Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM Lens Review

Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM Lens
In-Depth Review

Featuring the record-setting, review-time widest-ever aperture in an image stabilized lens, the Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM Lens is the perfect portrait lens in many regards. The 85mm focal length allows for a pleasing portrait perspective, pulling the viewer into the frame without distorting facial features. The ultra-wide aperture permits stopping action in low light and creates a strong background blur, capable of isolating a subject from an otherwise highly-distracting background. Excellent image quality is included and with image stabilization, this lens produces sharp handheld results in even extreme low light conditions. With a red ring around the end of the lens (indicating its premium L-series status), professional-grade build quality is there. With Ring USM AF, this lens focuses accurately and focuses quite fast – considerably faster than the other current 85mm L lens option, the EF f/1.2L II – making it ideal for capturing images fast and for keeping up with fast-moving subjects.

Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM Lens Angled Right View

The Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM Lens joins (does not replace) the 85mm f/1.2L II USM and the currently-25-year-old 85mm f/1.8 USM in the Canon EF lineup. Since the f/1.2L II's introduction over a decade ago, other lens manufacturers including Sigma, Tamron and Zeiss have introduced at least one wide-aperture 85mm lens. Many of these new models were impressive, especially in regards to their image quality, and at the end of the review of the most-recently-prior-introduced Sigma 85mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art Lens review, I mentioned that not including image stabilization in this otherwise extraordinary model left the door open for competition. Canon went through that door.

The Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM Lens arrived to a enthusiastic audience and many of us could not wait to get our hands on this lens.

Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM Lens on Tripod

Focal Length

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With a prime lens, you get one focal length. This means that prime lens focal length selection is much more critical than when choosing a zoom lens such as one of the 70-200mm options. What is the 85mm focal length good for? The standout use of the 85mm focal length is, as already hinted to, portrait photography.

The classic portrait focal length range is from 85mm through 135mm (after FOVCF is factored in). An 85mm lens hits the bottom classic range figure on a full frame DSLR and, at a 136mm full frame angle of view equivalent on an APS-C 1.6x body, it essentially remains in the upper end of the ideal portrait range on this format also. An APS-C format DSLR of course requires a longer working distance to get the same framing as a full frame DSLR (and therefore will have more depth of field and a less-strongly blurred background at the same aperture).

Move in as close as moderately-tightly framed head shots or move back as far as you care to. Without modifying this lens's minimum focus distance (such as via extension tubes), there will be no perspective problems caused by getting too close and being too far away is seldom a problem in that regard.

The "portrait photography" designation is a broad one that covers a wide variety of potential still and video subject framing (from full body to moderately-tightly-framed head shots) and a wide variety of potential venues (from indoors to outdoors). Portrait subjects can range from infants to seniors and from individuals to large groups. Think engagements, weddings, parties, events, theater, stage, families, small groups, senior adults, fashion, documentary, lifestyle ... all are great uses for the 85mm focal length. There is often adequate space in even a small studio for portraiture with an 85mm-provided angle of view. I have done entire senior sessions with a wide aperture 85mm lens.

Helping to justify the acquisition cost of this lens is that portrait photography is one of the best revenue-producing genres out there (you cannot buy stock photos of most people). I also argue that there are no subjects more important than people.

Here is a Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM Lens sample portrait captured at f/1.4.

Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM Lens Sample Picture

Regardless of the camera format being used, the 85mm focal length (like most others), can be used for landscape photography, creating a slightly compressed view of the world around us. While most would not opt to carry a relatively-heavy 85mm f/1.4 along with the other landscape focal lengths needed on long hikes into the backcountry, those working closer to their residence or car may decide the image quality delivered by such a prime lens is highly-desirable. Using the 85mm focal length in conjunction with the wide aperture allows a close natural subject to be completely isolated from its background for an artistic flare.

Some sports, including basketball and wrestling, can be ideally-captured with an 85mm lens and this lens can capture these events in even poorly-lit venues (including most gymnasiums). This focal length also works well for some architectural needs, products (medium through huge) are a great use for 85mm, commercial photographers often find needs for this focal length, 85mm general studio photography applications abound and a wide range of other subjects await the 85mm angle of view.

Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM Lens Front View

Max Aperture

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With only a few exceptions, the f/1.4 max aperture made available by this lens is as wide as DSLR lenses get. This lens's sibling, the Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM Lens, is of course the most relevant and obvious exception. The wider the aperture, the more light that is able to reach the imaging sensor. Allowing more light to reach the sensor permits freezing action, handholding the camera in lower light levels and/or use of a lower (less noisy) ISO setting.

Increasing the opening also permits a stronger, better subject-isolating background blur (at equivalent focal lengths). The shallow f/1.4 depth of field must of course be acceptable to you in these circumstances, but shallow depth of field is a highly-desired lens capability, excellent for making the subject pop from a blurred background. I can't get enough of the shallow DOF look that draws the viewer's attention to the subject by eliminating the background distractions. This capability adds artistic-style imaging to this 85mm lens's capabilities list.

F/1.4 enables the higher precision AF capabilities (most often the center AF point) in all cameras supporting this feature and presents a bright viewfinder image. This wide aperture is especially valuable after the sun sets, under shade and when shooting indoors, including indoors using only ambient window light.

Note that under bright conditions, especially in direct sunlight, even a 1/8000 shutter speed will probably not be fast enough to avoid blown highlights in f/1.4 images. Use of a neutral density filter will be needed to keep images dark enough at f/1.4 under such conditions. Shooting with a narrower aperture of course remains an option.

In the sample portrait shared above, Brittany was inside a well-lit room, but was facing toward the interior with only reflected daylight being used for lighting. Interior and reflected daylight generally means rather dark necessitating the use of a high ISO, but the f/1.4 aperture provided a adequate 1/100 sec. shutter speed at ISO 100 for an extremely clean result.

Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM Lens Top View with Hood

Image Stabilization

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As illuminated in the intro, this is a record-setting lens, being the first DSLR lens with an aperture wider than f/1.8 to have image stabilization. Some may be thinking that image stabilization is un-necessary in an f/1.4 lens, and while that may be true for some photographers, I strongly disagree. I think that the IS feature on this lens is a huge differentiator.

A still portrait subject can be captured without motion blur at exposure durations considerably longer than most of us can handhold an 85mm lens without camera-shake affecting sharpness. And, many completely-motionless subjects are on this lens's to-do list (those found in a museum for example). Even when marginal or faster shutter speeds are in use, image stabilization provides a layer of insurance from camera movement occurring at the time of image capture. All of us have inadvertently moved the camera just as the image is being captured and especially those capturing un-repeatable moments will appreciate having image stabilization covering their back in this regard.

Another image stabilization benefit that should not be overlooked is the aid in AF precision. The camera's AF system can produce better focus precision if the image it sees is still and image stabilization provides that. Canon contends that IS aids AF even when a subject is in motion and action-stopping shutter speeds are being used. AF precision is especially critical with the 85mm f/1.4 combination producing a potentially shallow depth of field.

I find image stabilization to be especially helpful while carefully composing a handheld image, making it easier to precisely frame the subject I am capturing.

Yes, a tripod can be used to hold the camera steady (even steadier than the IS benefit), and I use tripods a significant amount. However, I infrequently use tripods when photographing people. I can move into position much faster when handholding, not testing the limits of my subject's endurance (fresh subjects look best) and capturing a larger volume and variety of images in a far shorter period of time.

The 85 f/1.4L's image stabilization system is rated to 4 stops and my expectation was to see that much benefit in my own images. While photographing under ideal conditions (indoors on a concrete floor), practically all EOS 5Ds R images were sharp at 1/10th sec. exposures and nearly all were sharp at 1/8th sec. From 1/6 through 1/4 second, most images were sharp, although some blurred results were slipping into the mix. At .3 sec., results became mixed with enough sharp images that I wouldn't hesitate to try this exposure duration if I had no other choice or had the option of taking a lot of attempts at the photo. For example, shoot a higher ISO set for insurance, to make sure that you have sharp images to select from. Then, drop the ISO and attempt a lower noise, longer exposure to hopefully best what was already captured.

For me, the results indicate about 4 stops of assistance. When the subject permits (it is motionless), being able to use a 4-stop-lower ISO setting makes a tremendous difference in image quality. Think ISO 800 instead of ISO 12800.

This IS implementation has low audibility, with a light click heard when IS activates and again when it deactivates. Activated IS makes a light humm and, if the camera is moved, some clicking sounds may be audible. A quiet environment and/or a close ear will be required to hear the activated sounds.

I see little or no viewfinder shift on activation/deactivation and there is no jumping or other unsteadiness even when recomposing. I'm seeing no drifting of the scene while IS is operating with a motionless camera. Those capturing video handheld will be highly advantaged by this IS implementation.

With the ultra-wide f/1.4 aperture combined with a high-performing image stabilization system, this lens is ready for the darkest venues you encounter. The combination of these features can differentiate your work.

Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM Lens Angle View

Image Quality

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We have seen Sigma and Zeiss introducing some impressive 85mm image quality, noticeably surpassing the Canon 85 f/1.2L II in this regard, and I said I would be surprised if Canon does not at least equal those offerings. Canon's last-prior-introduced L-Series prime lens, the Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM Lens, helped set expectations for what the next one would deliver.

While the relatively low price of this lens initially paused my excitement regarding its image quality potential, the MTF chart cleared that psychological issue up.

Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM Lens MTF Chart Comparison

Canon describes the thick lines as showing contrast (10 lp/mm) measurements and the thin lines as showing resolution (30 lp/mm) measurements. The solid lines show sagittal (lines radiating from center to the image circle periphery) results while the dashed lines show meridional (lines perpendicular to the sagittal lines) results. The black lines indicate a wide open aperture while the blue lines show results at f/8. The left side of the chart shows center-of-the-image-circle measurement and the right side shows peripheral measurement. The higher the lines, the better the lens performs. When all of the lines get crushed into the top of the chart, the lens promises to be amazing.

So, how sharp is the Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS Lens? The lab image quality results show this lens turning in good sharpness from full frame corner to full frame corner. The resolution at f/1.4 is excellent with even fine details being captured. Sharpness, notably contrast, shows a bump of improvement at f/1.6 and the additional contrast bump at f/2.8 has this lens delivering especially-impressive image quality. F/4 puts the finishing touches on extreme full frame corner image quality (for ultra-high resolution camera models) and there is little sharpness-related benefits aside from depth of field to stopping down additionally.

In addition to our standard lab tests, I like to share some real world examples. Following are of center-of-the-frame 100% crops from images captured with an EOS 5Ds R. The RAW files were processed using DPP and the Standard Picture Style with sharpness set to "1" (on a 0-10 scale).

Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM Lens Sharpness Comparison Example

The three sets of examples above, captured at a range of focus distances, support the labs test results (as usual). Note that I am not seeing focus shift issues when stopping down.

Next, we'll look at extreme corner performance. While those using this as a portrait lens may not care what the corners look like, those photographing landscapes or in other everything-must-be-sharp scenarios care a lot. The first set of images were taken from the extreme bottom-left corner of the frame and the next two sets came from the top-left. The images in this set were processed identically to those in the center-of-the-frame examples.

Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM Lens Corner Sharpness Comparison Example

Even at f/1.4 with vignetting causing darkened corners, the corner details retain nicely intact and a small bump in the sharpness setting will dial them in even better. Especially aided by vignetting clearing, each stop of narrower aperture provides a nice bump in the crispiness of the corner details.

Certain is that a wide aperture full frame lens is going to show peripheral shading when used on a full frame body and this one exhibits some of that feature. But, the amount is not strong for an f/1.4 aperture in general. At f/1.4, full frame corners are darkened by about 2.5 stops. At f/2, a bit over a stop of shading remains. Rarely will the .4 stops of shading at f/2.8 show. Corner shading levels out at about .3 stops at f/4 and continues at that level through the narrower aperture range.

APS-C format image sensors will barely see the close-to-1-stop peripheral shading at f/1.4 and with about .2 stops remaining at f/2, none will be noticed.

Something lacking in this lens is lateral CA (Chromatic Aberration) and that's a positive feature. The effect of different colors of the spectrum being magnified differently is referred to as lateral (or transverse) CA (Chromatic Aberration). Lateral CA shows as color fringing along lines of strong contrast running tangential (meridional, right angles to radii) with the mid and especially the periphery of the image circle showing the greatest amount as this is where the greatest difference in the magnification of wavelengths exists. Prime lenses often have low amount of lateral CA and this is one of them.

The 100% 5Ds R crop shared below is from extreme top-left corner of an f/8 frame.

Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM Lens Lateral Chromatic Aberration Example

There should be only black and white colors in this image and only a hint of lateral CA-indicating other colors is present.

A relatively common lens aberration is axial (longitudinal, bokeh) CA, which causes non-coinciding focal planes of the various wavelengths of light, or more simply, different colors of light are focused to different depths. Spherical aberration along with spherochromatism, or a change in the amount of spherical aberration with respect to color (looks quite similar to axial chromatic aberration, but is hazier) are other common lens aberrations to look for. Axial CA remains at least somewhat persistent when stopping down with the color misalignment effect increasing with defocusing while the spherical aberration color halo shows little size change as the lens is defocused and stopping down one to two stops generally removes this aberration.

In the real world, lens defects do not exist in isolation with spherical aberration and spherochromatism generally found, at least to some degree, along with axial CA. These combine to create a less sharp, hazy-appearing image quality at the widest apertures - and create a challenge for evaluating a lens. Since all colors are not focused identically, the perfect test focus distance setting becomes vague with the high resolution black and white test chart being especially unforgiving. The focus distance setting that shows the highest resolution must be selected, but with colors not being focused identically, some fringing is commonly seen at ultra-wide apertures and you will surely notice the foreground and background color fringing in the comparison presented below.

Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM Lens Spherical and Axial Aberration Example

This effect is somewhat strong at wider apertures and diminishes significantly as the aperture narrows.

A positive image quality aspect is that the Canon 85 f/1.4L IS handles flare well. Even with the sun in the corner of the frame, practically no flare effects are seen at the widest apertures. Minor flaring becomes visible through the middle of the aperture range and increases to moderate at f/16.

Coma is generally recognized by sharp contrast towards the center of an image and long, soft contrast transition toward the image periphery. Coma becomes quite visible mid-frame and in the corners of images captured at wide apertures and significantly resolves when the lens is stopped down. Astigmatism is another lens image quality attribute that is apparent in the corners and the pin-point stars in the night sky are a subject that makes these aberrations, along with some others, easily recognizable to me. This lens has some of those corner-impacting issues as seen in the f/1.4 extreme top-right 5Ds R crop shown below.

Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM Lens Coma

In the geometric distortion category, this lens is a strong performer. While I see a slight amount of pincushion distortion, the amount, as seen in the full top-of-the-frame width crop below, is only slight.

Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM Lens Distortion

While geometric distortion can be corrected, the process is destructive and it is far better to have a lens that natively performs well in this regard. This lens will keep straight lines relatively straight and level framing is easier to achieve without straight lines being turned into curves.

This lens has a background-eraser feature. A certainty is that an 85mm f/1.4 lens can create a strong background blur and this one handles that job quite well. Not only can this lens create a differentiatingly-strong, subject-isolating background blur, but the Canon 85 f/1.4 L IS' bokeh is among the best I've seen.

Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM Lens Bokeh Example

One | Two | Three | Four | Five

The first four examples above are 100% crops and the last is a full image reduced in size. All were captured stopped down 4 stops to f/5.6 to force aperture blade involvement. The typical concentric rings around the borders of the specular highlights are especially minimized, the outer transitions are not harsh and the centers are smooth. Good bokeh is especially appreciated in portraiture and this lens performs excellently in this regard.

The Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM Lens gets an additional diaphragm blade over its siblings, with the count going from 8 to 9. The extra blade (and rounded aperture design) helps to produce more-rounded out-of-focus specular highlights at narrow apertures and with blade count becoming an odd (vs even) number, point light sources captured at narrow apertures and showing star-like effects will have twice as many points as the blade count (18 in this case). Wide aperture lenses often have a propensity toward creating strong star effects and this lens does that nicely.

Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM Lens Starburst Effect Example

"The EF 85mm utilizes one large diameter, high-precision molded glass aspherical lens and features an ASC coating." Air-Sphere Coating (ASC) ... "is a new technology that provides amazingly high, anti-reflective performance, particularly when alleviating incidental light that can enter a lens." "The surface of the lens even features a smudge-resistant fluorine coating that repels water and oil and can easily be cleaned with a dry cloth." [quotes from Canon]

The bottom line is that my expectations appear to have been in line with what this lens is delivering. The spherical/axial CA seen at the widest apertures is this lens's biggest image quality detriment, but my real world f/1.4 images are looking nice despite this.

Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM Lens Front View on Camera


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The EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM Lens gets Canon's highly-desirable Ring USM (Ultrasonic Motor) driven AF system. Those familiar with the Canon 85mm f/1.2L II are of course listening intently at this point. While that lens also has Ring USM-driven AF, it is not the fastest-focusing lens around (and I'm being tremendously kind here), in part due to the large, heavy front lens focusing group being moved. With a rearward-positioned focusing group design, the f/1.4L IS has smaller lens elements to move and they move much faster.

How fast does the Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM Lens focus? I'll call this lens's focusing speed "fast". But, let me clarify that statement. I used the f/1.2L II and f/1.4L IS side-by-side and the difference in focus speed is quite dramatic. It is the tortoise vs. the rabbit. There is no contest.

I also used the incredibly-fast-focusing Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM Lens side-by-side and the 85 f/1.4L IS does not win this contest. The difference is not nearly as vast as the prior contest I shared, but the 24-70 L II has an edge, focusing nearly instantly with even significant focus distance changes. The 85 f/1.4L IS falls in behind this lens in AF speed performance, but most will be quite satisfied with its focus speed performance. So, expect a fast AF speed ready to track your in-action subjects.

Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM Lens Side View

Many of us rely on AF for most of our 85mm photography needs and that means AF accuracy is crucial for realizing the image quality a lens is capable of. The shallow depth of field an 85mm and f/1.4 combination is capable of creating is brutal on the requirements of an AF system and perfection should not be expected. Still, in some tripod-based testing, the Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM Lens turned in nearly perfect f/1.4 results using the center AF point and not far from perfect when using peripheral points. Focus accuracy decreased modestly with more complicated subjects, but was still good overall.

As it is a premier portrait lens, I gave the 85 f/1.4L IS a good workout on eyes. In One-Shot AF mode, using a tripod-mounted EOS 5Ds R with a nearly-motionless (sitting) subject at head & shoulders framing distance, nearly all images were properly focused at f/1.4. With both the subject and the photographer standing and the lens being handheld at head-shot distance, the accurately focused f/1.4 image rate decreased noticeably. Of course, there is a good reason for that decreased rate. The f/1.4 depth of field at this distance is extremely shallow. Do you want the iris in focus? Or the eye lashes? Even breathing can cause enough movement to move the eye out of focus. Some options for working around this issue include taking additional photos (increasing the odds that you nailed one), using AI Servo with the proper AF parameters selected (instantly tracking focus distance changes), moving farther away or using a narrower aperture.

AI Servo AF performance, with the camera attempting to discern the precise focus distance setting needed at the time of shutter release, is always far more challenging. After reviewing over 500 images of runners approaching the camera (a EOS 1D X Mark II in this case) at a relatively close focus distance, I was left pleased with the results. When I did my part of the job right, keeping the selected focus point on the subject's face, a solid percentage of the results included sharp eyes. The lens (and camera) were able to track subjects in to quite close distances with about 1/2-body framing distance not being a problem.

The 85 f/1.4L IS focus audibility is low and will not annoy your quiet-venue subjects. This lens supports FTM (Full Time Manual) focusing and, unlike the f/1.2L II, it focuses internally.

The 85 f/1.2L II is somewhat unique within the Canon lineup in that it has electronic manual focusing. That is not my favorite design and that the focus ring turns far too easily is another f/1.2L II feature I dislike.

Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM Lens Top View with Hood

Current lens design technology is such that we would expect the f/1.4L IS manual focusing ring to be ideally designed and it is close to being so. The f/1.4L IS features a Canon-conventional manual focusing system similar to most of Canon's other L-Series lenses. This ring is well-positioned and nicely-sized for easy use, yet there is adequate room to comfortably hold the lens behind the focus ring, helping avoid inadvertent changes to the distance setting. The focus ring is smooth with no play and it has a nice rotational resistance with ideal dampening.

While I find the manual focus ring design sufficient for precise manual focusing even at close focus distances, the adjustment rate provided in the 112° full-extents rotation is slightly fast and there is a slight amount of squishy play when changing rotation directions.

Subjects change size significantly with focus change, appearing much larger at shorter focus distances. While this attribute is not unusual, photographers intending to use focus stacking techniques involving focus distance adjustment, videographers pulling focus and anyone critically framing a scene should be aware. The following example set illustrates this behavior.

Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM Lens Focus Magnification Example

An f/11 aperture was used for the above images.

As is commonly provided on a lens of this class, focus distances in both ft. and m are provided in a window on the front of the lens. While I don't often use this scale to set my focus distance, I am surprised at how often I reference it and often find myself wanting one when using a lens that omits this feature. A depth of field scale is also provided, but only marks for f/11 and f/22 are provided (mostly due to lack of space for the others to fit within).

At its minimum focus distance of 33.5" (850mm), the 85 f/1.4L turns in a maximum magnification of 0.12x. That number is right on par for its class and relatively low in the overall lens field.

ModelMin Focus Distance "(mm)Max Magnification
Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM Lens37.4(950)0.11x
Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM Lens33.5(850)0.12x
Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM Lens33.5(850)0.13x
Nikon 85mm f/1.4G AF-S Lens33.5(850)0.12x
Samyang 85mm f/1.4 Lens39.4(1000) 
Sigma 85mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art Lens33.5(850)0.12x
Tamron 85mm f/1.8 Di VC USD Lens31.5(800)0.14x
Zeiss Otus 85mm f/1.4 Lens31.5(800)0.13x
Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 Milvus Lens31.5(800)0.12x

A 0.12x maximum magnification is sufficient for head shots while not permitting you to get so close that distorted facial features begin to appear. It is also adequate for photos of moderately-sized products and similar, but 0.12x may leave you wanting to get slightly closer at times.

I found a horse willing to stand still enough for an equine head-shot, demonstrating this lens's maximum magnification capabilities.

Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM Lens Maximum Magnification Examples

That is as close as this lens will natively focus, but closer focusing can be made available. To reduce the minimum focus distance and thereby increase the maximum magnification, mount an extension tube behind this lens. Extension tubes are basically as their name implies, hollow tubes (with electronic connections) that shift a lens farther from the camera. Infinity and long distance focusing are sacrificed with an extension tube in use, but when working close, infinity focus is generally not needed. With a 12mm Extension Tube mounted, this lens's maximum magnification range is 0.26-0.15x and with a 25mm Extension Tube, the range becomes 0.43-0.33x.

Another option for improving this lens's close-focusing abilities is the Canon 500D Closeup Lens. This filter-thread-attached lens extends the 85's maximum magnification to 0.30x.

This lens is physically not compatible with Canon extenders, so those are not an option.

Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM Lens Top Angle View

Build Quality & Features

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It is a member of Canon's premier L Series and that immediately raises the expectations bar high in several regards including build quality. This lens is built for heavy professional use with tight tolerances, even including the tight dimensions between the focus ring and the lens barrel.

Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II Compared to 85mm f/1.4L IS Lens

Canon USA described the design of the EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM Lens to most-closely resemble that of the last-released L-Series prime, the EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM Lens. And, that description appears right, especially when looking at the product images. Basically, to the 35 L II, add .3" (8.2mm) to the diameter and 6.7 oz (190g) to get the 85 L IS. These lenses have a relatively constant exterior diameter and a great-looking, durable matte-black finish that does not show fingerprints and cleans easily.

Here is a closer look at the 85 f/1.4L IS:

Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM Lens Product Images

MFD |    w/ Hood:  MFD |    Rotated        Compare »

The 85 f/1.4L's outer lens barrel is constructed of engineering plastic with conventional metals used internally for strength. Aside from the focus ring, the AF/MF and IS switches are the only externally-moving parts. These switches are conveniently-located and flush-mounted on a slightly-raised switch bank. They do not get in the way, but they are conveniently available and they work nicely.

Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM Lens Mount

Another reason to choose the f/1.4L IS over the f/1.2L II is weather sealing. While studio portrait photography needs (usually) do not require weather sealing, a light rain has interrupted more outdoor sessions than I care to think about. This lens is better able to survive a spilled drink, mist from a waterfall, etc. than the prior option.

Regarding the size of a lens, what a person is used to using plays a role in their perception of what is new to them. An entry-level photographer coming from an EF-S 18-55mm kit lens is going to find the 85 f/1.4L IS to be large and heavy. An experienced photographer with a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens in their kit will find the 85 f/1.4L IS to be refreshingly small and light. In the overall lens scene, I'll call the Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM Lens moderately sized with an equivalent weight. Though it weighs about 7% less than its f/1.2 sibling, the 85 f1.4L IS remains a moderately-heavy lens. You will know that it is in your hand, but most will find it handholdable for long periods of time with its size/weight aiding in stability.

ModelWeight oz(g)Dimensions w/o Hood "(mm)FilterYear 
Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM Lens26.8(760)3.2 x 4.2(80.4 x 105.5)72mm2015
Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM Lens36.2(1025)3.6 x 3.3(91.5 x 84.0)72mm2006
Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM Lens33.5(950)3.5 x 4.2(88.6 × 105.4)77mm2017
Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM Lens15.0(425)3.0 x 2.8(75.0 x 72.0)58mm1992
Nikon 85mm f/1.4G AF-S Lens23.3(660)3.4 x 3.3(86.2 x 84.0)77mm2010
Samyang 85mm f/1.4 Lens18.2(516)3.1 x 3.1(78.0 x 78.0)72mm2011
Sigma 85mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art Lens39.9(1130)3.7 x 5.0(94.7 x 126.2)86mm2016
Tamron 85mm f/1.8 Di VC USD Lens24.7(700)3.3 x 3.6(84.8 x 91.3)67mm2016
Zeiss Otus 85mm f/1.4 Lens42.4(1200)4.0 x 4.9(101.0 x 124.0)86mm2014
Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 Milvus Lens45.2(1280)3.5 x 4.4(90.0 x 113.0)77mm2015

For many more comparisons, review the complete Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM Lens Specifications using the site's Lens Spec tool.

Here is a visual comparison of a set of the above lenses.

Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM Lens Compared to Similar Lenses

Positioned above from left to right are the following lenses:

Tamron 85mm f/1.8 Di VC USD Lens
Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 Milvus Lens
Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM Lens
Zeiss Otus 85mm f/1.4 Lens
Sigma 85mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art Lens

The same lenses are shown below with their hoods in place.

Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM Lens Compared to Similar Lenses with Hoods

Use the site's product image comparison tool to visually compare the Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM Lens to other lenses.

I'll also share a visual comparison of the Canon 85mm primes.

Canon 85mm Lens Family

As seen in the comparison image above, the 85 f/1.4L is slightly narrower and modestly longer than the 85 f/1.2L II. I know, you want to know how the volume compares, perhaps for space-in-the-case purposes. Using a straight cylinder calculation based on the specs, with cubic inches (cubic mm) being the units of measurement, the lenses measure respectively: 19.8 (318000), 40.4 (650000) and 33.6 (552000). With the 85 f/1.2L II having more taper to its diameter than the other two lenses, its calculation is a bit high, but still, the numbers help describe the size differential

Canon 85mm Lens Family with Hoods

The addition of lens hoods is rather equalizing to the lengths of these 85s.The 77mm filter thread size of the 85 f/1.4L IS is relatively large and highly common.

The size means quality filters are not cheap, but the common-ness means they are easy to find and often shareable with other Canon L-Series and similar lenses.

Canon ET-83E Lens Hood

Canon includes lens hoods with all of their L-Series lenses and the ET-83E Lens Hood comes with this one. This one, like that of the EF 85mm lenses before it, is a rounded design (not petaled) with a smooth end suitable for resting the lens on (using discernment for such practice of course). With a push-button catch design, this hood is easy to install and remove. Unusual for a Canon L lens is that the hood's interior is molded-ribbed plastic, lacking the usual flocking material.

Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM Lens Case

Canon includes a leather-like lens pouch with similar lenses and once again the LP1219 Soft Lens Case is included with this one. The bottom of this pouch is nicely padded against impact, but the sides are better-suited for protection from dust and scratches.

Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM Lens Cap

Price and Value

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The price of this lens was TBD at the time of the Canon pre-announcement conference call, but my expectation was that an image stabilized 85mm f/1.4 L-Series lens was going to be priced high. While the announced price is substantial, it is about a 4-figure number lower than my expectation. The 85 f/1.2L II has a modestly-wider aperture, but no IS and it wears a noticeably higher price tag. So, in my eyes, the Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM Lens appears to be a bargain.

As an "EF" lens, the Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM Lens is compatible with all Canon "EOS" cameras (the EOS "M" line requires an adapter). Standard is for Canon lenses to come with a 1-year limited warranty.

The lenses used for this review were obtained online/retail.

Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS vs. f/1.2L II Lens Comparison

Alternatives to the Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM Lens

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The popularity of wide aperture 85mm prime lenses leads to a healthy number of options to select from. Most major lens manufacturers offer at least one ultra-wide aperture 85mm lens and that means this decision process can be a challenging one. Hopefully I can make this decision easier for you.

The first lens I expect many to compare the 85 f/1.4L IS to is the stablemate Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM Lens. This lens has long been a favorite of wedding, portrait and event photographers, but expect large numbers of these owners to trade the small (1/3 stop) aperture difference for image stabilization and other benefits. From an image quality perspective, the f/1.4L IS is sharper than the f/1.2L II at the widest comparable aperture, f/1.4. The difference in the center is not so much in resolution (both lenses are resolving the tiny black lines), but the 85 f/1.4L IS shows less spherical/axial CA issues. In the mid-frame and periphery, where your subject's eyes and heads are more likely to be positioned, the 85 f/1.4L IS has a significant advantage. The 85 f/1.2L II eventually catches up to the 85 f/1.4L IS in this regard, or at least comes close to doing so, but not before stopping down the aperture a few stops.

At f/1.4, the f/1.2L II has slightly less peripheral shading. The II shows slightly less flare effects and it also has less geometric distortion.

Not overlooking the obvious, the f/1.2 lens has a modestly wider aperture available and the IS lens has image stabilization. While the f/1.2 aperture can create a slightly stronger background blur (it creates a look no other lens can provide) and can stop action is slightly lower light levels, with a still (or relatively still) subject, the IS lens can be handheld in a much darker environment and/or set to a much lower ISO setting resulting in strong image quality advantages. The f/1.4L IS's AF system is much faster and also few will prefer the f/1.2L II's electronic manual focusing, too-easy-to-turn focus ring and front element that extends as the focus distance becomes shorter.

As we already established, the f/1.2L II is shorter and consumes less volume, but it is slightly wider and heavier and has a shape that is not as easy to work with. The f/1.4L has 14/10 lens elements/groups vs. 8/7 in the f/1.2L II, has 9 aperture blades vs. 8 and uses 77mm filters vs. 72mm. The f/1.4L's 0.12x maximum magnification seems only slightly better than the f/1.2L II's 0.11x, but that nearly 10% difference will be noticeable. All will welcome the f/1.4L IS's lower price.

My strong advice is, for most people, to get the Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM Lens over the f/1.2L II. I also recommend upgrading if that is your option.

Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM Lens Front View on Camera and Tripod

Until the Canon 85 f/1.4L IS hit the streets, my favorite 85mm prime was the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art Lens. The Sigma f/1.4 Art Lens is a impressive model, but as I mentioned early in the review, Sigma left the door open slightly by omitting image stabilization. In the Sigma vs. Canon image quality comparison at f/1.4, I give the Sigma the edge. The difference is not big, and the 3 or 4 stops of image stabilization advantage held by the Canon must be weighed in (if photographing handheld with subjects not moving too fast, of course), potentially equating to the same number of stops of ISO differential.

The Sigma has slightly less geometric distortion. The Sigma is slightly heavier than the Canon and is dimensionally larger (3.5 x 425 vs. 3.73 x 4.97" / 88.6 x 105.4 vs. 94.7 x 126.2mm). The Canon uses 77mm filters while the Sigma uses 86mm. The Sigma's lower price tag is a strong advantage.

The previous 85mm image stabilized lens with the widest aperture was the Tamron 85mm f/1.8 Di VC USD Lens. As the product name makes obvious, the Tamron has a 2/3-stop narrower max aperture. At the widest common aperture we tested, these two lenses compete well. I'd say the Canon is sharper in the center and the Tamron takes the corner. At f/2.8 and narrower apertures, the Canon remains sharper in the center and the periphery equalizes between the two lenses. The Canon has noticeably less peripheral shading at equivalent very-wide apertures, with the two lenses essentially equalizing in this regard at f/5.6.

With smaller lens elements required, the Tamron weighs substantially less (24.7 vs. 33.5 oz / 700 vs. 950g) and is dimensionally smaller (3.3 x 3.6 vs. 3.5 x 4.2" / 84.8 x 91.3mm vs. 88.6 x 105.4mm). The Tamron has a higher maximum magnification, going to 0.14x vs. 0.12x, and has a smaller filter size (67mm vs. 77mm). That the Tamron costs about 50% as much as the Canon is attention garnering.

If a manual focus-only lens can meet your needs, the Zeiss Otus 85mm f/1.4 Lens and Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 Milvus Lens are high-performing options. The Otus pre-dated the EOS 5Ds R and we fall back to the 1Ds III results for the Canon vs. Zeiss Otus comparison. In that comp., I like the Otus center and the Canon periphery. The Canon and Zeiss Milvus results appear similar.

The Zeiss lenses show less flare and geometric distortion. The Milvus shows modestly more wide-aperture peripheral shading than the other two lenses.

The Zeiss lenses provide significantly more focus ring rotation to cover the similar focus range and with fixed infinity and minimum focus distance stops, focus settings are easily repeatable with the Zeiss lenses. While the Canon and Zeiss Milvus share the 77mm filter size, the Otus steps up to the 86mm filter size and also bumps up the maximum magnification by 0.01x. The Otus is substantially larger and heavier while the Milvus is more dimensionally-aligned with the Canon, but still noticeably heavier. Similarly, the Otus costs nearly 3x as much as the Canon while the Milvus is priced only modestly higher. The Zeiss lenses lack image stabilization and, again, AF.

Those not needing auto focus and on a tight budget have the Samyang 85mm f/1.4 Lens to consider. The Samyang comes in lower in many regards, including size, weight, filter size (72mm), build quality (including no weather sealing) and, of course, price. Look for a significant difference in image quality at wide apertures.

There are many zoom lenses that cover the 85mm focal length and, by definition, these lenses have the versatility advantage of covering a wide range of focal lengths, potentially replacing numerous prime lenses in the bag. The Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM Lens, one of my favorite lenses, will be the most likely alternative to anyone considering the purchase of the EF 85mm f/1.4L IS Lens. The 85's f/1.4 aperture is a huge 2 stops brighter (4x more light transmission) than the 70-200's f/2.8 max aperture and as you probably expected, the prime handily bests the zoom at f/2.8.

With a lenses/groups count of 14/10, the prime lens is expected to and does show flare effects less readily than the zoom with its 23/19 count. Especially at f/2.8, the prime has less peripheral shading than the zoom.

Physically, the prime is considerably lighter (33.5 vs. 52.6 oz / 950 vs. 1490g) and while these two lenses have a similar diameter, the prime is much shorter (4.2 vs. 7.8", 105.4 vs 199.0mm). With its 9-blade aperture and that aperture closing more significantly to reach narrow options, the prime lens should create stronger star effects from point light sources and those stars will have 18 points instead of the 8-point stars created by the zoom's 8-blade aperture. If maximum magnification is important, the zoom is the easy winner in this competition, posting a 0.21x spec that is far greater than the prime's 0.12x number. While these two lenses both cover the 85mm focal length, they are different enough that many serious amateurs and professionals will have both lenses in their kits.

There are many more logical comparisons to be made. Use the site's lens comparison tools to create your own.

Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM Lens Top Angle View


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While it will find use for many purposes (we will go looking for opportunities to use this lens), the Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM Lens is one of the best portrait lenses ever built. The 85mm short telephoto focal length is ideal for this use and the ultra-wide aperture combined with image stabilization permits those portraits to be captured handheld even in extreme low light situations. The fast Ring USM AF implementation ensures that the shallow plane of sharp focus lands where you direct it and the shallow depth of field diffusely blurs an even highly distracting background, making the subject stand out. The red ring indicating L-Series membership assures us that professional-grade build quality is included and that the image quality from this lens will be stellar.

Finally, you can have your extreme wide aperture and image stabilization in the same 85mm lens – no longer does a choice need to be made between the two. The Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM Lens arrived to a enthusiastic audience, and from most standpoints, the audience's enthusiasm has been proven justified.

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Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM Lens
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