As a wedding photographer I am lucky enough to do what I love on a pretty regular basis. Regularly enough, in fact to know quite specifically what I love the most. And that is roaming around with a fast prime lens and a room full of opportunity/photographs (I apologise at this point if I appear to be reminiscing like an elderly lady :) ). When I roam, more often than not it is the 85 1.8 that I choose.
A bag full of lenses to choose from what make this one stand out? If you are a story telling wedding photographer you will know that the nature of job, is that you always have to be ready. Important moments, funny moments, beautiful moments even unbelievable moments – they all happen when they happen. They wait for no man/woman/photographer and if you are 30 yards away with a wide-angle prime and a smile… then tough. So what’s the solution? Preparedness, we carry multiple camera bodies to give us different options. So if I am carrying my 1D with 70-200 f2.8 and a 5D with a 24-70 f2.8 then I look like a navy seal (I wish :) ) with a rocket launcher. Prepared yes, but not exactly nimble.
Then the clouds open up a beam of light falls on one lens and the rest will fall into darkness. This doesn’t actually happen, but the lens does seem like the obvious choice. There is a time during any wedding, where none of the big moments coming up, no first: kiss, dance or entrances to think about and nobody is cutting anything (it is still a mystery to me how and when the cutting of the cake became such an important part of the proceedings, but nevertheless we must document this incision in all it’s glory). It is at this point that me and my 85 are unleashed.
Why not the 85 f1.2?
I had the opportunity to use an 85L on a few occasions and it’s beautiful lens. At first (as most of us would) I shot the lens wide open almost exclusively, and the shallow DOF and subject isolation really are incredible, no denying it. However when I got an opportunity to look at my images on the LCD and zoom in on a few I found that I was subtly missing the focus on far more of my images than usual. An example of this would be the eye further away from me was in focus rather than the nearside. In a studio this would be clear photographer error however weddings are much more fluid and portraits are rarely posed and usually captured within a very short window. For safety, it therefore makes sense to shoot at around f2 particularly when closer to the subject. When you look at photographs taken with the 85L this is quite a common story, more often than not, the lens is stopped down.
So for a large percentage of a wedding you could be using either lens with very little difference in the output. Yes BUT it’s an L lens… it has a red ring. It does indeed, and we all feel the pull of the mighty red ring (and I am very happy with my L glass). However as a professional, ultimately my equipment has to do exactly what I need it to first and foremost. The 85L is a mighty piece of glass as you can see on the size comparison below.
There are a few issues though that accompany this kind of bulk, fist of all on a 5D this lens is noticeably nose heavy (on the 1D it is more balanced but then the 1D is a huge camera). I don’t mind the extra weight but the imbalance is quite annoying and I do find it takes away from my shooting experience. The other problem that comes with this amount of glass is the focus speed… think of the glass as giant tectonic plates sliding over one another but causing a focus lock rather than an earthquake. I have read some reviews that make this issue into more than it is, it is slow but not horrendously and it is usually accurate (in my experience) slow but steady. Comparing the two though, does make for a stark comparison I would have to say the 85 1.8 is the THE fastest focussing lens I have ever used (the 135L comes pretty close). I have never missed a shot because this lens didn’t focus in time.
I want to be clear on something, if somebody offered me an 85L for free (as so often happens) then I would snap their hand off (taking the lens). However I would still keep my 85 1.8 and I would still favour it for most jobs without question.