Fstoppers Review: The Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO Sonnar Is Magnificent
If there is one lens manufacturer whose heritage exudes excellence, it’s Zeiss. They are the Ferrari, the Lamborghini of camera optical glass and with that reputation comes their, usually, extremely high price. And much like a Lamborghini, the Zeiss is a no-frills powerhouse that does one well-designed thing: as the Lamborghini is fast, the Zeiss is sharp. Zeiss’ latest telephoto prime is no exception, and the 135mm f/2.0 APO SONNAR is truly magnificent.
If you are familiar with my reviews, you will find that I often compare other lenses to a Zeiss lens, since it is my opinion that the level of perfection in the design of a Zeiss is the standard upon which all are judged. When everyone else moved to less metal and more plastic and rubber over the years, Zeiss has stood firm in its professional optics line, maintaining a look and feel that has remained largely unchanged since the days of film. Holding the 135mm f/2.0 takes me back to my early days when I shot with a Nikon FTN. Cold, hard metal with beautiful grooves cut into the exterior of the housing that serve as grips- none of this silly rubber business. In extreme conditions the metal can become excessively hot or cold (more likely cold), but the form factor is unparalleled. The rest of the body of the lens is insanely smooth. It feels outstanding in the hand, but most notably it is wildly different than nearly any other modern lens.
One downside of this lens is that, because of the strong metal build and the size and amount of glass, it is noticeably heavier than any other lens of this focal length I’ve held in the past. It’s heavy enough that you might find your arms shaking if you attempt to hand hold this for long stints of time. Do I have weak little flimsy arms? Maybe, but still, this lens does weight quite a bit. That weight, though exhausting to hold, does feel good though. There is something to be said about a lens with heft, and the Zeiss 135mm certainly has heft.
While I’m talking about weight, there is one major downside to having a heavy lens with no image stabilization or auto focus: without at tripod, focusing this lens can be a real pain in the butt. At first it might be ok, but if your shoot lasts more than five minutes, your shaking forearms mixed with shallow depth of field and fully manual focus will likely result in frustratingly long periods of impatient focusing. Even while tripoded and aimed at a subject that wasn’t moving, it took me on average fifteen to twenty seconds to get my focus just right. Try this hand held in studio or on location and it will get even more difficult. Like with all manual focus lenses, it takes time and practice to get comfortable with it.
However, once you get comfortable with this lens and nail focus, the results are absolutely spectacular.
If you’re a full time studio portrait photographer, this lens is something you should really keep on your radar if you don’t mind manual focus and really want to get the sharpest and crispest details possible. In studio situations, the lens controls flaring outstandingly well, so you won’t have worry about irritating light fringing obscuring the detail around hair, cheeks or shoulders. For me, the lens shined in studio. Though it isn’t typically a focal length anyone would use for product, once I became comfortable with the required distance from my subjects that I needed, product images came out quite good. The flare control that I mentioned previously continued here, and my images always looked as good as they ever have.
As expected, the Zeiss produces truly gorgeous images. It is beautifully sharp edge to edge from wide open to fully closed down. 135mm at f/2.0 generates obscenely smooth and beautiful bokeh while maintaining a clean and defined line of crisp sharpness. Details pop and lines are sharp as razorblades. Quality starts to wane, as expected due to diffraction, at f/16. f/22 is pretty muddy, but when this lens shines, it really shines. The sweet spot is most definitely f/5.6, but it performs really well from wide open through f/14. Below is the full shot that I used for sharpness samples, this one taken at f/2:
See some samples below, taken of a very dusty old camera (so I could see how it handled the individual lines of dust) at f/2, 5.6, 7.1, 10, 14 and 22 in order:
I can’t help but love a lens that has great chromatic aberration and flaring control, and the Zeiss delivers with pretty minimal purple or green fringing at any aperture and absolutely excellent flaring control. At f/2.0, the aperture where we would be most likely to see aberrations, we do see a very slight green and purple fringe around the blacks (look at the lettering of “Diana” in the first sample sharpness image). It is pretty minimal and well controlled, and disappears by f/2.8.
Shooting video with this lens is extremely difficult, at least if you plan to use it for anything more than your stable interview camera. If you so much as breathe on this lens, the shaking is visible in the resulting video. It’s emphasized by the focal length, which acts like a microscope and every vibration or movement is accentuated and magnified. I highly recommend against using this lens on a steadicam and especially against handholding it. Given the focal length, I don’t imagine many of you had plans to do this, but just in case the thought crossed your mind I wanted to clarify the issues. For 100% steady shots though, video looks just as outstanding as stills (provided you can hit focus which, again, can take time).
Price point on this lens is likely going to be a show-stopper for most of you. For both Canon and Nikon, it’s a $2,122 investment. That’s a lot to drop on glass that basically only features sharp images and wide aperture. Most certainly no bells and whistles, but you don’t get a radio on a Lamborghini either. Sometimes, the simple is all you need.
What I liked:
Image quality (flaring and chromatic aberration control)
What could use improvement:
Honestly, what could I really say against this lens? Sure, it’s heavy, but if you plan to use this lens where it will shine, that weight won’t have any affect on you. Zeiss hit it out of the park, as usual, and delivered a lens that performs outstandingly exactly where it should. If your business demands truly perfect images and you have the time, patience and skill to learn how to use this lens, it will reward you with everything you are looking for and more. Unfortunately, the price point of this lens keeps it out of range for the average photographer, but that might be what Zeiss stands for. Not all of us can afford Ferraris.