Sigma 135 f/1.8 Art vs. Zeiss 135 f/2 Milvus

Sigma 135 f/1.8 Art vs. Zeiss 135 f/2 Milvus

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 glorious Zeiss 135 f/2 Milvus. Pretty sure the hood is made of metal. I like things that are made of metal.

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?

After 2 throwaway frames to get my exposure decently close, this is the first shot I captured with the Zeiss 135 f/2 Milvus - manually focused I might add. I was trying to channel my dad's guidance from back in the day and not hide from MF. So far, so good.

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.

My battered 6D looked out of place with a pristine Zeiss on it, but it felt like perfection while shooting. Zero complaints regarding the feel of this lens.

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.

Zeiss: Consensus

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.

    The Sigma 135 f/1.8 Art in all its tank-like glory. This isn't a cutesy, delicate piece of glass, folks.

    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.

    I'd like to say I have "average sized" hands, so this gives you an idea of the size of the Sigma 135 Art. Which makes sense considering it's a 1.8 lens, though.

    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.

    Sharp sharp sharp, no doubt. The Sigma 135 f/1.8 Art is sharp, even wide open at 1.8, and the color rendering is fairly saturated without becoming distasteful.

    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.

    I was intentionally impatient and careless with the auto focus on the Sigma, snapping away frame after frame in hurried succession, to see if such wanton sloppiness would net horrible results. The Sigma AF nailed it, shot after shot, even in my haste.

    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.

    Sigma: Consensus

    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.

    Clearly, the only solution here is to buy them both.

    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

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    41 Comments

    Donny Cotten's picture

    Who's the model?

    Donny Cotten's picture

    Thumbs down for asking who a model is? it's a legit question. How else do you hire someone if you don't know their name?

    Paulo Macedo's picture

    The answer is, Canon EF 135 f/2 L USM

    Donny Cotten's picture

    One of the best lenses out there imo.

    Bill Larkin's picture

    I have used the Canon 135, the Zeiss, and and the Sigma ART, and both the Zeiss and the Sigma art blow the Canon out of the water for sharpness and ability to resolve detail, especially if shooting with something like a 5DSR - which will expose the flaws in the original 135L. - (Still a great lens with a great look, but these newer lenses are a lot sharper)

    Reginald Walton's picture

    Well, I haven't used the Zeiss, but I have shot with both the Canon 135 and the Sigma (I do own the Canon) and the Canon holds it's own against the Sigma. The Sigma isn't bad, but I would not give up my Canon 135 for it - IMO. "These new lenses are a lot sharper," well I do wear glasses, but I sure as heck couldn't see the "lot more sharpness" from the Sigma. Maybe I'm biased, but I just didn't see that.

    Reginald, that's sort of my thoughts as well. I shoot both a 5D3 and Sony A7RII (with a Sigma Canon EF adapter). I've found no flaws with my 135L using either, and really can't justify the price difference to switch to the Sigma. I think if you already own the 135L and are happy, there's no burning need to upgrade. If you're buying new, the Sigma is maybe a slightly better choice than the 135L. Euan Torrie (Nino mentions in the article) is a friend of mine as well - he sent me some of his test shots using the Canon and Sigma 135's. The Sigma was noticeably better via in-camera jpg. After post-processing of raw files, the two sets of images were very very close - so close, I would have had a difficult time separating them by lens. Euan may feel differently - that's just MY opinion after viewing his test shots (on same camera, same settings except 2.0 vs. 1.8, same model, etc.).

    Paulo Macedo's picture

    I do believe that, i feel that sometimes when it comes to sharpness it could be a tad better. But for a folk like me, who shoots on a 6D, it's way more than enough. And back in 2011 when i bought mine, there was nothing better on the market.
    The Zeiss counterpart for Canon is MF, and it's a no go for me, i shoot a lot of moving objects, being rally cars the fastest (yes i shoot sports with a 6D lol).

    Zach Sutton's picture

    As someone who has also reviewed the Sigma 135mm and has owned the Canon 135mm f/2L for 5 years now, the Sigma blows the Canon out of the water in regards to sharpness, focus accuracy, and overall value/quality.

    Great review, Nino

    Paulo Macedo's picture

    Hey Zach. True, what keeps me away from Sigma lenses are the constant post over the facebook groups i follow regarding focus inacuracy on Canon bodies, lenses that go broken out of nothing. My EF 135 might not be that sharp, and well...i know it is not the best lens out there, but there's something about it that makes me not want to sell it or exchange it for another 135. My comment was left with a small measure of sarcasm and at the same time with pride, as this is one of the best lenses i've ever owned.

    broken out of nothing? I guees you are talking about the older sigma lenses. I selled my nikkor 24-70mm to buy a 50mm art and the body construction wasn't a issue at all. No regrets.

    Paulo Macedo's picture

    Broken electronics have nothing to do with build quallity. And yes, some lenses just go nuts.

    Bill Larkin's picture

    Nice review, and I do agree.... I have used the 135ART and I currently use Zeiss. - I must say, Sigma's art series has tremendously improved since the old days of Sigma, which I used to hate. That being said, I am just LOVING the technical quality from the Zeiss. - Thanks for the write-up.

    Nino Batista's picture

    If the Zeiss were the same price, I'd be running thru the woods screaming because I couldn't make a decision. But any glass near or over $2k (in my world) has to be exceptionally exceptional and totally detrimental to my work before I consider it.

    Sigma is killin it

    This is one of the most well written and relevant articles on Fstoppers.com. Everything is to the point, comparison are very relevant and whole review is real world. I can and will use this knowledge. Nino, you have my Gratitude.

    Thanks
    Respectfully
    Jamal

    Nino Batista's picture

    Thanks, Jamal!

    Robert Johnson's picture

    I too own the Sigma 135mm f/1.8 and yes it's very sharp wide open and the background is just smooth. View image here: https://scontent.xx.fbcdn.net/v/t1.0-9/18446512_1700883946591717_5295203...

    William Masters's picture

    The Sigma may be my next lens purchase. I need it!!!!

    David Stephen Kalonick's picture

    I finally bit the bullet on the Canon 35mm Mk II, and I'm blown away by how much better it is than the 35 Art(which is a pos lens that needs to be recalled). I rented the 135 Art for the weekend and will hold out for the rumored Canon 135. I find it has similar focusing issues as the Canon 135mm. Don't freak out; the 135 Art is sharp as hell and is super fast. I'm just not getting/falling for the Art kool-aid. One prime reason, I dropped my 24-70mm Mk II on Monday they sent it back to me on Wednesday fixed. I didn't even need the replacement option they offer. Can Sigma do that? Would anyone agree that Art glass is for budget conscious photographers that offer quality images but just misses the mark?

    Haha! Clearly someone has been drinking the Canon 'Kool-aid' and is now drunk.

    David Stephen Kalonick's picture

    Dude, a ton of hype for Sigma Art and very little criticism. Calm down. ;)

    Dude! Surely you must realise the quickest way to rile someone up is to tell them to calm down in a thread right? You're being provocative. Also your condescending comment about "budget conscious" photographers is misguided. The fact is the vast majority of working professionals are always cost aware so to suggest their are two camps - one with money, one without is simply inflammatory. In reality professional photographers want quality glass and Sigma are providing that with the bonus of a great price. Quality that often surpasses that of their main competitor's comparable lenses.
    Whether you intended your comment to be condescending or not it certainly came across that way. To answer your question; no, I doubt anyone would agree.

    David Stephen Kalonick's picture

    Text can come off that way. I honestly don't want to come off as a dick. :) I said calm down because you accused me of basically being a Canon fanboy. I'm far from that. IMO if you have the extra cash or are willing to wait, I think the Canon and Nikon glass is superior. That's all.

    I'm not a sigma fan, but sigma's glasses were always one of the best in the market, mainly from fixed lenses. Is it wasn't the poor body construction and the luggish autofocus from the old lenses, sigma could beat them up easily since ever, but Canon and Nikon still are on top of that because of it. The art series came to break the bad sigma's reputation, combining the great optical quality they always had with a great body construction. My change from the nikkor 24-70mm to the sigma art 50mm is a proof of this.

    Reginald Walton's picture

    I wouldn't go that far. I do own the Sigma 50mm Art lens and it's very sharp, no complaints. If I had to buy a new 50mm lens and it came down to the Canon 50mm 1.2 or the Sigma 1.4, I would go with the Sigma, for the cost savings alone. Unless you are a professional photographer and you really NEED the Canon 1.2 (and if your clients can tell the difference with the photos side by side, then by all means, fork over the extra $$$, otherwise, I would go with the Sigma. That said, if someone offered me the Sigma 135 for my Canon 135, I would not trade it.

    David Stephen Kalonick's picture

    I did. And I disagree. That's all. I'm not pounding my chest. I get why people make the decisions they do. I've tried the 35,50,85 and 135 Art lenses. I'm not impressed. I don't think paying $450 more for the Canon 50mm 1.2 is an issue. I do agree that the 135mm Art is better than the 1996 Canon 135. Sigma does have a couple of years on glass tech on that one. lol. I'm also in no rush to buy now; I can patiently wait for Canon's updates. No need to get in a thread debate over this. Peace.

    To me the bokeh of the Sigma is better than the Zeiss.

    Nino Batista's picture

    Funny, I saw no difference to speak of!

    Chris Kennedy's picture

    Great comparison!

    I dislike Zeiss in general (Master Primes, Milvus, Otis, CP2/3's, etc.) since they have more contrast to the look. I feel that's why Zeiss appears sharp. So it's more on the look they produce and less it's performance