85mm lenses and tele primes in general are great. Behind 50mm lenses 85mm and short tele lenses in general are my favorites. As a result I have run through a few. Some honorable mentions.
Mitakon 85mm f/2
After some quick tests I can already tell you that the RF 85mm f/2 can hold its own against these faster spec’d lenses IQ wise. No surprises here. Canon knows a thing or two about putting together a decent portrait lens.
But the Canon RF 85mm f/2 has a feature that separates it from the lenses above. Macro. The only portrait length lens I have had that is also macro is the…
It is a credible portrait lens, but the Pentax 100mm is a bit slower than the norm at f/2.8. The Canon is a stop faster with an f/2 aperture. This may not be a big deal for some but an f/2 is only a 1/3 of a stop from the very common f/1.8 portrait aperture. After taking some time trying to find a short tele 85mm to 100mm Macro prime with AF that is f/2 or faster I found exactly none. Take away the AF requirement and the count raises to… one. The ZEISS Milvus 100mm f/2M ZF.2 Macro Lens which:
- Is only available in two DSLR mounts.
- Could theoretically adapt it to mirrorless.
- Costs $1,843… with manual focus. $1,843!
- And make sure you hold on to that lens hood because a replacement one will set you back $192.
I love Zeiss lenses, but no.
Let us get one item out of the way. Unlike the Pentax, but like the much more expensive MF Zeiss lens above, the Canon has a 1:2 Macro Reproduction Ratio which is not considered a true Macro lens by some. This was not as large of an issue as I expected in actual use. 1:2 gets you very close and getting closer is a slight crop away. With image quality that is comparable a faster f/2 aperture is a small price to pay for a less than 1:1 Macro Reproduction Ratio. So here is a quick and very crude comparison between the two.
Shot in low light high ISO conditions just because. Pentax will go first followed by Canon.
The Pentax can get even closer, but with no focus limiter and old timey DSLR AF switching to MF combined with a bit of rocking back and forth is recommended hand held unless you just like calling your lens out of its name.
The Pentax 100mm f/2.8 Macro WR is one of my favorite lenses ever. And this Canon lens matches it IQ wise. Both were shot RAW and developed in Lightroom but rhe Pentax had a bit of a blueish hue to it that I did not spend a whole lot of time investigating. Any difference between the two can be written off as user error or sensor variations in this case.
Ergonomics and Features
- The Canon has three switches while the has none.
- The Canon’s focus limiter is welcomed. The Pentax will hunt on occasion when it cannot decide between macro or tele shooting.
- AF/MF switch is a nice touch but Pentax puts a physical switch on the camera.
- Stabilizer On/Off is also handy but again this can be configured as a physical switch on the K-1.
- Canon adds a ring at the front that can used to set a number of things that I have set as an aperture ring.
- The Pentax has weather sealing, but the Canon does not.
- The Canon has IS but the Pentax does not need it since Pentax bodies all of IS or SR in Pentax speak.
Build and Aesthetics
- I have long been a fan of the solid all metal build Pentax 100mm f/2.8 WR but this is a wash for me. While not tank like the Canon is made well and feels good in hand. A good size and weight match for even small bodies like the EOS RP.
The Canon wins. The Pentax does well but relies on DSLR era tech.
- Eye AF is available with the Canon while the Pentax only offers face detect in contrast only Live View AF.
- The Canon is silent when focusing while the Pentax has that old familiar screw drive whine.
- New Canon mirrorless tech delivers faster AF.
- Focus limiter switch mentioned above.
The many years old DSLR tech non focus limiter having Pentax only costs about $50 less than the latest tech Canon that includes IS. So… Canon wins the value round.
Canon bested my all time favorite Macro lens. All while having a faster aperture with more features. That makes another RF mount prime lens winner for Canon. It helped to actually try this lens out rather than rely on specs alone. Similar to Canon’s RF 35mm f/1.8 STM Macro I did not fully appreciate this lens until shooting with it. Like that 35mm lens and the 50mm STM it makes capturing wonderful images an effortless affair. It is still up to the photographer to frame and/or set up the scene but the lens happily complies.
Another thing that struck me in testing is the effectiveness of the f/2 aperture. On paper one thought was that this is not that much brighter than an f/2.8 zoom that covers the same range. But in practice 2/3 of a stop is noticeable and this lens is able to deliver a great image right in the sweet spot of an f/2.8 zoom’s focal range with a smaller size, weight, and cost. And typically a prime will be sharper than a zoom.
And this lens is sharp. Macro lenses and portrait lenses are known for this and this Macro portrait lens is no different.
I really thought that I had to have an f/1.4 aperture for an 85mm portrait lens. Just because it exists. Side by side there is a noticeable difference in background blur if you are looking, but the difference is not nearly as large or dramatic as I had expected. Personal preference. In isolation this would not be a concern. After looking at an image would a subject ever really say to me, “This is nice, but I really wish you had used an f/1.4 lens instead. See this bokeh ball back here. It should be a touch more blurry.”? Not likely. Would likely end at, “Nice image”… Assuming they liked the image. I moved from the Sony 85mm f/1.8 to the Rokinon 85mm f/1.4 largely based on aperture spec alone all other things being pretty much equal. But that Sony f/1.8 never put a lens element wrong and would work just fine for any shoot. The same applies here with this f/2. I am fully confident that I could pull off the look I am after with this lens. And this lens costs the same or less than a good many lenses above with some features they do not have:
- This Canon lens costs within $50 of that slightly faster Sony, but adds Macro capabilities that none of those other portrait lenses above have. This is very handy.
- Another feature none of those other portrait lenses have is IS. Yes, these other lenses are used with camera mounts that offer IBIS, but so does Canon now. And I would imagine the two combined would make for a rock steady stabilized experience.
- Very fast AF that does not tend to hunt. None above are slouches, but this lens focuses very quickly. So much so that I have not yet made use of the focus limiter switch in testing. I am glad it is there, but from nearest to farthest and back this lens is swift to focus under normal conditions.
- I appreciate f/1.8 and f/1.4 apertures, but I do often stop these lenses down to f/2 for portraits. Still nice to have, but this is not much of a compromise if I am completely honest.
In use this lens changed my mind. Had first focused on it not being as fast an aperture as the other portrait lenses listed and not being able to focus as closely as a dedicated Macro lens. But I do not believe this lens was intended to beat either type of lens at their own game. Instead I now look at it as a lens fast enough to meet my portrait needs while also being able to focus close enough to meet my macro needs. All while being no larger or significantly more expensive than either of the other lenses mentioned. All while balancing well even on the relatively tiny Canon EOS RP. All while taking up significantly less space in your camera bag than two dedicated portrait and macro lenses while pulling off a credible imitation of both. Whether or not this is an acceptable compromise depends on the individual. But I could get on fine with just this one lens alone if I chose to do so.
The following would make a great portable portrait kit.
- Canon EOS RP
- RF 85mm f/2 Macro
- RF 50mm f/1.8 STM
- RF 35mm f/1.8 Macro
- TT350 flash/trigger
- AD200 and a small snap on modifier
That set up would be light, small, and relatively affordable while being able to handle nearly anything I would need it for. And I would much rather carry that around than a bag full of larger and heavier f/1.4 primes.
The Rokinon/Samyang 85mm is not much larger, but considerably more front heavy.
f/1.4 is great but not necessary for most cases. Purely a want for me. The RF 85mm f/2 would do just fine for me. If I am honest it is causing me to rethink my current solution. Canon makes a tempting performance/size/value proposition. Will report back on what I decide in a later post.
Well done Canon.
I expected the RF 50mm f/1.8 to be very good, and it is, but like the RF 35mm f/1.8 Macro the 85mm f/2 won me over with a lens that I was initially on the fence about looking at specs only.
Here are a few more quick samples below.