What's New: Canon RF 85mm F1.2 L Lens
May 8, 2019
Early in 2019, Canon lens engineers made a “development announcement” — outlining very basic information about six new, RF-mount lenses to be introduced later in the year, for the mirrorless Canon EOS R series. The first of these lenses, the Canon RF 85mm F1.2 L USM, has now been formally introduced by Canon. We’ll look at it, and highlight what’s new, in this introductory article.
THE CANON RF LENS FAMILY
With the introduction of this professional-level, short telephoto lens, there are now five Canon RF lenses (as of May, 2019) available for EOS R-series cameras:
- RF 24–105mm F4 L IS USM
The standard zoom lens in the EOS RF lens line
- RF 35mm F1.8 Macro IS STM
A super-compact, moderate wide-angle lens, with exceptional close-focus capability
- RF 50mm F1.2 L USM
Standard focal length, incredibly high-performance professional lens; superb for low-light shooting
- RF 28–70mm F2 L USM
A statement of Canon’s optical capabilities… a constant f/2 maximum aperture, and outstanding optical performance throughout its zoom range
- RF 85mm F1.2L USM
The newest RF lens, as of May, 2019… incredible “look” with its f/1.2 maximum aperture and 85mm focal length, and absolutely superb optical performance
A QUICK OVERVIEW OF THE RF 85MM F1.2 L USM LENS
This is a no-compromises, professional portrait and low-light lens, and it targets both the professional photographer, and the dedicated photo enthusiast. Two primary missions for any fast-aperture, 85mm lens on a full-frame camera: portraits and other “people” shots, and available-light shooting in dimly-lit conditions.
Lots of long telephoto power isn’t the reason photographers have traditionally turned to 85mm (and similar) lenses. What these lenses do provide is an extremely pleasing perspective for portrait-type compositions, giving that slight telephoto look to images of people. They allow comfortable interaction, when photographers are actively working with a subject… the photographer can back away a bit from his or her subject(s), yet still be within easy verbal communication distance in many instances. The 85mm lens works beautifully in many indoor or studio environments, where there may not be space to use long telephoto lenses and back away sufficiently from a scene or subject.
And equally important, these are “fast” lenses, with maximum apertures normally wider than comparable telephoto zoom lenses. Compared to popular f/2.8 pro-level zooms, for instance, the Canon RF 85mm F1.2 L is 2.5 stops faster. Think of a hypothetical available-light shooting scenario, like wedding candids in a dimly-lit church — working at f/1.2 could be the difference between shooting at ISO 800 vs. having to use an ISO such as 4,000 or 5,000 to get enough light-gathering for hand-holdable shutter speeds.
There’s no doubt this is a large, heavy lens for an 85mm, short telephoto — we’ll look at why when we examine its optical design and performance. But Canon engineers have said the optical performance of this lens, based on calculated MTF results, make it the highest-performing Canon-brand 85mm focal length lens yet in the entire EOS AF lens system’s history.* So in spite of its size and weight, Canon expects this lens to be right at home for demanding photographers in fields like fashion, portraits, wedding coverage, events, and available-light work (including subjects like theater, and even some indoor sports).
The incredible “look” this lens can deliver, a combination of razor-sharp detail at the plane of sharpest focus, quickly merging into beautifully blurred backgrounds, can make it an incredible asset for critical photographers. This is especially true when it’s used at or near its wide f/1.2 maximum aperture.
THE CANON RF LENS MOUNT
This is a Canon RF-mount lens, so it’s exclusively for Canon EOS R-series, mirrorless cameras. There are no mount adapters, at the time of this lens’ introduction, to allow it to be used on traditional EOS digital SLRs.
But that RF mount brings some nice features, first seen in the four introductory Canon RF lenses at the launch of the full-frame mirrorless system in late 2018. These include:
- Significantly faster lens/body communication, supported by 12 electronic contacts
- The RF lens Control Ring: a programmable ring that can allow immediate adjustments of exposure compensation, aperture, shutter speed, or ISO
- Support in the EOS R and RP cameras to display a lens distance scale in the viewfinder or on the LCD monitor (during Live View or video recording)
- Enhanced lens optical quality, using the foundation of shorter mount-to-image sensor distance, along with a wide, 54mm inner diameter lens mount
For EOS R (or EOS RP) camera users, one benefit of using an RF-mount lens is that no lens mount adapter is needed; the lens attaches directly to the camera body. There’s no question that tremendous flexibility is in the photographer’s hands with the possibilities of using Canon EF or EF-S lenses along with a Canon EF-EOS R lens mount adapter, but the RF 85mm F1.2 offers the convenience of not needing an adapter.
Let’s take a look at some of the highlights of the RF 85mm F1.2 L lens’ incredible optical construction:
- A no-compromise and totally new design, with optical performance and image quality being the number one priority. While this is a large and somewhat heavy lens, the RF lens architecture (large-diameter lens mount, large diameter rear optical section close to the image sensor) means the central and front sections of the lens are actually smaller and lighter, while providing improved optical quality, than would have been possible with the Canon EF mount for digital SLRs.
- A 13-element design, with focusing (manual and AF) carried-out by moving a central group of seven lens elements
- One large-diameter, ground-and-polished Aspherical lens element, and one UD-glass element make major contributions to reducing aberrations and color fringing
- Canon’s BR Optics (Blue Spectrum Refractive optics), a Canon-developed organic optical compound, is used between the 8th and 9th glass elements, forming a “BR Optics group” that significantly contributes to lowering chromatic aberrations or “color fringing.” This technology was first used by Canon in the very highly-regarded EF 35mm f/1.4L II lens, and it makes its second appearance in the RF 85mm F1.2 L USM.
- Extensive vapor-deposited multi-coating, throughout the optical elements, to reduce flare and reflections
- Canon’s ASC — Air Sphere Coating — is additionally used, on the front surface of the 12th optical element, to further reduce internal flare and ghosting from bright light sources coming into the lens at direct or near-direct angles (in other words, light entering straight into the lens, at angles near parallel with the lens’ optical path)
AF is driven by Canon’s proven and powerful ring-type Ultrasonic Motor. Unlike most Canon EF lenses for digital SLRs, manual focus is also performed electronically with all RF lenses to date, using the same USM to respond to signals applied via the manual focus ring.
This lens’ optical qualities and performance dove-tail beautifully with the Eye Detect AF in the EOS R and RP cameras — even more so with a recent firmware upgrade for the EOS R, which now allows Eye Detect AF in both One-Shot AF and continuous Servo AF operation. Any situation where people are being photographed is an opportunity to experience Eye Detect AF’s ability to continue to put sharpest focus on a subject’s eye. Especially since the active AF area with EOS R-series cameras covers far more of the picture area than has been possible with digital SLRs, the combination of this new 85mm lens and this AF feature can really enhance a photographer’s ability to compose his or her pictures freely, and get a higher percentage of tack-sharp shots, even at the lens’ widest f/1.2 aperture.
Both the lens’ distinct “look” of tack-sharp primary subjects with beautifully blurred backgrounds should make it a very effective tool for 4K and Full HD video recording, as well. And, AF transitions with EOS R-series cameras should further enhance its abilities for serious video users.
With the RF 85mm F1.2L USM, seven elements are also moved to drive focus — but in this case, they’re smaller-diameter, internal elements. With less weight to move, AF response is significantly improved, and anyone familiar with the previous EF version of the 85mm f/1.2L will likely be impressed with the new RF lens’ AF speed.
Minimum focus distance is approximately 2.8 feet (0.85m), close enough for an extremely tightly-composed, vertical head shot on a full-frame camera. Maximum magnification is 0.12x, at which it covers a subject area of 11.2 x 7.5 inches (285 x 190mm). There’s a two-position distance limiter switch, with Full (0.85m – infinity) and 1.5m (4.9 feet) – infinity settings.
This lens emphasizes some capabilities designed into the EOS R system. First off, as mentioned above, any manual focusing is performed electronically. The photographer still rotates the manual focus ring, as SLR users have for decades. But instead of being mechanically connected via a threaded helicoid to the focus ring, in all Canon RF lenses to date, the focusing group of elements continue to be moved via the Ultrasonic Motor. The USM responds to very fine signals, generated as the focus ring is rotated.
Two very useful menu settings in the EOS R and RP for manual focusing with RF lenses should be explained, because they offer a new level of control for users who want to focus themselves:
Focus Ring Rotation:
Gives the option to reverse the direction of manual focusing — this can be extremely helpful to photographers coming to Canon from competitive systems, which in some cases use manual focus direction that’s the opposite of Canon’s traditional method.
RF lens Manual Focus ring sensitivity:
This is an especially useful option to try with a lens having a broad manual focus ring throw, and such narrow depth-of-field as an 85mm f/1.2. Two options here:
- Linked to rotation degree
Focus will change at a consistent rate, as the manual focus ring is rotated a given number of degrees. Whether rotated fast or very slowly and deliberately, the responsiveness of the electronic manual focus is consistent.
- Varies with rotation speed
Manual focus response changes if you either rapidly or relatively slowly turn the MF ring. A rapid, fast turn of the ring causes manual focus to shift very quickly, enhancing the ability to rapidly change from near to far, or vice-versa — without a lot of actual ring rotation. But if the focus ring is manually rotated slowly, as might be the case when focusing deliberately, actual rate of focus change slows as well, making it even easier to perform these fine changes.
We recommend to any photographer who’s experiencing the RF 85mm F1.2L USM lens to try the RF lens Manual Focus ring sensitivity settings in their camera’s menu, to see if either is preferable for the way you like to handle your camera and lens. In the interest of being clear, neither setting has any impact on AF speed, responsiveness or performance — they’re strictly tools for manual focus operation.
EXTERIOR AND MECHANICAL DESIGN
There’s no getting around that this is a large, heavy lens for an 85mm, fixed focal length design — its weight is approximately 2.6 lbs (1195g). Strong, weather-resistant build quality is part of the reason for this; its emphasis on superb, uncompromised optical performance is another.
It’s a weather-resistant lens, with sealing at the lens mount, switch panels, Control Ring, and manual focus ring. Overall moisture-resistance and durability from impacts, shock and so on are similar to recently-introduced Canon L-series lenses.
The RF 85mm F1.2L carries forward many of the design elements seen in the initial RF lens series, including a bright mount core ring, simplified exterior lettering, and the same diamond-textured Control Ring. One interesting design feature is that there’s a slight expanded “step” in lens diameter as one’s fingers reach from the large manual focus ring to the Control Ring. This provides an additional measure of tactile confirmation as to which ring a user is about to rotate.
The Control Ring works in precisely the same way as those on previous Canon RF-mount lenses. It has 72 click-stop positions for each 360° rotation, offering a positive, direct feedback to the photographer of his or her input. These click stops are slightly audible, and users who intend to record video extensively with this lens will have the option of a service modification to remove the clicks from the Control Ring, for a service fee.
Filter size is 82mm; the lens is shipped with a dedicated Canon ET-89 bayonet-mount (and attachable in reverse position) lens hood; and a pouch-type case with a draw-string is included.
As of May, 2019, the RF 85mm F1.2 L USM lens is not compatible with the following accessories:
- Canon tele extenders
- Canon Extension Tubes
- Canon 250D or 500D Close-up Lenses (none available in 82mm diameter)
The Canon RF lens system has given Canon’s designers a totally new, blank canvas upon which to create the optical tools we’ll use in the 21st century. The first four RF lenses, introduced in 2018 (along with the EOS R camera), underscored a new emphasis on putting outstanding lenses into Canon EOS R system photographers’ hands. The 2019 launch of the RF 85mm F1.2 L USM lens is more of the same. According to Canon’s lens engineers, they’ve developed the finest 85mm autofocus lens yet for Canon photographers (based on its wide-open performance, in Canon’s MTF testing).
This lens clearly targets the experienced and demanding photographer, especially those who work with people. Combined with some of the autofocus possibilities in EOS R-series cameras — which work over nearly the entire frame — this lens is a stellar offering for portraits, fashion, and many other types of work.
Its maximum f/1.2 aperture adds a whole new dimension to both its available-light capabilities, as well as the wonderful soft backgrounds in can generate when focusing upon nearby subjects, at or near its widest f/1.2 aperture.
The combination of such a wide maximum aperture, along with a truly no-compromises optical and mechanical design, makes this a large, heavy lens; there’s no question about that. But for many critical, working professionals (or serious enthusiasts), the promise of this lens’ imagery will make it a very desirable addition to their camera system. And, for those who have not yet made the step from traditional digital SLRs to the mirrorless EOS R system, this amazing 85mm lens is another reason to consider adding EOS R and RF lenses to their repertoire.