In this post, we’ll review the Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM. It’s no secret that 85mm lenses are ideal for portrait photography. In fact, it’s as if blurry backgrounds and low distortion portraits are all anybody recognizes the 85mm for. I think it’s fair to say the 85mm focal length is just like Jeff Goldblum. Sure, everybody knows about Jeff’s signature “uh”s and “um”s and how his scantily clad lounge pose from Jurassic Park inspired a larger-than-life lawn statue in London’s Potters Field.
But did you know that Jeff is also an accomplished jazz musician with his very own Los Angeles cabaret act? (I’m writing this post to his latest album).
And so it goes that the 85mm is less commonly credited for its accomplishments in video. When it comes to detail and closeup b-roll, the Canon 85mm f/1.8 is smoother than cutting through butter with a knife warmed by Jeff’s feverish abdominals.
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Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM Review: Technical Specs
- Year introduced: 1992
- Mounts on: Full frame, APS-C
- Aperture range: f/1.8-22
- Weight: 15oz
- Closest focusing distance: 0.85m/2.8ft
- Filter size: 58mm
What’s in the Box
- Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM lens
- Canon E-58 II 58mm lens cap
- Canon lens dust cap E (rear lens cap)
Key features & talking points
Let’s face the music and talk about price. It can be a little confusing trying to figure out why one Canon 85mm costs $350 and another Canon 85mm costs $1500. So, for your convenience, here’s a quick Canon lens lesson.
Canon lenses break down into three categories: the kit lenses, the gold-ringed lenses, and the red-ringed “L” lenses. The kit lenses are the cheapest quality lens typically thrown in with Canon’s consumer grade camera bundles. The “L” series denotes Canon’s top-of-the-line lenses regarded by professionals as some of the best glass out there. Basically if it’s an “L” lens it has a red ring, and if it has a red ring it’s gonna be expensive. But if it has a gold ring, like the 85mm f/1.8 you’ll find a class of lenses that are somewhere in between.
While the kit lenses have noticeably worse image quality than the L series, the image quality of the gold-rings requires a trained eye to spot the difference. When you compare price tags that means the gold rings offer a ton in terms of value. The fact that you can have a sharp image and buy five or even six gold-rings for the price of one “L” lens is almost impossible to ignore.
Not surprisingly, the 85mm f/1.8 cuts cost with a plastic build, a far cry from the metal construction 85mm f/1.2 L. But I’m not really sure that’s such a bad thing. It’s a solid plastic and it gives the 85mm f/1.8 the added benefit of being lighter. In fact, I wonder if the f/1.8 would actually withstand an accidental spill better than a heavier metal lens because… physics.
But with a cheaper construction comes a lack of weather-proofing, a feature standard to most of Canon’s more expensive lenses. It’s not that I feel completely comfortable shooting anything in the pouring rain, but the insurance of a weather sealed lens is a nice feature this lens lacks.
That said, the 85mm f/1.8’s is a remarkably solid feeling lens and its relatively lightweight build makes it an ideal choice for long handheld/stabilizer shoots.
One of the best features of new Canon camera bodies is the Dual Pixel autofocus system. Used in conjunction with the 85mm, the autofocus is snappy and reliable which is pretty remarkable considering this lens was originally released in 1992, and it uses technology that’s just as old. There’s a fun fact that is also a testament to its long standing longevity.
However, it does show its age with a slightly noisy ultrasonic motor which could be a video-related issue if you’re relying on the camera’s microphone or using an external shotgun microphone that is mounted near the camera.
The 85mm’s wide 1.8 aperture performs well in low light locations allowing you the use of higher shutter speeds while still capturing a sharp, noise-free image.
The f/1.8 is ideal for dreamy b-roll with the same deep background blurs that make it such a good portrait lens.
At f/1.8 the subject’s eyes have pinpoint focus while already beginning at the ears to slide into a beautiful blurry bokeh background (alliteration, people).
One of the ways in which lenses betray their overall quality is in an effect called chromatic aberration. I like to call this the Hulk effect because you can see a green and purple fringe at the edges of contrasting points in the image.
Higher quality lenses reduce chromatic aberration and capture a more natural and true-to-life image. Obviously, compared to the 85mm f/1.2 L lens, the f/1.8 suffers, but I tend to think that it’s not that easy to see unless you’re really looking for it.
A word about focal lengths
In my experience, the best thing about the 85mm focal length is the ideal distance it provides between me, my camera, and the talent.
Anyone who’s worked with… well, a human knows that the presence of a camera is an intimidating thing. Just consider that the entire job of an actor, for which there are many glamorous awards, is pretty much just to pretend like a camera isn’t there. But, for the everyday folks who get roped into your average corporate video, success or failure of a project can depend on your ability to make your subject feel comfortable. Especially when it comes to documentary-style shoots, getting natural and uninterrupted b-roll requires a Goldilocks zone focal length.
A lens that requires you to get up close and personal like a 24mm is a sure fire shutdown of authentic b-roll and a longer lens like a 135mm can feel a little too much like a spy camera. Comfort with the talent can still depend on more context than just a lens length, but I think the 85mm is the perfect “just-right”, a natural social distance for a camera and it’s subject.
Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 Review: Wrap Up
If you’ve been inspired to edit your 85mm footage to the silky soundtrack of Jeff Goldblum’s intensely nonchalant piano, well then my job here is done. Clearly, a smooth bokeh pairs well with jazz.
But if you’re not convinced the analogy is sound, at least let me assure you that the Canon 85mm f/1.8 is a terrific lens. While its reputation is rather limited to portraits for photography, I find myself using this lens quite often for detail and closeup b-roll. The 85mm’s ideal length for keeping the talent comfortable, its sharp image, its beautiful bokeh, and affordability make it an essential lens in any Canon collection.