Comparison Review of Canon EF 85mm f/1.8, Canon EF 100mm f/2 and Canon EF 135mm f/2 L Lenses

3rd Edition

This is the third edition of a review comparing three superb Canon short telephoto lenses used for portrait and action photography. I initially reviewed the performance of the Canon EF 100mm f/2 relative to the Canon EF 85 f/1.8 and EF 135 f/2L lenses in 2001 because I was photographing sports and dance under available light where I have to shoot from a fixed location at f/2. There are times when the 85 is too wide and the 135 is too narrow to fill the frame with the subject. I was interested in comparing sharpness (resolution) of the lenses at f/2 and background blur in out-of-focus areas (bokeh). I subsequently have reviewed the lenses comparing their performance in portrait applications. The latest update provides performance information from newer digital cameras as of September, 2007.

All three of these lenses are well-constructed and light weight. They are all ultra-fast focusing and produce high contrast images. They differ in resolution, 50% MTF (microcontrast), and background blurring (bokeh) produced as outlined below.

Lenses Tested

Canon EF 85mm f/1.8, EF 100mm f/2 and EF135mm f/2 lenses
Data shown were from tests run with all 3 lenses at the same time. The EF 100 and 135 were purchased new in 2007 for the test. The EF 85mm was puchased in 2001 and has been used heaviliy since then.

Lens Resolution and MTF with Canon EOS 400D (Digital Rebel) XTi and EOS-1Ds Mark II Camera

Digital camera resolution and 50% MTF was measured using this methology.

Canon EOS 400D (Digital Rebel) XTi

The EF 135mm f/2L lens has the best resolution at f/2.

50% MTF microcontrast is lower with the EF 100mm lens at f/2 than with the other lenses.

Canon EOS-Ds Mark II

The EF 85mm f/2L lens has the best resolution at f/2 with the EOS-1Ds Mark II.
However, resolution tests with the EOS 400D and EOS 40D both exceed that obtained using the EOS-1Ds Mark II.

50% MTF microcontrast is lower with the EF 100mm lens at f/2 than with the other lenses.

Link to Film Tests from 1st and 2nd Editions of Review

Mannequin Test for Image Sharpness and Bokeh

Click on image above to see results of the test
These full-width images were shot from variable distances to the mannequin target with EF 85mm f/1.8, EF 100mm f/2, and EF 135mm f/2L lenses using a Canon EOS 40D set at ISO 200 using custom white balance off the grey card. The focus point was the mannequin's right eye. Exposures were taken at f/2, f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6, f/8 using aperture priority with exposure compensation set at +1.0 with center-weighted metering. Tungsten modeling lights illuminated the scene. The top of the field has been trimmed to show the same background detail as explained in the panel to the right. Guide to Evaluating Images and Bokeh

The optimal lens for portraits provides sharp eye detail and good bokeh when shot at wide aperture. Good bokeh quality is characterized by diffuse blurring of letters and lines in background and evenly soft background specular light. Out of focus pattern of the aperture diaphragm that is closest to round is considered to be best.

Blurring of background in out-of-focus areas increases with focal length. The EF 135 f/2 L produces the combination of sharp in focus images with best out of focus blurring at f/2 and f/2.8. Even at f/4, better background blurring is evident in images taken with the 135 f/2 L.

Portrait Perspective

Users of the 85mm, 100mm, 135mm lenses occasionally argue that these lenses offer differing perspective by inducing telephotographic compression of facial features. The face and nose are reported to appear flatter in images produced with longer focal length telephoto lenses. While it is possible to perceive telecompressive effects with the 135mm lens compared to the shorter lenses, the effect is very subtle and difficult to detect. The difference in perspective offered by the 85mm versus the 100mm lens is negligible and rarely detectable. Effects are generally overshadowed by posture, angle to the camera and lighting. Larger effects in appearance of background are provided by the changes in width of the angle of view.Click here to see 36 arranged images taken from similar angles with the 3 lenses. See if you can detect the differences in image appearance among the different focal lengths.

Evaluation Summary

You should draw your own conclusions based on your photographic objectives and the need for image sharpness, background blur in out of focus areas (bokeh), and working distance. All three lenses offer blazingly fast autofocus function and outstanding contrast.

Canon EF 85mm f/1.8
This relatively inexpensive lens produces outstanding sharpness and contrast. This lens produces pleasing bokeh, although background is not as nicely blurred as with longer length telephoto lenses. If you have to shoot at f/2, it offers excellent performance at a relatively low cost and fast autofocus.See review of this lens compared with the Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L

Canon EF 100mm f/2
This is an excellent lens with overall good lens sharpness, contrast, and fast autofocus function. It allows a little longer working distance than the EF 85 f/1.8 that may be ideal for some in portrait or performance photography. Image sharpness at f/2 was noticeably less than that delivered by the other two lenses. I have evaluated 4 lenses after considering that the first EF 100 f/2 I tested might be defective. All 4 lens gave similar results.
Image sharpness at f/2 is not of paramount importance to many portrait photographers, so the slightly less sharp performance at f/2 may not be critical to many who might prefer the slightly better bokeh and longer working distance. The lens gives excellent image quality when stopped down to f/2.8.

Canon EF 135 mm f/2 L
This lens costs more than 2.5 times as much as the EF 85 f/1.8. It offers excellent sharpness and contrast in the f/2 to f/4 range and produces wonderfully diffuse, out-of-focus backgrounds. It is great for portrait and performance photography. It is a wonderful tool for candid portraits at events.

Review Index Page

© 2001- 2007, William L. Castleman

First edition, 2001; Second edition, 2005, Third edition, 09 September 2007