The Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM lens is the oldest piece of kit in my work camera bag. As I get ready to upgrade all of my gear, I thought a lifetime review was in order.
I purchased this lens a very long time ago, it may be around a decade ago, I am not really sure. What I am sure of though is that it has paid for itself many times over. This is perhaps the best return on investment that a single piece of equipment has ever given me. I vividly remember walking to my local camera shop in Leicester during a lunch break to purchase a copy of this lens, with very little thought, research, or general clue as to what I was doing. I assume I had heard of a pro photographer who liked an 85mm lens and assumed I needed one. Back then I would have probably only had a crop-sensor camera so it was a little on the tight side for my taste, but I seem to remember buying my first full-frame body shortly after to remedy this, also with very little research and forethought.
Back then I was taking portraits and shooting bands for local magazines. For live music photography, the 85mm lens was great. There was no way I could have afforded a 70-200mm back then, and most of the shows I was shooting were so small that they were not required. For the group shots it was too long, but for solo artist portrait sittings this was great. I worked this lens for corporate headshots for years too. It has never let me down and clients were always impressed with the way the images looked. I don't use the lens as often now that I work primarily with food, but even when I first started food photography, it was my go-to lens.
As far as lenses go, this is pretty cheap. You can buy one brand new for B&H for $369. There is nothing else in the Canon lineup in the 85mm range that comes anywhere close to it price wise. The only third-party 85mm lens that I have used was by Sigma, and it was better, but only a little and it is a lot more expensive. In term of a return on investment, this lens has paid for itself so many times over. I tried to calculate it, but it was a bit vague and complex and I didn't think the number alone gave a great insight, but given the choice of this or a camera body upgrade, proportionately this wins by a country mile. Price wise for Canon shooters, this lens is a no brainer.
It’s plastic. It isn’t like the Sigma Art or Zeiss lenses that I shoot with. It does feel a little cheap and it doesn't look very impressive. However, after years of heavy use, it hasn’t failed me once. I have certainly dropped it few times, shot with it in the snow and rain, and used it at many drink-fueled band tours and festivals. There is a small but very annoying failing in the build though, and that is the lens hood for this is complete rubbish. I purchased the Canon one twice and it broke very easily. Now I work with a third-party one that is as rubbish, but a fraction of the cost.
This is where the lens really shines through. I have never been disappointed with the optical performance of this lens. It is better than my Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L lens and nearly as good as my series of Sigma Art primes. From f/2.0 onwards it is incredibly sharp and renders good colors and contrast. It is nothing exotic, but it performs every single time I use it. I lust after a Zeiss lens to replace it, but I just cannot justify a slightly different image rendering for so much more money when this lens is such a solid performer. The shot below was taken when I first got it many years ago. I think it was wide open. It probably was; Whenever you get a new lens, you shoot it wide open don't you?
This lens is super fast. I think it’s faster than my telephoto zoom, certainly faster than the f/1.2 offering from Canon that can be a real pain to work with and almost as fast as my Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM lens from Canon which feels like my fastest focusing lens (based on nothing more than my perception). I really can’t complain about the autofocus at all. It is the only Canon lens that I haven’t had to micro adjust, although this could be completely down to chance. It also seems to grab focus far better than other lenses that I have on my bodies. It is also completely silent. You can get away with focusing it during video without having any odd stuttering or grinding sounds that other lenses often create.
What I Liked
The price point for a lens with this optical quality and longevity is great. I have shot with this from day one and continued to shoot major campaigns with it throughout my career. There is no way that I can justify upgrading this lens to anything more expensive when clients just don’t complain. The only time I use a different lens for a similar focal length is when I rent medium-format systems for big jobs.
The build quality is also great. Although it feels cheap, it has taken a battering over the years that I have owned it and it still works as well today as it did when I first purchased it. I have never had to have it serviced either, which is more than I can say for my more expensive lenses.
The optics on this lens are amazing. I am not a pixel peeper nor a DXOMark checker, but I really couldn’t pinpoint any faults with the optical performance. The only reason I would upgrade is if I wanted something with a particular aesthetic. This lens does offer a solid performing 85mm focal length that will get your from beginner to jobbing professional at a great price point, but it misses any magic that some more fancy lenses can bring to the table.
What I Don’t Like
There are few faults with this lens. The actual manual focusing band has come loose on my copy after about six years use, but I think at the price point that this is fine. I have had L lenses have similar faults. Apart from that, the only issue is that the lens hood doesn't come with it as standard and when you do buy it, it breaks very quickly.
Who Is This Lens For?
If Canon lenses fit your camera and you need a portrait or telephoto lens then this is a great introduction to that world. Perfect for wedding photographers and portrait photographers. It is also a great move if you do not have the money for expensive zooms and in my opinion, it offers far better optical performance, although lacking the obvious versatility of zoom lenses. If you already own a good standard zoom or a 50mm or 35mm lens then this would be a great next step to filling your camera bag. I truly believe that as a professional this lens has given me my greatest return on investment and allowed me to create some really cool work without breaking the bank.