Lens Comparison: Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM vs. Sigma 85mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM

Canon vs. Sigma (logos).

After spending most of the day indoors as a result of inclement weather, friend and photographer Thorpe Griner and I decided that we would spend our Sunday afternoon doing something useful: a lens comparison test. We had both bought large aperture 85mm lenses not all too long ago. Mine from Canon, and Thorpe’s from Sigma. So we decided to test them out with the initial intent to see which was sharper.

About the Test

Using a Datacolor SpyderLensCal Autofocus Calibration Aid, we connected both lenses to a Canon EOS 5D Mark III DSLR. The calibration aid was secured to a light stand a few feet in front of the camera, while the camera was secured to a tripod. Attaching the Canon 85mm first, I took and discarded a test shot to focus on the small square (maximized below) so set both the focus and the exposure in the camera’s manual mode. As part of the focusing process, I used the center spot autofocus point because it is the most accurate and sensitive for achieving accurate focus, especially with prime lenses at wide apertures (read more about the 5DMKIII AF Point Management System, here).

After achieving focus and appropriate exposure, I then discarded the original image and switched the lens to manual focus; this step was performed to eliminate any slight focusing the lens might have otherwise done as we continued to stop down (aka increasing the f-stop). Importantly, this process was repeated on both the Canon and Sigma lenses, and all images for this test were taken in Canon’s .CR2 (RAW) file format. The files were then imported to Adobe Photoshop Lightroom version 5.3. No post production or lens profile corrections were applied.

One last point: You may notice below that the Canon image was photographed at f/1.2, while the Sigma was photographed at f/1.4. This is because the respective maximum aperture on each lens is different, that is to say, the test is not exact – since the apertures are not the same – but it does highlight some key findings as discussed below.

Results

Lens Comparison: Canon vs. Sigma 85mm lens comparison at f/1.2 and f/1.4Unfortunately, based on the results achieved via the process described above, it is clear that the Canon suffers from extreme chromatic aberration (CA), specifically, purple fringing (PF) – a term for an out-of-focus purple or magenta “ghost” image on a photograph. While most fast aperture prime lenses suffer from some degree of CA, the Canon 85mm seems to be especially bad. Moreover, even contrast seems to be much improved on the Sigma 85mm – when compared to Canon’s version – with deeper blacks, richer whites, and superior resolution. Stacked against Canon’s hazy, muddy image full of PF, the winner is clear, in my opinion.

Some Relief

If, like me, you are the owner of the Canon 85mm, their is some relief. You can enable a lens profile correction in Lightroom that does an extremely effective job at eliminating PF. Here is the same image as above, with the lens profile correction applied to the Canon image:

Canon vs. Sigma 85mm lens comparison at f/1.2 and f/1.4 with lens calibration applied to the Canon image.As I hope you can tell, this is a massive improvement to the original image. While unfortunate that a $2,200.00 Canon L-Series camera lens performs this way – compared to Sigma’s much more affordable $894.00 – it is a necessary post-production step that, for me, will be applied upon import (more on this topic below) for all images shot with this lens.

And, while although this step has removed most, if not all of the PF seen in the original Canon image, the Canon photograph is still fuzzy and still lacks contrast when compared to the out-of-the-camera Sigma image that requires zero post production.

A Few More Examples

All images in this section are straight out of the camera. No presets or post-production has been applied to these images.

F/2.0

Image 5921 and 5928 below are both photographed at f/2.0. Notice that the Sigma still outperforms the Canon.

Canon vs. Sigma 85mm lens comparison at f/2.0

F/3.2

The test is repeated again at f/3.2 across both lenses, below. You can see the Canon is beginning to improve. At this point, only a slight amount of PF remains:

Canon vs. Sigma 85mm lens comparison at f/3.2

F/5.0

At f/5.0, both lenses have become pretty equal. Only a slight, very tiny amount of PF occurs on the bars to the right in the Canon image. Although the settings are the same, the Canon image appears brighter. As this test was performed outdoors on a very cloudy day, it’s possible – although unlikely – that the difference in exposure between these two images is a result of sun coming through. I say ‘unlikely’ because this perceived difference in exposure is evident from f/5.0 onwards – even when all of the settings are kept the same:

Canon vs. Sigma 85mm lens comparison at f/5.0

F/7.1

The Canon seems to outperform the Sigma for the first time at f/7.1. Canon’s image appears brighter and sharper with better contrast than the Sigma image:

2014-02-14_0007

F/11

F/11 is more of the same. No real differences so far as I can tell from the description for the sequence at f/7.1:

2014-02-14_0008

Final Thoughts

Based on the findings of this lens comparison test, it is – in my opinion – disheartening, aggravating, and financially unpopular to purchase the Canon version of this lens. As a rational person, it would seem to make little to no sense to spend a difference of $1306.00 on the Canon lens only to receive a clearly less desirable image. Regardless of the .2-stop difference (Canon’s f/1.2 vs. Sigma f/1.4), I would much rather spend less money on an optically superior lens, even if I am brand loyal.

I concede: I may have a bad version of the lens. Based on the results of this test, I may be using several benefits of my Canon Professional Services (CPS) Platinum Membership – among which include free overnight shipping to/from the Canon Factory Service Center – and, if needed, the 30% discount (formerly 60%) on repairs. I will provide an update labeled *UPDATE* at the top of this blog with whatever information I receive back from Canon once they inspect my lens and return it to me.

Regarding the Application of Lens Profile Correction Upon Import

As with most modifications in post-production, their are, of-course, multiple ways of doing things. Here is the method that I prefer to use, which I find most efficient for me:

  1. After photographing some images with the Canon 85mm, import the images into the Lightroom library, switch to the ‘Develop’ module and navigate down to ‘Lens Corrections’ on the right hand side. Then choose ‘Color’.
  2. Check the box that says ‘Remove Chromatic Aberrations’, then apply your settings as follows to eliminate purple fringing (PF):2014-02-14_0009
  3. Next, bring up your Copy Settings by pressing Command+C (⌘+C) on Mac, or Ctrl+C on Windows. Be sure to press your commands while the image is highlighted in the ‘Develop’ module. Copy Settings should appear on your screen. Specifically, you’ll want to make sure that you have all of the boxes checked in ‘Lens Corrections’: 2014-02-14_0010
  4. Press ‘Copy’. Now, with the same image selected, navigate to the left side of the ‘Develop’ module to the category called ‘Presets’. To the right of the word ‘Presets’ will be a  ‘-‘ and a ‘+’ symbol. Choose ‘+’: 2014-02-14_0011
  5. A drop drown menu will appear. Label the preset name ‘Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM’ (presuming you are following these steps for the Canon 85mm lens). Then, click on the ‘Folder’ drop down list. Scroll up to ‘New Folder’ and title this folder ‘Lenses’. Lastly, be sure the ‘Lens Corrections’ box is ticked in the ‘Settings’ panel, then click ‘Create’:2014-02-14_0012
  6. Now, go shoot some pictures with the Canon 85mm. The next time you import into Lightroom, navigate to the right side of the LR import screen, and scroll down to an area that says ‘Apply During Import’. Scroll down to your ‘Lenses’ folder, then select ‘Canon 85mm f/1.2L II USM’. This will apply your preset to all of the checked images! Then sit back and enjoy – Lightroom will do the rest. 2014-02-14_0013

If you’ve found this blog helpful, leave some comments below, share it with friends, and help others learn. Become a fan on my Facebook Fan Page, or check me out on Twitter: @stephenmasker. Thanks guys!

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