Jeremy Hack: A Weekend With the 85mm f/1.2
If you have been following my photography then you will know that my style of photography is characterized by 3 primary features: 1.) They are taken with either little light, dramatic light, or both. 2.) My subjects are generally females. It is my preference to shoot females for my artistic pieces because I tend to get more emotion in their images. 3.) Absolutely no on camera or pop-up flash is used..ever.
That being said, I recently had the opportunity to rent one of Canon's absolute highest end portrait lenses; the Canon 85mm f/1.2L. I will explain the terminology in a moment but first I will give you my first impressions.
Having done extensive research on this lens, I knew with certainty that this lens would outperform all expectations and shine in providing all three of my key features. Being in Canons "L" series lineup automatically comes with a guaranteed quality of excellence in my book. This isn't because I think more expensive always means better (and believe that the "L" series lenses are ludicrously expensive to purchase) but that in my career as a photographer and video producer, I have NEVER had a negative product arise from utilizing an "L" lens. My first impression of the lens was its weight and rugged feel. This lens contains several pounds of top quality optical glass. The lens seemed sturdy enough to withstand most bumps and bruises (although I would carry it in a bomb-proof case if I owned one.) Also the auto focus is practically instant.
Because another avenue for my photography is sports (and for the better part of the year, basketball particularly) I have researched, read, and watched many tutorials created by leading NBA photographers to get their optimal settings and lens recommendations. Guess what lens also happens to be one of the highest recommended lenses among basketball photographers? Yes, the 85mm f/1.2L. Of course, having rented the lens for the weekend, I also had a game to cover for BeechTree. So I did what any logical sports photographer would do, use the 85mm. Needless to say the images I captured far exceeded any photos I had taken this season.
Now I will break down the terminology and mechanics of the lens. Let's take a look at what it is. It is an 85mm, which is pretty straight forward. It simply means the lens has a focal length set at 85 millimeters. In Laymen's terms, the focal length means how "zoomed in" everything looks when you look into the eyepiece, or in photographer fast slang, how "tight" the lens is. 85mm is very very tight. This can be both fantastic and detrimental depending on your situation, as there are absolutely no "one size fits all" lenses. At 85mm you would be hard pressed to take a group photo containing more than 4 people unless you move extremely far back. This can be limiting for general purpose journalism where you will sometimes be drafted into taking a group photo at a moments notice. However for basketball this is extremely helpful. This is because you can get relatively close up photos of the players from half court all the way to the paint. As I said, the "L" series lenses are simply built better, better motors inside for auto focus, and better quality glass.
Next we discuss what the other half of the lens' title means. The f/1.2L simply means that the lens shoots at an f-stop of 1.2 and the "L" means that it an L-series lens. As I discussed in a previous article on low light shooting, the lower the f-stop, the better performance in both speed and in low light scenarios. The f-stop being at 1.2 can be both a gift and a curse when taking photos. For example, if you sit 5 feet away from a coke bottle and shoot a photo with this lens. the DOF "depth of field" or "falloff" begins as the bottle curves away from you. Therefore you have an extremely limited focal range. If it's in focus, then its REALLY in focus, but if it's not focused, then it's REALLY not focused. Using auto focus in sports is practically your only option, unless you do not plan on moving and can set an ideal focal plane around one area of the goal, which I don't, so having such a narrow focal plane can get in the way in sports. But when you land one in proper focus, you will not be sorry, not at all.
Now for the real reason I rented the lens, shooting low light portraits for my portfolio. This lens shattered any expectation that I could have had. I knew from the beginning not to underestimate it, and now I can safely preach its gospel. The f/1.2 allows me to shoot at a lower ISO in low light (therefore less noise, see my article on low light shooting). This lens's performance in low light is astounding. It's falloff and focal plane is also astounding in portraiture. As far as the auto focus, I can see where someone like myself with less experience shooting at a low f-stop could have trouble getting the focus points right. Sometimes the lens will try to focus on the tip of the nose, or the hair before focusing on the eyes. This takes practice, but as I said when you land one in proper focus, you will not be sorry.
Below are some of the photographs that I was left with before having to ship this jewel back to it's rightful place. Having made it's impression on me, it is off to inspire other photographers.
In conclusion, I would quickly and happily pay the $2,000 price tag for this lens if I had the money on hand. For the general public it is nearly impossible to justify such an expenditure on a mere lens, but it is not simply a lens to the photographer, but a tool to put food on the table, pay student loans, and create a legacy of photographic excellence. It's the same concept as spending $5,000 on the installation of a turbo system on a car, just to gain a couple seconds on the race track. Those few seconds could be the difference between first place and last place.
If you are considering purchasing this lens, please do extensive research on your camera model to ensure that the lens will fit your mount. Note that this lens fits the Canon EF style mount.