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Summary

Highly Recommended awardThe Canon RF 85mm f2 is a fairly affordable short telephoto lens for the EOS R mirrorless system that performs double-duty for portraits and close-ups. The f2 focal ratio may not deliver as much background blur as faster models, but there’s still plenty of potential for shallow depth-of-field effects, while the face and eye detection on the EOS R bodies makes it easy to grab focused portraits wherever the subject is on the frame. Like the RF 35mm f1.8 before it, there’s no weather sealing, the lens hood is not included and the macro capabilities may be limited to 1:2 magnification - or half actual size - but that’s still sufficient for most people and the results can look great from a more practical distance than the 35. Throw in optical stabilisation that benefits bodies with or without IBIS and you have a very compelling lens for the money. The biggest issue is the wealth of alternative 85s to choose from, including a bunch from Canon, but the RF 85mm f2 represents a step-up in overall quality, close focusing and potential burst speed over the old EF 85 1.8 and is a lot more affordable than the faster 85s in Canon’s range. If you’re desperate for an 85 1.4 at a more affordable price, look to Samyang or Sigma, but the combination of great quality optics even wide-open, attractive rendering, useful close-ups and optical IS make the RF 85mm f2 a no-brainer for EOS R owners. I’m also pleased Canon’s introducing more affordable models in the native line-up. So like the RF 35mm f1.8, it comes Highly Recommended.

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Canon RF 85mm f2 Macro review

Intro

The Canon RF 85mm f2 Macro is a short telephoto lens for the EOS R mirrorless system. Announced in July 2020 it’s one of the more affordable lenses in the RF system. 

The 85mm focal length and f2 aperture makes it perfect for portraits, while close-focusing allows it to double-up as a fairly respectable macro lens with 1:2 or half-actual size magnification. Throw-in optical stabilisation and you have a compelling lens at a tempting price and in this review I’ll show how it performs for subjects near and far, and also how it compares to alternative 85mm lenses.

Canon owners certainly aren’t short of 85mm options – in fact the RF 85mm f2 becomes the third 85 from Canon in the native RF mount, joining a pair of earlier f1.2 models. These are considerably higher-end lenses, costing $2700 or $3000 for the DS version with a softer bokeh effect. At the more affordable-end, Samyang now offers an 85mm f1.4 with autofocus in the native RF mount for roughly the same price as the Canon 85 f2 Macro, although sadly they weren’t interested in joining this comparison when I asked them. If you’re happy to adapt an EF mount lens, there’s also Canon’s EF 85mm f1.8, 85mm f1.4L IS or 85mm f1.2L, along with Tamron’s 85 1.8 VC, and Sigma’s 85 1.4 Art – plus we can all hope Sigma starts offering its latest mirrorless versions in the RF mount sooner rather than later. In this review I’ll directly compare the RF 85mm f2 against the high-end RF 85mm f1.2 as well as the much older EF 85mm f1.8 for portraits, close-ups, landscapes, bokeh, focusing and video. It’s all in the video below (available 2pm UK time 19/10/20), but if you prefer a written version, just keep scrolling!

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Above: Here’s the RF 85mm f2 in the middle, joined by the RF 85mm f1.2 on the left, a much heftier lens that’s more than double the weight and over four times the price. Meanwhile on the right is the ageing but popular EF 85mm f1.8 from 1992 which is still selling almost three decades later for around $400 dollars or pounds, making it roughly two thirds the price of the 85 f2 Macro. Side by side it’s shorter, but to use it on an EOS R body you’ll need to fit it with an adapter (pictured here), making it almost the same size. Of these three, only the RF 85mm f2 sports optical stabilisation and close focusing. Meanwhile the standout benefit of the 85 1.2 is of course its much brighter aperture and opportunities for shallower depth-of-field effects.

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Above: The RF 85mm f2 is 78mm in diameter, 91mm long, weighs 500g and has a 67mm filter thread. There’s three switches on the barrel including a three-position focus limiter and one to enable the optical stabilisation. In the middle is a smooth motor-assisted manual focusing ring, and at the end a customisable control ring. Like all RF lenses, it may lack the physical focusing window of older EF models like the 85mm f1.8, but the broader rotation, smoother ring and electronic feedback makes it easier to manually focus. Meanwhile the ET-77 lens hood is available as an optional extra for about $50. Annoyingly hoods still aren’t supplied as standard on Canon’s non-L lenses, and as a quick correction to my RF 600 and 800 review, the hoods turned out to be optional accessories on those models too.

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Above: Unsurprisingly as a more affordable model in the series, the RF 85mm f2 is not sealed against dust and moisture. Neither was the old EF 85mm f1.8, but the higher-end RF 85mm f1.2 lenses are weather-sealed and as L-models also include lens hoods.

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Above: Right, now for my comparisons, starting with portraits, and all the samples I’ll show you were taken with an EOS R5 running v1.1.1 firmware. The latest EOS R bodies make portraiture easy with face and eye detection, but as you’ll see, the three lenses all delivered different results.

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Above: Placing them side-by-side with the 85mm f2 Macro flanked by the RF 85 1.2 on the left and the EF 85 1.8 on the right reveals the higher contrast of the two RF models and of course the shallower depth-of-field of the f1.2 model on the left. The rendering between the 85 f2 and 85 1.8 on its right looks quite different with the older model lacking the contrast and bite, but with an attractive softness to its bokeh.

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Above: Taking a closer look though reveals a problem with my old 85 1.8 with noticeably softer details that look blurred compared to the much crisper RF models. I retook this shot multiple times but failed to get an improvement when using the R5’s face and eye detect autofocus.

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Above: Switching to manual focus allowed me to achieve a fractionally better result as seen here, but it remains less crisp than the newer RF models to its left. Now there may be an issue with my own 85 1.8, but remember it’s almost 30 years older from a time of film SLRs and even a better-behaved sample is unlikely to perform anywhere near as well as a modern lens. It was simply never designed for this kind of resolution.

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Above: Just before moving on, here’s another set of portraits side-by-side, where the rendering in the background is again the biggest difference. The 1.2 on the left is obviously the best if you want to obliterate the background with blur, but all three are capable of effective subject separation. 

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Above: Zooming-in for a closer look tells the same story as before though, with both new RF models out-performing the old EF lens as you’d expect. Also notice the focus fall-off on my beard and hat. Again the EF version looks a tad out-of-focus, but this was the best result I could achieve on multiple attempts. Again my sample may be at fault and your mileage may vary, but old lenses designed for film SLRs are unlikely to match modern lenses on high resolution digital bodies.

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Above: The rendering of a lens designed for portraiture is very important, so in my next test I’m going to compare the three lenses for bokeh blobs. For this test I positioned the camera at the closest distance that all three lenses could focus on the star ornament. Both the RF 85 1.2 and old EF 85 1.8 share a similar minimum distance of 85cm, so that’s what I’ve used here – oh and I manually focused the EF lens here to be sure. The RF 85mm f2 can get much closer, focusing down to 35cm and I’ll be showing much more of that in a moment.

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Above: But first let’s compare the three lenses side-by-side, all three at f2. At first glance there’s not much to tell them apart at f2, but look closer and you’ll notice the effect of the aperture blades on the 1.2 and 1.8 models, versus the 85 f2 which of course is operating wide-open here so has the most rounded edges to its bokeh blobs. All three share a similar rendering style though with none taking the lead on outlining or onion-ringing. Do you have a preference yet?

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Above: In the spirit of fairness, here’s all three again, all closed to f2.8 to compare the impact of aperture blades. Here the octagonal shape of the old EF 85mm’s aperture blades becomes quite apparent, while the RF 1.2’s nine blades are a little more discrete, but impressively I’d say the RF f2 retains the roundest shape.

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Above: And finally, let’s compare them all at their maximum apertures, showing the greatest potential for blob size without the aperture blades getting in the way. While all three share similar rendering styles as well as oval-shaped blobs in the corners, it’s unsurprisingly the RF 1.2 on the left that’s delivering the largest blobs when wide-open. I expected the f2 and 1.8 models to be very similar here, but the older EF model is delivering visibly bigger blobs. Again do you have a preference?

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Above: As mentioned earlier though, the RF 85mm f2 has the benefit of being able to focus more than twice as close as the other two. So here’s the f2 from its closest focusing distance of 35cm where obviously the subject and blobs are considerably bigger. So it seems a good time to take a closer look at the macro capabilities of the 85 f2 – literally.

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Above: Here’s a ruler I photographed with the RF 85mm f2 from as close as it would focus, where you can confirm its 1:2 magnification. The ratio means the lens can reproduce a subject at half its actual size on the sensor, so given the R5’s full-frame sensor measures 36mm across, the lens should be able to fill it with a subject measuring 72mm wide – here I managed 71mm, essentially confirming the capability.

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Above: According to traditional definitions, the term Macro should be reserved for lenses that can achieve great 1:1 magnification, reproducing a subject on the sensor at actual size, but while the RF 85mm f2 falls short of this capability, you can still enjoy some very usable and high quality results at 1:2. You may recall the earlier RF 35mm f1.8 also supports 1:2 macro shooting, but from a distance of 17cm versus 35cm here which makes the 85 easier to use without casting shadows or disturbing insects as much. Of course the decision between them is also influenced by which focal length is more useful to you for general use, but for close-ups alone, the 85 is more practical. If you own an R5 you can also deploy focus bracketing for stacking in software later.

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Above: You’ve seen how the 85mm f2 compares for portraits and bokeh blobs, but what about distant subjects focused at infinity? To find out I shot this scene with all three lenses across their aperture range, and don’t worry I wasn’t drunk, it’s angled like this so that fine details go right into the corners, otherwise you’re just looking at featureless sky. Here’s the RF 85mm f2 wide-open at f2 where it’s of course sharp in the middle as expected, but also impressively crisp right into the far corners – and remember this is wide-open.

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Above: For comparison, here’s all three lenses, all operating at f2, and now for a closer look at the middle of each image where they actually all look pretty similar. Looking really closely reveals the old EF 85 1.8 to be a little softer than the others, while the 85 f2 is the slightest bit crisper than the 1.2.

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Above: Move into the corners though and as you might expect, the modern optics of the two RF models easily out-perform the 30 year old EF 1.8.

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Above: Now to be fair the EF lens can essentially match this sharpness in the corners if you stop it down to between f5.6 and f8 as seen here, but if you want maximum corner sharpness out of the gate, you’ll need the RF models. 

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Above: As a final comparison, here’s the corners of all three lenses when they’re all wide-open. Note the RF 1.2 on the left is over-exposed as the top shutter speed of 1/8000 on the R5 wasn’t sufficient at f1.2 and 100 ISO under bright daylight, but you can still make out the details, and I’d say it’s performing very well even wide-open. Unsurprisingly my old EF 1.8 is worst here, but it’s important to remember if your subject is mostly towards the middle, surrounded by a blurry background, then corner sharpness isn’t particularly important.

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Above: Moving onto autofocus you’ll notice the RF 85mm f2’s inner barrel extends as it focuses on close subjects, and the STM motors are quite audible at least when taking photos – they’re slower and much quieter when filming video.

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Above: How fast is it in practice? The STM motors aren’t normally as quick as USM in Canon’s lineup, but in my tests it felt quite snappy. For comparison, the RF 85mm f1.2 has a USM focusing motor, although perhaps any benefit is consumed by the larger glass elements as the focusing speed in practice felt similar in my tests – maybe even a fraction slower. Meanwhile the old EF 85mm f1.8, thanks to its USM motor and short distance throw, is actually the fastest – not to mention the quietest – of the three in this test. It’s particularly impressive too as a 30 year old lens, adapted to a different mount here, and a reassuring demo of legacy models in action.

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Above: There is however one caveat to mention, beyond the quality issues I showed you earlier, and that’s a reduced burst speed on the R5 and R6, indicated by the flashing white H+ icon. In my tests, the top speed I managed on the R5 with the EF 85mm f1.8 was 6.8fps versus the maximum 12fps with the RF 85mm f2. Remember for the fastest bursts on the R5 and R6 you’ll not only need native RF lenses but also a battery with plenty of charge and on the R5 Wifi disabled too.

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Above: Next let’s have a look at image stabilisation. Canon claims the IS alone is good for five stops, enhanced to eight alongside IBIS on the R5 or R6. On the R5 I managed four to six stops in practice. I also tried it on the RP which doesn’t have IBIS and managed three stops with optical IS alone.  For comparison, with the RF 85mm f1.2L on the R5, I achieved four stops of compensation using IBIS alone, but needed a fast shutter on the unstabilised RP. As for the EF 85mm f1.8, I achieved four stops of compensation with the R5, and of course again needed a fast shutter on the RP. So while I experienced less compensation than quoted for the RF 85mm f2, the built-in IS still allowed it to deliver steadier results than the two unstabilised lenses whether using a body with IBIS or not.

Next check out my sample images!

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