Canon 85mm 1.2 vs. 1.8: it’s the battle of the lenses! Most of us are aware of the “professional” level lenses out there. Canon’s professional line is the L series. And I don’t need to tell you that they are a lot more expensive than the non-L glass.

I received the Canon 85mm 1.2L II for my birthday. Oh, was I surprised, ecstatic and delighted! And excited that it gave me a chance to compare it to my 85mm 1.8, which is the non-L version of this lens.

 

And yes, I did discover some differences between the two lenses. Is it enough to warrant the price change? Read on to find out.

Canon 85mm 1.2 vs 1.8 Difference 1: The Stripe

The red stripe. Let’s get that one out of the way first. The red stripe tells the world that you bought an L lens. It represents better workmanship, a more durable lens and (perhaps) better image quality. L lenses have a lot more glass in them. That glass usually brings with it sharper focus and better bokeh. But it does cost more to make.

Like all L lenses, the 85mm 1.2 feels heavier and more solid when you hold it, as compared to the 1.8. It weighs over twice as much as the 1.8, and the filter size is larger. This photo compares the lenses side-by-side:

canon 85mm 1.2 vs 1.8

Canon 85mm 1.2 vs 1.8 Difference 2: Exposure

I took the following photos on a tripod using a stationary subject. I kept the camera as still as possible when changing lenses and didn’t change exposure settings. The 85mm f/1.8 is the first shot in each image below. All images were recorded Raw and I didn’t edit them for this article.

You will notice that the 1.2 is slightly more zoomed in than the 1.2. That is due, I believe, to the fact that it’s larger and therefore closer to the subject.

The first difference I noticed is the exposure or contrast. The image taken with the 1.2 is much brighter and has better contrast, even though the exposure settings were identical. You can see this in the image below.

 

Canon 85mm 1.2 vs. 1.8 doll

Canon 85mm 1.2 vs 1.8 Difference 3: Color

Look at the difference in the color of the pumpkin in the photos below. Exposure, contrast, saturation and color quality are all related, so it’s hard for me to say exactly which one is causing the difference in the photos. To me, however, the 1.2 produced a truer, more vibrant pumpkin. You can can see the same color difference in the doll’s hair in the images above.
85mm 1.2 vs. 1.8 pumpkin

Canon 85mm 1.2 vs 1.8 Difference 4: Focus

You’ll read online that L lenses, in general, should be sharper than their non-L counterparts. The difference is slight in the next two images, but there is a difference. Look at the catchlights in the doll’s eyes and the dirt on her nose. The photo taken with the 1.8 is not by any means soft, but the other photo does look crisper.

canon 85mm 1.2 vs. 1.8 eye

Also, look at that warty thing on the pumpkin. It’s clearer for sure on the 1.2 photo.Canon 85mm 1.2 vs.1.8 pumpkin focusL glass photos are supposed to be especially good near the edges of the photo, where the cheaper lenses tend to soften. Let’s look at the doll’s pants to see if that holds true:

85mm 1.2 1.8 pants

Look just above the bottom edge of the photo. There is slightly more detail in the shot taken with the 1.2.

There are a few articles on the internet saying that it takes the 85 1.2 longer to focus than the 1.8. I haven’t noticed that. You’ll even find an article or two saying that the 1.8 is sharper. I haven’t seen evidence of that either in my limited time with the 1.2

Canon 85mm 1.2 vs 1.8 Difference 5: Closest Focusing Distance

The minimum shooting distance for the 1.2 is 3.2 feet. For the 1.8, it’s 2.8 feet. I noticed that 5 inches and had to back up a couple of times when shooting these photos.

What is the closest focusing distance, you ask? It is the closest you can be to your subject in order to achieve focus. In other words, with the 1.2, you need to be at least 3.2 feet away in order to take a photo.

Canon 85mm 1.2 vs 1.8 Difference 6: Bokeh

The 85mm f/1.2L is known for its creamy bokeh. And the image below illustrates exactly what “creamy” means. The shape of the 1.2’s bokeh is nearly perfectly round. The 1.8, on the other hand, has smushed bokeh. It’s actually much closer to the shape the light would be if I had focused on it. Creamy bokeh creates a bubble-like distortion of light, and the 1.8 just doesn’t make a bubble.

This difference is for me the primary factor that separates the 1.2 from the 1.8. Everything mentioned above can be fixed in Photoshop or Lightroom. This bokeh issue, however, is permanent.
Canon 85mm 1.2 vs. 1.8 bokeh

Canon 85mm 1.2 vs 1.8 Difference 7: Price

The clear advantage in the price category goes to the 1.8. This lens usually hovers just under $400. And you get a lot of lens for that price. The 1.2, on the other hand, usually sells for about $1900.

Canon 85mm 1.2 vs 1.8 Summary

The good news here, if you are deciding between the 1.2 and the 1.8, is that you can’t make a bad decision. These are both excellent lenses. I have been using my 1.8 for portraits for several years now and have never had a problem with getting good focus. I probably wouldn’t have noticed the smushed bokeh without doing a direct comparison. It is a great lens and I had no plans to upgrade in the next several years. I do love the bokeh produced by the 1.2 and I am absolutely thrilled to have it. The pros and cons are below. Which lens is right for you?

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If you can afford the 85mm f/1.2L, you will not regret buying it. The bokeh and entire-image sharpness are hallmarks of professional photography. However, the 85mm 1.8 is a great alternative with excellent performance for those not willing to spend an extra $1400 to $1500. You will take beautiful photos with either lens!

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