Why Canon's New 85mm Lens Is Brilliant, Ridiculous, and Completely Unnecessary

Why Canon's New 85mm Lens Is Brilliant, Ridiculous, and Completely Unnecessary

Canon must feel like they simply can’t win. For the last couple of years, they’ve been too slow to innovate, and now, when they bring out a mind-blowing lens, everyone says that it’s too big, unnecessary, and far, far too expensive.

The recent announcement of Canon’s latest RF lens, the 85mm f/1.2, came with a handful of noticeable points. First is the insanely wide aperture. At f/1.2, the bokeh certainly looks remarkable, but this comes at a price — an incredible $2,699 if you get your preorder in today. There’s a chance that this will drop after a couple of months by a couple of hundred dollars, but as prime lenses go, that’s a lot of cheddar for a lot of lens.

Canon’s reluctance to enter the world of mirrorless cameras has led to the Japanese manufacturer receiving a lot of criticism over the last few years for being too slow to innovate and not brave enough in the face of dramatic progression from the likes of Sony. Suddenly, it creates a lens that could potentially be optically among the most exciting developments of late, and yet, Canon is taking flak for producing a piece of glass that no one needs and pretty much no one can afford. Even self-confessed GAS victim Manny Ortiz is finding this one a bit of a stretch.

You can understand why. Is the RF 85mm f/1.2 really going to offer more than a thousand dollars’ worth of performance over the EF 85mm f/1.4? Is the f/1.2 aperture really going to be useful when depth of field is so ridiculously shallow and given that the jury is still out on the effectiveness of Canon’s eye autofocus? 

Something that immediately grabbed my attention was two of the sample images in the promotional video hosted by Rudy Winston and his rather wonderful mustache. The image of the guitar at 2:27 barely seems to have a sharp pixel in it. “That’s a little odd,” I thought, wondering why you’d demonstrate a lens’ sharpness with a load of motion blur. That was quickly forgotten when I saw the shot of the singer immediately afterwards. Is it me, or is the eye soft? Sure, that funky little box dances nicely around the EVF like a cat on a hot tin roof, but is it grabbing sharp images?

Hopping over to DPReview, I downloaded a few of the full-res sample images and did some pixel-peeping. The bokeh is wonderfully creamy, as you would expect. The sharpness is incredible, but f/1.2 can be tricky, as proven by this image.

Canon RF 85mm f/1.2

100% crop of the high resolution image, downloaded from DPReview.com.

One eye is razor sharp, while thanks to a slight turn of the head, the other is soft. For April fools last month, I wrote a playful article about the insane bokeh offered by an imaginary f/.035 50mm lens; little did I realize that the daft images I bodged together in Photoshop were about to become one step closer to reality.

Pixel-peeping and jokes aside, this looks like it will be an amazing lens and the bokeh geeks will be falling over themselves with glee when they get their hands on it in the coming weeks. Canon will get some grief for producing something that no one needs and no one can afford, but you’ve got to tip the hat when it comes to innovation. If its Blue Spectrum Refractive Optics live up to the hype, you’d want Canon to demonstrate its performance on a piece of glass that’s really demanding, and 85mm f/1.2 is just that.

So, thank you, Canon. I will never buy this lens, and if you read the comments, neither will anyone else. I hope you sell a bucketful, because it looks amazing, and I for one appreciate the daft level of engineering that’s gone into it. As usual, please leave your thoughts in the comments.

Lead image is a composite using a photograph by Stefan Schweihofer.

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70 Comments

Daniel Medley's picture

I can't help but wonder how much money is spent developing nonsense like this.

Thomas H's picture

With some reservation, I tend to agree: However, if we speak of nonsense, lets rather look at the Noct Nikkor f/0.95. That is a pure "bragging rights" device.

In both cases the new camera systems RF and Z have only a few lenses. In the case of Canon I think that their priority should be toward a lens for the RP user. Where is the ultra small RF "vacation" or "travel" zoom to pair with this extraordinary small body?

I love to photograph cities, landmarks, architecture. To that end I sometimes cross miles and miles on foot, have to stop in restaurants, "go someplace" and squeeze the gear into the sometimes small stalls, go in and out from public transport, climb narrow steps. The RP is a joy: I walked recently for almost 12h the hills of San Francisco. But the only lens I could have the is the rather hefty 24-104 f/4: Its size and weight is like the EF version. So yes, for me any f/1.2 RF lens appear our of sequence. Canon has to provide 1st lenses pairing with the R and RP bodies.

Daniel Medley's picture

"However, if we speak of nonsense, lets rather look at the Noct Nikkor f/0.95."

Agreed, that, too, is a nonsensical lens.

Not even macro in the Z roadmap, and they waste precious R&D money and time on the absurd F/.95

One of the first few prime lenses canon released with the Eos mount back in 1987 was the 200mm F1.8. it's only "nonsense" if you don't know how to make use of this incredible lens.

Daniel Medley's picture

No, it's nonsense because it has such a shallow DOF that is all but useless for most reasonable applications. Plus, the price of it makes it even more nonsensical.

you said it yourself, it's "useless" for most application but this lens wasn't designed for most applications just like how a tilt shift lens is useless for most application or a fisheye lens is useless for most application or a super telephoto lens is useless for most application.

Xander Cesari's picture

I get that Canon's strategy is to get a pro set of glass out for mirrorless before releasing truly pro bodies... but isn't their whole marketing thing that they can adapt EF glass? So there is pro glass available for these and they're specifically marketing to people who already have EF glass. Seems like offering them a pro body first makes a lot more sense.

Andrew Morse's picture

I had a theory about that actually (to be taken with a healthy grain of salt). When the 5DsR was released, Canon actually recommended which L lenses would be sharp enough to take advantage of the high-megapixel sensor. Considering rumours are pointing to release of a very high MP camera next (>60mp) I'm wondering if releasing a lot of these lenses is in an effort to hit a new benchmark for sharpness before they release that camera, since fewer of the lenses in the current EF line up would meet an even higher resolution standard than was suggested for the 5DsR. That path would be in line with past actions by Canon, and could help them justify the considerable expense required to buy some of the new RF lenses. I.e. Canon could say "your EF glass will work on the high-resolution camera, but if you're only going to be able to take advantage of all that resolution with the new RF lenses, so pay up!". I could see them marketing in that way, and it would explain the rush for native/very sharp glass.

Xander Cesari's picture

Yeah I guess that would be a decent rationalization but there aren't a ton of people clamoring for a massively high resolution camera. No one said "I like the EOS R but if only it had twice the resolution". And I don't know what the Z6 vs Z7 or A7iii vs A7Riii sales numbers look like but most people seem perfectly happy with ~24-26 MP. That just seems like a very niche and almost outdated advantage to hang the whole system on. Even if they execute it well they're going after a small market.

Rk K's picture

Well, they can't actually make a pro body, so this is the next best thing I guess.

Andrew Morse's picture

No idea on demand for higher resolution bodies (certainly a valid question, though I'd love an EOS R with twice the resolution), but the same could be said for sports or high-paced action photography. They are niches within photography where those who need the features, need the features and are willing to pay for them. To be fair, the same thing was said over the 5DsR - way too much resolution, but now we have a D850 which is at nearly the same resolution, and I'm not hearing a lot of people complain about having too much. For me, the real benefit to high resolution bodies is cropping power. Looking at the D850 again, using the crop mode equivalent to APS-C, you can still produce a 19MP image by cropping down to the equivalent sensor size as a D500. For me, that means I can choose between the reach of an APS-C camera and the wideness of a full frame camera in one body. Pair the D850 with a 200-500, and if you're willing to use the crop mode, you effectively have the equivalent reach of 200mm (at 45MP) - 750mm (at 19MP). For me, that has some value.

Xander Cesari's picture

I think the reason why the sports/action feature set is more popular is because it has cross advantages. Really good AF speed and tracking also can be used for video and stuff like Eye AF. And the processor and write speeds required for high burst rates line up well with a camera that can do 4k30 with no crop. High resolution for landscape isn't quite so broadly useful.

But you do make a good point about cropping. I've spoken to a few people in the movie biz who have suspected we might see that kind of strategy; shoot wide with a very high resolution camera and crop to the composition you want. 360 cameras are kind of using the same technique. So I think rationally we all know that's probably a valid strategy, it'll be interesting to see if people start to pick high res and wide angle more than more reasonable resolutions and telephoto.

Michael Clark's picture

There are actually a few very vocal folks clamoring for a very high resolution R body. You can find a bunch of them over at Canon rumors.

Andrew Morse's picture

I always hear about how non-innovative Canon is, but these lenses certainly strike me as innovation - maybe just not the innovation some were hoping for. I'm not going to lie, I'm looking forward to seeing what else they can do with RF lenses, and it remains an attractive system for me.

revo nevo's picture

well those lenses are nothing new
other than 28-70 lens which is stupid

Bert McLendon's picture

Stupid awesome! =P

revo nevo's picture

Yeah 1.4kg lens with no real long end no real wide end that costs $2,999.00
I don't find that awesome. Standard 24-70 f/2.8 would be much more useful

Andrew Morse's picture

I'm not sure that's accurate - the lenses are certainly new and have their own benefits and drawbacks - what's new about them is that they perform better than their EF counterparts. The 50 1.2 is a completely new design which is far sharper wide open compared to the EF equivalent. The 35 is the only full-frame macro 35 Canon makes. The 24-105 RF is again sharper than the EF equivalent, though it's a smaller margin of improvement compared to the other lenses. You may think the 28-70 is stupid, but I think it looks awesome - it all depends on the needs of the user, and each user has different needs. Looking toward the upcoming 70-200 2.8 - I can't think of a 70-200 in that size - that's new. The 15-35 f/2.8 looks to be the only full-frame fast aperture zoom lens which is 15mm wide with a front filter thread - that's new (and something of significant interest to me if you want to use ND grads). On the wide end, all the competition is 16mm or more narrow, or you sacrifice the front filter thread - again, not a deal breaker for some, but a deal breaker for me.

I'm not arguing it's the best kit option out there, but I think it is fair to say there will be advantages for some users.

revo nevo's picture

at least they got rid of that horrible purple fringe that was on older 50mm and 85mm lenses :) for me that is much more important than sharpness. It's like zeiss lenses with AF

new 70-200 looks interesting but it will probably be external zoom lens (like 100-400)

What exactly is innovative about a 1.2 lens? They've been made before and they'll be made again. No one cares.

Andrew Morse's picture

What's innovative about it is image quality - something I care about quite a bit. Compare Canon's RF 1.2 lenses against their EF counterparts, and you'll find that both RF 1.2s are sharper, with less chromatic aberration. The MTFs certainly show the improvement for both 1.2s, and certainly the 50 1.2 has side by side images available comparing EF and RF results - there's a considerable difference in quality. So yes, improving on already good design I would say is innovative. Further, I'd also suggest that the 28-70 f/2 would also be innovative since there aren't a lot of other full frame zoom lenses that fast, and none in that zoom range. It's a one of a kind - I'd call that innovative too.

Tony Tumminello's picture

It's never "innovative" until it's a feature they personally want. 🙄

revo nevo's picture

Samyang 85mm 1.2 has very good optics

Andrew Morse's picture

No disagreement there - it looks to be an optically very good lens. But, it's also manual focus and out resolved by other 85s on the market, so while it is a whole lot cheaper, it isn't really apples to apples. I'll be curious to see side by side comparisons between the 85s once this is in the hands of reviewers.

João Chainho's picture

I do not say that this was the gem missing in canon's lineup. Nevertheless, it is somehow an evolutionary step ( forget the price for one second). And if 1.2 is to wide for all jobs, well you do not need to use it always wide open. And if the eye is laser sharp and skin is not. Well faster will be the skin post-processing ;p

Jeff McCollough's picture

Exactly. This lens is good because it is sharper at 1.4 and 1.8 then a 1.4 or 1.8 lens are. People seem to forget that.

Notice how "no one needs" morphed into "I will never buy this lens..neither will anyone else"?

It's called projection.

Using the same logic model, meaning my feelings and reasoning are the same as everyone else's, EVERYONE who's reading about the 85RF secretly craves it. Once they get over the sticker shock, they will buy it or wait for it to pop up on eBay. It'll still be expensive but they, like Manny, will find a way to rationalize its purpose and eventual acquisition.

Of course these won't be sold in mass, but they will definitely find there way into the bags of many wedding and portrait photographers around the world. I remember paying around $1,800 for the 85mm 1.2L II about a 8 years ago. The new 70-200mm 2.8 FL is $2,800 and I remember thinking that was a little high, but once I received it and starting using it, I felt it was worth it. I've been a professional for almost 20 years now and the truth is pro-level gear has always been expensive and taking in inflation it's really not any different today!

My 11-24 was $3000 and it paid for itself by the second job.

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