Viltrox RF 85mm F1.8 STM Review
December 6th, 2021
In mid 2020, I reviewed the Samyang RF 85mm F1.4 autofocus lens, a lens that I really liked and gave a very positive review of because it was a good performing third party lens that came at a reasonable price ($699 USD). Canon’s own RF 85mm F1.2L is an amazing, amazing lens (you can read my review here), but at a price point of $2799 USD, it simply isn’t in reach for many photographers. Canon also has an RF 85mm F2 Macro IS lens, but that lens left me with mixed feelings when I reviewed it mostly because the autofocus was really, really underwhelming. At that point I recommended that people go with the Samyang if they didn’t the macro capabilities, as the lenses were priced similarly and I felt the Samyang had more to offer. I was excited because it seemed like third party lenses were finally starting to come for Canon’s RF mirrorless mount…but then they stopped. Samyang’s RF 14mm F2.8 and RF 85mm F1.4 are still available at North American retailers (under both the Samyang and Rokinon brands), but Samyang no longer lists them on their website. The word on the street is that Canon actually stopped them from developing for their platform, and it is certainly true that I’ve not seen any new Samyang RF products in the past year and a half (the new AF 50mm F1.4 II for Sony FE would be a perfect new RF option). It has caused a little despair, as I really like my Canon EOS R5 camera, but, like many photographers, find that the native Canon RF lenses tend to be very, very expensive. Third party options are needed for photographers not made of money…so I was delighted when Viltrox contacted me about reviewing their new Viltrox RF 85mm F1.8 STM II lens. The Viltrox RF85 (as we’ll call it for brevity in the review) provides an extremely competent and truly inexpensive ($399 USD) option for Canon RF photographers…and they may have just the future proofing tool on board to help them.
I originally tested the Samyang RF 85mm F1.4 on the Canon EOS R camera, but a few months later Canon released the EOS R5 (my current Canon camera of choice) and the EOS R6. In the process, though, some focus algorithms changed and the IBIS (In-Body-Image-Stabilization) didn’t work right. Samyang had to scramble to put out a dock (Lens Station) that allowed one to update the firmware of their RF lenses to fix these problems, but it was after that point that it seems like Canon made trouble for them. Viltrox has long employed a more direct solution – a USB port (USB-C, in this case) embedded right into the lens mount, which allows you to download and apply firmware updates directly through your computer to the lens. This should allow any potential owners of the Viltrox RF85 to be able to update their lens easily and eliminate the concern that some firmware update to their camera (or the purchase of a new camera) renders their lens inoperable. Viltrox is fairly proactive with their firmware updates, too, making minor tweaks and improvements. There has already been a firmware update to the Viltrox RF85, and I was able to do the update in a couple of minutes from start to finish.
My experience with this basic design goes back several years, as I first reviewed a manual focus version of the original optical formula, then an autofocus version, and then the MK II autofocus version. All of these were on Sony FE, however, but now Viltrox has developed this new version that is built around the MK II optical formula for Canon RF. In many ways, this feels like the most mature execution of this lens. The design language fits the larger diameter Canon RF nicely, and the inclusion of an AF/MF switch adds both convenience and some signs of growing maturity of design. The build feels good, autofocus is also quite good, and this has always been a lens that punches above its weight class optically. Add up all of these things and then give it a great price like this, and I suspect this will be a lens that will be attractive to many Canon mirrorless photographers who have been looking for a reasonably priced portrait lens for their camera and don’t want to have to resort to manual focus.
So, on paper, we’ve got a winning formula, but does the lens hold up under more scrutiny? You can find my more detailed thoughts by watching my long format definitive or standard video review below…or just keep reading!
Thanks to Viltrox for sending me this lens for review. As always, this is a completely independent review. *The tests and the photos shown in this review have been taken on my 45 MP Canon EOS R5.
Viltrox RF85 Build and Handling
The basic dimensions of this lens are pretty familiar to me, though Viltrox did a good job with the MK II redesign that retains a high quality of build materials while reducing the weight. This is the lightest of the 85mm autofocusing options available for Canon RF right now, though not by a large margin, as you can see from this comparison chart:
The Viltrox RF85 weighs 484g (right under a pound), which makes it on the lighter side of moderate. It does have a smaller maximum aperture than several of these options (save the Canon F2 option), but the Canon F1.2 lens is about two and a half times the weight, so this really makes the lightest option for you at the 85mm focal length on Canon RF. Its external dimensions of 80 mm (diameter) x 92 mm (length) make it second only to the Canon F2 lens in smallness, and that by a very close margin. We’ve got a front filter thread of 72mm, and a surprising amount of glass behind it.
As noted, the lens sports an AF/MF switch on the left side, which I always welcome, as it remains the simplest way to transition in and out of manual focus.
The manual focus ring is very wide and has tight metal ribbing. I find the damping very nice, and focus emulation is quite good here. Canon’s “Focus Guide” does work if your camera is so equipped, but what you don’t get is an onscreen distance scale. Things like focus overlays or peaking do work, however. Focus seems fairly linear in operation.
My one handling complaint has to do with the lens hood, which is plastic and feels a little cheap compared to the rest of the build. I wouldn’t quibble over that with a lens that is so inexpensive, but I also don’t find that it bayonets on very cleanly. It feels like I had to force it, and there isn’t really a satisfying “click” when it is fully locked into place. The lens hood is petal-shaped and has a ribbed section to help grip it.
The lens mount is made of brass (a premium material) and is a nice pairing with the all metal construction elsewhere. It does have the aforementioned USB-C port along with the electronic connections, but what you won’t find is a weather sealing gasket there. I did shoot with the lens in a light rain without a problem, but you’ll want to be more careful with a lens that lacks weather sealing.
Viltrox states that there is some anti-shock engineering in the lens barrel to help with durability along with multi-coatings on the elements.
There is no image stabilization in the lens itself, though it is compatible with the IBIS on the Canon EOS R5, R6, or subsequent bodies so equipped. That does add some extra performance in allowing you to shoot in a broader variety of situations. I was out in very dim conditions and got this crisp shot at 1/15th of a second thanks to the IBIS of my camera.
I wasn’t intentionally trying to shoot at a low shutter speed, but instead was already at ISO 1600 and wasn’t thinking about raising it further as this had been sufficient in other lighting conditions on this little outing. That’s where IBIS saves you.
The lens has nine rounded aperture blades, and the geometry is fairly good wide open, though with some vaguely lemon-shaped bokeh circles near the edges of the frame at F1.8. AT F2.8 you can start to see a bit of the aperture shape, and that is stronger still by F4, as you can see in this series.
At no aperture is there perfectly round shapes across the frame, so if that is a huge deal to you, you’ll have to look elsewhere. On the plus side, the bokeh circles are pretty clean, with no “onion” effect and little outlining. This contributes to very nice bokeh from the lens.
The minimum focus distance here is 80cm, which is actually slighter better than average, as is the magnification, which nets you a 0.13x magnification. Not a very high figure, but actually the highest of the bunch here outside of the lens that has “macro” in the name and sports a much higher 0.50x magnification. Here’s what MFD looks like:
The performance is fairly good, with good contrast, a flat plane of focus (even the corners are sharp), and fairly good resolution of the fine details. Few 85mm lenses are really exceptional for magnification, but the Viltrox RF85 is mildly better than average, and does allow you to get nice looking “close” shots even though they bear no resemblance to macro-type results.
The lens feels good in the hand, and, as I said in the intro, this is probably the best implementation of this lens that I’ve seen from an aesthetic and functional point of view. It’s a nice fit on my Canon EOS R5, and feels like it belongs there.
Viltrox RF 85mm F1.8 STM Autofocus and Video
As the name suggests, the RF85 employs an STM (Stepping Motor) autofocus system. This on the surface means little to me, as there is a wide range of performance when it comes to STM. Some STM motors are fast, silent, and smooth in operation. Others are louder, slower, and clunkier in operation. So where does this particular application of STM land?
Somewhere in the middle, though fortunately towards the better end. Some STM motors are completely silent, but that’s not completely the case here. Focus noise is very quiet, but there is some faintly audible clicking and whirring during major focus changes if you listen closely. During video pulls, confidence is good but not exceptional, with some occasional visible steps and a minor pulse. It’s all a far cry from where we were just a few years ago, but this is middle tier performance overall.
Eye AF performance was another matter, however, as I had very good accuracy when the camera detected either human or animal eyes. I used the lens side by side with the Canon RF 100mm F2.8L Macro IS as I was reviewing both lenses simultaneously, and the Viltrox was very bit as good in those situations. In fact, it was a bit better in some instances (the lens stopped down), as the Canon exhibits some focus shift. In this shot of Loki, for example, the Viltrox was razer sharp, while the Canon showed some backfocus.
Other shots in the series were equally sharp even though Loki kept moving around (as cats do).
I also saw exceptional results in portrait work, with well focused results at further distances:
…and at much closer distances.
The Viltrox RF85 really shines as a budget portrait option.
My general purpose accuracy was also good, even in poor lighting conditions, so I was generally satisfied with autofocus.
Video shooters should note that there is a fairly significant amount of focus breathing when shifting focus from near to distant objects.
In short, the Viltrox RF85 doesn’t have the world’s most sophisticated autofocus system, but it is a far cry better than what we have in the Canon RF 85mm F2 STM, for example, and definitely superior to most budget lenses. It gets the job done with little drama.
Viltrox RF85 Optical Performance
Viltrox has produced a budget lens with better optics than you might expect, with a strong center and mid-frame, though the MTF (if I could find one!) would most likely show some falloff in the corners. The optical formula is a fairly simple 10 elements in 7 groups, but once again this lens is better than the price would suggest. For most practical applications of a 85mm lens, this is quite sharp even at F1.8:
We’ll take a more critical look at the performance, however, starting with vignette and distortion. What’s interesting is that the camera mistakenly identifies this lens as the Canon EF 85mm F1.8 (as does Lightroom, BTW), so it does apply the correction profile for that lens in camera. It isn’t a perfect match, however, as while it does diminish some (not all) of the vignette, it does basically nothing to correct the pincushion distortion. There is a Viltrox profile for E-mount version of the lens that can be downloaded from the Viltrox website, but I was unsuccessful in manually installing it and getting it to show up. That may change in the future, obviously. Here’s a look at the RAW result uncorrected and then manually corrected.
There’s some obvious pincushion distortion (a -5 cleared it up fairly well) and some obvious vignette. The vignette required a +61 and the midpoint moved to zero. The lens doesn’t excel in either metric, but neither is there anything critical here. For most shots I simply left the image uncorrected, as a bit of vignette is pleasing for many wide aperture shots. I would personally only correct in certain situations (obvious dark in snow or sky, for example). The vignette diminishes as you stop the lens down but never completely disappears.
Longitudinal chromatic aberrations aren’t completely banished, but there’s nothing excessive here. I could see them when I set up this torture test, but I didn’t see much in real world images.
I saw a bit of lateral chromatic aberrations in the bare branches at the edge of this landscape shot, but again nothing major that caught my eye in the course of real world shooting.
The Viltrox RF85 has a bit of each of these aberrations (distortion, vignette, and chromatic aberrations), though none of them are present to any kind of destructive level. For a budget lens there really isn’t a fatal flaw in any of these potential trouble spots.
So let’s transition to resolution and contrast. This is my test chart captured at 45MP with the EOS R5.
If we look at nearly 200% crops from across the frame, we can see an excellent center and mid-frame performance, but less resolution and acuity in the corners.
I’ll put that into real world perspective in a moment, but first, let’s look at a few competitors. Remember that Lightroom identifies the Viltrox as the Canon EF 85mm F1.8, so that’s what it shows up as in these comparison crops. First, the Samyang RF 85mm F1.4. If we compare both at F1.8, the Samyang has the win pretty much across the frame…and particularly in the corners. Here’s a look at the midframe:
The Samyang is definitely more expensive (and somewhat larger and heavier), but it is optically stronger. As I noted in my review, it’s actually surprisingly strong even when compared to the mighty RF 85mm F1.2L.
If we compare the Viltrox against the Canon RF 85mm F2 Macro lens (at F2, the maximum aperture of Canon), the situation reverses. The Viltrox is stronger essentially everywhere save the extreme corners.
So this is a sharp lens, but not top tier sharp. But, to be fair, we really are splitting hairs here, as this lens produces very crisp images even on a high resolution body like my R5. Look at how much detail is in this wide open portrait shot:
That’s a lot of resolution.
Stopping down to F2 produces a very minimal bump in contrast, but it is negligible. The jump in contrast at F2.8 is far more obvious, with the center and mid-frame results looking excellent. No big jump in the corners, yet.
The corner jump begins at F4, where they now look quite good even at 200%:
By F5.6 they are excellent, so choose F5.6 or F8 if your priority is even sharpness across the frame. Here’s a F5.6 landscape:
That’s obviously nice and sharp across the frame, though there’s enough sharpness at larger aperture where it matters to use aperture creatively here rather than just out of necessity for sufficient sharpness. For example, I went out in a late autumn gloom with a light rain falling, and I captured the last light falling on the trail ahead at F2 in an image I really love here:
I took a number of other landscape type shots at apertures of F1.8-2.8, and liked most all of them, like this one:
I consider the Viltrox to be strong enough optically to satisfy most photographers, and, relative to the price, it is downright excellent. That extends to the bokeh, which I think is actually quite nice. Even in this shot, which has a lot of potential for busyness in the transition zone, the quality of the rendering is nice…and the detail on the main subject is excellent.
Getting a little closer really blurs the background out beautifully.
Here’s another nice bokeh shot:
I’ve had a number of people write me about the quality of the bokeh of this particular lens in other mounts, and since the optical formula is basically the same here that praise applies equally here.
Less positive is the flare resistance, which can show some vulnerability in challenging situations. We see some obvious ghosting and some veiling (loss of contrast) in this series:
Flare resistance is stronger at smaller apertures than wide open, so that might help you in a challenging situation.
All told, though, the Viltrox RF85 is a good lens optically and can deliver a lot of great images even if you’re on a tight budget. Think of it as the 85mm equivalent of the Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM, except with a nicer build. Feel free to check out more images and draw your own conclusions by visiting the image gallery here.
The Viltrox RF 85mm F1.8 STM is a very welcome addition to the Canon RF catalog which is noticeably light on autofocusing third party lenses. The simple reality is that there are plenty of loyal Canon photographers who are interested in some of the RF mirrorless cameras but simply can’t afford the expensive first party options. Perhaps you’ve spent most of your budget on your new camera and need an inexpensive portrait option. The Viltrox is a pretty sweet option for $400!
We’ve got a nice build, good handling, good image quality, and good autofocus even if none of these are absolute top tier. There really isn’t any fatal flaw here, and I genuinely liked the kinds of images I could get with the lens.
No, we don’t have weather sealing, and there are a few little build quirks that betray the budget origins, but this feels like a lot of lens for the money. It was easy to forget I was using a budget lens either in using the lens or reviewing the images I took with it, so that makes this a definite win. I’m not sure that Canon will be delighted for this lens to arrive on the market, but I suspect that many Canon shooters will be very happy for its addition!
- Clean design with a nice build
- Manual focus ring is wide and nicely damped
- Has AF/MF switch
- USB-C port allows for instant firmware updates
- STM Focus is fast and fairly quiet
- Excellent sharpness across most of the frame
- Very nice bokeh rendering
- Good color rendition
- Excellent price to performance ratio
- No weather sealing
- Somewhat flare prone
- Lens hood doesn’t bayonet on cleanly
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