Last time in Part 1, we looked at five excellent examples of AF and MF portrait lenses in the 77mm, 85mm, and 90mm focal lengths. That should have been it. But the choice isn’t so simple, because 135mm lenses are also superb candidates for portraiture.
While the 85mm~ range lenses are more versatile for indoor, studio, and outdoor portraiture, the 135mm range is pretty much limited to outdoors use only (it is too long for most studios, and too slow for unlit indoor situations). While its use is more limited, the benefit is that 135mm lenses with large apertures are often less popular, thus more affordable. But the real reason you’d choose a 135mm over shorter portrait lenses, is its bokeh.
My priorities in deciding on a 135mm portrait lens will be slightly different. Although AF is even a bigger issue with such as long lens, I’ve chosen more MF lenses this time just because of all the great bargains and interesting possibilities that are out there. Again, I have considered the cost of the adapters as well.
The 5 Contenders
Here, again, are my top 5 prime candidates. Help me decide by taking the poll at the end of the post.
1) The Soviet Bombshell – Tair 11a 135mm f/2.8
- 20 aperture blades makes for completely round aperture
- Excellent bokeh
- Sharp center from f/2.8
- $18 M42 to FE Mount
- Low contrast
- Off-center and corners never becomes sharp even stopped down
- Prices have really gone up recently, from as low as $50 a few years ago to about $250+ now.
- Hard to find in North America, most eBay sellers are selling from Eastern Europe and Russia
- Used copies frequently have oil on the aperture blades
2) The Great All Round’er – Zeiss Sonnar T* C/Y 135mm f/2.8
- Limited resale market
3) The One and Only True Bokeh King – Sony/Minolta 135mm f/2.8 STF (Smooth Transition Focus)
- Best bokeh of all time, from pretty much any lens I’ve ever seen or used. I cannot stress this enough. This is not a normal lens. The smoothness of the bokeh doesn’t only come from the regular factors such as aperture blade shape or ordinary optical design. This lens has an specialized apodizing filter that “resemble neutral density filters which become thicker the more you move towards the perimeter thus reducing the amount of light passing through.” – Photozone.de (excellent article that explains the apodizing effect). This APD element isn’t the same as Nikon’s “Defocus Control” lenses or Canon’s “Softfocus” lenses. It’s not an APO element. (Editor’s Note: I can’t believe this gem of a Minolta/Sony has been unknown to me all of these years. This lens is the one and only bokeh king. It blows away the Canon EF 85mm 1.2L, the Leica Noctilux 50mm f/0.95, the Canon EF 135mm f/2L, or just about any lens you can think of.)
- Excellent optical quality, sharp across the entire frame from f/2.8
- Holds its value very well
- MF (both Sony and Minolta versions are the same)
- Reduced light transmission due to the lens design so it is 1.5 stops darker than a normal f/2.8 lens (T/4.5)
- Very expensive, over $1,200+
- Limited resale for now, people unfamiliar with Sony/Minolta glass may have just never heard of it (like me).
4) The Runt of the Litter – Leica Elmarit 135mm f/2.8
- Very affordable for a Leica lens, at $200-300.
- Leica build quality
- Good optical quality when stopped down
- Smaller than SLR lenses
- Tripod mount integrated into the lens
- $16 Leica M to NEX adapter
- Un-Leica optical quality at f/2.8 (Holding the Leica name means having some big shoes to fill. So maybe it’s not so much the optical quality is poor at f/2.8, it is decent, but it just isn’t worthy of the good Leica name. Fortunately, the price accurately reflects that.)
- Unpopular among Leica shooters (too large to handle and too difficult to achieve critical focus)
- Small resale market and low resale value
5) A Holy Trinity – Canon EF 135mm f/2L
- Legendary Optical Quality (Canon’s Holy Trinity of Lenses are the 35mm f/1.2L, 85mm f/1.2L, and 135mm f/2L)
- Large aperture at f/2
- USM Autofocus
- Surprisingly affordable for what it is, $1,000 new.
- Large resale market
- Holds its value well
- Commlite AF Adapterfor $95
- Very large and heavy on the Sony A7/7R
- Slow contrast-detect autofocus on the A7/7R with the current generation adapters
- Still expensive for a limited purpose lens (outdoor portraits, maybe some action photography)
Zeiss 135mm f/1.8 Distagon – At $1800, this lens definitely isn’t inexpensive. But at the same time, this is one of those “system switching” lenses that brings people to the Sony Alpha mount. One of the fastest 135mm out there, one of the most bokehlicious 135mm, and earning the coveted top scores at Photozone.de.