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Lens Impressions: RF85mm f/1.2L USM in Portrait Photography

With its fast f/1.2 maximum aperture and medium telephoto focal length that results in minimal perspective distortion, the RF85mm f/1.2L USM is set to be the staple portrait lens for many photographers. Ikuko Tsurumaki tested it out in both portrait and street photography, and fell in love with its excellent image quality and beautiful, creamy bokeh. She shares more below. (Reported by: Ikuko Tsurumaki, Digital Camera Magazine. Model: Ayano Kuroki, Oscar Promotion)

Lens with example portrait

 

A fast 85mm lens: The essential for photographing people

85mm prime lenses, with their medium telephoto focal length, are one of the most popular for portrait photography. I used to use an 85mm lens very often when I shot weddings. Add a large maximum aperture to the equation, and you get a lens that is the ultimate essential for photographing people. The RF85mm f/1.2L USM is one such lens. Here are my impressions after shooting with it.

1) Optical qualities
2) AF
3) Using the lens for street photography
4) In summary: A lens that is worth every single cent
5) 3 key features to note

 

Optical qualities

Bride in wedding gown on the street

EOS R/ RF85mm f/1.2L USM/ FL: 85mm/ Aperture-priority AE (f/1.2, 1/800 sec, EV±0)/ ISO 100/ WB: Daylight

A pre-wedding shoot that I chanced upon on the street. I used the maximum aperture to turn the leaves in front of me into foreground bokeh, which enhances the sense that the viewer is a bystander sneaking a look at the shoot. Look at the pure white colour and soft texture of the bride’s gown: It shows how the lens renders tonal gradients in rich, faithful detail. 


Bokeh
At maximum aperture f/1.2, the bokeh is smooth and creamy, making the main subject stand out beautifully.

Sharpness and detail
Images are well-resolved and rendered in fine detail all the way from maximum aperture, not just at the centre of the image but all the way to the corners. The images are sharp, but they are also natural-looking easy on the eye, with no unnaturally harsh outlines.

Colours
Large aperture lenses are often prone to chromatic aberration, but I was surprised by how well chromatic aberration was kept under control on this lens, thanks to the use of Canon’s in-house-developed BR lens and UD lens technologies. Even my backlit shots had no visible colour fringing in the highlight areas.


Model posing on road in front of buildings

EOS R/ RF85mm f/1.2L USM/ FL: 85mm/ Aperture-priority AE (f/1.2, 1/8,000 sec, EV+0.3)/ ISO 100/ WB: Daylight

When I shot street portraits with the lens, the strong, creamy bokeh blurred out the background, providing excellent subject isolation. I was about 5 metres away from the model—a very comfortable distance for communicating with her as we shot. Scenes like that are often prone to purple fringing around the subject, but there is none visible here. There are no visible colour artefacts either. Such clarity shows how thoroughly chromatic aberration has been corrected. 

 

AF

As a large aperture lens, this lens has a heavier build. However, the use of Ring USM results in fast AF performance that makes focusing easy. I was able to achieve accurate and very precise focus even at maximum aperture. Combined with the Eye Detection AF on the EOS R, I didn’t miss any shots of moving people, even with the shallow depth-of-field at f/1.2. Such speed is also very helpful for capturing fleeting moments in street photography.

Model seated with foreground and background bokeh flowers

EOS R/ RF85mm f/1.2L USM/ FL: 85mm/ Aperture-priority AE (f/1.4, 1/2,500 sec, EV+0.7)/ ISO 100/ WB: Daylight

The smoothness of the bokeh in front of and behind the model, together the sharpness of the area in focus, are the strongest marks of a good portrait lens. Flaring and ghosting are suppressed by the special Air Sphere Coating (ASC), ensuring that the lens handles well even in backlit situations.

 

Using the lens for street photography


Not the most footwork-friendly, but helps to retain the atmosphere of scenes

Besides portraits, I also tried using this lens for street photography. Admittedly, the weight of this lens does not make it very footwork-friendly. However, the perspective compression effect at 85mm is not very obvious, and this is good for retaining the atmosphere of scenes just the way you see them with the naked eye. It helps that there is no visible distortion, which further ensures the faithfulness of the depiction.

85mm also allows you to photograph passers-by from a comfortable distance, which is another advantage for street photography.


Might be a bit tight for those used to shooting wider, but the lovely bokeh is worth it

As I usually shoot my street photos with a 35mm or 50mm lens, I did feel that the 85mm angle-of-view was a little tight. But I really liked how well my main subjects stood out against the beautiful bokeh, and had a lot of fun taking such pictures. I just needed to make a firm decision on what I wanted my main interest to be!


Tip: Make good use of the customisable control ring

As with the other RF lenses, this lens comes with a customisable control ring. Assigning it to control aperture and exposure compensation (depending on your shooting mode) will help you capture moments even more seamlessly.


Mannequin in white blouse shot through window

EOS R/ RF85mm f/1.2L USM/ FL: 85mm/ Aperture-priority AE (f/1.2, 1/2,500 sec, EV+0.7)/ ISO 100/ WB: Cloudy

A mannequin in the window display of a shop. I turned the yellow and purple flowers in front of me into foreground bokeh to give the scene more depth. Yellow and purple are complementary colours, and they help to add some colour to the overall image. A quick turn of the control ring on the lens helped me to adjust the exposure compensation so that the white blouse on the mannequin was rendered beautifully.

 

In summary: A lens that is worth every single cent

With the lens’ excellent image quality and operability, I was able to concentrate on the more artistic aspects of portraiture such as deciding on the composition and capturing the model’s fleeting facial expressions. This helps to improve the chances of getting a good shot. The speed of the AF was a huge benefit not just for portraiture, but also street photography.

The RF85mm f/1.2L USM may not be the most affordable lens in the lineup, but just one look at the image quality should be enough to convince you that it is worth every cent.

 

Three key features to note


1. Fast AF with the help of Ring USM

Like most large aperture lenses, the RF85mm f/1.2L USM has large and heavy focusing lenses, but the strong torque of Ring USM helps to drive them quickly with high precision. Just like on the RF50mm f/1.2L USM, the RF85mm f/1.2L USM also features microprocessor-driven motor control and AF algorithm matching. All these come together to realise swift, highly-precise AF. 


Ring USM

Illustration of Ring USM and focusing lenses

A: Ring USM
B: The focusing lens group


2. An aspherical lens element for improved image quality

An aspherical lens element has been placed right in front of the aperture diaphragm, ensuring high image quality all the way to the edges of the image frame. The lens construction also includes one BR lens* and one UD lens element to suppress the chromatic aberrations that large aperture lenses are usually prone to. I couldn’t see any colour fringing even in the highlight areas.

Tree branches shot against the sun

*A BR lens consists of three parts: A concave lens, BR optical elements, and a convex lens. It produces a unique dispersion property similar to fluorite.  

See what the lens developers have to say about this lens in:
RF85mm f/1.2L USM: An Ideal Lens Made Possible By the RF Mount


3. Eye Detection AF allows easy focusing even with the shallow depth-of-field at f/1.2

In portraiture, it is crucial for the eyes to be sharply in focus, but this can be quite a challenge with a depth-of-field as shallow as the one at f/1.2. The Eye Detection AF is very useful in such situations.

EOS R firmware version 1.2.0 and above endows the Eye Detection AF function with Servo AF compatibility, making it possible to achieve extremely quick focus on the eyes of moving people. With EOS R firmware version 1.4.0 (and EOS RP version 1.3.0), users can also look forward to improved AF performance, including eye detection at greater distances.

Close-up of face with Eye Detection AF frame


Photographer shooting her own reflection in glass panels

EOS R/ RF85mm f/1.2L USM/ FL: 85mm/ Aperture-priority AE (f/1.2, 1/320 sec, EV±0)/ ISO 100/ WB: Daylight

A self-portrait in a glass reflection. I timed my shutter release to coincide with the moment that a well-dressed passer-by walked behind me. This scene made me truly appreciate the image clarity that the lens provided.

 

EOS R with RF85mm f/1.2L USM attached

EOS R with RF85mm f/1.2L USM attached

 

Lens Hood ET-89

Lens Hood ET-89

 

Lens construction

RF85mm f/1.2L USM lens diagram

A: Aspherical lens elements
B: UD lens elements
C: BR lens element
D: ASC (Air Sphere Coating)

 

Key specifications

Lens construction: 13 elements in 9 groups
Closest focusing distance: 0.85m
Maximum magnification: 0.12x
No. of aperture blades: 9 (circular blade)
Filter diameter: 82mm
Size: φ103.2 x 117.3mm
Weight: approx. 1,195g

 

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Learn more about RF lenses at:
In Focus: RF Lenses

For portrait photography tips and ideas, check out the following articles:
5 Portrait Photography Techniques to Take You from Day to Night
Techniques for Posing and Directing Portrait Subjects
3 Flattering Techniques to Learn from Professional Models
How to Create Dreamy, Colourful Portraits with Foreground Bokeh

 


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Digital Camera Magazine

Digital Camera Magazine

A monthly magazine that believes that enjoyment of photography will increase the more one learns about camera functions. It delivers news on the latest cameras and features and regularly introduces various photography techniques.
Published by Impress Corporation

Ikuko Tsurumaki

Ikuko Tsurumaki

Born in Tokyo in 1972, Tsurumaki started learning photography while working with an advertising agency, and became a photographer after her career as an assistant. She is currently engaged in activities including photo shoots for magazines, writing articles, and conducting photography lectures and seminars.

http://www.ikukotsurumaki.com/