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What's New: EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM

August 29, 2017

Rudy Winston

Canon USA has announced the launch of a third 85mm lens in the Canon EF lens line, the 85mm f/1.4L IS USM.  We expect this lens to be a remarkable addition to the lens line, and offer professional photographers and critical enthusiasts alike a superb portrait and low-light lens.  In this article, we’ll explain some of the new features, and give you some insights into what this lens may offer you as a potential way to expand your personal lens system.

The Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS lens breaks new ground in several important ways. It’s a completely new optical design, with excellent image quality even at wide-open apertures. It’s Canon’s first-ever f/1.4 lens in the 85mm category, and it’s also Canon’s first 85mm lens with optical Image Stabilization.

The 85mm Lens Category, and Some Potential Applications

Before we even get into the details of the EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM lens, we should be clear on what an 85mm lens delivers to photographers.  Experienced shooters will hopefully be patient with this brief explanation, since the appeal of the 85mm lens category may not be immediately evident to newcomers to interchangeable lens cameras, or to casual users.

The 85mm lens is first and foremost a fixed focal length lens — that is, it has no zooming capability.  In exchange for losing the ability to zoom, you gain several important capabilities, which professionals have leveraged with SLR cameras for decades:

  • Significantly wider maximum lens apertures than even today’s highest-end tele zoom lenses — much more light enters the lens, so they’re great for low-light pictures.  And, focused in a typical portrait scenario, they can beautifully blur backgrounds, when used at wide lens openings.
    The 85mm telephoto lens has long been a favorite of portrait photographers, for its natural perspective in shots of people. Used at or near this lens’ f/1.4 maximum aperture, it’s easy to get beautiful selective-focus results that rivet a viewer’s attention on the sharpest part of the scene, and allow backgrounds to go gracefully out of focus. This image was taken with an EOS 5D Mark IV camera, ISO 200, at f/1.4 and 1/2500th second.
  • With full-frame cameras:  a short telephoto perspective, ideal for flattering head-and-shoulders portraits, and candid images in situations where you can approach subjects
  • With APS-C sensor-size cameras (such as Canon EOS Rebel models, EOS M-series models, EOS 80D, and EOS 7D series cameras):  longer effective telephoto coverage, because of the camera’s 1.6x “crop factor.”  An 85mm lens, in effect, gives the same coverage that a 136mm tele lens would provide on a full-frame digital camera.
  • A relatively compact, short overall design, which most users find easy to handle, relatively easy to hand-hold steadily in low light at slower shutter speeds, and generally won’t take up a lot of space in a camera bag.

As such, the 85mm lens is a well-established favorite for critical photographers.  It’s a workhorse lens for many applications:  portraits (outdoors, on-location, or in the studio);  fashion;  baby and child photography;  theater photography (because of their great light-gathering ability);  wedding photography;  candids and events;  and indoor sports that allow the photographer to be relatively close to the action.

A Series of Three Canon EF 85mm Lenses

It’s important for Canon customers to realize that the f/1.4 lens does not replace any lens in the current Canon lens line-up.  Instead, it joins two long-established portrait-length telephoto lenses.  The EF 85mm f/1.8 USM, and the renowned EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM lens, remain fully in the Canon lens line, giving Canon users three effective choices for expanding their lens arsenal.

New with the EF 85mm f/1.4L IS Lens

The introduction of the 85mm f/1.4L IS lens introduces some important new features, which especially target the working professional photographer, as well as the serious camera enthusiast:

  • f/1.4 Lens Speed
    For many potential lens customers, this alone may make the EF 85mm f/1.4L IS lens the “fastest,” widest-aperture lens they own.  Its maximum lens opening is about 2/3 of a stop wider than the 85mm f/1.8 lens, and a full two stops faster than an f/2.8 professional zoom lens.
  • Putting the latter into everyday perspective, adding the 85mm f/1.4L IS to a pro’s camera bag could mean the difference, for instance, between taking available-light shots at ISO 1600, instead of having to boost ISO to 6400 to get the same shutter speeds with an f/2.8 lens.
    Fixed focal length 85mm lenses have historically been a go-to option for available-light shooting. They offer wider apertures than practically any zoom lens, and this is underscored with the Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS lens — it’s two stops faster than an f/2.8 zoom would be, making it a beautiful option for indoor or low-light shooting. And, while not a tiny lens, the 85mm f/1.4L IS is significantly smaller and lighter than today’s 70–200mm f/2.8 zoom lenses, so it’s a great addition for pros and enthusiasts whose primary lenses are professional zooms.
  • Image Stabilization
    A wide maximum aperture alone often means faster shutter speeds, to minimize problems with camera shake.  But with the EF 85mm f/1.4L IS lens, Canon enthusiasts have another tool in the quest for sharp, low-light images — Image Stabilization.  The optical stabilization built into this lens, according to CIPA industry-standard testing, provides up to four stops of shake-correction, for still-image shooting.  
  • Again, in an everyday situation:  if the slowest shutter speed a photographer normally felt he or she could consistently hand-hold an 85mm lens for sharp pictures (without any stabilization) was 1/125th of a second, with the IS in this lens, he or she could expect consistently sharp pictures at shutter speeds as slow as 1/8th of a second — with non-moving subjects, of course!
    Image Stabilization transforms this lens, when it’s hand-held in low-light situations. Looking at the cropped, detail images (the original, full composition is shown as well, for reference), you can see the impact the lens’s IS brings. These images were shot, hand-held, at 1/6th of a second — normally, a shutter speed many photographers would never consider at 85mm without IS. Along with the lens’s f/1.4 maximum aperture, the Image Stabilization makes this a dream lens for low-light shooting.
  • Fast AF
    Unlike Canon’s legendary professional, 85mm f/1.2L lens — a long-time favorite of portrait and natural-light shooters — the optical design of the f/1.4 version is totally different.  A key point is that the lens elements that move for focus are smaller-diameter elements, toward the rear of the lens’ optical formula.  Their smaller size means they’re much lighter in weight, and can be moved much faster.  (With the existing Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II lens, the entire front group of elements has to move for focus.  It’s a lot heavier, and this impacts focus speed and responsiveness in the f/1.2 version significantly.)
  • Both lenses use Canon’s powerful, ring-type Ultrasonic Motor for focus drive — but the 85mm f/1.4L IS lens benefits from new and refined electronic support for AF performance, in addition to the aforementioned lighter weight it has to drive for focusing.
  • Comparing the two Canon L-series 85mm lenses, the significantly faster focus speed alone may be a reason for some critical photographers to consider the new EF 85mm f/1.4L IS lens.
  • L-series Optical Design
    The EF 85mm f/1.4L IS lens brings a totally new optical design to critical photographers.  It’s a 14-element design, highlighted by a glass-molded Aspeherical element (to correct curvature of field, and spherical aberrations;  new lens elements specifically to correct multiple types of chromatic aberrations;  Canon’s Air Sphere Coating on the inner surface of the 8th lens element (to dramatically reduce lens flare and ghosting, particularly with light entering directly into the lens, rather than at an extreme angle);  and Canon’s traditional “multi-coating,” Super Spectra Coating.
  • According to Canon lens engineers, they expect overall image quality from the EF 85mm f/1.4L IS lens to be “equal or superior” to that of the f/1.2L version II lens.
The optical performance of the EF 85mm f/1.4L IS lens is outstanding. This shot, taken wide-open at f/1.4, shows the sharpness, and how even in a casual outdoor image, it beautifully blurs background details — a reason many seasoned shooters consider adding an 85mm lens to their system.

Additional Information on the EF 85mm f/1.4L IS Lens

Photographers excited about the introduction of this professional lens to the EF lens system will doubtless be interested in some of the following details about it:

  • Minimum focus distance 2.79 feet (0.85m) — maximum magnification at nearest focus distance is 0.12x  (with a full-frame camera, fill the frame with a subject about 11 x 7.5 inches in size, such as a very tight headshot of an adult)
  • Equipped with a bayonet-mount Canon lens hood ET-83E.  This is an entirely new hood design, dedicated to the EF 85mm f/1.4L IS lens.
  • Filter size 77mm
  • Compatible with Canon’s optional, accessory 77mm Close-up Lens 500D (maximum magnification 0.30x, at lens’ closest focus distance)
  • Not compatible with Canon EF tele extenders
  • Allows high-precision AF with select AF points on recent, compatible Canon EOS digital SLRs (considered part of “A-group” lenses for cameras such as EOS-1D X Mark II, EOS 5D Mark IV, and EOS 7D Mark II)
  • Summary

    The introduction of the EF 85mm f/1.4L IS lens brings new attention to a category which pros have relied upon for many years.  The 85mm lens in general represents a superb way to add to a photographer’s existing zoom lenses, augmenting them beautifully when a lighter-weight or especially a wider-aperture alternative is desirable.  Far from replacing the tele zooms many of us use regularly, an 85mm lens can add even more versatility for portraits, some sports applications, and many available-light situations.  Whether a user opts for the affordable 85mm f/1.8, the long-established, professional-grade f/1.2L II version, or this exciting new Image Stabilized, f/1.4 version, it can open creative doors to great pictures for many different types of photographers.

Rudy Winston
Rudy Winston

Rudy Winston has more than 20 years experience with Canon USA's Pro Products team, and has been responsible during that time for training Canon's staff on new products, creating presentations for customers and dealers, numerous writing projects, and providing technical assistance to professional and amateur photographers.

Rudy Winston

Rudy Winston has more than 20 years experience with Canon USA's Pro Products team, and has been responsible during that time for training Canon's staff on new products, creating presentations for customers and dealers, numerous writing projects, and providing technical assistance to professional and amateur photographers. Currently, he's a key figure in Canon's growing Education department, and contributes to many of the on-line articles and resources on Canon USA's Digital Learning Center, as well as to Canon's Live Learning events. During his career at Canon, he's had hands-on experience with nearly every Canon EOS camera and lens, and has outstanding working knowledge of everyday use of the EOS system. Rudy has worked in the photography field virtually his entire adult life. Before coming to Canon, he had an extensive career as a freelance photographer, including years of experience shooting professional sports, as well as experience in retail camera sales.

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