review: Bokeh of the Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS lens
In the accompanying review article, the Canon 85mm f/1.4L IS lens (B&H) really stood out in terms of image sharpness. Here I want to linger a bit on the bokeh of this lens, especially as compared to the much-loved Canon 85mm f/1.2L II (B&H).
The comparison includes these three lenses, since they are in the same league:
Please also check out the review: Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS lens.
Now, before we progress any further, we need to be distinguish between Bokeh and Shallow depth-of-field. While DoF affects the bokeh of a lens, those two terms are not interchangeable: Bokeh vs Shallow depth-of-field (DoF). Bokeh is the quality of the background blur. In other words, the aesthetic appeal of the blur. Bokeh is not another word for blur, but a descriptor of the blur of (usually) the background. It can be smooth, it can be harsh. It can be pleasant, it can be jittery. It can be appealing and enhance the photograph, but we can’t have “more bokeh”. That makes no sense. Okay, with all that behind us, let’s go on.
For this review, I photographed various models during various photo sessions. All the images were shot with the Canon 6D, and I used a light-weight tripod. While I did use the tripod to keep my angle the same, our models aren’t statues, and they will move slightly between frames. This meant I had to adjust the camera slightly on the tripod. The light did change subtly over time as I did the sequence. And each lens will have a different rendition of the colors anyway. Some lenses appear ‘warmer’ in how they render the scene. So there will be some slight change between the images, but I do believe the images are close enough that we can form a valid opinion about what we prefer.
In summary: The difference in the blur is … well, you can make your own mind up, but to my eye they all look pretty similar with a smooth rendition of the background blur. The new Canon 85mm f/1.4 IS lens holds up very well against the classic Canon 85mm f/1.2 II. I don’t think anyone who upgrades to the new lens will lose any of the “magic” of the older 85mm lens.
Let’s have a look at some of these comparative sequences:
Please note, I cropped these images to a 4×5 ratio to make them viable on desktop computers when I resized them for 900px width. This means that a little bit off the top, and a little bit off the bottom of each image was cropped off to make viewing easier within this blog format.
With the comparison photos, I didn’t bother with the f/1.4 images of the Canon 85mm f/1.2 II, since the differences between f1/2 and f/1.4 were marginal, and barely discernible.
Bokeh and ‘real world’ importance
With the next few images, I shot handheld instead of the tripod. In addition, the background changes as the people on this 6th Avenue (New York) sidewalk swirl around. So we can see the bokeh is wonderful but we can’t really compare in any useful way between the lenses. Still, they look good. In that sense, if we were to do a photo shoot or a wedding or such with any of these lenses, it would be difficult to pick which lens was used with any particular image.
The bokeh of a lens is important, but not when the differences are marginal. Then other aspects of a lens’ abilities and qualities are more what we should consider.
As mentioned in the review of the Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS, I am hugely impressed. The lens is crazy-sharp! Not only does it focus much faster than the legendary Canon 85mm f/1.2 II, the bokeh in my opinion also holds up very well in comparison. The Sigma 85mm f/1.4 ART lens is also very sharp, and the bokeh is comparable to at least the Canon 85mm f/1.4 IS lens, but it does lack the stabilization of the new Canon lens.
All around, the Canon 85mm f/1.4 IS lens stands out above the other two lenses.
You can buy a copy of this lens via B&W: Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS lens (B&H)
- review: Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS lens
- review: Canon 50mm lenses – bokeh
- More reviews of Canon gear
- Bokeh vs shallow depth-of-field (DoF)
- 85mm – The best lens to change your portrait photography
- review: Zeiss Otus 85mm f/1.4 vs Canon and Nikon
- Other articles about 85mm lenses
5 Comments, Add Your Own
1Éric L. says
Thank you very much for this review, Neil. The given information was exactly what I was looking for! I must say I’m not in love with the new 85 bokeh, which I find a little busy from the sample I’ve seen. Maybe it’s due to it’s increased sharpness over older canon 85…? Or maybe it’s me overthinking too! ;)
Thank you again!
perfecta revision, justo lo que estaba buscando.
el bokeh del 1.2 es mas cremoso que el del nuevo 85 1.4L, todo se difumina ¨un poco mas ¨…
2.1Neil vN says
Via Google Translate:
“Perfect review, just what I was looking for.
The bokeh of 1.2 is more creamy than the new 85 1.4L, everything is blurred a little more”
3Bokeh Estudio says
I love EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM. Excellent “bokeh” in the background
Thanks for this review – one of the very few I could find on this most interesting topic. So, the conclusion is that the bokeh in the background is very beautiful and very similar amongst the tested lenses and that is a good thing. Looking at the sample pictures, it is easy to see.
However, what I find absolutely fascinating is the bokeh magic that goes on not in the background, but around the plane of focus, i.e. the change of blur on the face of a model: from the eyes to the cheeks, through the hair, to the shoulders. In order to see that (magic) better, you need to get closer to the subject, like shown in the opening picture at the top of this page. I would have loved to see a couple of side-by-side comparisons there, i.e. same close-up shot, different lens(es). Neil hints at this magic in https://neilvn.com/tangents/85mm-best-lens-change-portrait-photography/ as (quote on) “The model’s eyes are half the impact with this photo. The way the super-sharper areas gently slide into the pleasantly soft areas, really helps accentuate those sharply focused areas, and draw your attention in.” (quote off) and if you look at this particular photograph (ie. the closing photograph of that article), that is probably the magic that this particular lens (the Canon 85 f1.2 II @ f1.4) derives its legendary status from. And, as a sidenote, that the magic itself does not require f1.2 per se and that f1.4 will do just fine.
I’ve owned the Canon 85 f1.2 L II for 15 years and browsing through its pictures, there truly is magic to be had (but, just to be fair, shooting with this lens wide open is by no means a guarantee for producing magical pictures, as proved by lots of troublesome and out-of-focus shots I got). The interesting question is now whether some of that magic was lost on the way with the introduction of the EF 85 f1.4L IS (and possibly even more so with the RF 85 f1.2L) in favour of sharpness and fewer ‘lens defects’. With test chart in hand, it is easy to comment on and compare center vs. corner sharpness etc., but other qualities like bokeh are much more difficult to compare objectively, like this article does. There may also be a changing shooting style amongst photographers, requiring a more ‘clinical’ look, which immediately brings up the question how a photographer can distinguish the work from mainstream. I think the look (or ‘magic’ if you will) of the lens can play an important role in this.