If you own a Canon DSLR, you may be thinking about buying a portrait photography lens.
Most professional photographers recommend the 85mm lens for portrait photography, but if you're a Canon DSLR shooter, you are faced with a choice of 8 different lenses available at Adorama at prices ranging from $270 to well north of $2,000. (Prices accurate as of July 23, 2014.) Which one is best for you? That depends on your budget, but also on what kinds of portraits you want to shoot.
Here are the key Canon-mount 85's listed from lowest to highest price:
Pro-Optic 85mm f/1.4 Manual Focus (Adorama price: $239.95)
DxOMark Score: Not Tested
Overview: This upgraded budget portrait lens did spectacularly well in Adorama’s own informal field/studio test. Upgraded optics includes an aspherical element to reduce flaring and ghosting. The internal-focusing lens focuses as close as 3.3 feet. The internal-focusing lens focuses as close as 3.3 feet, and has a chip that talks with the Canon camera to confirm focus. (This lens is also available under the Bower and Rokinon brand names)
Web reviews: The Adorama Learning Center's Sandy Ramirez says this lens's performance is similar to the Canon 85mm f/1.8 but costs $100 less.
Samyang 85mm f/1.4 Aspherical Lens (Manual Focus)
(Adorama price: $279)
DxOMark Score: 27
Overview: With its low price and surprisingly high DxOMark overall score, the Samyang 85mm f/1.4 is a manual-focus only lens, but its aspherical multi-layer elements reduce flare and ghosting, producing sharp, contrasty images that in many ways (especially distortion) rival those produced by pricer name-brand optics. The lens has 8 diaphragm blades, is moderately light at 19 ounces, consists of 9 elements in 7 groups, focuses down to 3.3 feet, and takes a 72mm filter.
Web reviews: Mark Golstein at Photography Blog says focus is a bit "dreamy" at the widest aperture but sharpens up by f/4, and calls it "a very affordable alternative to the OEM offerings." Photozone says that while image quality is not super-sharp, it is "certainly good enough for portraits," describing the lens as a "very affordable introduction to shallow depth of field photography."
- Sharpness 13P-Mpix
- Transmission 1.7TStop
- Distortion 0.1%
- Vignetting -1.5EV
- Chr. aberration 5µm
Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM (Adorama price: $359)
DxOMark Score: 26
Overview: With its slightly smaller f/1.8 widest aperture, the Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 is a lightweight, compact, relatively affordable portrait photography lens with image quality performance that rivals that of its larger, more expensive, wider-aperture siblings.
Web reviews: Ken Rockwell says the Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 "outperforms the exotic special-purpose Canon 85mm f/1.2L II" and is "an easy lens to recommend." "Its quality is reasonably sharp wide open, but really shines from f/2.8 on," notes The Digital Picture.
- Sharpness 15P-Mpix
- Transmission 2TStop
- Distortion 0.4%
- Vignetting -1.6EV
- Chr. aberration 3µm
Sigma 85mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM Lens (Adorama price: $969)
DxOMark Score: 31
Overview: Indie lensmaker Sigma’s sharp large-aperture 85mm pro-level portrait lens features SLD glass and a special element coated for minimized chromatic aberration and reduced flare and ghosting, even when shooting backlit scenes. Its 9-blade diaphragm consists of rounded blades for natural-looking, rounded specular highlights and pleasing Bokeh, and is a go-to lens for wedding and portrait photographers.
Web reviews: SLR Gear's Andrew Alexander exclaims the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM is "as sharp as any of its contemporaries, even wide open at f/1.4." As Camera Labs points out, the lens is the cheapest 85mm f/1.4 with AF, but "you have to be very careful to focus optimally."
- Sharpness 17P-Mpix
- Transmission 1.6TStop
- Distortion 0.1%
- Vignetting -1.3EV
- Chr. aberration 4µm
Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM (Adorama price: $2,049)
DxOMark Score: 28
Overview: Canon’s flagship 85, this lens has a high-speed CPU, circular aperture for pleasing Bokeh, and a rugged build for pro use. It consists of 7 groups in 8 elements, and focuses down to 3.1 feet. It takes a 72mm filter, and weighs a hefty 2.3 pounds.
Web reviews: AdoramaTV's Mark Wallace calls the Canon 85mm f/1.2L his “Magic Lens” for its ability to completely throw the background out of focus. Ken Rockwel describes image quality as "Exquisitely sharp and contrasty, even wide open, even in the corners, and even on full-frame," but notes that it is a very specialized lens and for casual users it may be too big and heavy.
- Sharpness 15P-Mpix
- Transmission 1.4TStop
- Distortion 0.2%
- Vignetting -1.9EV
- Chr. aberration 10µm
Zeiss 85mm f/1.5 Planar T* ZE (Adorama price: $1,283)
DxOMark Score: 25
Overview: With a distortion-free performance (thanks to a 9-blade circular aperture) and nearly circular diaphragm design, the manual focus Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 Planar T* is an updated classic. It focuses down to 3.3 feet, has 6 elements in 5 groups, and takes 72mm filters.
Web reviews: The lens's resolution surprised SLR Lens Review, which noted that the Planar "Planar seems to best Leica's Summilux at its widest apertures"—high praise—and calls the Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 Planar "one of my all-time favorite portrait lenses." The Digital Picture says that if you do not need autofocus, then " you will not likely find a better built 85mm lens for your purposes."
- Sharpness 14P-Mpix
- Transmission 1.6TStop
- Distortion 0%
- Vignetting -1.4EV
- Chr. aberration 9µm
Zeiss Compact Prime CP.2 85mm f/2.1 T* (Adorama price: $3,990)
Zeiss Compact Prime CP.2 85mm f/1.5 T* (Adorama price: $4,500)
DxOMark Score: Not tested
Overview: If you’re a still photographer, that price tag might seem like a typo but if you are a pro cinematographer, you know it isn’t. While the Zeiss CP.2 85mm f/1.5 T* and f/2.8T* models are optimized for video moviemaking—they are, after all, the first cine lenss designed for HDSLR cameras—they can also be pressed into service for still photography. It have an interchangeable mount that can accommodate PL, EF, F, Micro 4/3 and E-mount, a 14-blade aperture, and high optical performance with low distortion and accurate color. Not a cinematographer? Don’t worry; you can save money and buy something less costly.
Return to Tested and Compared: 20 85mm Lenses for DSLR Portrait Photography