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Equipment

Review of the Canon RF 85mm f/1.2L DS with Defocus Smoothing

This past fall, we had listed our favorite gear for the year 2019, and I personally did something different. I listed the Canon RF 85mm f/1.2L DS and openly spoke about how I hadn’t even used it but was excited nonetheless of the new technology being put forth into the Canon RF series of lenses. Since writing my blind affection to the lens, I actually have had some experience with it, so does it still hold up to how I felt back in December? Well, let’s get into it.

Canon RF 85mm f/1.2L DS Review

The Canon RF 85mm f/1.2L DS is Canon’s creme de la creme of prime lenses, offering the iconic f/1.2 maximum aperture in an 85mm, which Canon has grown to be known for. But this isn’t the 1989 design from the original Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L, instead of using a modified design of the more recent Canon RF 85mm f/1.2L design from June 2019.

What is Defocus Smoothing?

So what is modified? Well, the main difference is the new technology within the lens called the Defocus Smoothing, or DS for short. Using vapor-deposited coating technology, Canon has been able to smooth out dramatic bokeh for their Defocus Smoothing. The coating allows off-axis flux to pass through the periphery of the lens that gradually decreases the transmittance of light, which results in images with beautifully blurred backgrounds.

Canon RF 85mm f/1.2L DS Review

But this exciting technology comes with a small couple of caveats. Perhaps the biggest one is the loss of light associated with the new coating – cutting back roughly 1.3 stops of light when active. This change of exposure seems to disappear as you stop down to f/3.2 and beyond. As Senior Technical Specialist at Canon Drew MacCallum explains to PetaPixel — “The f-stop is a physical measurement of the aperture. It’s not just a light transmittance measurement — that’s a T-stop. The transmission is one and a third stops darker than f/1.2, but that does change as you stop down the lens.”

 

The second caveat is in the price. The Canon RF 85mm f/1.2L comes in at a pretty hefty $2,699. If you want the version with the Defocus Smoothing, you’ll be looking at an additional $300. With all that technical talk in place, let’s take a look at some comparisons of the DS version of this lens with the Non-DS version.

Comparing the Canon RF 85mm f/1.2L DS with the Non-DS Version

Much of the information on the Defocus Smoothing coating has left me a little confused on how it works, so I figured it was easiest to just make a series of comparison photos. However, with the change in exposure (and a particularly windy day), it made it a bit more complicated than I expect it to be. However, here is a series of comparison shots between the Canon RF 85mm f/1.2L DS and the Canon RF 85mm f/1.2L

Canon RF 85mm f/1.2L DS
1/640sec. f/2

Canon RF 85mm f/1.2L
1/1250sec. f/2

Canon RF 85mm f/1.2L DS
1/160sec. f/2

Canon RF 85mm f/1.2L
1/320sec. f/2

Canon RF 85mm f/1.2L DS
1/1000sec. f/1.2

Canon RF 85mm f/1.2L
1/2000sec. f/1.2

Design & Build

Designwise, the Canon RF 85mm f/1.2L DS is identical in size and shape when compared to the Non-DS version – and it’s worth noting that size is significant. For reference, I’ve included my Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II for size comparison below, which has always been known as a pretty large lens within the prime lens world. The RF versions of this lens completely oversize and overshadow the dated EF version of the lens – in size, weight, and even performance.

Canon RF 85mm f/1.2L DS Review

Comparison of the Canon RF 85mm f/1.2L, Canon RF 85mm f/1.2L DS, & Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II

With its large size comes a pretty solid feeling build quality. The Canon RF 85mm f/1.2L DS has weather and dust resistance throughout, contains the control wheel built-in that has a sturdy and satisfying click. Overall, the design of the RF lenses has, at least in my opinion, a more industrial and rubberized design that I’ve come to appreciate.

Usability

When we move on to usability, the size and weight leave the Canon EOS R front heavy and slightly uncomfortable in the hands. At 2.63 lbs (1.64kg), the Canon RF 85mm f/1.2L DS nearly doubles the weight (and again, price) of the Canon EOS R, which makes you feel as if it were built for something bigger. Even still, I’ve never shied away from a heavy or large lens if it could be matched with its performance, and that is where the Canon 85mm f/1.2L DS shines, but not because of what some might suspect.

Canon RF 85mm f/1.2L DS Review

Shot using the Canon EOS R with the Canon RF 85mm f/1.2L DS
1/160 a sec, f/1.8, ISO 100
Photo by Zach Sutton

Canon RF 85mm f/1.2L DS Review

Shot using the Canon EOS R with the Canon RF 85mm f/1.2L DS
1/400 a sec, f/1.4, ISO 100
Photo by Zach Sutton

In short, the Canon RF 85mm f/1.2L is an incredible lens, and probably the single-handed sharpest lens I’ve ever used – but keep in mind, I’m not including the DS moniker. Most all of the assets of the Canon RF 85mm f/1.2L are included in the Canon RF 85mm f/1.2L DS, with a little icing on top, but sometimes, I’ve found the icing is the worst part of the cake.

Canon RF 85mm f/1.2L DS Review

Shot using the Canon EOS R with the Canon RF 85mm f/1.2L DS
1/80 a sec, f/1.2, ISO 100
Photo by Zach Sutton

Canon RF 85mm f/1.2L DS Review

Shot using the Canon EOS R with the Canon RF 85mm f/1.2L DS
1/160 a sec, f/1.2, ISO 100
Photo by Zach Sutton

I saw incredibly limited results with the Defocus Smoothing, writing it off more as a marketing phrase than an actual specialization within the lens. When comparing the photos shot with the DS to non-DS, I do see subtle differences between the two, but the adjustment for exposure was much more significant of a trade-off when compared to the effect.

Canon RF 85mm f/1.2L DS Review

Shot using the Canon EOS R with the Canon RF 85mm f/1.2L DS
1/200 a sec, f/1.2, ISO 100
Photo by Zach Sutton

If I was generous, I could also write off the 1.3 stop “ND filter” built into the lens as a benefit, depending on the purpose you have with the lens. When I would shoot more outdoor stuff in the past, I’d often also use off-camera lighting. I found myself often bringing along a large set of ND filters to help stop down the natural light to a 1/200 or shorter, allowing me to use my strobes on location without the need of High-Speed Sync or other techniques (If you’re at all lost about what I’m referring to here, feel free to read about my studio lighting techniques here). 

Canon RF 85mm f/1.2L DS Review

Shot using the Canon EOS R with the Canon RF 85mm f/1.2L DS
1/400 a sec, f/1.4, ISO 100
Photo by Zach Sutton

Canon RF 85mm f/1.2L DS Review

Shot using the Canon EOS R with the Canon RF 85mm f/1.2L DS
1/100 a sec, f/1.2, ISO 100
Photo by Zach Sutton

But those talking points dissolve when you start taking a pragmatic approach. When shooting at f/1.2, you’ll want a faster shutter speed to assure your razer thing depth of field is hitting your subject, and not back focusing or front focusing. When shooting natural light with plenty of light, this lens is great and can smooth out the bokeh that some might find distracting. For me, I kind of light the interesting and messier bokeh that can happen at shallow depths of field.

What I Liked –

  • Incredible Sharpness, even when shot wide open
  • Fast and accurate autofocus motor
  • Defocus Smoothing works, albeit subtle in most examples
  • Premium feel and build quality

What I Didn’t Like – 

  • The expensive price point makes in unviable for a lot of photographers
  • ~1.3 stops of light loss when shot wide open

 

Conclusion

If this review feels like a bouncing teeter-totter of feelings, it’s because it is.  The Canon RF 85mm f/1.2L DS left me conflicted. On one hand, its a really great lens with incredible sharpness. On the other hand, it’s an overpriced great lens with a gimmicky moniker. I love this lens and the images I was able to produce while using it, but I don’t think the Defocus Smoothing made the images any better or worse. For me personally, this lens has made me further my appreciation for the Canon RF 85mm f/1.2L non-DS, as it shares the same level of sharpness without the $300 added to the cost.

Canon RF 85mm F/1.2L DS

Shot using the Canon EOS R with the Canon RF 85mm f/1.2L DS
1/60 a sec, f/1.2, ISO 100
Photo by Zach Sutton

Author: Zach Sutton

I’m Zach and I’m the editor and a frequent writer here at Lensrentals.com. I’m also an editorial and portrait photographer in Los Angeles, CA, and offer educational workshops on photography and lighting all over North America.

Posted in Equipment
  • spider-mario

    It’s a loss of 1.3 stops, so like multiplying the f-ratio by sqrt(2^1.3), so by ~1.57. So, roughly T1.9 at f/1.2.

  • I would prefer the non-DS for the grasses/nature-type shots where the true f/1.2 bokeh is more pronounced and interesting to look at. If I shot portraits professionally, I’d want the DS. I would love having more DOF on my subject’s face while retaining nice background softness and not needing to mess with an ND filter.

  • Pat Farrell

    I’m confused by the f/1.3 light loss. Is it 0.3 or 1.3? Does this take a F/1.2 shot and turn it into an f/1.5 which I would call 0.3, or does it take a F/1.2 shot into F/2.5

    I’m thinking that its more 0.3, but maybe my math is wrong.

  • Ivo de Man

    The 1.3 stop light loss isn’t a negative point at all, it’s rather a positive aspect (as mentioned above in the review)… The 1.3 stop loss may just be sufficient to avoid using an ND filter outdoor during a sunny day when working with HSS… In these cases the camera max shutter speed of 1/8000 is often the main limitation…

  • Ivo de Man

    There is difference… and $300 more isn’t exaggerate for the DS version…

  • Mike Earussi

    I can’t see any difference. Sounds like mostly marketing BS.

  • Franz Graphstill

    Is this Canon’s version of the Sony 100mm GM STF?

  • Here is a comparison @ f/1.2 with a busy background. Same background, same subject, same distance, slightly different angle, different balloons.

    ~2m to my kiddo, and ~20m to the background (a hill with some trees and bushes). The DS has smaller bokeh “circles”, but it’s also less distracting, and the extra blur seems to give some extra “pop”.
    I personally hate that background even rendered on the 200/2 (usually I fix it with some ol’ good Gaussian blur 😉

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/fcbe1ad9c6e9ec95500d4a17e75093654fe2c204dfc5f69eea4ab3d98982c06c.jpg https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/e0a880cb48fa1780b143cc2f659b5faba8f7542860c8fade9d8a128852369099.jpg https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/0398f9c4fb2dbf3a9cea44f28cab1e224a08a29d212f6106fa693cbdd39c0591.jpg https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/4c5527d7d3fcae0a74c2b86ace92bb6c1ae142a9ab1c6791cad94a1995af149b.jpg

    Click to see larger pictures since disqus image quality sucks, or it’s in my photostream (disqus profile).

  • Not THAT Ross Cameron

    LOL, thanks for that.

  • phanter II

    Yes seems like the reviewer never heard of or used APD/STF lenses

    Would love some more comparison shots at F1.2

    Would also love some comparison shots with point lights in the background to see if the dual layer canon versions solves the issue STF/APD lenses have when your bokeh is not 100% circular

  • RockerSpaniel

    Ages ago, I used the Nikon 135 DC for a while. Nice lens, but judging from what I’ve seen on the web, the Minolta 135 STF is a different league, and judging from your photos, it’s another league than the Canon 85 DS as well.

    To me, there is very little difference between the two 85 versions, even comparing them side by side. It even looks like the non-DS has a thinner DOF, probably because the physical aperture of the DS is a little smaller? The DS has smoother highlights, but then it’s the DS’s smoother highlights vs. the non-DS’s thinner DOF and more blur – at the cost of 1.3 T-stops and 300$

  • Carleton Foxx

    I’ve been shooting with my Nikon 135 DC for about eight years and it’s a fantastic lens for portraits because it makes even ugly people look really good and interesting. The background defocusing is a nice feature but probably not as earthshaking as most people think. It’s more of an “icing on the icing of the cake” effect.

    If you need 100 percent reliably beautiful bokeh you’d be better off spending $20 or $30 on strings of Christmas lights, the kind with the round bulbs, and arranging them in the background.

  • Carleton Foxx

    This sounds just like my feelings about my Nikon 135DC with its defocus control. The effect is only visible in certain situations but yet I find myself coming back to it again and again because it definitely adds something, just not sure what.

    The only one of these lenses that really has a dependable look is the original Minolta STF 135mm but the effect is so strong that sometimes the pix look like badly done composites.

  • The EOS R is a DPAF only camera, it doesn’t use CDAF. The AF speed seems the same.

  • grubernd

    at 1.64kg .. does it come with a tripod collar?
    and for the price, do they include a graphite monopod?

  • JP

    Hi Zach,
    Did the DPAF feel the same between the DS and non-DS lenses?
    The Fujifilm XF56mm f/1.2 APD reportedly forces CDAF-only -wondering if it would be similar for this Canon lens?

  • Dima 135

    Expensive lens. Both versions are so expensive that for many people they just do not exist. I think Canon need some more close-to-earth 85mm lens. Now they have just very old 85 1.8 and still expensive (but not so flawless like some other modern L lenses) 85 1.4 L IS. This is not enough to compete with Sigma 85 1.4, Tamron 85 1.8 VR and great manual focus Samyang 85 1.2. Canon need modern 85 1.8 for $550-700 or/and maybe 85 1.4 on RF mount without IS for $1200-1300.

  • Fiatlux

    This is Canon’s alternative to an apodization filter, spraying the radial ND filtering on lens elements rather than adding a dedicated filter.

    One of the most convincing implementations IMO is Sony’s 100mm STF lens. But it starts a f/2.8 and looses two stops to T/5.6, making it difficult to use in low light environments.

  • YES! Exactly. The effect doesn’t really work at f/2.

    The only comparison worth making for DS/APD filters is wide open. The aperture blades physically block the apodization filter from doing anything if you stop down.

  • Not THAT Ross Cameron

    At the risk of starting a fan-flame-off, any opportunity to compare Canon Defocus Smoothing with Nikon Defocus Control? Appreciate we’re talking 85mm vs 105 & 135, different max apertures, and just a few years between manufacturing 🙂
    I’m thinking more about the effectiveness of different approaches to managing the out-of-focus areas than focal length, sharpness etc. I.e. coatings vs mechanical-optical.
    Declaration – I shoot Nikon, but not portraiture. I don’t own any Nikkor DC lenses. I’m just curious 🙂

  • Vít Koval?ík

    Nice photos, but in my opinion the review doesn’t work well as a comparison of DS versus non-DS lens.

    As I see the DS thing: Some glass element near the aperture is basically sprayed with paint to gradually darken outwards. If you set aperture different then the f/1.2, you are using glass element in the center which is less and less covered with paint. So if you are testing DS at f/2 aperture, you are not using the outer gradient… so basically you are testing the DS lens, but mostly WITHOUT the DS in effect. The DS should be mainly visible with the f/1.2 settings.

    As noted in the review the darkening is not present from f/3.2 onwards, which means that is the point where DS and non-DS should be probably completely identical.

  • Same as you I have the non-DS version, but I’m very looking forward to play with the DS tomorrow (placed my rental order a few days ago). According to TDP the DS is actually slightly sharper wide open, most likely because it’s not technically “wide open” due to the DS coating. I’m also not convinced the “Comparison-2” DS looks better than the non-DS, but if you re-take “Canon-85mm-DS-Review-Zach-Sutton-3.jpg” with the regular version – the bokeh will look much less smooth. From what I’ve seen the DS really helps with a busy background. Thanks for the review.

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