The Canon 85mm f/1.8 lens in the studio

They are almost giving these away.

Even if you don’t bother with Canon’s sleazy rebate deals – sleazy because your chances of actually getting your rebate are something of a crapshoot and it is a lousy way for Canon to treat its cusomers by trying to trip them up with endless paperwork – the 85mm f/1.8 lens is a superb bargain. B&H lists it for $340 before rebate.


Canon 5D with the 85mm f/1.8

I had toyed with the idea of one for a while, having used a 90mm – first an Elmar, then a Tele Elmarit, then an Elmarit-M and finally the ne plus ultra Asph Apo-Summicron on my M2 and M3 Leicas – for years. $2,800! It’s an ideal length for head and shoulder portraits in the studio on a full frame 35mm camera. Forget all that rot about the perspective being better than with a 50mm – in reality the differences are not noticeable. No, what makes a difference is the fast maximum aperture, which is nice for composition after the f/4 of the 24-105mm L zoom, as the viewfinder is quite a bit brighter. It doesn’t hurt that the lens is a fraction of the weight and bulk of the zoom.

Using my portable Novatron gear and the background-in-a-bag, my little portable studio dictates an aperture of f/5.6 at ISO 100 with the two Novatron heads in reflective umbrellas at 1/2 and 1/4 power, respectively. With the Canon 5D it’s more like f/6.3 as Canon is very conservative about its ISO rating. The LCD screen and a couple of test shots obsolete the electronic flash meter. The sensor in the camera is about 1/2 stop more sensitive than indicated. So when our son’s fifth birthday rolled around, it was the perfect opportunity to give the 85mm an outing, and all I can report is that the results are indistinguishable from the 90mm Apo Summicron on my M3. Well, actually better, as the definition is as good but with the 5D’s wonderful full frame sensor, there is simply no grain visible even in 18x enlargements. None. And that makes for wonderfully smooth skin tones compared with 35mm film. A fairer comparison would be with clunky medium format film gear as far as grain is concerned. Trust me. You do not want grain in studio portraits.

Some user reports on the web suggest the lens is a dog, focusing incorrectly. I can only think that these comments reflect poor technique. You need to switch off all that silly matrix focusing or whatever it’s called, make the center rectangle the sole focus point, and focus on the eyes. Half depress the shutter release to lock focus, recompose and click. The short duration flash puts paid to any camera shake and the Novatron has a 1/2 second recycle time on these power settings, meaning you can take pictures as fast as you can compose and press the button.

And with children, that’s a good thing as it’s simply impossible to predict moods and expressions. One of the few instances where machine-gun shooting is justified. With the able assistance of my lovely wife we managed to bang off some ninety picture in 5 minutes (at which point our ‘model’ was getting pooped) and four were really good. One of those, as we flipped though them on the iMac, made us both go ‘WOW’ and here it is:


Winston at five. Canon 5D, 85mm f/1.8 at f/6.3, ISO 100, two Novatron heads in umbrellas

Resolving power? How about this – the silvered umbrella and flash head are clearly visible:


At 18x magnification

The 18″ x 24″ print is printing right now on the HP DJ90.

My lady wife? Thought you would never ask:


Winston with his Mum.

Processing? Simplicity itself. Drop the originals in Aperture, warm up the color temperature a tad – the Novatrons are on the cool side – and press the Print button. Beauty needs no retouching.

If you are serious about studio snaps get one of these or, if your DSLR uses a cropped sensor, then a 50mm will do as well. The f/1.4 version from Canon is as cheap as the 85mm and is very special; I have little doubt that the offerings from the competition lack anything by comparison – that’s competition for you.