When presented with seemingly infinite choices, it’s can be difficult to answer a question like, “What’s the best lens for Canon 6D?” If you think of each lens as individual tools in your toolbox, you’ll see that different types of gigs will require different types of tools. Therefore, even the best landscape lenses will struggle when it comes to portrait photography.
If you’re just looking for a great all-around lens that can cover most day-to-day situations, check out last week’s post on best canon walkaround lens. However, if you’re mostly a portrait shooter like myself, this article is for you.
Table of Contents
- Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM
- Who is This Product For?
- The Best Lens for Canon 6D Portraiture
- Customer Reviews
- Alternatives and Comparisons
- Final Verdict
Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM
While you may have briefly seen this bad boy from an earlier lens roundup, I feel it’s about time that the Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM (85L for short) gets its very own dedicated article. I have this lens on my camera pretty much 90% of the time, even while shooting events. If you can navigate around some of the flaws, let me tell you, your photo quality is about to get a huge upgrade.
Like many other professional photographers, I have an intense love and hate relationship with the 85L. To give you an idea, here is a quick list of pros and cons of this lens.
What I Like
- Surreal 3D-quality images that cannot be replicated
- Beautiful creamy bokeh from f/1.2 to f/1.8
- Tack sharp at all apertures, even wide open
- Stunning colors and contrast straight out of camera
- Exceptionally sturdy build
What I Didn’t Like
- Inconsistent autofocus performance
- Chromatic aberration present at large apertures
- Heavyweight and not evenly balanced
- Very expensive
Who is This Product For?
Due to its limitations, the Canon 85mm f/1.2L II USM is considered to be a specialty/art lens. However, it is a perfect fit for 6D photographers who:
- Shoot posed portraits outdoors with non-moving subjects
- Shoot non-sports events in low-light settings
- Don’t plan on shooting apertures beyond f/1.8 (otherwise, check out the Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM instead)
- Don’t mind sacrificing keeper rates for the sake of magical shots
- Are willing to forgo the versatility of zoom lenses in exchange for superior IQ
The Best Lens for Canon 6D Portraiture
I think it’s fair for me to say that if you’re considering the EF 85mm f/1.2L, you are probably a fan of portraits with shallow depth-of-field. Apart from the distance between the subject and the background, there are two main ways to achieve this look — shooting with wide apertures and/or longer focal lengths.
My Personal Experience
Before picking up the 85L, the two other lenses in my gear bag were the Tamron 28-75mm f/2.8 and the Canon 70-200 f/4L USM (non-IS). Even though the general purpose Tamron lens allowed for f/2.8, shooting wide open produced soft shots that did not have the background separation that I was looking for. However, the Canon 70-200L did the job beautifully when shooting near 200mm at f/4.
After 6 months shooting most portraits with a telephoto focal length, I became very tired of the “compressed” look and began missing the depth that was ever so present with shorter focal lengths. That’s when I discovered the Canon 85L.
What’s So Special About the 85L?
It has often been said that 85mm is the optimal focal length for portraiture. While 135mm might be better suited for headshots and 35mm for environmental portraits, many will agree that any decent 85mm prime lens should generally be good enough for most types of portrait photography.
When you open the box for the first time, you’ll notice that the glass is absolutely beautiful. You can tell that it’s packed with tons of optical goodness. After that, you’ll also realize that despite the lens’s relatively small size, it is quite heavy! Unless you’ve been working out regularly, you may find it challenging to carry the 6D + 85L combo for extended periods of time.
Due to the absence of Image Stabilization (IS), you may find that the heavy weight lends a hand in stabilizing your shots when shooting with lower shutter speeds. Additionally, while it’s not weather sealed, the 85mm f/1.2L is built like a tank and will not break easily (not that you should test it out for fun).
3D Image Quality
After getting familiar with the 85L and evaluating your keepers on-screen, the first thing that you’ll notice is the improved image quality. By this, I mean that the photos taken with this lens generally has a surreal look to it. It is as if the subject is popping out of the photo.
As you can expect from one of the top L-series lenses, the colors and contrast look stunning right out of the camera, and requires very little adjustments during the retouching stage. When shooting at f/1.2, the 85L produces this soft, creamy bokeh that is simply breathtaking. I can confidently say that this is the #1 selling point of this lens.
Sharp Like a Razor
While f/1.8 to f/2.8 lenses allow for decent light-gathering capabilities, many of them are soft wide open, requiring you to drop down by a stop of two before producing acceptably sharp shots. What’s the point in buying a fast lens if you can’t use it at its biggest aperture? Your miles may vary.
The Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM is stellar performer in this department. It is tack sharp at f/1.2 and gets even better from f/2.0 and on. However, as I mentioned before, most people who buy this lens do it because they want to shoot at f/1.2 to f/1.6. If you plan to stop down past that, the 85L’s little brother, the EF 85mm f/1.8 USM provides a better bang for your buck. I’ll discuss the advantages of the f/1.8 version alongside the 85L’s weaknesses in the next section.
What About the Weaknesses?
Compared to other L-series lenses, the 85mm f/1.2 is like a double-edged sword. While it truly excels at traditional outdoor posed portraits, this lens comes with several weaknesses that often discourage photographers from buying it. The first one that comes to mind is its less-than-stellar autofocus performance.
If you’re used to lenses with “snappy” autofocus, you’re going to be a little disappointed here since the 85L is known to be quite slow. In order for a lens to accurately focus at wide apertures such as f/1.2, the autofocus system has to work much harder than normal.
Now, I’ve found accuracy (and speed) of this lens to greatly vary from one camera to another. While the 85L focused well on my 5DMarkIII, it produced abysmal keeper rates on my old 5DMarkII. Not only did that camera suck at autofocusing, I was forced do the focus-recompose dance with the center (and only) cross-type focus point.
Even though the 6D has a similar setup (11 focus points, 1 cross-type), I still recommend that you avoid using this technique, because at f/1.2, even the tiniest movements caused by breathing can throw you completely off focus. In my experience, unlike the 5DMarkII, the 6D’s outer focus points are quite reliable as long as you are shooting in good light.
Another weakness that I feel I should mention is that at its widest apertures (f/1.2 – f/2.0), the 85L produces a noticeable amount of chromatic aberration. While it doesn’t bother me personally, some photographers who enjoy pixel peeping may consider this a deal breaker.
“This lens is unique in every way; the way it renders is unlike any other lens out there. If you are a portrait photographer and you don’t have this lens, you are missing out. The 85L will always have a place in my bag.” – Tony D.
“Oh yeah, this is the WOW lens that you have heard about. Everything looks gorgeous through this lens. It is super sharp, has beautiful bokeh. The super smooth focus ring makes my job a lot easier. Of course, it is heavy and focuses a bit slower than a smaller/lighter lens, but you already knew that.” – Jeffrey W.
“The glass alone makes this lens worth its price tag. I don’t think I would ever need to buy another portrait lens again. The bokeh is beautiful, especially at f1.2. The only warning I have for people interested in buying this lens is the slow autofocus, but it is completely understandable since it has a long distance to rotate when focusing. Either way, for the incredible shots it takes, the 85L is easily the best lens in my arsenal.” – Emily J.
Alternatives and Comparisons
Rumor has it that Canon will be releasing the EF 85mm f/1.4L IS sometime soon. If that is the case, stay tuned because I will be reviewing that lens as well! However, apart from the EF 85mm f/1.2L II, there are presently two other 85mm lenses you should consider.
Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM
Many portrait shooters get turned off by the thought of spending nearly 2k on a lens that come with these kinds of limitations, and I understand completely. If you like the 85mm perspective but cannot justify the cost of the 85L, take a look at the Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM.
While costing nearly five times less, this lens actually outperforms the f/1.2 version in quite a few aspects. Even without the “L” designation, the 85mm f/1.8 is a solid all-around performer. Unlike the 85L, its younger brother is very light with a fast, accurate, and virtually silent autofocus system.
Like most Canon prime lenses, the 85mm f/1.8 is extremely sharp. Depending on your copy, the photos can be anywhere from slightly soft to very sharp when shooting at f/1.8. However, this lens truly shines from f/2.8 and on.
I’d have to say that this is one of Canon’s greatest bang-for-your-buck lenses. I echo many photographers’ sentiments when they say that the 85mm f/1.8 gives you 80% of the 85L’s quality for just 1/5th of the price. In the end, you’ll have to decide whether that extra oomph of magic is worth the substantially higher price of admission.
Sigma 85mm f/1.4 Art
For those of you who don’t mind 3rd party lenses, there’s also the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 Art. Since I’ve never used this lens, I don’t feel qualified to write too much about it. However, I’ve heard many photographers say that the Sigma bests the Canon 85mm f/1.2L II in sharpness and autofocus speed.
The “negatives” are that it’s bigger and heavier than the 85L, it can’t do f/1.2, and it does not have the prestigious red ring that some big-budget clients look out for. However, output-wise, I’d speculate that the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 Art is 90% as good as the Canon 85L while costing significantly less.
Thank you for reading all the way to the very end. I hope that I’ve been able to provide a new entertaining perspective on using prime lenses, namely at 85mm, for portraiture.
Personally, I’ve found that my composition skills greatly improved after ditching my long telephoto zooms. When you’re forced to foot-zoom, you learn to visualize internally and carefully plan for every shot. This is even more important when shooting with off-camera lighting, since you no longer have the luxury of moving around every few seconds.
To conclude this post, let’s do a quick recap. For portrait photographers, the best lens for Canon 6D is the Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM. This legendary lens is the king of bokeh. It is extremely sharp at all apertures, it has great colors and contrast on skin tones, and it is built to last. If you are looking for a lens that will take your work to a new level, pick up the 85L today and never look back.