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Customer Review

154 of 159 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One of Canon's best for price/performance, November 19, 2008
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This review is from: Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM Medium Telephoto Lens for Canon SLR Cameras - Fixed (Camera)
The Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 II USM lens is a moderate weight (15 oz), very well built lens. It does not come with the appropriate hood, the Canon ET-65 III. You get both a lens cap and a mount cap, all packed inside tight conformal foam to protect the lens during shipping. There's also a very brief manual and the usual warranty paperwork.

The lens offers AF and manual focus, and allows manual focus even when AF is set to on, a very useful feature for low-light and other challenging focus situations. This is a USM lens, and as a direct consequence focus is fast and precise, just as you'd expect.

The AF/Manual switch is in a reasonable location, close to the camera body. There is a range indication on the barrel of the lens behind a transparent window which serves to keep dust and debris out of the workings of the lens. Manual focus is controlled with a broad, easy to manage textured ring about mid-body on the lens. During focus, nothing external on the lens body moves or rotates, so there are no complications for using polarizing filters, and no concerns about the lens "pumping" air and so causing dust contamination in either the lens or camera with use.

The lens lacks any form of image stabilization. IS is showing up in more and more lenses, though for the price... perhaps this is one of the justifications for building IS into the camera body. I'm sure that this design wouldn't be anywhere near its current price point with IS added to the build. One last point is that since the lens is a fairly fast design, perhaps there is less overall need for IS (though that argument falls completely apart the first time you *do* need it!)

It takes a 58mm filter, though I highly recommend the use of the ET-65 III hood rather than a filter; filter use should be limited to polarizers, neutral density filters and so on, rather than keeping a filter on the lens with the idea of protecting it. Here's why: filters create a flat surface over the end of the lens that can (and often does) create low-level reflections. These are most apparent in low-light shots, but they are almost always there. In the case of a UV filter, no other benefit is gained (UV can't get through the lens system anyway) other than physical protection. The hood, however, keeps the lens out of harms way quite effectively, and it increases contrast and reduces flare at the same time by preventing light from entering the lens at high angles of attack. I have shot with both hoods and filters, and after decades of experience, I have to come down firmly on the side of hood technique. It only takes one shot ruined by a filter reflection to wake up to this reality; and hoods never, ever compromise an image. They're simply the best way to go. Finally, the hood for this lens is inexpensive, well worth the extra few dollars it costs.

Aperture is controlled by an 8-blade system. The available f-stops range from f/1.8 wide open to f/22.0 fully stopped down. MTF (sharpness) peaks at f/5.6, and vignetting is almost gone by that setting.

On my camera, an EOS 50D, resolution loss from diffraction effects begin at f/7.6, so in many ways, the "sweet spot" for this lens for me lands naturally at f/5.6. On a camera with a lesser sensel density such as the 40D, diffraction doesn't set in until higher f-stops, but you're beginning to lose sharpness from other effects, so I'd still call the sweet spot as f/5.6 (which also provides a fairly extensive depth of field) for shots where detail is the primary consideration.

For portraits, you'll want to go right for f/1.8 if lighting conditions allow in order to take advantage of the shallow and pleasing DOF isolation this lens is famous for; background blur is very soft yet very strong, while the in focus region remains deep enough to keep the important features of the face in focus from ear to nose. The loss of MTF at f/1.8 is noticeable, especially once you get a feel for how the lens performs at f/5.6, but in my opinion, the compromise is perfectly acceptable in a portrait context. There's another benefit as well; at 85mm, and especially on a crop body like the 40D or 50D, this lens allows you to get some distance from your subject which tends to make them more comfortable, while giving you the modest compression that is the hallmark of any telephoto lens. Portraits "pop" and backgrounds blur away with commendable speed. Head-and-shoulders work will put you at about eight feet, and as the lens can focus down to just under three feet, this gives you considerable control over framing without ever running into a limit imposed by the lens design.

This is also a truly excellent lens for not-very-wide field astrophotography, although at critical focus and maximum aperture, chromatic aberration will make itself felt on the brightest stars, which you will then have to compensate for. I have successfully used this lens to capture the the Orion nebula, Andromeda galaxy, Triangulum galaxy, and a number of other astro objects that range from the easy to the difficult, all using no more than a standard (non-tracking) tripod, this lens, and the EOS 50D. On a crop body, 85mm (136mm effective FOV) is definitely the place to be to compromise between star trailing and magnification, and the f/1.8 aperture allows fast enough exposures to eliminate trailing at ISO 1600 and above.

I carry this lens nested in a large camera bag (a Tamrac 5612 Pro 12, *highly* recommended); I rarely put the lens on the camera until I am ready to use it, and when I am done, I take it right back off, cap it, and bag it without wasting any time or motion. I do both the assembly and disassembly "blind" in the bag, using the bag top to shield the camera and lens from the wind and environment as best I can manage. The lens has a raised alignment dot that makes blind assembly practical. It's the size of the overall investment that drives this behavior, of course; both the camera and a lens like this deserves -- demands -- good care and that is just what I try to provide.

Physically speaking, this lens isn't as large as you might think. Canon did a great job of packing a lot of glass (nine elements in seven groups) into a decent form factor of 3" diameter by 2.8" long; even with the hood mounted, this lens provides a fraction of the intimidation factor of, for instance, the 70-200mm f/2.8L. But at 85mm, it can still "get in there" and catch a lot of action without forcing you to crop to extremes. It's light enough that you can shoot for quite a while before fatigue sets in, an issue that will rear its head in any situation that goes on a while, like a wedding or a play (and that low-light capability is great for stage work, where a flash annoys literally everyone.) Plus it is black, and so looks more like it is designed as part of the same camera system, unlike the L's with the white bodies. That's also less distracting in a dark theater.

I can honestly say that this is definitely one of my favorite lenses. I have a fair collection of primes to compare it to, some of which are L glass, and I've got some great L zooms as well; yet for portraits, I inevitably turn to this specific lens as it outperforms everything else I own in the successful shooting methodologies I find myself returning to over and over. Frankly, at the price, I think it is perfectly fair to characterize this lens as a "must-have"; if you're ever going to shoot a portrait, trust me, this is the lens you want (even over the 85mm f/1.2L, which has far too narrow a depth of field for most reasonable portraiture, though you can't beat it for light-gathering.) Like Canon's 100mm f/2.8 macro lens, the 85mm f/1.8 is one of those where you're left scratching your head as to why it doesn't have an "L" designation. It is an outstanding performer.

If Canon were to re-do this lens, I'd like to see them add image stabilization, and perhaps some modern anti-CA elements, as this is the one area where this lens occasionally bites the photographer in high-contrast situations. Until that day, though, this lens is unmatched by anything else in Canon's line for price/performance, and I can't imagine anyone ever regretting its purchase.
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Showing 1-8 of 8 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Dec 31, 2008 7:40:40 PM PST
I use old Nikons myself. My old FA is like a friend - I may even have my grandkids burry it with me. This review, along with some of the other lens reviews you have done, are some of the best I have read! Do me a favor, dump your Canon stuff, go Nikon and start doing reviews in their lenses! :) Anyway, well done!

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 3, 2009 12:50:42 AM PST
Well, thank you very much for your kind words, but I'm afraid the size of my investment pretty well assures that I'll be a Canon user into the foreseeable future. :o)

Best I can do for you is churn out a few more Canon reviews.

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 3, 2009 2:52:45 PM PST
Sigh! I find myself in the same boat as tot he size of the investment with Nikon. After all these years I fear Connie (wife) would have harsh things to day if I switched. Will keep track of your Canon reviews though, they are interesting.

Posted on Jan 16, 2009 12:06:48 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Jan 16, 2009 12:09:15 PM PST
rwjack says:
I notice you are a martial artist. Do you think this would be the best moderate-priced lens for photographing a TKD competition? I am new to digital SLR and have a tournament I would like to shoot next month. I would like to get a sub $1000 lens for a Canon xsi. Thanks in advance for your opinion.

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 21, 2009 4:19:53 AM PST
It really depends on the venue. This is a medium telephoto, so if you're too close -- say twenty feet -- you're going to have trouble framing the participants, as one or the other will be out of frame. I'd say at about 50 feet, this becomes about the right lens. As far as light gathering, it's fine; light gathering is also, unfortunately, at the expense of depth of field, so you need to be prepared to use a high ISO and deal with the resulting noise.

The ideal lens for this, in my opinion anyway, would be the Canon EF 24-105mm f/4 L IS USM Lens, at the $900...$1000 price point. This will allow you to frame as required without running around, or ending up having to crop too much. It's fairly fast (É/4 isn't great, but it's not really slow, either) but still you'll have to rely on a high ISO because even É/4 doesn't provide a depth of field that will encompass two martial artists facing each other at six feet in line with your shot... so you'll be shooting above É/4 for the best results (I'd suggest É/8 to É/11, but again, we're really making some demands on ISO at that point. The XSI goes up to ISO 1600, which is marginal for this. You have to hope for great lighting. I don't want to sound too discouraging, but these are the things you face. If you use too low an aperture, such as the É/1.8 the 85mm offers, you're going to have very narrow depth of field, and that will seriously impact the photos you take. As the aperture goes up (in number), you get the depth of field you need, but also less light, and so you need higher ISO; as the ISO goes up, noise increases. It's a matter of juggling these issues, and a definitive answer can't be handed to you, because there's still that final variable, how well lit is the venue?

I also strongly suggest you look into Nik Dfine, the best (in my opinion) noise reduction software out there. Makes a huge difference with high ISO images. My only relationship with the company is as a very pleased customer. I also own noise ninja and some others, and Dfine is top of the list.

As far as flash goes, generally speaking you'll be too far from the participants for a flash to help very much, unless they let you onto the ring boundary (for sparring), which isn't very likely (not safe for you or the participants.) As far as patterns go, they *might* let you out there, but flash is annoying and distracting (though speaking as a judge, I'd consider it just something they'd have to ignore [cackles]... focus on the task at hand is something that counts.) From the stands, you'd need one heck of a flash. At least the 580EX. Which has its own learning curve - don't wait until the last minute to pick one up if you plan to use it.

The ideal camera for this is the 50D, because of the very high ISO capability, with Nik Dfine to tame the noise, and a zoom that covers wide to medium telephoto.

Best of luck to you, and I'm sorry I couldn't give you a more narrowly refined answer.

Posted on Mar 27, 2013 9:00:53 PM PDT
Dunno how one can evaluate a lens on an inferior format ie poor digits 50D. On Velvia or Kodachrome yes, on the 6D/5D3, yes. Otherwise its like evaluating a new mc phono cartyridge with crappy speakers distorting using crossovers, instead of a fullramge HEfficiency speaker, such as an Oris.

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 27, 2013 10:53:34 PM PDT
Well, Thomas, perhaps I can enlighten you. The 50D had some of the highest pixel densities (smallest -- about 22 microns) of any DSLR at the time of the review, almost half the size of the 5dmkII (about 41 microns), for instance; that's a consequence of the sensor being small, but the number of pixels being high.

What that means in combination with a lens is that in order to reduce inter-pixel artifacts and keep per pixel sharpness high, the lens has to be able to focus to a smaller point with the 50D as compared to a 5DmkII.

The 85mm excels far beyond most in that regard. Indeed, on my 6D, where the pixels are much larger, the 85mm looks fabulous, but knowing that it was excellent on the 50D, I could have told you that without even looking. When a lens can focus light well inside a 22 micron target without artifacts, of *course* it can put light inside a 40 micron target and do it well.

An FF sensor isn't just about more area. They don't (yet) offer the same pixel densities as APS-C sensors do, so the APS-C environment remains far more demanding. If you want to see how a lens does when pushed to its limits, that's where to do it.

As to edge performance, FF sensors have more edge area, but (unfortunately) all lenses deteriorate significantly towards the edges, so it's the mid region we're generally most concerned with. And because of square law, adding a little edge doesn't affect a lens nearly as much as shrinking a pixel does.

You're also making an error about crossovers; not all crossovers are created equal, and those same crossovers you are villifying are used repeatedly inside amplifiers and preamplifiers (and active crossovers) for everything from feedback loops to equalization and more. A passive crossover can do its job well as long as the reciprocal phase and amplitude response is maintained on both sides throughout the power range (and that means the thing's power handling has to be adequate to the task, too.) A cheap speaker can't do that: a great one certainly can. Conversely, a full range speaker has to be very carefully built so that the fact that it is re-creating the tympani at the moment, pushing massive amounts of air, doesn't interfere with the re-creation of the triangles, an extremely delicate set of high frequency harmonics. That's a good deal tougher than using several dedicated range drivers.

One last thing: Digital signal processing makes possible crossover performance that is simply impossible with analog components. Zero phase error, zero amplitude error, brick wall frequency transfer functions... we'll be seeing some multi driver systems shortly that have no flaws that the drivers themselves don't bring to the table.

Watch out for "audiophile" myths. There are a ton of them, and most truisms... aren't.

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 26, 2016 4:11:46 PM PDT
kate says:
I'm in love.

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