Debates over lens choice rage all over the internet. Normally I don’t get involved with this sort of thing, but recently it got me thinking about my own choices. First off let me just say, I truly believe the photographer is primarily responsible for the quality of his/her work. Yes, I know it’s a cliche’, but it is true. That’s not to say that equipment isn’t important, of course it is, but far too many photographers in my opinion become almost obsessive about there own equipment choices. Like anybody I like shiny new things and wonder if the next great gadget is going to improve the quality of my work.
When the 85L mark II came out I was already the proud owner of a perfectly good canon 85/1.8. A terrific fast lens, with a very attractive price. After much consideration I decided to upgrade to the L version. At roughly five times the price, it is a major investment. So, are fast primes like the 85L, 50L, worth it? Only you can decide, but here is my take.
The 85L is superior to my original 85/1.8 in image quality, I have no doubt, when used properly wide open it can produce stunningly vibrant images, that pop off the page. Shots in near dark situations, unattainable by other lenses, can be made in available light. This lens coupled with the 5D mark II, make an awesome combination. But the 85L is certainly not perfect. Much has been made of the slow focus speed, which really doesn’t bother me. After all this is designed as a portrait/creative lens and that is exactly how I use it. The 85/1.8 kills it in focus speed, by the way. The 85L also has a pretty long minimum focus distance, something to consider if that is important to you. It can also produce some serious purple fringing, with tricky lighting, especially back lit subjects.
The fringing can be pretty severe wide open, requiring some post processing work beyond the fringe removal tools in Lightroom. But, I knew this in advance and the 85/1.8 and my 35/1.4 also exhibit some serious fringing.
Shooting wide open on the fly or candid’s can be tricky, forget focus and re-composing, depth of field is so shallow often only covering the eye lashes or single eye. Slight subject movement or photographer sway will challenge you with shots at F1.2. With the 5D, I use the central focus point, and have become much more aware of my holding technique. Others report they have had good results in Servo mode. I suppose the focus system on a 1 series may be of some use in this situation.
So I’ve been blabbing on about the deficiencies of the 85L, but when you spend some time learning the lens’ intricacies it can give amazing results. Is it worth the price over the 85/1.8? To me it is, of course I have to say that because I laid out the cash already. But this is not a justification to myself for the purchase. The 85L is really a niche lens, but what it does well, I believe it delivers. I look at it like this; if you don’t plan on shooting between F1.2 – F2.8 then why bother, any 70-200 will serve you and be more versatile. Then there is the 135L, also worth a serious look. If 85 is your focal length, the 85/1.8 is definitely better bang for the buck and is an excellent lens in it’s own right. It’s much cheaper, focus’s faster, lighter, and is plenty sharp. I’m covering only Canon here, but Leica, Nikon etc. all have similar offerings.
On a side note, just because you can shoot at F1.2 doesn’t mean every shot should be taken at such a shallow depth of field. Use the ability creatively.
This is one man’s opinion and is not meant to be a review of the 85L. Keep in mind I only care about real world results, I don’t pixel peep and don’t follow MTF charts.