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Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM Lens Review

by Philip Greenspun, June 2007 (updated March 2011)


The Canon 85/1.8 prime lens is inexpensive and lightweight. It is a very good portrait lens for a film or full-frame Canon digital SLR and a great portrait/telephoto lens for a Canon small-sensor digital SLR, such as the Canon Digital Rebel XTi (Black), (compare prices) (review). The f/1.8 maximum aperture enables capturing scenes, without flash, in light only half as strong as would be required for a professional f/2.8 zoom and light only one quarter to one eighth as strong as would be required for a kit lens. The wide maximum aperture also enables a photographer to throw a distracting background out of focus. Finally, the wide maximum aperture brightens the viewfinder.

If you've been accustomed to the L-series zoom lenses, the 425g (15 oz.) weight of the Canon 85/1.8 lens will come as a relief. This is only about one third the weight of the 70-200/2.8 zooms and not significantly heavier than a 50/1.4 normal lens.

Where to Buy

Photo.net's partners have the Canon EF 85/1.8 lens available. Their prices are fair and you help to support photo.net.

Optics

The lens design is simple, with 9 elements of glass arranged in 7 groups. This simplicity means that flare will be minimal and contrast high, especially compared to zoom lenses with 15 or more elements of glass (note the photos above right; despite the strong backlight, the contrast is normal on the faces).

Maximum magnification is 0.13. With a full-frame camera, the smallest object that you can photograph is roughly the size of an 8.5x11" (A4) piece of paper. This is not close/tight enough for a picture of just a child's face.

Construction

The Canon 85/1.8 is simple, plastic, and rugged, with a wide knurled manual focus ring. The ET65III lens hood is sold separately, and snaps onto the front of the lens, just in back of where you'd screw a filter (58mm) in. The lens incorporates a ring USM motor, which enables "full-time manual focus", even when the camera/lens are set to autofocus.

Alternatives

A professional traveling with just a handful of lenses would take portraits with the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM, (compare prices) (review). This is an excellent lens, but it is five times the cost and three times the weight of the 85/1.8. Due to the more than one f-stop of additional speed, the 85/1.8 will yield a brighter viewfinder and the ability to focus more selectively.

The Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM, (compare prices) (review), is a superb lens, as you'd expect given that it is both a prime (non-zoom) and an "L" lens. You'll feel a lot lighter in your wallet after buying the 85/1.2, but the burden on your neck will more than compensate; the 85/1.2 weighs 1025g (2.3 lbs), more than twice as much as the 85/1.8. The 85/1.2 is a superior optical performer, especially in the corners of the frame, but (1) that doesn't matter too much for portraits where people look mostly at the face and eyes, and (2) doesn't matter on a small-sensor digital camera where the corners have been cut off.

Canon EF 100mm f/2 USM, (compare prices) (review) is so similar to the 85/1.8 that it becomes a question of personal preference. On a small-sensor camera, 100mm is longer than a standard portrait length. Most photographers oriented towards prime lenses would probably end up with the 85/1.8 and the 100 macro (see next paragraph).

The Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro USM, (compare prices) (review) is usable for portraits, and might be a better portrait length on a full-frame camera, but you lose one f-stop and the lens is heavier and bulkier. If you have the money, it is best to have the right tool for the job. Use the macro lens for macro projects and the 85/1.8 for portraits.

For additional flattening of perspective, consider the No product information for canon_135 and Canon EF 135mm f/2.8 Soft Focus, (compare prices). With a small sensor camera, these are roughly equivalent to a 200mm lens and will have you standing too far back from your subject for most photographers' taste. The soft focus is a fun gimmick, but the lens hasn't been updated for decades and lacks an ultrasonic motor. The L lens is fantastic and provides more magnification than the 85/1.8, good for taking pictures of features smaller than a human face.

Astrophotography

Russ Arcuri, the author of an older review of this lens, wrote "The best astrophotography lenses are sharp and fast. The 85/1.8 is a truly excellent lens for wide-field astrophotography."

Conclusion

For those who use small-sensor digital SLRs and do portrait projects, this is a "must-own" lens. For those who use full-frame cameras, this is a "probably should own" lens.

Where to Buy

Photo.net's partners have the Canon EF 85/1.8 lens available. Their prices are fair and you help to support photo.net.

More

Examples

Kitchen table, diffuse lighting coming in from some windows, kid talking to her grandmother. ISO 400, f/2.8, 1/80th of a second. This is a good example of how the 85/1.8 enables reasonable quality photos in typical household background and lighting conditions. Only one eye and some hair are in sharp focus, but it is better than blasting the scene with on-camera flash.

At f/2.8, the face is sharp but more or less everything else is out of focus.

Leaving the EOS 5D's computer system to choose an autofocus target results in some locks of hair being sharp. At f/1.8, the eyes don't fall within the depth of field and therefore are blurry.

f/2.8 offers enough depth of field that you can take a portrait of two people... as long as their faces are approximately the same distance from the camera.

f/1.8 and 1/20th of a second... At 85mm, you'd expect this image to be ruined by camera shake. A shutter speed of 1/85th of a second or faster should be required. However, I leaned my arms on a bookshelf and that provided a substantial amount of image stabilization.

At f/2.8 the background is still moderately distracting. A longer lens, e.g., 200/2.8, would have been better.

At f/3.2 the father's face is not quite sharp. This could be a plus, if the objective is to concentrate a viewer's attention on the baby.

At f/4, both father and daughter's faces are in focus.

f/4 renders all of the statue in focus. This gives a good illustration of the lens's "bokeh", or rendition of out of focus highlights.


Text and pictures copyright 2007 Philip Greenspun. Unless otherwise noted, all images on this page were taken with a full-frame Canon EOS 5D, (compare prices) (review).

Note that this review replaces an earlier one by Russ Arcuri and therefore many of the comments predate the review date.

Article revised March 2011.

Readers' Comments


Add a comment



Michael K. Gardner , January 27, 1998; 11:18 A.M.

Russ's brief review notes that the EF 85 f/1.8 USM lens is primarily a portrait lens, and that's certainly true. But it's a truly wonderful portrait lens. When I purchased this lens, I really wondered if I'd use all that much. Like many amateur photographers, I was addicted to the convenience of zooms. I can honestly say this is one of my most used lenses. Although I also own a 70-200 f/2.8 USM, the weight definitely makes me think twice about carrying it around. If I know my primary purpose is a couple of portraits, I'd just as soon use the 85 (assuming I'm able to move about to get the framing right).

One other thing: similar focal lengths (in terms of angle of view) in medium format (e.g., 165 mm on a Pentax 67) have sometimes disappointed me, because they have limited close focusing. Not true for the 85 f/1.8 -- you can get a tight head shot.

I'd strongly recommend this lens for photographers who take a lot portraits and use the Canon EOS system. It's a wonderful lens at an affordable price.

Russ Arcuri , February 17, 1998; 12:27 P.M.

Interestingly enough, the close-focus ability of this lens is my only gripe. (I'd have mentioned it in the review, but I only recently began thinking of this as a problem.) If you want a REALLY tight head shot, this isn't the lens for it. It just doesn't focus close enough.

My example: I wanted a tight head shot of my daughter, who is only three weeks old. (Of course, her head is much smaller than an adult's head.) I was forced to attach a close-up lens (Nikon 6T, if you're wondering) to the front of the 85/1.8 in order to get in close enough for a tight head shot.

There is a problem with this method, though. If you get too close to your subjects, their noses (or whatever part of them is closest to the camera) will be magnified much more than the rest of their heads, creating an unnatural-looking perspective, even with the fairly long 85mm focal length. When shooting really tight head shots, a 100 or 135 would be a better choice for a more natural perspective on a person's head.

In my daughter's case, I was forced to use my 70- 210 zoom at about 135mm in order to get a tight head shot and a pleasing perspective.

Andrew Kim , September 11, 1998; 02:48 A.M.

The point is valid that 85mm lenses are short for doing close headshots with a flattering perspective, even for adults...of course, depending on your taste. But, for the classic head and shoulders and even whole torso shots, it works really well and works in a reasonably sized room.

I liked my 135mm for headshots a lot, I like the 200mm even better, but neither one is too easy to use as a head and shoulders or full torso lens in my small apartment space. Perhaps this is the origin of the "studio lens" comment?

Also, I feel Russ may be understating the value of the 85mm for landscape shooting, where gentle isolation of elements is a pretty effective technique. It's probably much more related to personal style and skill level than attributable to a given focal length: I personally usually muck up wide angle shots by succumbing to the urge to take in the whole grand scene without focusing on important elements and cutting out extraneous elements. I do that less often with a mid-tele lens for obvious reasons.

The close focus ability (I use the Nikon 85mm f1.8 AF-D) is actually pretty objectionable: I get better magnification with my 50mm f1.8 AF at closest focus than the 85mm. Also, the Nikon version only closes down to f16, which makes getting adequate depth of field tough sometimes.

Josh Falls , September 17, 1998; 12:01 A.M.

I most certainly agree this is the best portrait lens I have used. I choose it nine times out of ten over my 80-200 f2.8. My comment is not necessarily on the portrait ability of this lens, but yet the usefulness I have found when shooting basketball in high school gyms. Since they usually have very bad lights the extra light f1.8 gives me over my 80-200 f2.8 is much needed, plus it is much easier to carry when in for a tight shot under the basket, just in case you have to move very quickly.

Devin Shieh , October 25, 1999; 10:08 A.M.

The 85/1.8 is also great for sports. Namely, basketball and volleyball. The focus speed of this lens rivals my 300/2.8L and is faster than my 70-200/2.8L. It's very sharp, and very well-built. A superb lens.

Josh Hansen , January 23, 2000; 06:28 P.M.

This lens is probably my favorite lens. It has been mentioned that this is an incredible lens for portraits and that is certainly true. However, it is equally useful as a lens for landscape photography. Use it to pluck out an interesting section or use the shallow depth of field at 1.8 to isolate interesting objects. Galen Rowell says in one of his books that something like 90% of his top images were taken, or could have been taken, with a single camera and 24mm and 85mm lenses. Forget about cheap zooms and learn to move your feet. Did I mention that I really like this lens?

Robert Ball , June 03, 2000; 04:30 P.M.

This lens is wonderful. I have used it for portrait work, but found an even better use for it in the last few weeks. I play in a pool league and we had our year end tournament. Since I would have large blocks of idle time I figured I would take pictures. I took my EOS-3, my 85 f/1.8 and my 70-200 f/2.8 lenses. The 70-200 just didn't cut it. I had to hand hold and a flash would have been too distracting to the players. I ended up using the 85 f/1.8. It's speed and weight were perfect. I was able to capture some great shots of players studying the table, lining up their shots or shotting just after contacting the cue ball.

I used a shoulder stock and was in the 1/6 to 1/10 second exposure range with Portra 800 film. There were a couple of pictures that didn't turn out because the player moved a little. I was also bumped a couple of times. But, only one player noticed me taking pictures and for the most part the shots were well exposed and very clear.

I made several 8x10 enlargments scanning the negatives using my HP 20S scanner and they came out great. I have had requests for 8x10 enlargments by players who saw the photos.

The combination of light weight, fast focus, sharpness and speed makes this lens a great one for low light work. I have been thinking about getting the 85 f/1.2 L lens so I can get even sharper images by picking up another 1/2 stop or so.

Patrik Skolling Möller , August 25, 2001; 03:21 P.M.

I´d say that this lens is very sharp. I take 90% of my pictures with the largest aperture. I like the shallow depth of field.(I do that with all my other lenses aswell. 28-70 L,70-200 4,0 L and 24mm). I can´t see any difference in sharpness when stopped down. It is as sharp all over,offcourse the corners will be sharper when lens is stopped down, but you`ll need a loup to see that on 10 X 15 cm prints. I don´t see any improvments in contrast when the lens is stopped down either (You might be able measure the difference in contrast, but I tried to see any difference with my eyes and I DON´T see any worth mention). When taking nature pictures, like flowers at f1,8 ,the lens is fantastic ! Wonderful shallow deph of field thet never dissapoints me. Pictures turns out gorgeous with a "painted-blured" background. The lens is almost too sharp for portraits sometimes.(If a lens can be TOO sharp?) I use REALA and the new NPC 160 for most of the time.

;-)PATRIK

Larry Zaks , November 15, 2001; 06:41 P.M.

You can debate the merits of this lens compared to the 85mm f1.2L vs. the 100mm f2 vs. any other lens that remotely covers the focal length range. What I'd rather do is use this lens. It's a remarkable lens that produces consistantly fine results. I enjoy using it outdoors for people shots and landscapes and it really shines in the studio on a tripod for portraiture. Because of its size and weight, handling is easy and quick, even in tight places like crowds or small areas. The lens renders out of focus areas (bokeh) beautifully, like colorful (or monochrome) cotton candy. For the money, I can't imagine a better value in an EOS prime lens except maybe the 50mm 1.8 MKII. But the 50mm f1.8 MKII doesn't have ring USM, FTM and a metal mount.

I weighed the merits of this lens vs. the 100mm f2 for quite some time before I bought the 85mm f1.8. The differences aren't great enough to merit much discussion. I regret spending that time now that I have the lens in that I could have or should been out using and enjoying the lens as I am now.

Frank Bunnik , June 20, 2002; 06:13 A.M.

This is indeed an excellent lens. Supersharp. I used it both for portraits and fore landscape. Because of it's small size much easier for handheld photography then the 80-200 2.8. Also it is less "frightening" for the subject when a short lens is aimed at him/her then to see such a big telelens taking aim from just a short distance.

Gary Graley , October 11, 2003; 11:56 P.M.

My favourite lens, I used to own the 100 but found that I lacked backup room when inside trying to get nice head/shoulder shots and took it back to get the 85 and made a big difference, love the lens, that and my 24 are the two I'd not go without! G2

Paul Hart , February 13, 2004; 05:54 P.M.

This lens must represent the best value for money in the Canon range, with the possible exception of the 50/1.8 lens. Razor sharp, compact, light, fast, well made, with beautiful out of focus areas, it is a superb portrait and landscape lens. It also demonstrates the inherent superiority of primes over even the best zooms.

Ben S , October 01, 2004; 03:26 A.M.

if you take any portraits at all, even on a digital camera, buy this lens. i've got 24, 35 and 50mm Canon prime lenses and a sigma 70-200 that i've used for years before buying this lens used for a canon 10d. none flatter subjects like this sharp, contrasty, fast, fairly light (compared to the 70-200 certainly), USM lens. it is a tremendous performer. yes, hard to find space sometimes with a digital camera, but worth the effort.

D N , June 03, 2007; 07:43 P.M.

85mm has long been my favorite focal length for 35mm cameras. The f/1.8 lenses are particularly sweet for their speed and agility. I find that using either the EF 12mm or the the EF 25mm extension tubes in conjunction with the Canon EOS 85/1.8 makes the close focusing abilities adequate for close-up product shots of eBay-ables.

Juha Kivekas , June 04, 2007; 07:09 A.M.

The EF 85/1.8 USM is one of my all time favourites. Unfortunately I don't own one, but have borrowed one. I used to have the huge 85/1.2 but the f/1.8 version is much more practical. Optically it is simply excellent, focus speed is adequate for sports and the focal length is nice for portrait be the crop 1.0 to 1.6 or anything in between. Excellent lense. I've got the EF100/2 which is very similar. That tends to be a bit too long for indoor use with a 1.6 cropper. With 1.3 cropper it's about ok.

A. Davis , June 04, 2007; 09:53 P.M.

I found my 85 f1.8 in the classified for $150, and drove through a snow storm to pick it up. I'm glad I did. Exceptionally sharp-I think more so than any of my other primes except the 100mm macro. When I'm shooting a wedding or event, either the 85 or 100mm macro stays on my 30D, with a 24-70 on my 5D-it's great for picking out faces in a crowd of people, and for those classic "take a photo of me and my friend!!" moments, with the only drawback being having to clear a path to back up.

Ellis Vener , June 05, 2007; 02:03 P.M.

the 85mm f/1.8 is an excellent lens. I have three Canon EF primes that I use regularly: the 85mm f/1.8, the 50mm f/1.4 and the 35mm f/2. All are terrific. I use zooms when I need too but much prefer the primes with a 1Ds mark 2 body.

Alan Myers , June 05, 2007; 03:47 P.M.

Something I've not seen mentioned is that the EF 85mm is much more subtle than most zooms covering approx. the same focal length. This might be important for street shooting, travel or any sort of candid photography.

A big white 70-200/2.8 almost shouts, "Hey! I'm taking your picture." Particularly with lens hoods attached, the 24-70/2.8 and 24-104/4 IS aren't very very inconspicuous either.

So if you want to take pictures of people going about their daily lives in a natural way (i.e., not stopped, posed and grinning for the photographer), you might stand a better chance with the 85/1.8 and some of the other relatively compact primes.

For this and a few other reasons, I often use a "walk-around" kit that includes 20/2.8, 28/1.8, 50/1.4 and 85/1.8. This is used with a 10D or 30D (1.6X) most of the time now, but has served on full frame film in the past. A 135/2.0 is at the top of my shopping list, but that's another topic.

Oh, and I do frequently use 24-70/2.8L and 70-200/2.8L IS zooms, too, particularly in fast changing situations where they can be truly indispensible.

Bryan Costin , June 08, 2007; 01:39 P.M.

It is a very nice lens, and one of my favorite non-L primes (the others are the 50/1.4 and the 35/2). The only annoyances are a tendency toward purple fringing in high-contrast areas (not unique to this lens) and the relatively long minimum focus compared to some other primes I use. The first is fairly easy to correct when it's bad enough to be annoying, and the second is something that's one gets used to soon enough.

morgan terrinoni , June 12, 2007; 09:59 P.M.

Just to add to the chorus of fans on the 85 1.8. On my 30D it just flat out delivers time and time again. The OOF areas are nice, the in focus areas tack sharp (in a good way), creating a nice 3D effect. I use it a lot more than I thought it would, mostly for portraits, but also for landscapes. I'm also a prime user (24 1.4L and 35 2.0), combined with the 17-55 2.8 IS, but the 85 1.8 is my favorite lens by far. My wife calls it the magic lens.

Andre Reinders , June 15, 2007; 08:31 P.M.

I got this lens a few months ago, and I too really like its qualities. I sold my Canon 75-300mm f4.5-5.6 USM lens and got the 85mm f1.8 and a Tamron 1.4x TC. I now can get a field of view of almost 200mm @ f2.5 on my 20D with the combo. Faster lens, and nicer images - it really improved the portraits I was making... over the 50mm f1.8 on the cropped sensor. I now also have a portrait lens for my film (Elan 7N) I am a happy camper :)

DAN CASPERSZ , June 21, 2007; 03:55 A.M.

A 50mm lens is more versatile for portraits on a 1.6x crop body. Flattens the features and also allows you to take a few steps back for more body/environment. And Canon produce superb 50mm primes for every budget (f1.8, f1.4 and f1.2).

fast primes , June 23, 2007; 07:29 A.M.

While the Canon 85F1.8 (and it's near twin the 100F2.0) is undoubtedly an excellent lens, there are a few "user friendly" quibbles to be thrown in:

  1. It could focus closer than the common 3 foot minimum! The Olympus OM 100F2.0 and the Leica R 90F2.0 Summicron, both focus to a very usefull 2-foot minimum. With internal focusing, offering an extra foot of close focus should have been a slam-dunk. Canon does do this for the 135F2.0 L lens. Pentax also offers it for it's new portrait lenses--the 77F1.8 and 70F2.3 (for APS digital format) and it's standard AF 135F2.8 lens.

  2. And a built-in lens hood would be nice! With a prime portrait lens, being ready to go/capture-the-moment right now is a major advantage that offsets the small performance increase (from greater length) that a bayonet hood offers.

Will Hore-Lacy , June 28, 2007; 09:25 P.M.

Canon 85/1.8 as a sports lens??

While I don't actually have this lens I have heard that is it an excellent lens for low light sports photography. The wide apeture and USM make it a good short tele lens for indoor sport when you are not too far from the action.

G D , July 01, 2007; 07:52 A.M.

I frequently use my 50 1.4 for low light and wanted the 85 1.8 but ended up with the 100 2.8 Macro. A coleague of mine has the 85 and uses it almost exclusively for Photographing bands in available light.

In a tightly packed camera bag and travelling it is hard justify 2 portrait length low light lenses: The macro is stunning and unbelievably useful. Cold mornings makes insects move slowly. with the Mr14ex ring flash its a gem.

I lust after the 200 f1.8 for low light Wildlife shots, but it would be about 2% of my photography on Safari which in itself is too little of my life So I guess its out then...

Steve Rinn , July 05, 2007; 06:46 P.M.

I am always finding new uses for this amazingly versatile lens. Another one not mentioned above is theater/music performances. With my 20D on a monopod with the 85 f/1.8, I can take photos of my kids' performances on stages that are all too often poorly lit. Subject movement blur is still a concern, but careful timing can help with that.

VANHAV VV , July 17, 2007; 10:34 P.M.

economy and utility

Sara Finton , March 21, 2008; 08:40 P.M.

Does anyone have some examples they could share of auditorium shots and/or indoor sports they could share?

jr miller , June 09, 2008; 12:14 A.M.

Awesome lens!

http://jrmiller.zenfolio.com/p1009860719/?photo=865188068

Jonathan Farmer , September 22, 2008; 01:59 P.M.

.I use this lens at weddings and find it to be a fair performer. At 1.8 it is soft but gets sharp at 2.8. The focus is not very reliable; however I have gotten very sharp images with it.

Image Attachment: Oli & Jemma 01.JPG

Robert Scrivener , November 29, 2008; 12:35 P.M.

Jonathan, I disagree with you that autofocus is unreliable. I've shot this lens on both an Elan II and a Rebel XT, and the only autfocus issues I ever had were from the body's focusing speed abilities. My 85mm has almost always been spot on and quick, even in challenging lighting condiitions. Perhaps you have a bad copy?

Cheers!

D. H. Harris , April 27, 2010; 07:38 P.M.

Not my favorite or most widely used focal lengths, but if your looking for a good quality fast-focusing portrait lens at an affordable price - you won't be disappointed with this lens.

Lynne and Mila - 3

a soft image for certain (wide open, slow shutter speed), but it certainly captured the moment.

paul langereis , March 10, 2011; 12:01 A.M.

I am picking up a used copy of this lens tomorrow, and cannot wait.  I am getting into more and more portrait work, and this lens seems to perform well in most situations that I will come across.  I would like to thank all those people who posted here as this helped me make my mind up on whether or not to buy this lens!  I am excited!

 

Paul


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