Gear Review: Canon 85mm F/1.2L for Wedding Photography

Some of you love it, and some of you hate it.  If you are reading this, you are likely trying to learn about the Canon 85mm F/1.2L Lens, and more specifically, how useful it is for wedding photography.  Now, it is no secret, and I will sum up the rest of this review here.  This lens has it’s major drawbacks, and it has it’s major strengths.  For most wedding photographers, when moments are critical, this lens has earned a deserved bad reputation.  The good things that you hear about it are absolutely true, and here are some of my experiences after shooting with it for 8 months or so.

Gear Review:  Canon 85mm F/1.2L for Wedding Photography

I purchased this lens to complete our trinity of prime lenses.  I absolutely love a shallow depth of field, and I love the color rendition and sharpness you cannot get from most zoom lenses.  I was moving from the all around 24-70 F/2.8 version 1.  The versatile zoom was a great lens to have, however I felt like it didn’t give me the different look that I wanted to see in our wedding photos.  I spoke with one of our studio’s shooters, Matt Allende, a distinguished wedding photographer who owns his own successful studio, who had been using this lens for quite some time, and I decided to give it a go.

After shooting our first session with it, I realized that I was getting what I wanted initially out of it optically, good colors, sharpness, etc.  However I was shooting between F/2.5, and F/3.5.  This lens was clearly designed for more, and as any curious photographer would do, I decided that I wanted to push this lens to it’s limits.  I set up a shoot with Jen, just to test this lens out.  I began shooting at between F/1.2-1.8, and I quickly discovered that I hated this lens……At least I thought I did.  I could not get a sharp photo to save my life.  I tried using the outer focus points on my 5D Mark II, and tried less focus and recomposing.  I met with other photographers, begging them to test the focus to see if it was me, my camera, or the lens.

Gear Review:  Canon 85mm F/1.2L for Wedding Photography

Once in a while I would nail a shot, and I quickly saw the magic that this lens could create.  What I initially lacked was the consistency to get those shots right out of the gate.  I turned to the internet for help, and could not find the answers I was looking for.  I was literally so frustrated with this lens that I was on the cusp of selling it to purchase the ever versatile 70-200 F/2.8 IS II.  Alas, going through my pictures I really saw the uniqiue magic this lens could create, and I decided to practice with it a bit more.

After a while, I learned that this lens wasn’t the problem, as usual, it was the operator.  While it focuses, slow, it demands a proper technique in order to nail shots, especially in a wedding situation.  I have found that when using a 5D Mark II (not the best auto-focus for a professional camera), you have to learn to work within it’s limitations.  That being said, I will only use the center focus point when shooting wide open, and in addition, when recomposing your shot, you have to be extremely quick, because even taking in a deep breath can cause motion in your shoulders that will through your focus off.  UPDATE:  Since upgrading to the Mark III, over the weekend, the “limitations” are much easier to work within.

This lens has been able to create some absolutely magical shots for me, and almost certainly  allows your camera to let in the maximum amount of light possible.  One thing I noticed about this lens, as well as other primes, is that they do their focal length so much better than their zoom counterparts.  My old 70-200mm, while being a great lens, did not have the sharpness, clarity, and color that my prime lenses do.

Gear Review:  Canon 85mm F/1.2L for Wedding Photography

Will this lens be better than a 70-200 zoom?

The 85mm is probably the best all around focal length for balance of compression, and really does make your clients look better.  I can’t tell you how often I had to be at 1600 ISO, 1/80th, and F/1.2 just to get off a shot that still needed an exposure adjustment in post.  Having that ability is amazing to us.  Like I had said in my review of the Canon 135L F/2.0, this lens is a tool, and like the all-around wedding lens the 70-200 F/2.8 IS II, this lens has a purpose and a place in our camera bag.  I feel it has made me a better photographer, as has our decision to move primarily to prime lenses.  Just remember that as a wedding photographer, versatility is absolutely paramount to capturing some moments.   Honestly, there are occasions where a zoom would be better for us in a particular situation.  On the other hand, there are 100’s of shots we have taken that would not look the same had we used a zoom lens.  We will eventually purchase the 70-200, but for now, I will continue to use my feet.

Autofocus Performance

This is the big one.  The reason so many have a love/hate relationship with this lens.  This lens is SLOW.  Not just camera-slow, it is slower than a granny driving on the freeway after she won at bingo slow.  It is understandable, because to focus at F/1.2, accuracy is important, and this lens gives up speed for accuracy.  Now as a wedding photographer, we all know what the drawbacks are to a slow-focusing lens.  It could mean missed moments right?  I have found for most occasions that is not entirely true.  I will say that for dance shots, I use the 135, or the 35mm, unless space is an issue, which it rarely is inside a wedding reception hall.  I also will only use the 135 when photographing a ceremony.  This lens gives me it’s money’s worth during B&G portrait time.  One more thing.  This thing is allergic to servo mode on the Mark II.  I wouldn’t even try using it to catch a B&G walking down the aisle after the ceremony.

Now about the accuracy.  I have found NOW that that can depend on your camera, and your technique.  The lens itself is pretty accurate, however when using on a 5D Mark II, I would say don’t even attempt using the outer focus points at shallow apertures.  After receiving our Mark III this weekend, I have not missed a test shot at F/1.2 using the center focus point, and have hit about 99% of my shots using the outer focus points.  Depending on your camera’s focusing system, I would say that with my experience, focusing and recomposing on a Mark II is probably the best route to take.  With our new camera, I will try using more of the outer focus points.

Color/Contrast/Clarity

This lens is a Canon L lens.  I have found that if the little red ring does anything besides give you better build quality, corner sharpness, and parting you with your hard earned cash, it also gives you an unparalleled improvement in these areas (as well as bokeh rendition).  Now I didn’t get all scientific with my tests, so I will preface this by saying that this is an opinion.  I have found that when comparing images from the 85mm F/1.8 HSM, the overall image quality was better.  Colors have better saturation, and there is overall more contrast that bring life to your images.  I have tried matching the look in post, but I did not receive the same results.  That is how I justified giving up $1500 more to purchase this lens, and receive a slower focusing prime.

Gear Review:  Canon 85mm F/1.2L for Wedding Photography

Sharpness

Gear Review:  Canon 85mm F/1.2L for Wedding Photography
85mm F/1.2L Sharpness Wedding Photography

This lens is a well performing lens in this category.  I would say that it is definitely not as sharp as the 135mm wide open, however when stopped down to F/2.0, sharpness is equal.  This lens is sharper than any zoom I have ever used except the 70-200mm F/2.8 IS II, which I would say it is equal to.  Again I don’t have charts to show you, only pictures. Above is a 100% crop of the above picture, no sharpening or other editing applied aside from a small exposure adjustment

Is it right for me?

It depends.  What type of shooter are you.  What is your style?  Does it require a shallow depth of field?  I will admit, if you look at the popular wedding blogs such as Style Me Pretty and Junebug Weddings, the shallow look is in.  I don’t think that aspect will change (although I do think some of the trends on those websites will).  In my opinion, it is important for every wedding photographer to at least have a fast prime in their bag, I would say either a 50 or an 85.  I would say if your style incorporates the look of a shallow DOF, you cannot go wrong with this lens.  Just make sure that you have additional lenses available to photograph quick changing moments.  I have known photographers who use this as their one long wedding lens.  That being said, with the price of a Canon 135mm F/2.0 these days, I would purchase that one as well.  This lens is amazing in so many ways, and falls short in others.  One thing it does not fall short in is image quality, and yes, the price.  The Canon 85mm F/1.2L is expensive, but the flip side is that it will give you a look that many photographers are unable to achieve without it, and make your imagery stand out.

UPDATE:

I have to write this update, because after sending in this lens to Canon in late 2013 due to the focus issues becoming unbearable, I found out that there was a short in the circuit board causing this lens to focus improperly.  After getting lens back, I can definitely say that it performs as well or better than my other Canon prime lenses.  Just a lesson to use caution when buying a lens used!!

6 thoughts on “Gear Review: Canon 85mm F/1.2L for Wedding Photography”

  1. Thank you for this review. I’m leaning heavily towards the decision to buy this lens, but hesitating due to some who say the 85 1.8, the 135, or the 70-200 zoom would be better choices. Really helps that you shared these comparisons and your experience learning to use this lens. I just ordered the 5D MKIII, so glad to hear the experience improved.
    All the Best, Leslie

    1. I would definitely say that it is a specialty lens. If I was strictly a portrait photographer, I would choose the 85, however as a wedding photographer, I have found the 70-200 to be invaluable to getting must have shots.

  2. I wanted to know how much better do you feel this lens is to the Canon 85mm f1.8. I’m attempting to go to the Prime Only lenses on the telephoto side and wanted to see if it was worth upgrading my 85mm.
    I currently shoot on crop bodies (two 7ds) and I use a 17-55 on one body and flip back and forth between the 135mm and the 85mm 1.8 on the other body (using a harness to dual shoot)… I get some good results, but I’m always looking for possible gear upgrades as I improve as a shooter.

    1. The F/1.8 has it’s advantage when it comes to focusing speed. The 1.2 does what most L lenses are known for, better bokeh, color, contrast, sharpness, and build quality. The $1500 difference in price however, may not be worth it to you, you just need to see what works best for your type of photography.

  3. Damian Bonadonna

    Hi, thanks for your feedback. Don’t you think the shot of the couple is really out of focus? Is that kind of shot usable to give to the client? Thanks!

  4. Hi i was thinking of buying this lens but cant decide, as i need one for ceremony shots and also for portraits, but you said, its slow in focusing, just wanted to know how bad is it, as i want the 70-200 but i also want this lens- just cant decide. I also heard that the Version 2 of the 85mm 1.2 is improved and focuses a lot faster than the old one, thanks

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