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Best 85mm prime lenses

July 10, 2014

As any portrait photographer will tell you, there’s no greater satisfaction than taking a great portrait image you’re really proud of. While a lot of this comes down to technique, the kit – or more specifically, the lens you use – is a key factor in achieving the result you desire. For those taking their first footsteps into portrait photography, a 50mm focal length prime is usually considered the lens of choice as they can be picked up cheaply, they replicate the view as seen by the human eye, and provide a large aperture without the lens being too big or cumbersome.

There will be times, however, when the classic 50mm focal length is just a bit too wide for your liking. Rather than having to get up close and personal with your subject in order to fill the frame, it can be helpful to have a slightly longer-focal-length prime lens to hand, to give a little bit of extra distance between your camera and your subject while maintaining a wide maximum aperture of f/1.8 or more to create a super-shallow depth of field.

This leads us on to the trusty 85mm prime lens – a much-loved focal length for shooting portraits, and typically available with f/1.8, f/1.4 or f/1.2 maximum apertures. Although there are some excellent f/1.8 examples out there, we’ll be focusing our attention on the faster f/1.4 and f/1.2 options. Over the next five pages, we’ll be digging deeper to find out which lens resolves the best image quality, while taking features, build quality, performance and value for money into consideration, before acknowledging the winner with our new AP Best in Test award.

Anatomy of an 85mm lens

When choosing an 85mm lens, there are a few things to look out for. The first and most obvious
is the maximum aperture. Generally, these lenses come in f/1.8 or f/1.4 varieties, although Canon produces an f/1.2 lens, which we are testing here (see below for the difference that aperture can make to depth of field).

Two of the lenses in this test, those from Zeiss and Samyang, are manual focus only. If you are thinking of purchasing one of these lenses, you need to be mindful of whether or not manual focus will be practical for the type of photography you are undertaking. It shouldn’t be too much of an issue for portraits, of course, but it may take a lot of practice and skill if you wish to photograph moving subjects. Make sure you try the lens to check the focusing ring and to see whether it is comfortable for you.

It is worth noting that currently there are no 85mm f/1.4 lenses with image stabilisation, so take that in to consideration when selecting a shutter speed. Also look out for future 85mm lenses that may adopt this feature.

Focus ring
Look for a focus ring with a good rubber grip, particularly if the lens is manual focus only

Lens hood
Make sure that you have a suitable lens hood to help when shooting outside in bright lighting conditions

Filter thread
Most 85mm f/1.4 lenses will use a common 72mm or 77mm filter thread, so using filters is straightforward

AF motor
A quiet AF motor can be beneficial if you’re planning to use the lens for video

Which aperture?

Shot at f/1.2
An 85mm f/1.2 lens, such as the Canon EF 85mm f/1.2 L II USM, creates a very fast drop-off in depth of field when it’s used at its maximum aperture. The 85mm f/1.2 lens’s larger front element has the knock-on effect of increasing the overall size and weight.

Shot at f/1.4
Naturally, a lens with an f/1.4 maximum aperture won’t offer the same drop-off in focus as a lens with a maximum aperture of f/1.2. These lenses are larger than 85mm primes with an f/1.8 maximum aperture, so expect to pay more.

Shot at f/1.8
An 85mm prime lens featuring an f/1.8 aperture works out 2⁄3 stop slower than an f/1.4 lens, but still provides pleasing background blur that’s well suited to portraits or scenes where a shallow depth of field is required to isolate a subject from its surroundings.

Canon EF 85mm f/1.2 L II USM

Resolution

The Canon lens is at its best at around f/8, although at f/11 there is only a slight drop in resolution and the difference between the centre and edge sharpness is less noticeable. At f/1.2, the lens isn’t very sharp, and it isn’t until f/2-2.8 that there is a significant improvement.

Shading

The large front element of the Canon lens must go some way to help keep vignetting to a minimum. Here the Canon lens excels – it is by far the best lens in terms of vignetting and at f/1.4 the corners are only around 0.2EV darker.

Curvilinear distortion

At its worst, the Canon lens produces more barrel distortion than any of the other lenses in this test. That isn’t actually saying much, however. As you can see from the values, the distortion is still hardly noticeable in most cases, and easily corrected.

See our graphs explained

Canon EF 85mm f/1.2 L II USM

Price: £1,750
Weighing an astonishing 1,025g, this is the heaviest, fastest and most expensive lens on test

Canon offers a pair of 85mm primes in its EF lens range – the EF 85mm f/1.8 USM (£295) and the EF 85mm f/1.2 L II USM. The latter is the superior of the two and is constructed from eight elements in seven groups, as well as using Canon’s Super Spectra coating to reduce flare and ghosting – a phenomenon that can be caused by light rays bouncing off different lens elements.

Intended for use on Canon DSLRs that feature an EF lens mount, it’s compatible with both Canon full-frame and APS-C-format DSLRs, such as the EOS 7D, where it offers an equivalent focal length of 136mm. Autofocus operation is very smooth, thanks to Canon’s Ultrasonic Motor, which supports full-time manual override to adjust the focus without leaving AF mode. There’s a gentle whir as the lens focuses, but it presented no sign of hunting between near and far subjects when tested with a Canon EOS 5D Mark III. While smooth to operate, the focus ring offers little resistance when it’s being used to manually focus and the MF/AF switch could do with being raised slightly, to make it easier to find when the camera is lifted to the eye.

Score: 4 out of 5

Data file

Filter diameter 72mm
Lens elements 8
Groups 7
Diaphragm blades 8
Aperture f/1.2-16
Minimum focus 95cm
Length 84mm
Diameter 91mm
Weight 1,025g
Lens mount Canon EF/EF-S

Nikkor 85mm f/1.4 G AF-S

Resolution

As can be seen on the charts, the Nikkor lens begins to improve at around f/4 and by f/5.6 there is virtually no difference between the centre and edges of the frame. At f/11 the resolution drops slightly, but the best range for this lens is f/5.6-f/8.

Shading

The Nikkor lens is fractionally worse that the other lenses on test when shooting at f/1.4, but only by around 0.5EV. In total, it is around 0.7EV darker at the edges than the centre. By f/2.8, the vignetting is reduced and registers only at around 0.25EV.

Curvilinear distortion

The Nikkor lens is very similar to the Canon lens in terms of distortion, although once again the
mean -0.2 barrel distortion means that it is of absolutely no concern.

See our graphs explained

Nikkor 85mm f/1.4 G AF-S

Price: £1,179
As one of Nikon’s premium prime lenses, does the Nikkor 85mm f/1.4 G justify its price tag?

The Nikkor 85mm f/1.4 G AF-S is the successor to the Nikkor 85mm f/1.8D IF (see page 47), and an alternative to the Nikkor 85mm f/1.8 G AF-S (£375). Being a professional-grade, medium telephoto prime, it’s designed for FX-mount Nikon DSLRs such as the D610, D800 and D4S, but it is also compatible with DX-mount (APS-C) DSLRs such as the D7100, where it offers a focal length equivalent to 127.5mm.

Smaller and considerably lighter than the Canon lens, it consists of ten elements in nine groups, with nine aperture blades. Nikon’s Silent Wave Motor (SWM) keeps the AF quiet and operation fast, and Nano Crystal Coatings help to reduce ghosting and flare. Out of the three AF lenses in this test, this is the quietest in use, plus its large focus ring offers an extremely smooth and fluid movement when manually focusing, with just the right level of resistance over a quarter-turn. The lens locks onto subjects instantly without any hesitation and there were no obvious signs of hunting even when the lighting conditions darkened.

The build quality is first-class, feeling more durable than the Sigma lens despite weighing less.

Score: 4 out of 5

Data file

Filter diameter 77mm
Lens elements 10
Groups 9
Diaphragm blades 9
Aperture f/1.4-16
Minimum focus 85cm
Length 84mm
Diameter 86.5mm
Weight 595g
Lens mount Nikon

Samyang 85mm f/1.4 IF MC

Resolution

Given its price, the Samyang lens performs extremely well, and at f/5.6 it is on par with the sharpest of all the lenses in this test. However, there is quite a difference between the centre and corners, although at f/11 the corners and the centre of the frame are far closer.

Shading

Shading follows the familiar pattern for these 85mm lenses, with a darkening of around 0.6EV in the corners. This is largely reduced by f/2.8, at which point the very edges of the frame are around 0.16EV darker.

Curvilinear distortion

Once again, the Samyang lens is on a par with the competition, with a distortion that is just -0.3 at its very worst, and averages at a mere -0.1.

See our graphs explained

Samyang 85mm f/1.4 IF MC

Price: £284
With sensational build quality for its price, can the Samyang lens match its rivals in other criteria?

Samyang is known for producing affordable manual-focus lenses, and the 85mm f/1.4 IF MC is a great example. At £284, it’s a much more affordable alternative to some of the primes in this group test, working out at more than £1,400 less than the slightly faster Canon 85mm f/1.2 lens and £895 less than the Nikon 85mm f/1.4.

It is available in a range of different mounts to fit full-frame and APS-C DSLRs, including Canon, Nikon, Sony and Pentax/Samsung. In terms of its construction, it features nine elements in seven groups, including one aspherical lens and an eight-blade aperture. To add to the very high level of light transmission, the lens features multi-layered, anti-reflective coatings.

This lens is of a very similar size and weight to the Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 Planar T*. The focus ring
just in front of the variable aperture ring is a substantial size and offers plenty of grip thanks to being rubberised. It operates over half a turn, and in use, the motion feels both smooth and superbly weighted. While the finish isn’t in the same league as the Zeiss lens, the build quality can’t be faulted in any way for the price.

Score: 3 out of 5 (Good value)

Data file

Filter diameter 72mm
Lens elements 9
Groups 7
Diaphragm blades 8
Aperture f/1.4-22
Minimum focus 100cm
Length 78mm
Diameter 74.7mm
Weight 539g
Lens mount Canon, Nikon, Pentax/Samsung, Sony

Sigma 85mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM

Resolution

When shooting wide open at f/1.4, the Sigma lens is the best in this test, just ahead of the Zeiss lens. At f/5.6, the Sigma lens matches the Samyang in the centre, although the edges are sharper. The lens is also the best on test when shooting at f/11.

Shading

There is little difference between the vignetting shown in f/1.4 images taken with the Sigma lens and the others in this test. It is around 0.7EV darker at the edges, and gradually eases by around f/4, where it is only 0.2EV darker.

Curvilinear distortion

With just a hint of barrel distortion, the Sigma lens is the best example in this test, with a mean distortion (to one decimal place) of just -0.0, and at its worst it is only -0.2. Distortion is virtually impossible to distinguish.

See our graphs explained

Sigma 85mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM

Price: £669
Available in various mounts, the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 lens offers a lot for the price, but is there a catch?

Getting on for four years old, the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 is one of the most competitively priced examples on the market to feature full AF/MF workings, as well as the manufacturer’s Hyper Sonic Motor (HSM) to keep AF operation as quiet and as quick as possible. Sharing the same f/1.4 maximum aperture as its Nikon, Samyang and Zeiss rivals, its construction is made up of 11 elements in eight groups and includes one SLD (special low dispersion) element and one aspherical lens. The lens uses a nine-blade aperture arrangement and, being a third-party option, it comes available in various mounts, including Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Sony and Sigma.

Compatible with APS-C and full-frame DSLRs, it’s a fairly heavy optic at 725g – the second heaviest in this test. It shares a similar design and dimensions to the Nikon optic, but its focus ring doesn’t offer the same fluid movement and has noticeably more resistance. That said, it’s easy to locate from behind the camera, just like its prominent MF/AF switch. Focusing is smooth with little sign of hunting, with only a faint whir as it focuses. As for its build quality, it feels a touch plasticky when compared to the metal barrels of its rivals.

Score: 4.5 out of 5 (Recommended)

Data file

Filter diameter 77mm
Lens elements 11
Groups 8
Diaphragm blades 9
Aperture f/1.4-16
Minimum focus 85cm
Length 87.6mm
Diameter 86.4mm
Weight 725g
Lens mount Canon EF, Nikon, Pentax, Samsung, Sigma, Sony

Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 Planar T*

Resolution

Although the performance of the Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 lens is nothing to write home about when fully open, at f/5.6 it is the sharpest lens in this group test, although the edges struggle to match the centre. Performance at f/11 is also very good and on a par with the Sigma lens.

Shading

Once again, we see the familiar dome shape from the vignetting chart of the Zeiss lens, with a darkening of around 0.6EV in the corners. At f/2.8, the very edges of the corners darken quite sharply to around 0.16EV.

Curvilinear distortion

The Zeiss lens has an interesting distortion pattern that is slightly pincushion rather than the barrel distortion of the other lenses. That said, it is actually so slight that it is difficult to see, even when drawing grid lines over images in Photoshop.

See our graphs explained

Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 Planar T*

Price: £1,049
The Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 lens might be manual-focus only, but it’s built to an exemplary standard

The Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 Planar T* is one of four lenses on test that feature a maximum aperture of f/1.4 and it’s available in either the Nikon F mount (denoted ZF.2) or a Canon EF mount (ZE). The size of the lens is more compact than its Canon, Nikon and Sigma rivals and is based on the famous symmetric lens design invented by Dr Paul Rudolph at Zeiss in 1896. The construction features nine diaphragm blades, with its six lens elements split into five groups.

To reduce unwanted stray light and internal reflections, all the lens elements are finished with a Zeiss T anti-reflective coating before receiving a special jet-black paint that’s applied to the edges by hand.

It is similar to the Samyang lens in that it’s manual focus only, and its focus ring offers a pleasingly smooth rotation over half a turn. However, it’s the only lens of the five not to feature a rubberised focus ring, making it slightly more slippery to operate when wearing gloves. Focus-distance markings in front of the variable aperture ring are clear to read, and as is to be expected, the build quality can’t be faulted in any way – it’s robust, strong and finished to an exceptional standard.

Score: 3.5 out of 5

Data file

Filter diameter 77mm
Lens elements 6
Groups 5
Diaphragm blades 9
Aperture f/1.4-16
Minimum focus 100cm
Length 88mm
Diameter 78mm
Weight 670g
Lens mount F mount (ZF.2) EF mount (ZE)

As can be seen in this group test, when it comes to 85mm f/1.4 lenses there is a lot of choice, and regardless of which lens mount your camera uses, there is something for you. Obviously, the Canon 85mm lens stands out in this group as it has a slightly larger maximum aperture of f/1.2, but in practice this only makes a difference of 0.3EV when all the lenses are at maximum aperture. The larger aperture also makes only a very small difference in terms of depth of field. Add to this the price of the Canon lens, along with its weight and the fact that it doesn’t offer much advantage optically, and suddenly some of the third-party lenses start to look a lot more attractive.

The Nikkor 85mm f/1.4 is a high-quality lens that handles well and is good optically across a range of apertures, but it is also fairly expensive when you consider the third-party options on test here. Having said that, the Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 Planar T* is around the same price, and despite having excellent image quality at f/5.6, it is manual focus only, which may put some enthusiast photographers off.

The Samyang 85mm f/1.4 is also manual focus, but at a price of under £300 and with a resolution that, at its best, can match the Sigma, Nikon and Canon lenses. It is fantastic value for money, especially for those who just want a lens for the occasional portrait. As such, it is a worthy winner of our Good Value award.

Although the Sigma 85mm lens does not feature the premium style and build of the company’s new lenses, its build quality is still good, and it is available in all the major lens mounts – and priced at £669, it offers great value for money. The image quality is excellent, and only bettered when the Zeiss lens is performing at its best. As such, the Sigma lens is well deserving of our Recommended award.

Best in Test Award: Sigma 85mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM

Good Value Award: Samyang 85mm f/1.4 IF MC

Second-hand alternatives

A new 85mm lens comes at a premium price, so what are the alternatives?

Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM

Price: £295 (new)
If you’re a Canon user struggling to come to terms with the price of the EF 85mm f/1.2 L II USM, the f/1.8 version here is an affordable alternative. It is an old lens design (it was released in 1992), but it remains in demand and features excellent build quality, delivers sharp results and is still available to buy new from most retailers. It is known to produce chromatic aberrations when it is opened to its maximum aperture, but there are few better options for those on a budget. Used examples often go for around £250.

Nikkor 85mm f/1.4 D AF

Price: £660 (used)
THe Nikkor 85mm f/1.4 D AF is the predecessor to the Nikkor G lens on test here. As with all D lenses, the 85mm f/1.4 D offers a manual-aperture ring behind the focus-distance indicator on the barrel, and its excellent build quality befits a lens that, in its day, was one of the finest Nikkor prime lenses going. Whereas excellent examples of this lens can be found for around £660, mint examples can go for £100 more. Constructed from nine elements in eight groups, a 77mm filter thread allows the use of filters and adapters.

Nikkor 85mm f/1.8 D

Price: £230 (used)
Nikkor users are spoilt for choice when it comes to 85mm prime lenses, with the Nikkor 85mm f/1.8 D being the forerunner to the two-year-old Nikkor 85mm f/1.8 G AF-S lens. As there’s no Silent Wave Motor, this lens isn’t as quiet in terms of its AF performance as most modern day Nikkor optics. When you consider that a mint-condition example can cost up to £292, it’s worth the extra £83 to pick up the newer Nikkor 85mm f/1.8 G, which features a new optical design as well as quieter and smoother autofocus operation.

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