The Fastest 85mm Lens… In the World

In the realm of 85mm portrait lenses, the old and fairly rare Canon FD 85mm f/1.2 SSC is king of the hill.  Built in 1976, this lens was truly ahead of its time with its advanced lens coatings, a floating aspherical element, distance correction, and a maximum aperture of f/1.2.  To this day, it remains the most technically advanced and fastest 85mm lens money can buy.  Around the time of its introduction in 1976, Canon had adapted new manufacturing technology that enabled them to build with 0.1 micron accuracy, achieving a level of precision previously seen only in labs.  All of this went into the creation of one heck of a lens!

Mounted to my Sony A7R MkII, this is one big ol’ hunk of glass hanging off the camera.  Sony’s improved lens mount handles the weight very well and I cannot detect any wobble or light leaks even with the lens unsupported by a hand.

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Canon made several versions of this 85mm lens.  The first were the breech-lock-style mount (as shown) with a 9-bladed aperture and the lens elements treated in what was called Super-Specta Coating (SSC).  The “L” designated versions followed with a more typical twist-lock mount and 8 aperture blades.  Optically, they’re said to be the same with the only variation being the lens body, “L” markings and one less aperture blade.  The older breech lock lenses remain the most desired version, fetching upwards of $1000 MORE.

While I was in Alaska I started my search for one of these optical gems.  I found a handful of the “L” versions on eBay ($650-$900) but I held off buying one until I got home and could check my local shops.  I’m glad I did because one of my favorite shops in Raleigh, NC had one of the old breech lock SSC versions in their cabinet of used lenses.  A few scratches and dings show the age and use of the lens but the glass is in very good condition.  A few very light scratches are visible on the front element but they have no affect on the images.  In testing, shooting into direct light, the image remained very contrasty.  A lens with scratches on the rear element is where you’ll see image quality degrade, and even then it’s usually less than you’d think.  This lens’ rear element is flawless.

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Along with this Canon 85mm, the local camera shop also had the Minolta Rokkor 85mm f/1.4 and a new Rokinon 85mm f/1.4.  I was able to try out each of them before making my decision to go with the Canon.  In summary of my very casual testing, the Canon was leaps and bounds ahead of both the Rokinon and Minolta, and the Rokinon was noticeably better than the Minolta.  Wide open, the Canon was sharper, its bokeh was more appealing, and when stopped down to f/4 it revealed details the other two couldn’t.  I’m not trying to say that the other two lens are garbage, just that the Canon truly is a special lens.  Will it make your photos better?  No.  For that I recommend lots of practice and constructive reading.  What it will do is give you fast shutter speeds in low light, razor thin depth of focus, great color, and super fine resolving power.

This is what the breech lock mount looks like.  Once you set the lens onto the camera mount (or adapter) you turn the silver ring to lock the lens into place.

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Next to the lens is a Canon FD-to-E-mount Sony adapter.  I’ve purchased several K&F Concept adapters and all of them have been excellent.  I get mine from Amazon for between $12-20, depending on the type of lens they adapt to the Sony.  Since this lens was designed for use on a camera body that automatically controls the aperture, the FD-to-E adapter has a ‘Lock <-> Open’ ring which you turn after the lens is locked down.  This allows you to use the lens’ aperture control ring to set the aperture since the Sony camera has no interface to control it.

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That is one big light hole!  I was fortunate that my copy of the lens did not have any of the common yellowing of the rear element that comes from the Thoriated element discoloring the balsam glue used to cement lens elements together.  Even if it did have this yellowing, I would have bought the lens anyway because it is very easy to clear up.  My Minolta Rokkor 58mm f/1.2 has the same type Thorium treated glass and it was especially yellowed.  I exposed the lens to direct sunlight (UV light, specifically) for a full day and it cleared right up.  For a more efficient treatment, I put tinfoil on the back of the lens to reflect the UV light back through it.  You’ll have to keep an eye on the lens to make sure it doesn’t get too hot.  If you live in the UK or anywhere else with limited sunshine, you can use a UV lamp to do the same thing but it can take days or weeks to achieve the same result.

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The 9-bladed aperture is in excellent condition with no sign of oil or dirt contamination.

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Shortly after buying this lens, I had to go to Norway for work.  Not having had a chance to get the lens added to my insurance policy, I decided to leave it at home.  Now that I’ve returned home, I’ve been able to go out in the backyard to shoot a few quick photos with it.  All of these photos were shot just after the sun had gone down below the horizon -had to finish my home-cooked meal first.

For the following two shots I used an aperture of f/4.

Sony A7RmkII w/ Canon FD 85mm f/1.2 SSC
Sony A7RmkII w/ Canon FD 85mm f/1.2 SSC

Excellent color, sharpness and contrast!

Sony A7RmkII w/ Canon FD 85mm f/1.2 SSC
Sony A7RmkII w/ Canon FD 85mm f/1.2 SSC

 

And here is what f/1.2 looks like when this wonderful lens is aimed at a grumpy Chester.  The Canon 85mm f/1.2 dissolves a busy background to a gentle watercolor painting.

Sony A7RmkII w/ Canon FD 85mm f/1.2 SSC
Sony A7RmkII w/ Canon FD 85mm f/1.2 SSC

 

I’d be interested in comparing this lens with my current favorite, the Minolta MC Rokkor-PG 58mm f/1.2.  If I get around to doing that, I’ll be sure to post the results.  In the meantime I look forward to shooting more with this rare and significant piece of lens history and sharing those images with you here on outfor30.

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8 thoughts on “The Fastest 85mm Lens… In the World

  1. I think those shots of the lens are just beautiful! Is that weird? I especially like the shot of the aperture blades– that’s a very pleasing shot. Of course, the shots of our beautiful children are my favorite. 🙂 Also, that’s my new favorite image of our Chester kitty. All very beautiful images!

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  2. You’ve become quite the expert on vintage lenses, my friend!! Love the pic of your daughter- and- as you said- the way the background blends into a watercolor-like background- well, it’s simply beautiful.
    Congrats on another fine acquisition, Tom!!

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  3. I mostly wing it and google what I can’t figure out on my own. It is neat to be able to buy these old pieces of history and use them on modern equipment. I think that does more for me than any modern lens ever has. I’ve tried out some of the new, manual focus Zeiss lenses and found them to be excellent but when I know I can have a multitude of really neat vintage lenses for the same price as one new one, I can’t help it… I’m sucker for the old ones. I know some aren’t as good as the new ones but I’ve never found them to be a limiting factor in getting a nice image either. Looking at my cabinet here while I’m typing this, I think the newest lens I own now is about 35 years old. LOL.

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  4. Amazing photography!! Love all of these images and your in-depth discussion about the lens. Thanks for sharing!

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  5. Hey Rajesh,

    I did do some informal comparisons between the two. Focal length aside, I found the 58mm Rokkor to be sharper wide open than the 85mm Canon. More importantly, the bokeh of the Rokkor was, to my eyes, more appealing. It has such a magic look to it that the Canon lacked. I don’t mean to say that the Canon looked bad, I just prefer the Rokkor. Another factor is size and weight. The Rokkor is small and light which makes it practical for travel. The Canon never went in the field with me due to its bulk. I’ve since sold the Canon. It was a pleasure to have spent time with it but I don’t regret getting rid of it.

    I’m pleased to know that you enjoy the content on Outfor30. I hope to always post things that are a joy to read and maybe every now and then useful.

    Tom

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  6. I used the EF version to photograph the stage plays at the FSU Asolo Center for the Performing Arts in Sarasota, FL for many years. Always got the sharpest images that way under very low light conditions.

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