sometimes, responsible ownership of a superfast prime lens means avoiding the temptation to always shoot it wide open. The popularity of mirrorless cameras means that we are discovering just how well these vintage masterpieces are able to resolve detail, but success on digital systems depends on having the sense to stop down just a little bit when it really counts!

While autofocus would have seriously helped with my first attempts at professional shooting, a majority of my time with the lens was spent on the film camera bodies it was designed for. Where grain is unavoidable and details are naturally limited, the softer nature of the lens at F/1.2 is rather flattering and contributes to the mystique of the film look, all while letting the photog take advantage of low light situations with moderate speed stocks.

Portraits Without Subject

Despite my failures, I never once experienced buyer’s remorse. The ability of the lens was clear, I simply had to learn to shoot with it as if I were starting photography all over again. The Canon FD 85mm F/1.2 L would continue to be a daily carry, even as I expanded my L series collection to include its zoom-capable siblings, and this focal length was starting to become so integral to how I saw the world that I would not try a new emulsion without this lens’s input. On hikes where I was shooting digital, I began looking for a new type of image that played to the 85’s myopic character: I looked for scenes where a theoretical subject could be flatteringly framed, but left the field empty.

Still Learning

Summarizing my experience with this lens is inconclusive. Normally my opinions with equipment are fairly cut and dry, but shooting with the Canon FD 85mm F/1.2 L is a constantly renewing situation that always gives me something new to talk about. Once, I foolishly thought that I learned all there was to know about exposing film through this lens on an AE-1 Program and FTb. But when I upgraded to the Canon T90 and its amazingly fast 1/4000 shutter speed, motion and subject isolation took on a whole new meaning.

Even when preparing images from the A7III for this article that would put its wide-open sharpness to the test, I am wondering just how often I’ll really need a true macro lens.

While manual focus will not always work in my favor, I have no doubt that I will continue to uncover new mysteries with this lens due to its tight build quality and lack of electronics. Make no mistake: this is a lens every bit deserving of the fanaticism other reviewers exhibit. Some report that the previous generation 85mm F/1.2 aspherical is sturdier and may have superior optics (in addition to nine aperture blades vs. the newer version’s eight), but those copies are also reported to exceed even the price of a more modern EF mount version. While I rather like the breech-lock mechanism of the earlier FD lenses, it would be a source of anxiety on this model: the thought of the lens taking a high dive after mistaking the silver breech-lock ring for the aperture control is enough to make me want a new change of pants. Besides, the aesthetic appeal of the L-branding is hard to ignore.

Should you buy one? If you pour-over brew your coffee after shaving with a single-blade razor before venturing out in a stick-shift car to take pictures with your AE-1 and mirrorless cameras, then this is exactly the experience for you. For the practically minded among us who balk at the high prices this outrageously speedy and rare lens commands, I still recommend trying out the 85mm prime lens perspective (and committing to it for a while). There are other 85s which are impressive in their own right – Canon’s own 85mm F/1.8 is a much more affordable option that is very well respected. Also look at Minolta’s 85mm F/1.7 which James reviewed earlier in the year.

The 85mm focal length has a soul of its own that makes it the most singularly useful perspective in my lens collection. 50mm often feels like too much of a compromise between width, context, and subject isolation. The Canon 300mm F/2.8 L is almost too much of a good thing, with obsessive detail coming at the expense of handling and practicality. But the Canon FD 85mm F/1.2 L allows for the perfect amount of veneration for most subjects without alienating it from the environment, and indeed might be the best reference point for my own reality.

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Stephen Hennessy

Stephen Hennessey is an analog and digital photographer, electroacoustic composer, Miata driver, and perpetual student from the central Virginia area. He often freelances in the sound and photo world as an escape from library work, and plans to begin studying Chemistry.

All stories by:Stephen Hennessy
  • Good one. Myopia, is that why I prefer telephoto lenses?

  • Great article and beautiful photos. I love Canon lenses, Canon was my first slr back in the late 70’s, I had an AT-1 and am still kicking myself for ever selling it. Next was a T-70 which I still have. But in all that time I never had a Canon lens with my film cameras, not until I went digital. I have the 85 1.8 you mention, it takes fantastic photos but I never got accustomed to the 85mm focal length. You’ve inspired me to give it another try.

  • I’ve tried to explain “the world in bokeh” to my non-nearsighted friends, but never as well as you have explained it!

    Lovely shots, all. And your “portrait without a subject” idea is very intriguing.

  • I never owned or shot and will possibly never buy Canon gear (too many toys already).
    Your evaluation of this lens is captivating in the extreme, it shows your depth of knowledge and love of this form of expression you ought to write a novel your writing is that good.

  • This was a nice write-up.
    I’ve been looking at 85s for a while and I am having trouble making up my mind.
    I think this helped.

    On a side note, I too had a Canon AE-1 Program and then went to a T-90 as well, 1/4000 was an eye-opener for sure!


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Stephen Hennessy

Stephen Hennessey is an analog and digital photographer, electroacoustic composer, Miata driver, and perpetual student from the central Virginia area. He often freelances in the sound and photo world as an escape from library work, and plans to begin studying Chemistry.

All stories by:Stephen Hennessy