Hands-on with Canon’s perfect prime for portraiture, the Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM

Those with some knowledge of Canon lenses will know that there are currently two 85mm prime lenses in its lineup. There’s the affordable EF 85mm f/1.8 USM (£325), and the bokehlicious EF 85mm f/1.2 L II USM, for which you’re required to pay a hefty premium (£1765).

Now the wait for a lens that slots perfectly in-between is finally over with the release of the new Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM. This latest Canon EF lens isn’t intended to replace the EF 85mm f/1.8 USM or the EF 85mm f/1.2 L II USM. Canon says that both these existing lenses will continue in production alongside the Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM.

The Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM is expected to be available from November and will cost £1569.99.

Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM – Features

The Canon 85mm f/1.4L IS USM looks set to be a very popular lens with both professionals and serious enthusiasts who specialise in portrait and wedding photography.

How it performs against the likes of the Nikon 85mm f/1.4 G AF-S, Sigma 85mm f/1.4 Art DG HSM and the Canon EF 85mm f/1.2 L II USM is yet unknown. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like review samples are going to filter through until later in the year – expected around November to coincide with the on-sale date – so there’s going to be a rather long wait until we get to find out.

One distinct advantage the Canon 85mm f/1.4L IS USM has over the lenses mentioned above is the way it offers unparalleled stability. Unlike Canon’s EF 85mm f/1.8 USM and EF 85mm f/1.2 L II USM lenses, the Canon 85mm f/1.4L IS USM features optical image stabilisation that’s effective to 4 stops. This will allow users to shoot slower than would otherwise be possible, and will be a godsend in low-light venues such as churches and in dark interiors.

The Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM features an internal construction of 14 elements in 10 groups, with high-precision elements that Canon claims correct chromatic aberration and deliver the optical performance required by the latest high-resolution sensors. Furthermore, Canon has employed its air sphere coating (ASC) technology to the front element to eliminate the affects of flare and ghosting.

The lens is also equipped with an electro magnetic diaphragm, which comprises nine aperture blades and relies on Canon’s high-speed ultrasonic motor (USM) to deliver fast, quiet and highly accurate autofocus.

Other important features to note include its 0.85m minimum focusing distance and 77mm filter thread at the front, which is a different size to the 58mm and 72mm filter threads you’ll find on the EF 85mm f/1.8 USM and EF 85mm f/1.2 L II USM.

Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM – Build and handling

As you’d expect of a premium Canon L-series lens costing £1569,99, build quality is exceptionally good. Behind the red ring that’s synonymous with Canon’s L-series lenses is a large, rubberised, manual focus ring that operates fluidly and offers far more resistance than you get on the Canon EF 85mm f/1.2 L II USM.

Approximately midway down the barrel there’s a clear focus distance indicator with the words ‘Image Stabilizer Ultrasonic’ printed alongside. The AF/MF switch is located above the Stabilizer On/Off switch and both are easy enough to locate with your thumb from behind the camera when it’s raised to your eye. The feel of the switches are also slightly different, which helps differentiate between them.

The lens has a solid, weighty feel to it, but it isn’t as much of a brute to carry around as the Canon EF 85mm f/1.2 L II USM. The barrel isn’t as wide and it weighs 950g. This is 75g less than the Canon EF 85mm f/1.2 L II USM, but is more than double the weight of the considerably lighter Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM.

The lens also benefits from the enhanced durability provided by Canon’s L-series lens construction. Thanks to the EF 85mm’s weather-sealing, dust-proofing and fluorine coating, it’s been specifically designed for tough and variable weather conditions. Around the circumference of the metal mount you also get a rubber ring that compresses against the camera body to form a protective seal.

From my hands-on session, I left with the impression that it feels as solid and as robust as its price suggests, and clearly meets the standard I’d expect of Canon’s professional L-series optics.

First impressions

There will be many portrait and wedding photographers who are excited by this new lens – and for good reason. It brings image stabilisation, speedy focusing and a super-fast aperture to Canon users who for many years have been demanding a cheaper and lighter alternative to the Canon EF 85mm f/1.2 L II USM.

The lens handled and performed very well during the short amount of time I was hands-on with it. The room I was in wasn’t particularly well lit, but this provided a good opportunity to find out how well it focuses in the type of environment in which it will see regular use.

The lens locked onto subjects hastily when it was paired with a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV and produced an extremely shallow depth of field with pleasing circular bokeh in the highlights. Raising the lens to my ear and half depressing the shutter also revealed that it focuses very quietly.

Those thinking about upgrading from the Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM should expect to fetch around £100 for a model in excellent condition from an online second-hand buyer. The Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM therefore represents a serious upgrade from the Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM, but offers a saving of around £200 buying the Canon EF 85mm f/1.2 L II USM from new.

The real perk of the Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM is its image stabilisation. Provided its optical performance matches its excellent build quality, I foresee Canon selling this lens to portrait and wedding photographers around the world by the bucket-load.

This review was first posted on Trusted Reviews