Canon 85mm f/1.4L IS USM: A Classic Redefined


K Madhavan Pillai tests the Canon 85mm f/1.4L IS USM to discover how this classic short telephoto portrait lens is different from the rest.

This article was originally published in February 2018.

Canon 85mm f/1.4L IS USM

Canon 85mm f/1.4L IS USM

Traditional, purist portraitists have always viewed the large aperture short telephoto 85mm full frame as a necessary focal length. Providing a more respectable distance from the subject and better background blurs over the 50mm, and significantly easier to control and lighter than 135mm lenses, the 85mm f/1.4 also has the benefit of offering a useful, near 135mm f/2.1 equivalent on Canon APS-C sensors. Canon’s newest introduction, the EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM, is poised between the inexpensive EF 85mm f/1.8 USM and the higher priced EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM.

With Sigma releasing it’s highly rated 85mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art in late 2016, Canon’s new 85mm not only plugs a very obvious gap in its line-up, it also adds image stabilisation… an extremely handy feature at this focal length. The Canon 85mm f/1.4L and the Tamron SP 85mm f/1.8 Di VC USD are the only stabilised lenses for Canon at this focal length, with the Canon being the first and only f/1.4 stabilised (four stops) 85mm lens the moment.

The lens features 14 elements in 10 groups, a 9-blade rounded aperture for smoother bokeh, Air Sphere coating (ASC) for reducing flare and ghosting, an aspherical element for reducing aberrations and distortion, a ring-type Ultrasonic Motor (USM) for fast, quiet AF, full-time manual focus override, dust and water-resistant construction, and a standard filter thread of 77mm. The lens comes with a round hood that firmly clasps into place.

Focusing is down to 33.46 inches, to provide a magnification of 0.12x. This is perfectly sufficient for most portraiture. If you need to get in closer, extension tube EF 12 II gives magnifications of 0.15x to 0.26x, and EF 25 II offers 0.33x to 0.43x. To maintain optical quality, the lens is not compatible with extenders or teleconverters.

Even at moderate distances from the subject, the 85mm is able to nicely separate the background at the largest apertures. The blurs produced are soft and pleasing as well. Exposure: 1/1000sec at f/1.4 (ISO 3200)

Even at moderate distances from the subject, the 85mm is able to nicely separate the background at the largest apertures. The blurs produced are soft and pleasing as well. Exposure: 1/1000sec at f/1.4 (ISO 3200) Photography/K Madhavan Pillai

The 85mm f/1.4L is a solid block of metal and glass weighing 950g. It is a not as broad, but it is slightly longer than Canon’s 85mm f/1.2L. I tested it on the EOS 5D Mk IV, and it felt right at home on it. It looks and feels rather impressive. I would personally rate it as one of Canon’s most well finished lenses.

For those who wish to manually adjust focus, the distance scale is calibrated in feet and meters, and a diminutive depth of field scale is available, which is not very useful. Apart from the rubberised, dampened, and rather convenient focus ring, an AF/MF switch and IS on/off switch are the only controls that adorn the lens.

I was pleasantly surprised to find the lens focusing perfectly across distances on the 6D Mk II, without the need to fine-tune focus. AF is much faster than the f/1.2L. Yet, all that glass does slow things a bit, but not so much that AF tracking is affected, in most cases.

Optically, the 85mm f/1.4L was everything I expected and more. Wide open, the center is tack sharp and edges trail, but not so much that it can be noticed in enlargements. Chromatic aberrations were barely visible on pixel peeping, and it disappears at f/2.8.

As you stop down, overall sharpness and uniformity improves by about 15 percent, peaking at f/8. From f/11 onwards, there is a rather large drop in sharpness, to below that of the widest apertures, and f/22 is visibly soft in comparison. Bokeh and out of focus areas show superbly smooth, creamy blurs. The lens shows an excellent degree of contrast and good control over flare

In attempting to bridge the gap between the f/1.2L and f/1.8L, Canon has done a masterful job, so much so that I would consider the 85mm f/1.4L, at Rs. 1,17,995, a much better value for money proposition than the higher priced f/1.2L. If IS and slightly faster AF isn’t all that important to you, Sigma’s rather brilliant (and lower priced) 85mm f/1.4 Art also makes a good option. That said, given its advantages of IS, much faster AF than the f/1.2L, optical finesse wide open and superior weather resistance, there is little in competition, making the Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM an excellent buy for a serious Canon user.

f/1.4, USM ring type motor, stabilisation
Good sharpness from f/1.4, fast AF, bokeh
Build Quality
All metal, extensively weathersealed
Full time MF, large focus ring, heavy lens
Warranty & Support
Two year warranty, wide service network
MRP Rs. 1,17,995
Who should buy it? Portrait, studio, and wedding photographers who use high-resolution DSLRs
Why? Fast AF and superb sharpness that starts wide open.
Tags: Lens, Better Photograhy, K Madhavan Pilla, February 2018, Canon 85mm f/1.4L IS USM, A Classic Redefined