Canon’s EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM; Portraits Plus Optical Speed

For some time now my favorite portrait lens has been Canon's EF 85mm f/1.8 USM, but now my new favorite is the Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM. It replaces the EF 85mm f/1.2L USM and offers the widest aperture of any lens in Canon's EF family. All in all it provides a useful combination of focal length, depth-of-field control, and low-light performance. The superb optics of L-series lenses are designed for the most demanding professional photographic applications, but if you want one with uncompromised quality you have to pay for it--it's got a $2000 price tag.

The "L" Word
The EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM has an integrated high-speed CPU and uses a ring-type USM (Ultrasonic Motor) for fast and near silent autofocusing, something wedding photographers will appreciate when capturing quiet moments without attracting undo attention. The USM in the lens focuses (approximately) 1.8x faster than its predecessor. Focus is crisp and a grippy focusing ring offers seamless manual override, something that's especially useful when shooting wide-open and when you want to shift focus by a millimeter or two.

At f/1.2 you can keep a model's eye sharp while blurring the ends of her eyelashes. The shallow depth of field possible at its widest aperture makes this an ideal portrait lens in the studio or on location. Techies will be glad to know that when used in conjunction with Canon's EX flash units the EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM digitally transmits information back to the camera for processing by the new E-TTL II flash algorithm that's found in all current model digital EOS cameras.

My friend and colleague Peter Burian considers Canon's EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM to be a portrait lens, so I made a portrait of this hot rod. The 85mm focal length plus the EOS 30D's 1.6x multiplication factor adds a nice perspective and cropping to this photograph. Exposure was 1/250 sec at f/14 at ISO 320 and was underexposed by -1/3 stop to punch up the colors.
All Photos © 2006, Joe Farace, All Rights Reserved

To ensure corner-to-corner sharpness and contrast throughout the focus range, and especially at wide apertures, the EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM incorporates a floating group construction along with a large aspherical lens element that has variable curvature. It's coated, too. An uncoated lens reflects as much as 8 percent of the incidental light, reducing brightness, but the lens' Super Spectra Coating prevents that reflection to suppress flare and ghosting. The 85mm f/1.2L II USM uses optimized lens element shapes and has a large circular aperture diaphragm to soften distracting backgrounds. In keeping with Canon's Kyosei philosophy (living in harmony) the EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM features only lead-free glass.

(Left): For a more traditional portrait, I photographed Mary in the bay window of our kitchen using a Canon EOS 30D. The built-in flash was popped up but softened with LumiQuest's ( Soft Screen. Exposure was 1/60 sec at f/3.5 and was overexposed by 1/3 stop to open the shadows.
(Right): Dawn Clifford and I set out to create a 1950s look for this portrait. Here she's doing her Doris Day impression that I captured with the EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM lens at f/3.2 and a shutter speed of 1/60 sec at ISO 200. The Canon EOS 30D's built-in flash was popped up but softened by attaching LumiQuest's ( Soft Screen. After looking at the histogram of test shots I tweaked subsequent images adding a +11/3 stop exposure compensation to give a high key look. Applying Canon's "Nostalgia" Picture Style in camera gave this image the look of a faded print from the '50s. Nostalgia was downloaded from their website ( picturestyle) and installed in the EOS 30D.

Not Nice To Fool Mother Nature
After the price, the next thing you'll notice about the 85mm f/1.2L II USM is its size and weight; it's big and it's heavy. At 36.2 oz it weighs twice as much as the 15-oz EF 85mm f/1.8 USM. It can be a handful even when mounted on a lightweight digital SLR such as Canon's EOS 30D, but attaching the battery grip (BGM-E2) helps balance camera and lens better. The next thing you notice when using the lens is the brilliant image in the viewfinder. That image is wonderfully bright on a camera such as the EOS-1D Mark II and, on the EOS 30D's dimmer screen, you couldn't ask for a better view.