Lenses and Optics

Just the Lenses: Canon and Nikon Mount 85mm f/1.4 (and 1.2) Primes

Published September 30, 2014

We’ll continue our Just the Lenses posts with the 85mm wide-aperture prime lenses. We’ll get through all of the wide aperture primes eventually, for those of you who like this series. If you haven’t read the previous posts, then you might want to go back and skim the introduction of the previous one to see the reasons we’re doing this.

Today’s Contestants

We tested seven copies each of the Canon 85mm f/1.2 L Mk II, Nikon 85mm f/1.4 AF-S GZeiss 85mm f/1.4Sigma 85mm EX DG HSM f/1.4 lenses on our Trioptics Imagemaster optical bench. All copies had been through our routine optical and Imatest screening and passed with flying colors.

The 85mm lenses are quite different from the 35mm lenses we tested in the last post. For one thing, with the exception of the Nikon 85mm f/1.4G, which was released in 2010, the designs aren’t quite as new as the 35mm lenses we tested. The Canon and Sigma have fairly recent release dates, but they are based on older optical formulas. The recent updates were basically electronic.

Additionally, many of us are excited about new 85mm f/1.4 lenses that are being released (no, I don’t have any 85mm Otus copies yet). Comparing these existing lenses will give us a nice baseline to compare with the new Zeiss and Sigma releases.

My impression, too, is that many people aren’t quite as happy with the wide-aperture 85mm lenses as they are with some other focal lengths. The Canon can be breathtaking, but is breathtakingly expensive. Many Nikon and Canon shooters seem to prefer their brand’s 85mm f/1.8 lenses, at least as a better value. Even Zeiss fanboys acknowledge the 85 f/1.4 isn’t the sharpest crayon in the Zeiss box, and the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 has never been very popular.

MTF Charts

If you don’t speak MTF, don’t worry. It’s not hard. Higher on the vertical axis is better. Dotted and solid lines of the same color close together are better (far apart is astigmatism). The horizontal axis goes from the center of the lens at “0” to the edges of the lens at “-20” and “+20”. Lower lp/mm have association with strong contrast, while higher lp/mm are associated with ability to resolve fine detail.


Legend for all the MTF graphs

I have to admit I was a bit surprised by the MTF result. (Remember, of course, that the Canon is working at f/1.2 so it’s at something of a disadvantage against the other lenses.) Even at f/1.2 the Canon is the sharpest lens of the group in the center of the image. Notice the higher frequencies (30, 40 and 50 lp/mm) have MTFs around 0.7, 0.6, and 0.5 out to about 4mm from center (which is the center 1/3, roughly, of the image). The Zeiss is nearly as sharp right in the center, but falls off more rapidly. The Sigma and Nikon aren’t nearly as sharp in the center.

The Nikon, however, is clearly the off-center champion. In the outer half of the image the Nikon is still doing great, while the Canon is all over the place. The Sigma and Zeiss aren’t quite as sharp off center as the Nikon, but have less astigmatism.

So, as we’ve known all along, the Canon is a superb portraiture lens; exceptionally sharp in the center and not very sharp in the outer half. The Nikon isn’t quite as strong in the resolution department but is very even across the entire image. The Sigma is somewhat similar to the Nikon, although not quite as good. The Zeiss is a bit like the Canon, but not as sharp in the center and a bit sharper off axis (and of course, this is at f/1.4 compared to the Canon’s f/1.2).

Field Curvature

If you haven’t seen these graphs before, they’re a bit different than the MTF curves (you can read more about them here.)

The field curvature of 85mm wide-aperture primes is not as severe as the 35mm primes were. These lenses also give a good demonstration of how field curvature and MTF curves relate. As it’s MTF curve suggests, the Nikon has a nearly perfectly flat field, remaining in sharp focus from edge to edge. The Canon has a bit of moustache curvature in the sagittal field and a C-curve in the tangential field, explaining some of its astigmatism. The Sigma’s field is similar, although with less sagittal and more tangential curvature. The Zeiss sagittal field is much like Canon’s but the tangential field is in the opposite direction.

Corner-to-Corner Variance

We compare the MTF for each of 4 rotations that we measure for each copy of the lens to determine the difference between the sharpest and softest side or corner.  (Every lens, when measured to this degree of accuracy, is slightly different in the worst and best corners, although you’d have trouble telling it in a photograph.)

If you haven’t seen these before, please read the explanation in the previous post. The bottom line is lenses with lower variance (remember, the variance is the average variance of many copies) tend to have more similar corners, while lenses with high variance have more differences.

Compared to wide-aperture prime lenses we’ve tested in general, the Nikon, Canon, and Zeiss lenses would all rate as excellent. The Sigma clearly isn’t as good, as you can see. It’s not awful, but it’s below average. That’s not surprising, though, since this design came out before Sigma started their Art lens line and new quality assurance programs. Hopefully the new Sigma 85 Art lens will be superior in this regard.


The optical bench results for the 85mm f/1.4 (and Canon f/1.2) lenses are a bit different than what we saw for the 35mm lenses. There we had several recently released and very sharp lenses. Here we have some older designs. The Canon 85 f/1.2 is a bit of a specialty lens, and is spectacular at what it does, although at a very rich price.

The other three lenses were OK, but none of them were spectacular. The Nikon certainly brings a uniquely flat field, which is a real plus for certain types of photography, but its resolution is not all we might wish. The current Sigma and Zeiss offerings were adequate, but certainly not awesome.  But the good news (hopefully) is we should be seeing some more attractive offerings in this focal length soon.

One note, because several people have asked: yes, I ran the Canon at f/1.4 also. It was so nearly identical to the f/1.2 graph that I didn’t bother adding it to the post.



Roger Cicala and Aaron Closz


October, 2014


Author: Roger Cicala

I’m Roger and I am the founder of Lensrentals.com. Hailed as one of the optic nerds here, I enjoy shooting collimated light through 30X microscope objectives in my spare time. When I do take real pictures I like using something different: a Medium format, or Pentax K1, or a Sony RX1R.

Posted in Lenses and Optics
  • Dvir

    Any chance to add the Sony Ziess 85/1.4 to this?

  • Antony Thorn

    I love the comparison, but what happens when the lenses are stopped down?
    Is there any chance of a comparison at f2.8 and 5.6?


  • While there are a *few* compositions that require it, habitually putting your subject in the center of the frame is the sign of an untalented, untrained, or uncreative photographer.

    In light of this artistic reality why do you and other reviewers put so much emphasis on center sharpness in your evaluations? It’s that middle and outer third of the frame where the pictures live, I think it’s time for you to break new ground and reverse the order in which you report your results and and the relative weight you give to the various parts of the image field.

  • John Leslie

    Carl – purple fringes with a 1.2 Canon are usually on high contrast edges that are just out of focus, if you play with one again it’s a good idea to really nail the focus, or if they won’t be in focus (as not the subject) try to avoid having them where they would be just out of focus (if possible, of course).

    I love mine BTW, even with some fringing, it just does stuff you can’t get anywhere else. (Also I was surprised to find the AF speed was a lot better than I had expected – I have a mk II – provided you were already within a few m of correct focus, MFD to infinity is a “go get a coffee” thing, but 5m shifts it does fast enough to catch birds flying past.)

  • Thanks for the deep testing, but isn’t it wrong to assume that during portraiture the subject’s head is most often in the centre of the image?

  • Carl

    Nice test and blog post, as usual Roger! Interesting speculation about the Nikon’s vignetting being a factor that could help its sharpness toward borders and corners.

    I rented the Canon in the past, but only used it on a crop camera. That particular sample had a decent amount of purple fringing, especially off axis, even if closed some up to like f/2.5. But when closed to like f/5.6, it got extremely sharp…at least within the crop frame.

    Also I owned the Rokinon 85mm for a while. It had a very smooth bokeh, but was pretty soft everywhere. Not only that, its color and “apparent contrast” were very dull. Also, it seemed less bright than other f/1.4 lenses through my 6D’s viewfinder, such as the Voigtlander 58mm Nokton. The 85mm Rokinon really seemed like the light transmission of an f/1.8 lens, but that could mostly be due to its lower contrast, etc.

    I can only speak subjectively here, but it was apparent to my eye, and repeatable.

  • Carol Teater

    Since so many people *do* prefer (or at least use) the 85/1.8 lenses, seems it would have been nice to include those in this test? I for sure would be interested, as I I can’t afford the 85L.

    I have tried the Sigma 85/1.4, and personally didn’t see enough difference between it and my Canon 85/1.8 for it to be worth the extra cost, size, and weight. I was really put off by the short focal length, too, it was very noticeable. I am sure the Sigma 85 Art will be better optically, but based on what they did with the 50 Art, I guess it will be a foot long and weigh 5 pounds, and cost $2000. I just wish Canon would update the 85/1.8, even though it would for sure cost a lot more. Or, make a great 85/1.4, that cost and weighed less than the 85L, and retained mechanical focus.

  • obican

    Everyone, I think we should also bear in mind that the distance from the edge (Not corner) from the center is 18mm, not 20mm shown in the MTF graphs. Keeping that in mind, a subject which is positioned according to the rule of thirds would find itself about 6 mm from the center to a side. If you have another look at the MTF graphs with that information, you’ll see that all lenses more or less retain their center sharpness.

  • Ben

    Something is wrong in the test. Nikon in the corners in sharper than every lens in the center.

    I do love how Nikon is the only ones who have tried to make their lens good not only in the center. Any chance of testing Otus 85mm soon?

  • “The other three lenses were OK, but none of them were spectacular.”
    While taking portraits, we don’t place subjects in the dead center most of the time. So Nikon’s relatively higher resolution off center might be more desirable in the real world situations.
    However, sharpness is not the most important criteria when picking up a portrait lens.

  • Edward Jenner

    Interesting that people like the canon rendering with so much astigmatism off-center.

    I guess the effect may be quite different when OOF? Dunno, but based on SoulNibbler’s comment about preferring soft corners it makes me wonder.

  • CarVac

    Pieter kers:

    This is all at infinity.

  • Roger, interesting test again ..But i wonder is this test made at a certain focus distance? or is this not of importance in this test?
    If it is what is the focus distance you used in the test.?

    Also you say the canon and Zeiss are sharper in the center… are you refering to the .5 and .45 at 50lp/mm ?
    When i look at the curve it does not seem such a dramatic difference; but maybe it is in actual use?

    On the other hand the variance difference seems very large in the graphics but then you say it is not that much different…

  • Igor

    I wonder how this MTF data compares with that on DxOMark.
    And, unfortunately, these graphs tell nothing about the lens’ bokeh and LoCA.

  • Igor

    I ?????? how this MTF data compares with that on DxOMark.
    And, unfortunately, these graphs tell nothing about the lens’ bokeh and LoCA.

  • Anton Berlin

    How about the Otus 85mm against a Master Prime 75mm ?

    I love me some onion rings but only with a bacon cheeseburger, not a $4500 lens.

  • SoulNibbler

    Interesting, my experience with 85mm lenses for a 35mm sensor is quite limited, I really wasn’t aware that the lost so much in the corners. I’d be curious (not likely considering the backlog) what the 80mm f1.9-f2 medium format lenses look like. There was a nice Contax 645 80mm f2 that has a strong reputation and I’ve noticed that the old cheap Mamiya 645 80mm f1.9 is rather sharp on 35mm. I guess my question is whether the compromises come from the fast aperture or the focal length, or whether soft corners are seen as an advantage at this focal length. If you ever get to go back and do the f1.8-f2 85mm series, I’d be really interested to see how the adapted medium format lenses compare.

  • obican

    I’m quite surprised to see that EF 1.2L is this sharp compared to the other lenses. I love the look it provides but never thought of it as a sharp lens, especially wide open.

    Btw, I’d love to see how different 85/1.4 lenses by Zeiss perform compared to each other, ZE (or ZF.2), ZA and the new Otus. I’ve tried the old Contax Zeiss the other week and loved it. Makes you sing praises about seperation, 3d pop and microcontrast.

    Still, nothing renders like the 1.2L.

  • CarVac


    I did think of that that. It’s like selective stopping-down.

    However, I also expect that it primarily stops down in only one direction, while it’s equally sharp in both directions. Unless it is just barely a sliver of the full aperture in the corners?

  • Roger Cicala

    CarVac, It’s sharper in the corners than any of the others are in the corners, and at higher frequencies is higher in the corners tangentially than anything else anywhere. I looked at it and scratched my head, then looked at all 7 copies and all 4 rotations of each copy to double check. It was a consistent behavior that I found puzzling. But it seems to be well repeated in the field curvature diagrams for those lenses, too.

    I’m guessing here, but I wonder if the fact that the Nikon has the most severe vignetting (around 1.8 eV) may be doing this. I’m going to word this badly but vignetting can be used to decrease aberrations and therefore increase MTF to some degree. One other thing that may be going on is an 85 f/1.4 is getting right at the maximum aperture for this collimator, so it’s possible that we’re seeing an artifact of some type – although I don’t know why we would see it on only the Nikon lens.

  • Roger Cicala

    Samuel, Unfortunately OLAF can’t work with anything really large (It has an 8 pound and 13″ size limit). The MTF bench can only handle up to 250mm right now. So, much as I’d love to, I can’t test the supertelephotos yet.

  • Samuel

    Roger, thank you for taking valuable rest time to create these articles despite your busy schedule. I speak for myself but I’m sure we have all been dying to find data like this about lenses.

    Now that you have OLAF, if you have the time, it would be most intriguing to know how the super telephoto lenses from Canon and Nikon compare. The manufacturers’ MTFs don’t tell the whole story and it would be most interesting to know how they all perform. The published MTF’s make them all look like near perfect lenses, resolving far better than the Zeiss Otus lenses. Is this true?

  • Siegfried

    I’m with CarVac on Nikon MTF and field curvature charts: they do look… surprising. And FWIW, Sigma is mistakenly marked as f/1.2 in the curvature diagrams.


  • Roger Cicala

    Thomas and Waidi, thank you – it was, of course, measured at f/1.4. Sorry for the sloppiness with my labels – it was late, I was tired, but these days I can either write late at night or not write at all.

  • Thomas Bellman

    According to the labels, you have managed to measure the field curvature of the Sigma at f/1.2. That’s quite an impressive feat. 🙂

  • Waldi

    Label for Sigma lens should be f/1.4 on field curvature image.

  • CarVac

    Is it just me, or is the Nikon actually sharper in the corners than any of the others is, anywhere?

  • Roger Cicala

    Chris, not awful, not great — I think. Reality is we tested 7 copies and they were so all over the place different from each other I dropped it until I can run a bigger series.

  • Chris Knight

    Curious how the Samyang 85mm f/1.4 stacks against these guys. I’m guessing not so well…but gotta ask.

  • Simon

    Thank you so much for all these posts. These are fantastic informations and it so interesting to learn about the strength and limitation of different kind of optics. I was actually looking at the MTF charts given by the manufacturers as a comparison. If I understand well, most manufacturers generate this chart directly form their optical simulation software and these are not measured. Interesting to compare the mesure given here and the theoretical chart nevertheless. I was actually pretty surprised as it seems that the measured MTF looks actually better than the one given by Nikon itself (especially at the edge of the sensor). I would love to have your feeling on that Roger!

    PS: I would love to see similar measurements for a few m43 lenses. It seems a lot of people (myself inclusive) really like olympus or pana leica lenses for their quality and compactness. It would be interesting to see how they roughly compare with the Full Frame lenses (even if I know they should not be directly compared).

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