I was recently faced with a tough choice. I wanted to buy a 135mm lens for a full frame camera body. Purpose was for an all-rounder lens to carry around. I wanted a lens to do portraits, sometimes click pictures of butterflies, street photography as well as occasional family pictures from vacations. 105mm lenses were a little short for the kind of portraits I had in mind so I did not look at those options. 135mm is the ideal focal length for portraits according to me. The flattening is almost perfect and the angle of view ideal. I did a lot of research on 135mm lenses and tried out a few.
After searching around and trying various optics, I was left with two choices –
- Zeiss 135mm f/2 Apo Sonnar T* ZF.2
- Nikon AF 135mm f/2 DC
Both these lenses have almost similar specifications. The maximum aperture is f/2 and both are made of high quality optics housed in sturdy metallic frame. Two of the best professional grade lenses at this focal length!
Zeiss 135mm f/2 Apo Sonnar T* ZF.2
Zeiss 135 is a very very sharp lens and manual focus only. It is built like a tank and even though it is no longer made in Germany it still has the same legendary Zeiss quality to it. It is sharp even wide open. It has almost no aberrations. Close focusing distance to 0.8 meters helps in capturing small objects too. It translates to about 1:4 in terms of macro. That is good especially considering the fact that many of the dedicated Nikkor micro lenses did 1:2. For my use, 1:4 is fine. Butterflies that I photograph are not that small and the ones that are small are too active for my patience.
The Zeiss 135 can sometimes have color fringes when photographing backlit objects at f/2, though this significantly reduces at f/2.8 and almost disappears by f/4. It is also a little heavier than the Nikon 135. Wide open, the light fall off at corners is significant and noticeable. Did I mention that it is a manual focus lens? If you are not comfortable with manual focusing then do not even consider this lens but if you are fine with manual focusing, this is the best available 135mm lens.
Nikon AF 135mm f/2 DC
Nikon 135 f/2 DC is also a very solid lens. The results are sharp, pleasing to the eye and the Defocus Control is an added plus while doing portraits. Defocus Control does wonders with Bokeh. The portraits look very pleasing directly out of the camera. No need for any post-processing. I am told that the lens was engineered in such a manner that the skin tones will come out looking excellent in daylight even without using DC. This is something to do with how reds are focused in comparison to other colors. If your work is going to be mostly around portraits, look no further and go for it. Even though the lens is still in active production, it is frequently out of stock at the Nikon dealers. So be on the look out and grab it as soon as you find one. Its 105mm cousin is similar in optics and defocus control but for portraits 135mm is the ideal focal length to turn to.
AF is not as fast as it should be and playing around with DC shifts the focus too. The close focusing distance is slightly longer than Zeiss. The manual to autofocus shift is also not as quick as grabbing the ring and turning it around as is with the new lenses that have M and M/A button.
Which one did I buy?
A very tough call indeed. Two excellent lenses and with very slight differences.
I opted for Zeiss and ended up paying a fortune. The balance tilted in favour of Zeiss when I saw the color rendering and image quality at f/2. The close focusing capability further helped me make up my mind. It does very sharp portraits but sometimes the results can be too sharp to be pleasing to the eye. I have to play around while post-processing to make the portraits look nice.The light fall off at wide open apertures is something which I find useful. It helps in bringing out the subject in the composition. In fact after seeing the results of this effect, I sometimes apply vignetting to otherwise normal pictures.
Manual focus is not a problem for me because I have changed the focusing screens in almost all my cameras to have split-image and prism microcollar. More about this – Staying Focused
Initially I felt the lens was too wide to be comfortably held and used but now with time I have grown used to it. Now I am fine with its weight and size. For getting the best results, I still recommend using a sturdy tripod or shooting in bright light with high shutter speeds.
The distinction is clear if you know what you want. Get Nikon if portraits are your main requirement. Zeiss is for everything else (including portraits if you post-process). As an afterthought, I am waiting to find a Nikon AF 135mm f/2 DC. Next time I see it, I just might buy it too.