It's been a good while since I've bothered reviewing any gear, so when presented with a bevy of manufacturer booths at a conference I was speaking at in St. Louis recently, I decided it was time to once again test some equipment and babble about it a little. In this case, I pitted the brand new Sigma 135 f/1.8 Art against the year-old Zeiss 135 f/2 Milvus, because why not.
So let's get right down to the obvious. The Sigma Art series of prime lenses have all been phenomenal so far, and Zeiss is, well, Zeiss. So I knew this was going to be a comparison of two extremely good pieces of glass, right from the start. Biggest initial difference? The Sigma is auto focus, and the Zeiss is, in fact, manual focus. So let's see how this plays out.
Zeiss 135 f/2 Milvus
As I have stated in the past, anything from the Big Z is usually going to be stellar, no matter what. It's no secret that Zeiss makes glass that is buttery smooth, apocalyptically sharp, and built like little cylindrical exotic cars. The good news is, the 135 f/2 Milvus is all of those things. And thus ends this review, thank you, good night.
Ok, that's not exactly true, as much more needs to be said.
The "bad" news, depending on how you choose to approach it anyway, is that on a Canon EF mount, the 135 Milvus is a manual focus lens. Asking the Zeiss reps why no AF option was offered, they threw up their hands in a dismissive, politically neutral manner and simply said "Licensing." Okeedoke. I opted not to inquire further, and ran off to see if my father's photography influence when I was child would come to save my ass in the world of manual focusing (it had been a while).
So out came my trusty, beat-to-hell, road worn Canon 6D, and the testing began. I attached the Milvus - scratch that - I attached the 6D to the Milvus (it isn't a dainty piece of glass, folks) and strode right up to my scheduled model, confidently saying it was time to get started. True to my usual "horror and panic" approach to testing gear, I hadn't snapped a single frame with the Milvus before I started with the model on location (I reason that if a lens takes more than a few seconds to understand, then I probably don't want it anyway, so I just go for it).
And because duh, I immediately chose f/2 on my camera. If this lens was going to have any failings, let's find them right up front, no?
Note: The shot above, and all shots on this review, are entirely unedited. No exposure or color correction, sharpening, etc, was done after the raw files were imported into Capture One Pro 10. They were then exported as JPEG files from Capture One and added to this review.
Confidently, and as if on call, I framed my first test shot, and immediately noticed my back button focus wasn't on. Oh wait, no, turns out I'm an idiot and instantly forgot I was on a MF lens. This gaff led to my first discovery about the Zeiss 135 f/2 Milvus: it at least has manual focus assist. Said another way, when I hold down the back button focus button, the camera will beep when I've focused (allegedly) correctly. I kept firing off shot after shot, noodling with the silky smooth focus ring and listening to the cacophony of beeps my 6D was screaming at me, self-assured that I was nailing focus left and right.
I know what you're thinking; I'm leading up to my laments about how horribly out of focus my shots ended up, right? Happy to say, that is not the case. Even with my out of practice self, I managed to make the Milvus work for me even with manual focus. The model on set knew I was testing lenses, but I wasn't going to waste her time explaining to her that I needed extra time and patience to fiddle with manual focus because it'd been a long time since I had used MF glass - so I just went for it.
This lens is such a joy to work with if tactile performance is a big thing for you. The focus ring, as I mentioned, is so incredibly well made, stable, smooth, and solid, that it makes manual focusing actually fun, easy and even pleasurable (ok that last part might be a stretch). It feels incredibly balanced on my camera, and never made me feel like it was difficult to manage in hand. The hood is, I think, made of metal, and for reasons I can't quite put into words, I really like that. "What about the build quality overall, Nino?" is what you're asking now, I am sure. It's built like a Zeiss - any other questions?
Sharpness, when I nailed focus anyway, was outstanding. Even wide open at f/2, I had no complaints or concerns about this lens being sharp, edge to edge. Any out of focus shots I had were generally wildly out of focus, and stemmed from my own error. No, I didn't test these lens at tighter apertures and in any other comparison tests.
Moving on, the Zeiss is not a particularly inexpensive lens, currently running USD$2,199 on B&H. And this price point is worsened when you realize, once again, this lens does not have auto focus. Most Canon-slinging portrait shooters I know sing the praises of the classic Canon 135 f/2.0L, a lens I owned for a year a little while back, and for good reason: it is a phenomenal lens that runs all of USD$999 brand new, with fantastically good auto focusing for portrait work. That isn't a little bit less than the Zeiss, it's outrageously less. The Zeiss is better glass than the Canon, make no mistake, but in my opinion it's a tough sell to say that it is more than 2x the price better.
And sure, stabilization would have been nice at this focal length, but then that's something we've all wanted on 135mm primes for ages anyway.
Zeiss: The Hits
- Looks sexy as hell.
- Built like a high-end exotic Italian car.
- Focus ring is as creamy smooth as it gets.
- Color rendering is outrageously accurate and appealing.
- Sharpness is unsurprisingly superb.
- Bokeh is outrageously good, but honestly most 135's have great bokeh.
- Weighty, and feels solid in hand but not too heavy.
- Manual focus assist is pretty helpful.
- That metal hood though.
Zeiss: The Misses
- Manual focus.
- USD$2,199 for a manual focus, 135mm portrait prime is a bit steep for most of us.
If the price point isn't a deterrent for you (it is for most), and you want a killer 135mm portrait prime (and you're ok with manual focus), buy this lens. Don't sell a kidney or add to your mountain of debt to do so, but if you can add the Zeiss 135 f/2 Milvus to your arsenal, you won't be wanting for breathtakingly well rendered portraits.
Sigma 135 f/1.8 Art
Let's not mince words here: the Sigma Art series of primes has kicked considerable ass since they first hit the market, plain and simple. Their 50 f/1.4 Art made believers out of Sigma doubters everywhere, and the 85 f/1.4 Art was one of the most anticipated pieces of kit in the last year or so. Sigma nailed it with this series, as evidenced by the pile of backordered units at each launch.
One of my closest friends, photographer Euan Torrie, has, and continues to be, an early adopter of the Sigma Art primes, having ordered the 50 Art when it was new, and being on the preorder list for the 85 Art and 135 Art since sales began (he currently owns all three). I tested Torrie's 50 Art in Chicago some years ago, and was immediately blown away. A few snaps with his 85 Art here in town didn't disappoint, and he took delivery of his 135 Art while I was in St. Louis testing the same lens that Sigma provided for me.
Upon holding the Sigma 135 f/1.8 Art for the first time, it occurred to me how robust this thing was. It's not a small prime lens, to be clear.
Mind you, I am not one to shy away from a solidly built, hefty lens. In fact, I enjoy the stability a heavy prime affords me when I shoot, as I never utilize tripods, ever. I'm also a bit old school and get great satisfaction from a fat piece of glass, as it just looks cool. Usually, but not always, a heavy lens tends to be well made and performs well. I could argue that the Sigma is a teensy bit heavier than the Zeiss, but not by much, and I didn't weigh them or ask how much they weighed anyway.
The large focus ring and function buttons all felt solidly built, and I feel confident they'd last many many years before failing. The overall build quality doesn't have the "exotic car" refinement of the Zeiss, but is still incredible. Properly engineered and manufactured, I didn't have a single issue with the physical characteristics of this lens while I indecently groped it with my paws that day.
Camera set to f/1.8 because reasons; let's do this.
So, the Sigma 135 f/1.8 Art has auto focus and Zeiss 135 f/2 Milvus does not. But it is any good? I'm happy to report that, yes, the AF is sublime for portrait work. No focus hunting to speak of in backlit situations, and instantly locked in with what I would estimate to be an 85% success rate. I didn't try any sort of action or movement tracking with it, but that's not what I use a 135mm prime for anyway.
Bokeh was great, blah blah blah, but once again that's a telephoto prime for you. I love creamy lens blur as much as any portrait shooter, but I don't tend to obsess on micro-details of bokeh unless something is egregiously wrong or unappealing about it. And I didn't see any discernable difference between the bokeh of the Zeiss at f/2 and the Sigma at f/1.8, which is not surprising of course. And yes, I am well aware that the Sony-Zeiss Sonnar 135 f/1.8 ZA exists, but that won't work on my camera system, of course.
The best news, however, is that the Sigma is damn sharp at f/1.8, and consistently so. Pushing the aperture just a touch wider, perhaps for bragging rights, was a bold move by Sigma, and could have been a catastrophe if things were even a little bit off, engineering wise. But as Sigma is trying to compete in earnest with the likes of Zeiss and other top tier glass makers, they went all in. Thankfully, they succeeded in making a lens I feel I could trust wide open.
Sigma: The Hits
- Auto focus, for one thing, and it's consistent, fast and accurate.
- Fantastic bokeh, which is expected.
- Built like a tank; this thing will last a very long time.
- USD$1,399 for a "step up" 135 from, say, the Canon EF 135 2.0L, is arguably very reasonable.
Sigma: The Misses
- Not built like an exotic car; it's sort of utility looking.
- Color rendering feels a bit saturated out of camera, and I find myself reducing saturation a lot in color correction.
This is the better buy of the two lenses in this review, plain and simple. The somewhat esoteric benefits of the Zeiss are nice, but not enough to convince me to shell out $800 more and lose auto focus capabilities of the Sigma.
In the end, I would be hard-pressed to tell you should absolutely buy the Zeiss over Sigma, despite the Zeiss being a phenomenal piece of glass. I believe Zeiss veterans will pick their champion without hesitation, mostly because the Big Z fanbase is quite the fanatic, devoted bunch and are attuned to the micro-details that make Zeiss lenses, well, Zeiss lenses. But anyone who simply wants a step up from the Canon 135 2.0L (or even the nifty, defocus control Nikkor 135 f/2 DC) should almost certainly go with the Sigma.
See my final retouched images shot with the Sigma 135 f/1.8 Art and Zeiss 135 f/2 Milvus in St. Louis on my Facebook page and Instagram very soon. But which one will I be buying? You'll just have to wait and see.
More Unedited Sample Images: Sigma 135 f/1.8 Art
More Unedited Sample Images: Zeiss 135 f/2 Milvus