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Why You Need To Try a 135mm Lens for Portrait Photography

Undoubtedly one of the most revered focal lengths in portrait photography, this prime has many fans, despite its obvious limitations. Watch behind-the-scenes of a portrait shoot using the fastest 135mm on the market and then ask a loved one to hide your bank card.

With how social media algorithms work, I do my best to keep any confirmation bias in check. That went completely out of the window when I saw this video by TKNORTH, as I gleefully clicked a title I one-hundred-percent agreed with. It's worth taking that into consideration when you read my words, as I am fully biased; I believe 135mm primes are the greatest lenses for many types of portrait.

While I don't own the Sigma 135mm f/1.8 (yet, at least), I have harped on about Lord of the Red Rings, the Canon 135mm f/2 L to just about anybody who will listen. To summarize why I hold it in such high regard is to also summarize why I agree with the premise of this video: you need to try a 135mm lens for portrait photography. The 135mm f/2 was the first lens I bought that felt truly magical and hard to take a bad shot with. Its subject separation is second to none, thanks to its wide minimum aperture and long focal length, being a prime lens means its optics are typically superb, and the bokeh is delicious. The whole aesthetic that comes about with the 135mm f/2 genuinely inspires me to take more images, and it is the first lens in my bag for every portrait shoot I ever go on.

Have you tried a 135mm prime lens? Do you agree, or do you think it's overhyped? 

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John Hubble's picture

Back in the 1970's I was given a Pracktika SLR and I bought a 135 f2.8 Pentacon lens. Of the lenses I have for this camera the 135 was the one which gave me the most pleasing images. If I recall correctly back then 135 was widely regarded as the ideal portrait lens before 85 became more popular. I still have the lens and ironically have just bought an adapter to use it in my MFT system. As it has 15 aperture blades it is acquiring something of a reputation as a bokeh monster. Of course with the 2x cropping factor it is now has a 270 rather than 135 field of view but my intial trials with wild flowers are very encouraging. When I get the chance I will try some portraits.

Dave McDermott's picture

A bit too much compression for my liking. Plus you've got to stand a mile away to get to those full length shots. It would be good for close ups but its not very practical on location.

Salty Cremepuff's picture

It's a great focal length if you have the kind of room that's necessary to make it work. Unfortunately for me, I often don't have that kind of room which is why the 85 and 105 have been more frequently in my bag.

Lee Christiansen's picture

Does no one use the viewfinder anymore...? :)

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

I sure do. I'm usually in my Crouching Tiger position.

Stephen Strangways's picture

I'd bet that most people who started shooting with film on an SLR or compact will use the viewfinder, and that the ones holding their cameras at arms lengths started photography with a phone or digital compact.

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

I have the Sony/Zeiss 135 f1.8. I don't shoot it anymore. It's not really practical for me. It's too dang heavy and it's hard for the models to hear me, "Chin up. up. UUUUPP! Goddammit!" J/K :D

For portraits, I think an 85, 75, 50 are more practical.

Robert Oslin's picture

I bought the Sigma 135 f1.8 from best buy a few weeks ago as it was on sale for U$S1200. Tracking said that it woudl be delivered to the store for pickup a week ago and then it switched to "delayed" and we'll get back to me when its ready. Another week (three total) have gone by and nothing. I'm pissed as heck as I was looking forward to using this lens for my upcoming trip to Washington. FWIW, my plan is to use with a crop-sensor for close up shots of birds (when possible), for the insane DoF and ability to use in lower light than my PF500 which is horrible at daybreak or blue hour. Of course the challenge is to get those birds to stay put...which some do better than others.

Joe Hogan's picture

I am seriously in love with my Canon 135mm f2L.

Paul McMurrick's picture

Just love the Fuji 90mm f2 for exactly this reason

Simon Hartmann's picture

Uuuhhh..thats a lovely lens, ive seen som amazing portraits from this bad boy…as is the 50 1.2!

Simon Hartmann's picture

I always struggle to tell a difference between a 135mm 1.8 or 2.8. On Full frame the 1.8 seems to do almost nothing extra as the separation and bokeh at 135 2.8 is alteady THAT intense.
So i personally love long teles for portrait, but i like the Tamron 70-180 a lot for providing the same look (and even the 180mm ofc), versatility and much more affordable/reasonable choice…i usually only find the 105 1.4 to REALLY separate themselves from the 2.8 zoom…i would love to see that on sony in small formfactor…

Jim Tincher's picture

I have this lens and absolutely love it! It is a bit on the heavy side though.