Testing F 1.2 lenses: Portrait Test

Portrait with Canon 50mm 1.2 Lens by Lindsay Adler
Portrait with Canon 50mm 1.2 Lens by Lindsay Adler

Testing the 85mm 1.2 and 50mm 1.2 lens:

In my fashion kit, I often use very fast fixed lenses. For those of you out there unfamiliar with these terms, this means that I use lenses with capabilities of very wide apertures (f2.8 or wider... often 1.8) and they are NOT zoom lens (ex: 85mm does not zoom to another focal length). They are light and have stunning bokehs (blurred backgrounds). I suggest that any fashion and portrait photographer consider using lenses like these. There is no 'right answer' for equipment, but I have found these types of lenses to suit nearly all my portrait and fashion needs.

The two lenses I have used most often are the Canon 85mm 1.8 lens and the Canon 50mm 1.4 lens. These two extremely reasonably priced lenses (you can often find both for under $400 each), have been the staple of my fashion kit.

I decided, however, that I wanted to experiment with the 85mm 1.2 and the 50mm 1.2 lenses. The 85mm 1.2 lens has often been voted in the top 5 best lenses to own, and many portrait/fashion photographers consider it THE essential lens. Yet these 1.2 lenses are significantly more expensive then their f/1.8 and f/1.4 counter parts, costing nearly $2000 each for a fixed lens. That is quite steep, even for a professional... and I wanted to see if it was worth it.

B&H Photo Video offered me to test these two lenses and share my results and opinions with you. I will be sharing them in a three part series. (PS: Thank you B&H for the opportunity to experiment with these!)

  • Part 1: Portrait
  • Part 2: Fashion & Fine Art
  • Part 3: Wedding

I tried these lenses out for all three types of photography and have specific praises, criticisms, and suggestions related to use of these lenses. I am not a super technical person... so I won't be include a lot of number and stats, but instead will simply be including my PRACTICAL experiences with the equipment.

Part 1 of 3: Portrait Test

These pros and cons listed below are what I came across specifically when focusing on my typical portrait work. At the end of this series I will include a summary of the pros/cons I encountered for 1.2 lenses overall.

Pros:

  • Incredibly shallow depth of field: There are several reasons why the incredible shallow depth of field is incredible for portraits. (1) First, I could shoot a good portrait in just about ANY environment if the light is good. Because the depth of field is so shallow, my subject could be in an incredibly busy, unattractive environment but when I shoot at f 1.2, the background goes completely out of focus and instead I get a soft, blurry background. This really makes it a lot easier as a portrait photographer... you don't have to worry about finding a perfectly clean background to shoot in front of. Furthermore, you can use colors in the background that will give additional interest to the background when blurred. (2) The shallow depth of field creates also a surreal connection with the subject. It just seems extremely intimate. When shooting at 1.2, you can focus just on the eyes of the subject, and because it is SO shallow focus the tip of the nose might be out of focus and the background completely blurred. You are drawn into the eyes and gaze of your subject, giving a stunning moment of connection. (3) Because of the shallow depth of field you can get some pretty interesting effects on your environment. The foreground will be out of focus, the background out of focus, but you subject isolated in a narrow plane of focus. It is just an interesting creative effect.
Portrait with Canon 50mm 1.2 lens by Lindsay Adler
Portrait with Canon 50mm 1.2 lens by Lindsay Adler
  • Stunning Bokeh: Bokeh is the pattern of blur created by the lens... if you look carefully at images, a portrait shot with a 1.2 lens will have a different background blur pattern/effect/appearance than a background shot with a 1.8 lens. The bokeh on the 1.2 is nothing short of stunning.
Portrait with Canon 50mm 1.2 Lens by Lindsay Adler
Portrait with Canon 50mm 1.2 Lens by Lindsay Adler
  • Sharper, Crisp: I found the images produced by 1.2 lenses to be crisper and sharper overall. They seemed to have sharper focus (when I didn't misfocus!), and have a bit more edge/pop to them. This is ALSO true if I shot the 1.2 lens at 1.4. The 1.4 aperture shot on the 1.2 lens seemed to create sharper images than when shooting the 1.4 lens at 1.4. To be honest, the sharpness wasn't so extreme that it would make a different for most people, but it is still a consideration you should be aware of.
  • Faster: Because of the very low aperture, the lenses is 'faster' overall. This means that it focused faster (in lower light it didn't struggle to focus on the subject) and it also allowed me to shoot in dark situations. In most cases I avoid doing portraiture in low light, but there are certainly situations where the extra 2 stops of light from (from 1.8 to 1.2) is extremely useful. If you follow my blog, you see that I have often photographed portraits in an alleyway. This alleyway often quite dark, and using a 1.2 allow me to shoot at lower ISOs and therefore reduce possible noise and prevent camera shake.

Cons:

  • Unforgiving Depth of Field: When shooting with the 85mm 1.2 (and the 50mm), the plane of focus can be millimeters.That means if your subject moves a couple of millimeters, this can completely throw off your focus. This was undoubtedly a challenge and became near impossible when photographing a child. If the child moved  and swayed, it because nearly impossible to maintain the correct focus when shooting at 1.2. This is something that would take extreme practice and also willingness to shot a LOT more frames to be sure you captured focus. When shooting a portrait of an adult, even non-moving, this was no easy task. For example, if I accidentally focused on the mouth of the subject, the eyes would be out of focus. The lens is THAT sensitive due to depth of field... so this is not for the beginner or those easily frustrated. You will need to practice and get used to these extreme narrow focus.
  • Lens Flare: Because the front elements of these lenses are so large, they gather a lot of light from the environment. I found that a lens hood was almost essential when shooting outdoors during a sunny day. Even if you weren't shooting into the sun, the lens would still collect light, bounce it around, and create flare and/or muddy the image. You must be aware of this. This fact also made it more difficult to back-lit portraits.
  • Weight: These lenses weigh MUCH more than their 1.4 and 1.8 counterparts. For a quick portrait session this was not a big deal, but (as I will discuss in later posts) for longer sessions or sessions that involve travel, this becomes a problem/drawback. Just to give you an idea, the 85mm 1.8 weighs 15oz while its 85mm 1.2 counterpart weighs 2.25lbs. That is significant!
  • Price: These lenses are expensive. Whether ameature or pro, these lenses cost a LOT (particularly for a fixed lens). You must weigh the pros and cons in this series to decide whether it is worth the extra cost to you. The 50mm 1.2 is approx $1,500USD and the 85mm 1.2 is approx $2,000USD.

Suggestions:

  • Avoid fast-moving subject to start: If your subject is fast-moving (ex: fast-moving children), it becomes extremely difficult to shoot at 1.2. You might consider shooting the 1.2 at 1.4 or 1.8 to give you a little more margin of error. I suggest start with a still life or an adult in a sitting position.
Portrait with Canon 85mm 1.2 Lens by Lindsay Adler
Portrait with Canon 85mm 1.2 Lens by Lindsay Adler
  • Use a camera with more focus points: If your camera only has a few focus points, if you use the focus points to focus at 1.2 you may have to recompose your images after focusing. This movement to recompose (at 1.2) can certainly completely change your focus and give you a blurry/misfocused image. If you have a camera with 21 focus points, you most likely can select the exact point of focus and NOT have to change your composition and risk misfocus. Even with 9 focus points on the Canon 5D this became a frequent issue for me.
  • Use lens hood: This will help you avoid lens flare and ensure the highest quality of your images.
  • Practice!: This lens will take practice to figure out the best ways to focus, hold focus, and more. Just be patient and give yourself plenty of time to practice. Don't pick up this lens for the first time and use it on a paid shoot...  you will be surprise the first time you use it how many out-of-focus frames you will have.
Portrait with Canon 50mm 1.2 Lens by Lindsay Adler
Portrait with Canon 50mm 1.2 Lens by Lindsay Adler
  • I have a Nikon 50mm 1.8 and has recently become my favorite lens for portraits and other types of shooting that I can do up close. A fantastic lens. I don’t beleive Nikon makes a 1.2 but they do make a 1.4 bu tit is significantly more expensive. Highly recommend the 1.8. I picked mine up brand new for $150 and it is a lens, every DSLR photographer should own. Thanks Lindsay for the lens review it showed me the difference in the Boken between the apertures. Nice to both know and see.

    Many thanks,
    Houston

  • A great discussion of the 85 and 50 1.2. I’ve been looking to purchase additional lenses, especially for photography work after my recent purchase of the 135 f/2 (incredible lens, also) and this real-world information is very revealing.

    Thank You,
    Derrald

  • Thank you for your insightful comparison. I’m ordering the 50 1.2 as a result.

  • Nicholas Gonzalez

    As long as the 50mm 1.4 and 85mm 1.8 exist, I will not purchase (or finance) those slightly faster L Series lenses. I can buy three copies of each and still not have enough to buy one L. In terms of the best-bang-for-the-buck quality, the former 50mm and 85mm lenses, are timeless.