Lifetime Review: Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM Lens

Lifetime Review: Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM Lens

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. 

Price

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.

Build Quality

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.

Optics

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?

Autofocus

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.

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30 Comments

Scott Hussey's picture

I've solved the lens hood issue. I pulled one off of my old Mamiya M645 80mm lens. It worked so well that I ended up buying additional ones for other lenses.

https://www.keh.com/shop/mamiya-645-80-110-rubber-266465.html?prod_id=65...

Scott Choucino's picture

Thanks for the tip. When this one breaks I will jump on that!

Tony Tumminello's picture

I absolutely love my 85mm f1.8 USM. The only downside that I've experienced is the amount of chromatic aberration that you'll get at max and near-max apertures, but that's pretty much cleared up around f2.8. Maybe it's come down to luck, but my copy is razor-sharp in the center wide open, and when you stop it down to f5.6-f8 it's a fantastic landscape lens as it's sharp across the whole frame at that point. It's seen outdoor portrait work, indoor studio work, live music work, and more and it's still trucking along. If I'm bringing my Canon EF system with me to a shoot, the 85 and 35mm f2 IS USM are always in my bag.

Scott Choucino's picture

Yes it does have a bit on mine too. I think I have a high tolerance for such issues though. You can't usually see it unless you print a 6 sheet. The 35 and 85 combo is great. It is what I shot weddings on what I was doing that sort of work.

Richard Bradbury's picture

That lens is a bargain and a cracker. I went through two of them ( one was dropped at a wedding ) and had to be replaced due to wonky AF. The other was sold still working great to upgrade to the Canon 85 F1.4L IS which is an amazing lens.

If you are looking to upgrade yours Scott and want to run the 85 F1.4 L you are welcome to run mine to see if it ticks the boxes.

Scott Choucino's picture

Thanks. I used one on a job recently with the 5dsr. It was lovely, but with how little I work with people these days it is an unlikely upgrade. I also don't command the same day rate in portraits as I do in food so I have to be careful how I spend.

If I do upgrade, it will probably be to the Sigma one, so my bag looks neat and tidy with it alongside my 35 and 50 haha.

Where do you most notice the difference in the new 1.4 to the old 1.8?

Richard Bradbury's picture

I would still be running the F1.8 myself if I was not working in low light as often.

The extra 2/3rd of a stop is nice to have for wedding and event work. It also seems brighter than the 2/3rd would dictate.. better light transmission I guess.

It's sharper across the frame than the F1.8 and handles CA much better. Focus wise it's a little faster as well.

The F1.8 was great wide open for head shots but sucked for 3/4 or full length until you stopped down to F2.8 and up. The edges were soft as hell.

The IS on the 1.4 is impressive and has helped keep the ISO down in a few situations. The Sigma needs IS.. that thing is stupid heavy for an 85.

I do wish I had waited a couple of months and bought used for a £200-300 saving.

That 85 is the last lens to be upgraded. Not buying any more.

Scott Choucino's picture

Yeah the 1.8 is really a 5.6 + for anything full length. I messed up a lot of portraits early days trying to shoot them at f2 for that sort of thing.

"I purchased this lens a very long time ago, it may be around a decade ago" LOL, kids nowadays. :-)

Scott Choucino's picture

When I am a fully fledged grown up I will do a 20 year review haha

Kirk Darling's picture

I think my copy of the 85mm is older than some photographers reading this. I know my copy of the f1.8 50mm is.

Ben sussman's picture

I’ve had this lens >10 yrs and found it great for portraits and events where I can’t use flash. As for the hood, I use a cheapo rubber hood that I picked up at my local camera shop. I really mostly use hoods to protect from lens scrapes.

Scott Choucino's picture

Yeah the rubber hoods are very useful, I just don't like the look of them. I am very funny about aesthetics haha

I used to have this lens for about 4 years till I upgrade to 85mm f1.4 L IS. Nice lens the biggest weakness is bad CA wide open and lack of IS.

Scott Choucino's picture

Yes I agree, IS would be nice for certain applications. And clicking the remove CA button in lightroom isn't a complete fix as it leaves an odd layer of uncoloured fringing around the image

I want to buy a camera, but I don't know, what camera is the best..Maybe someone can advise a great camera?

Steve Lathan's picture

Canon , Nikon and Sony all provide great systems. Often times questions like these lead people who are more into gear than taking pictures to get in long endless debates. I got started on Canon simply because i didn't like the Simon and Garfunkel song , " Got a Nikon camera love to take those photographs " I know dumb reason huh ! But that actually carried over from my film days and why I chose an Olympus Om1n.
If you are a beginner the best thing to do is get a photography book and learn about the three basic tenants of photography , composition ,exposure and aperture. Get some instruction and begin to learn to find your own vision. The greatest excitement in the world is when you can take a camera out and actually feel comfortable with what youve captured.

Chris Rogers's picture

You can get any modern camera and you will get great results out of it. I'd look at all the companies lens line ups first and figure out which lenses you want or need for the type of photography you want to do then pick which brand you feel has the best lenses for that and chose literally any camera under their umbrella. You could have a nikon d3200 (Entry level camera) with an 85mm f1.8D(older lens) and get fantastic professional quality portraits out of that. That whole package might cost you $700 or cheaper if you look around. I wasted so much money chasing camera bodies instead of buying good lenses. MOST IMPORTANTLY study and pay attention to light and composition. Those will be your strongest tools in photography. If you can get good at those you can take great photos no matter what camera or lens you use. And don't be afraid of flash! It's not as scary as it may seem. Good luck and have fun! :D

The only advice I'll give is not to get a canon if possible, you don't know how it feels to have to sell off many great lenses because you bought a full frame. No other company does so, you can use apsc lenses easily without even having to get an adapter of some sorts on NIkon or Sony, why not canon? Don't get hung up on the specific model though, megapixels don't matter even for some larger prints after about 20 mp, and the file sizes are too big on 4k for most to be bothered. I hope you enjoy whatever camera you get.

Steve Lathan's picture

I love mine . Good review.

Scott Choucino's picture

Thanks and happy shooting!

I agree with everything he said. Canon really got it right with this lens. I have other much more expensive lens but this is my go to many of my portraits.

Scott Choucino's picture

compared to the 50mm which is in the same range, they really nailed this.

Chris Rogers's picture

It's one of the best lenses i have ever owned. I'm actually looking at buying another one lol. It's a great lens!

Scott Choucino's picture

Likewise, I have far more expensive lenses that can't out perform it.

Oh, the lens hood... this lens must have the worst lens hood attachment in the Canon line up. Actually I stopped using a lens hood for this lens.

And yes, I second the chromatic aberrations. But I don't mind. The lens has character and this is what makes me prefer it.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

Yes to all of this. I had the 85mm f/1.2L II and this one, and I ended up keeping this one because it just focused way faster and was a heck of a lot lighter.

I never put it any inclement whether but my non-weather sealed 1.2 took on a bunch of water in a storm and kept going just fine though, not sure if the 1.8 would hold up. I thought the 1.2L had weather sealing and didn't realize until I went in and noticed no rubber gasket - on such an expensive lens!

Austin Williams's picture

So I have two of these 85mm 1.8s. been using them for almost 6 years now with no issues.
I am looking to potentially upgrade to a higher quality lens for my canon 5d mark IV.

Does anyone have any suggestions?

Thank you!

I've had this lens for a few years now, and I must say that it has really grown on me. It's compact, fast to focus, sharp, and has nice bokeh. What's not to like? I wasn't sure about it at first, since I had my heart set on the 85mm f/1.2L, but now I'm perfectly happy with it. It's a real bargain, and a fine lens no matter what the price.

Completely agree with all in this post. I have been upgrading my kit for the past few months to all primes now - quality is far superior in all aspects, and it makes you a better photographer (zoom with your feet and all that)

I have a 40mm 2.8 and 85mm 1.8 - nice slim down kit to use with my 5d bodies