Comparison: Canon's 70-200mm f2.8 L IS II vs 85mm T1.3 CN-E

Arguably one of the best lenses in Canon's lineup is the venerable 70-200mm f2.8 L IS II. For those that shoot Canon, it's found in almost every pro photographer's bag and is at the top of the wish list for those that don't have it. It's also found a special place in the hearts of filmmakers and cinematographers that love its "breathtaking optical performance," aperture speed, zoom range, color rendition, image stabilization, and distortion control. The features and performance of the lens makes it widely considered the best in it's class, and a favorite for DSLR and large-sensor digital cinematography.

The 70-200mm f2.8 L IS II has also been widely accepted to have a bit of magic to it, too. Colors pop, bokeh is creamy, and skin tones are soft but lively. There's a certain je nais se quoi in the image that not many lenses can reproduce, especially when shooting portraits and close-ups. The question is, can we find that bit of magic in other Canon lenses as well, especially the CN-E cinema lens lineup?

Canon's CN-E series of lenses have garnered enough recognition on their own for super speed apertures, 4K resolving power, rock solid build, and focus/iris barrels designed for motion picture work. They are Canon's premiere lens for digital cinema, and should be the cream of the crop in Canon's optical offerings. When I did this comparison between the Canon 85mm CN-E prime and 70-200mm f2.8 L IS II, I knew the cinema prime would at least equal the zoom lens - but would there be any surprise differences? And what about that little bit of magic that the 70-200 has? Does the 85mm CN-E have it, too - and does that magic live in the rest of the cinema prime range? 

Below are the stills from my comparison shoot, all shot on the Canon C300 with labelled settings. My thoughts and conclusions after the jump.

 

The first thing that stands out to me is the framing - obviously 85mm is not always exactly 85mm. Even though the focal length on the C300 display said both lenses were at 85mm, it's clear that the 85mm CN-E sees a tad wider than the 70-200 when set to the same. However, this isn't uncommon among different makes and models of lenses, and it's generally not a concern. Sharpness of the lenses, at least at HD resolution, is dead on with both of them. I don't see how, at this resolution, you could ask for more from either lens at either f2.8 or f4. Bokeh seems equally pleasing with both lenses, although those dark bushes may not be the best test for determining out of focus qualities. 

Where I do begin to see differences, however, is in contrast and color rendition, notably along the green/magenta spectrum. The CN-E packs a little more contrast over the zoom lens, and if you look closely at the 70-200 samples, you'll see that the skin is ever so slightly more red. The 85mm CN-E renders skin tone more neutral without the very minor red color contamination, giving it a creamier and softer look. Also note the differences in color of the foliage in the background. There is more punch and vibrancy in the greens from the 85mm CN-E than from the 70-200mm zoom. Here are some vectorscope images that detail the color differences:

 

70-200mm @ F2.8

85mm CN-E @ F2.8

85mm CN-E @ F2.8

And what about that elusive "magic" that the 70-200 seems to have; does the 85mm CN-E have it, too? It's a subjective quality, and for my money, the color of the 85mm is ever so slightly more pleasing than the 70-200mm. So maybe the CN-E's have their own special magic that even the 70-200 can't catch. But overall, these lenses are close - very close. Their differences are minuscule - which makes it clear that Canon's 70-200mm f2.8 IS L II lens is a screaming deal that can easily stand up to big boys for motion picture work. That is, if you don't mind its lack of cinema-style features. 

 *edit: I just had a thought about the focal length differences of the lenses. The 70-200 is obviously a physically longer lens than the 85mm CN-E. Since the 70-200's front element is much further out beyond where the 85's front element was, that probably accounts for the framing difference. Had I placed the 85mm CN-E's front element in the same spot as the 70-200's, the framing would likely have been much closer. However, opted to keep the camera in single stationary position. Either way, it's a interesting lesson in lens design, length, and the framing differences that result.