One of my all-time favorite lenses is the Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM lens. It is a lens that I recommend to any and every wedding and portrait photographer! It is a phenomenally sharp lens that creates absolutely incredible photos. In addition, it boasts something that other 85mm lenses do not have: image stabilization. I have used this lens at weddings, engagements, and portrait sessions for over two years, and I couldn’t be more excited to share what I love about this incredible piece of glass!
Let’s start with why this lens is so important for wedding and portrait photographers. The 85mm focal length is widely regarded as the best lens for portraits. I will dive into the reason for this more deeply in a separate post, but also want to mention it briefly here. A 50mm focal length is designed to portray subjects in the same way we view them with the human eye. An 85mm lens moves beyond this focal length as it is more zoomed in, thus causing the background to appear slightly closer to the subject and to become even more blurry. This effect is called compression. When using the 85mm focal length for headshots, the proportions of the subject are more beautifully and accurately aligned compared to the way they would appear if photographing with a 35mm lens. I cover this comparison in more detail in a separate post as well.
Over the years, I have owned four different 85mm lenses. I started with the Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM. This lens focused quickly but produced purple fringing, or CA, in the highlights of the high contrast areas of the image. It also only had a maximum aperture of f/1.8 so it couldn’t blur out the background as much as I wanted it to. In addition, its autofocus died multiple times. I then decided to upgrade to the Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II. At the time, this was Canon’s only other “L” lens. With an aperture of f/1.2 it produced very blurry backgrounds with good color. However, considering the $1,700 I paid for it, it came with a very slow autofocus, low contrast in the images, and softer images at f/1.2. In an effort to use something that would produce sharper images, I tried out the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 Art lens. It was very sharp and produced great contrast in its images, but it was so large that it was difficult to hold steady when shooting continuously and a challenge to use on long wedding days.
When Canon announced their new Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM lens, I was ecstatic! I knew its quality would be nearly perfect and on par with their other newly released lenses. I pre-ordered it the night it became available, and it arrived a few weeks later. Now, after over two years of use, it has been everything I have hoped for in an 85mm lens.
In the last two years, I have photographed over 80 weddings. It is extremely important to me that my lenses do not break or fail in the middle of our busy season. I need lenses that not only produce the highest quality of images but are also constructed to last. The Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM lens is built to withstand the rigorous level of use during wedding season. It features a metal barrel and a metal mount. The end of the lens does not extend when focusing or zooming which helps prevent damage. It has a rubber gasket on the mount that helps stop moisture from entering the lens and camera. The manual focus and image stabilization on/off switches click nicely, but a bit too easily, in my opinion. There are times that the switches get flipped simply from me sliding the lens into my camera bag. I then later pull the lens out and start shooting, only to discover that the image stabilizer was turned off by mistake. The other thing to note is that, while it is noted to be sealed from dust, and although it is better in that regard than the Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II , it is not 100% dust proof. Dust always seems to find its way into lenses. That said, a small amount of dust has virtually no impact on image quality and is unlikely to be noticed in images, especially when shooting with a low aperture.
The Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM is one of the first lenses I truly trust when it comes to hitting focus. With previously used lenses, and because I shoot so shallow, I found that I was needing to take extra shots just to be sure that one or two of the shots would be perfectly in focus, especially if I was photographing movement. I am thrilled that this lens nails the focus every time. Whether I am shooting through the view finder or in live view, the autofocus is crazy accurate. It doesn’t “hunt” and it locks focus instantly. When considering how many heavy glass components are moving, the speed at which the lens focuses is incredible.
The image quality of the Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM lens is mind blowing. When I purchase a lens that has an aperture of f/1.4, I buy it with the intention of shooting it at f/1.4 – not just f/2 or f/2.8. When using the lens at f/1.4 there is no “haze” to the photo which is what I experienced when using the Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II which also produced a high amount of purple fringing (called chromatic aberration). Canon has largely eliminated those issues in the Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM lens. While there is still a very slight amount of purple fringing in the photos, most of the time, it is easy to eliminate using Lightroom.
I have also found the images taken with the Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM lens to be much sharper and to have more contrast than those of the Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II. Not only are the images very sharp in the middle of frame, they are also really sharp at the edges. This allows me to shoot with compositions I couldn’t use with my other 85mm lenses. I can be more creative with my compositions than ever before and can shoot using the rule of thirds more.
As with most lenses, this lens doesn’t do well when the sun hits directly into the front glass. When this happens, the images lose contrast and look “washed out.” Unfortunately, using the hood that was provided with the lens doesn’t seem to help much as the length of the hood is very short. That said, I advise photographers to use the shadow of a tree or other structure to stand in providing shade on the lens when taking outdoor portraits.
The Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM lens‘ image stabilization feature is what makes this lens really stand apart from its competition. As an example of the difference that this makes, I am able to use the lens to photograph speeches in dimly lit reception spaces while using a shutter speed of 1/60 and not have to worry that the camera shake, caused by me hand-holding the camera, will blur the image. When photographing portraits outside on cloudy days with my previously used 85mm lenses, I was not able to shoot with shutter speeds of less than 1/250 simply because I was moving and interacting with my couples and the motion would produce motion blur. To prevent this, I had to bump up my ISO which resulted in more grain in the images. However, with the Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM lens, I often shoot at 1/125 and never worry that the images will be blurry as long as my subjects were standing in one place. The image stabilization is also useful for detail photos and, because I am often shooting in ambient light, having image stabilization allows me to use really slow shutter speeds. This allows for a low ISO producing higher quality contrast and color in the images.
The Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM lens currently retails for about $1,600. I honestly think that is a steal! Its build quality, image quality, and image stabilization features are all superior to the more expensive and older Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II which now retails for about $2,000. If you buy the Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM lens you are investing in a lens that will be able to handle thousands upon thousands of photos and the wear and tear of professional use. If you are just starting out, and aren’t ready to invest the full $1,600, you may want to consider the Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM lens for around $400. Though its autofocus won’t last through hundreds of weddings, it will serve you well for family sessions or a small number of weddings and would allow you to decide if you like the 85mm focal length. Should you decide later on that you don’t use it enough, Canon’s lenses are so widely desired and hold their value so well that you will have no problem selling it without losing much of your initial investment.
The Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM lens has been my favorite 85mm lens of all time. The perspective of the 85mm focal length, combined with its extremely shallow depth of field, draws all of the focus to the subject of the photo. Fast auto focus, image stabilization, and the ability to produce sharp images with perfect color and great contrast are just a few of the factors that make this lens well worth its investment. If you are a professional portrait or wedding photographer using a Canon DSLR, this lens is a must-have! Canon hit it out of the park with this lens, and I couldn’t recommend it more highly!
For a detailed video review of the Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM lens, check out our YouTube review: