Friday, June 15, 2012

Cosplay Photography: The Canon 85 f1.2L Review


Canon 85mm f1.2L
MSRP: $2199
Weight: 1025g (2.26 lbs)
Used on: Canon XSi (450D)
Status for review: Rented (can’t afford)

There are a few lenses out there that elicit such a strong reaction from photographers, the Canon 85mm f1.2L is one of those lenses. This lens has a legendary reputation for gorgeous bokeh with its thin depth of field. It is a lens that is heavily used by wedding photographers and portrait photographers. The latter has quite a bit in common with skills needed for cosplay photography. The 85L is a huge chunk of glass that has a similar weight to the large Canon 24-70mm f2.8L. I had the pleasure of using this lens during Anime Expo 2011 and during some outdoor cosplay photo shoots. I will go over the strengths and weaknesses of this lens when used in cosplay photography. This lens is without a doubt a very special lens that can really add to cosplay photography.

One of the first things I noticed when I held the lens in my hand is that it is very heavy for its size. It contains many large pieces of glass in such a small area. All this glass in such a small area means that it is very heavy for something that is so small. The front element is huge; it pretty much is a big piece of glass that extends to the side of the barrel. When you look in the back, the rear element is exposed; I have never seen anything like this. The electronic connections to the camera stick out and it looks delicate. The camera uses an electronic focus-by-wire design, so you cannot change the focus if the camera is off. Since it is moving so much glass, the autofocus for this lens is also very slow. This lens would not be good for tracking motion moving in direction to or away from the lens. The front element moves in and out when trying to focus. This lens is not weather sealed, and adding a UV filter does not add weather sealing like its little brother, the 50mm f1.2L.

85L in Anime Expo 2011
The pictures that come from the 85L is gorgeous, there is plenty of character from 85L pictures. It is far sharper more consistently than my 50L lens. This is probably due to the floating element for focus accuracy. At f1.2, it produces a gorgeous “3D effect” that completely separates a person from the background. It has this effect because of its very thin depth of field. The thin depth of field also means that during pictures it is common in portrait photography to have a person who has one eye in focus and one eye out of focus. This kind of precision may require a person to stop the lens down or to take a couple of steps further to increase the depth of field.

Hallway shots: For hallway shots, I find that the 85mm length can sometimes be too long on a crop body (136mm equivalent). If a person is in a crowded convention center with little space to maneuver, having an 85mm lens for full body shots will be extremely difficult. On the other hand, doing upper body shots should be easier if a person can separate themselves from the cosplayers. On a full-frame body, the 85mm length is a nice distance, even for hallway shots. I use the 50L, which is a crop equivalent to an 80mm full-frame lens. Doing hallway shots in a convention center or a hotel with little space to maneuver makes it a lens that is hard to recommend for hallway shots, especially on a Canon crop body.

Cosplay Photo Shoots: For a photo shoot, this lens is a perfect length since a photographer can move far from the cosplayers to get full body shots and they can move closer to upper body shots. Regardless of whether the lens is a crop body or a full-frame body, this lens would not hinder a photographer’s vision. There are a couple of caveats with doing this lens on an outdoor shoot. The first one is that there is heavy color fringing especially with a bright background, this can be remedied by stopping down the lens. The second caveat is that a photographer would also need to stop the lens down during daylight since f1.2 is a little fast, an ND filter can remedy this.

For Masquerade/Fashion Shows: This lens is good for masquerade and fashion shows, if the photographer is sitting close enough to the stage. It completely isolates a cosplayer from the background and the fast aperture means that it is easier to stop motion in higher ISO’s. Many conventions use heavy stage lighting with black backgrounds, so underexposing the photos will make the pictures turn out better.

This lens is an amazing lens, if I had the money I would buy this in a heartbeat. Unfortunately, due to the sky-high purchase price, I can only rent this lens rarely for special anime conventions. If you can afford this and you love taking pictures of cosplayers, buy it. The subject isolation, picture sharpness, and the lens’s amazing low-light capabilities will allow the photographer to do amazing things. There are a couple of downsides for this lens; it is a little long for hallway cosplay shots. The lens is also not weather sealed, it is expensive, the rear element can easily be scratched with a clumsy photographer, and it is heavy for a lens that small. The positives outweigh the negatives, and if you are a cosplay photographer with Canon gear I highly recommend this wonderful lens.

Kris Zoleta started working in Anime Expo as a staffer in Manga Library. He worked in Staff Service in Anime Expo 2006 and became the manager of Manga Lounge from Anime Expo 2007-2010. He is currently serving on the Board of Directors for the Society for the Promotion of Japanese Animation, the 501(c)(6) non-profit behind Anime Expo and is one of the most recognized cosplay photographers in the West Coast.

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