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Canon RF 85mm f1.2 review… After a day with it.

The last month was a very exciting one. I got to spend 3 days shooting and discovering a new area. And I got to do that using the Canon RF 85mm f1.2, for one of these days. One of my previous posts is a very long-term (8 years!) review of Fujifilm cameras. Today I will do a very different thing: a review of the Canon RF 85mm f1.2 after only 1 day of using it. 

I used to own an 85mm lens when I started photography. This is actually the first prime lens I bought. I used it generously over the following years (while running all my photography tours around Hoi An) on my crop sensor Canon 400D, making it thus a 130mm lens. Yeah pretty much zoomed in. This may be why I took a lot of portraits when I started photography. 

And yes the 85mm is an excellent focal length for portrait photography. Having almost only used a 35mm and 50mm lens over the past several years it was like stepping out of my comfort zone. But at the same time, it was like going back in time.

Portrait of a Koho woman in Vietnam
ISO 125 – ss 1/320th – f/1.2

Canon RF 85mm f1.2: A beast of a lens

Yeah, it is a beast in all aspects. It is a HUGE lens as you can see in this image. It is big and heavy, which is the price to pay for such a quality lens. And it is so big that I have really felt the difference in how people look at me when I take photos. Coming until very recently from the Fujifilm world, I can see how having a smaller camera helps you to “blend in” more easily, and look more like a “tourist”. It doesn’t shout “I AM A PHOTOGRAPHER!” as much.

Before we get into the technical things about sharpness and all, I have to say I am very impressed. No wonder, it is a beautiful lens. I have really enjoyed the fact that Canon added a ring on the actual lens, allowing me to use it to quickly change my aperture. The same way I used to do on my fuji lenses. Just a pleasure to use this lens.

A man is drying coffee in front of his house near Dalat in Vietnam
ISO 100 – ss 1/3200th – f/1.2

Canon 85mm f1.2 sharpness review

I shot a lot wide open first because I wanted to test the skills of that lens, and also because, well, when I used that lens, the light was pretty bad. Just an overcast day, and no juicy light that I usually like to work with. So opening the aperture here made sense as it helped me to make a photo that could have been quite flat into something with more depth.

ISO 100 – ss 1/320th – f/1.2

Great sharpness when shot wide open

The image above was taken at f/1.2. I went a bit overboard shooting a lot at f/1.2 but I wanted to see what that lens was capable of. Here is a crop of the image for you to see how sharp that lens is. It is fun to be able to play wityh so many pixels!

Combined with the Canon R5 focusing abilities

For the past 10+ years, I have been taking all my portraits with manual focus lenses. First with the Carl Zeiss 50mm f1.4 on my Canon 5DIII. Then on my Fujifilm Xt2 and Xt3 with the beautiful Mitakon f0.95. So having in my hand a crazy portrait lens with a crazy wide aperture combined with the amazing autofocus capabilities of the Canon R5 just felt like I was playing with an expensive toy. And I was…

Portrait of a Koho girl near Dalat
ISO 160 – ss 1/320th – f/1.2

And here is a very tight crop of the same image. The eye detection and sharpness of this lens make it really easy to nail focus on your subject!

Canon RF 85mm f1.2 and the R5 eye detection

If you checked my review of the Canon R5 you know that I am in awe of the eye and face detection capabilities. Combined with this beast of a lens, it makes taking portraits technically very easy. I have set up the shortcut buttons on my R5 to make it very quick to use all these abilities.

Find the sweet spot for this lens at f/1.2

If you play with this lens you may find yourself in situations when your subject hits what I call the sweet spot. This is the distance when it feels like the background “shouldn’t” be that blurry. It almost makes it look like the background was blurred on post.

A woman and her baby being photographed near Dalat
ISO 100 – ss 1/640th – f/1.2

My camera setup for easy portrait photography

The way I have set up my camera makes it extremely easy and fast to switch from one focusing mode to the other. So general focus I use back button focus, allowing me to continuously stay in continuous focus (that is a mouthful!). Instead of having to switch from single to continuous focus, I just stay in that mode, focus somewhere once and recompose. The same way you would do using single focusing mode.

But staying in AF-C allows me to instantly trigger the face and eye detection of the camera. I set up what is normally the “drive mode” button, the one to the far right side of the camera, to turn on the eye detection. And because I am already in continuous focus, the camera will instantly lock on my subject’s eye and follow it.

This makes the technical side of portrait photography extremely easy

This really makes it easy to follow focus moving people, even from a distance. And because it makes the whole technical side of focusing on your subject easy, it leaves much more time available for composition. And more time to actually pay attention to your subject to capture interesting moments.

A Koho girl walks next to a dog in a village in central Vietnam
ISO 100 – ss 1/400th – f/2.0

The hard part about using that lens

This is more of a personal addition to this review as I was thinking about it when shooting. I love the 85mm focal length, definitely amazing for portraits, either close up or environmental. But I found that as soon as I got too close to my subjects, it was either taking a portrait or… nothing. Because of the focal length, when taking photos of people, you will end up taking a lot of portraits with this lens.

And it happened very often, that our subjects came close to us, as we were chatting and interacting with them. And I found this pretty restrictive. If I didn’t plan to take a portrait but compose with several subjects, I was stuck as soon as the distance between me and my subjects got shorter. Makes sense, it’s a portrait lens!

So I wouldn’t use this lens in all situations. Mostly when faced with a flat light like I was, surely not a time to shoot some landscapes. But it helps when the light isn’t great and you need some extra pop to make your portraits more dynamic.

Testing the Canon RF 85mm f/1.2 in the field for people photography
ISO 100 – ss 1/640th – f/1.2

A perfect lens for people photography

I did take more portraits than usual with this lens. Because it’s just the perfect portrait lens. Combined with the eye detection capabilities of the R5 my work was very much simplified. Point to my subject, compose, push one button and the camera would track the subject’s eyes in a glorious way. Yeah, glorious!

As my time using this lens was very limited, and because you don’t meet supreme portrait conditions in every corner, I did take a lot more of what I call “boring portraits“. Not that these are boring (and with this lens they are just so pretty!) but there are not very creative in terms of composition. The way I usually like my portraits to be. Yes, I do teach about that as well, here.

A boy looking at the camera in Bangladesh on a photo tour with Pics of Asia

Should you get that lens?

For a price tag of over $2500, it is definitely an investment. But if you are into portrait photography this is definitely one of the best lenses you can get. Be ready to carry it around, dealing with its size and weight. But if you do, surely you won’t regret it. 

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Founder of Pics of Asia, Etienne is a teacher with a photography habit.


  1. David Ng Soon Thong on January 31, 2023 at 9:42 am

    I still have the Canon EF85mm F1.2 mk ll lens.
    I only used it occasionally for portrait only…. the soft bokeh is just out of this world. It cost me S$3,200 many years ago.

    • Etienne on January 31, 2023 at 10:26 am

      yeah same price range nowadays, but what a piece of glass!!! 🙂

  2. Patrice on August 18, 2023 at 1:22 pm

    Hello Etienne,

    You need to try the last RF 50mm f1.2. With R5 or more R6 II AF is a beast. And with the 50mm we find the versatility that the 85mm does not have.
    Personally i have the old EF 50L and i rent the RF…….and i want to find a good second hand one as soon as my budget will allow me.

    • Etienne on August 19, 2023 at 9:58 am

      thanks Patrice, I’d love to put my hands on it! One day soon hopefully!

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