Is the Canon 135mm f/2L Still Relevant in 2018?

Is the Canon 135mm f/2L Still Relevant in 2018?

No one can deny Canon's prowess when it comes to making lenses. Fans of the Canon EF 135mm f/2L USM have long waited for an update, myself included.

To be fair, releasing a version II will not make the original any worse. In fact, the telephoto prime is superb. Despite seeing new challengers, has Canon become complacent in neglecting this lens or is it still competitive in 2018? We will look at what options are available for photographers and how do these lenses stack up against the 135mm f/2L.

I confess that I prefer using zoom lenses, especially for wedding photography when things happen at a very fast pace. For more than eight years, Canon shooters have been blessed by the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM and like so many of you, I bit the bullet to acquire one brand new and it has become the workhorse lens ever since.

The focal range is incredibly versatile but whenever I get enough space, I just go ahead and shoot at 200mm.

Vertical portrait taken at 200mm

200mm doesn't always translate to tight crops in portraiture. You can still play with the composition by exaggerating negative space.

Despite one stop disadvantage when compared to the prime, the 70-200mm acquires focus quickly and accurately even in low light.

Weight Matters

My preference is to shoot dual bodies on a wedding day because the 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM pairs so well with the 70-200mm. In fact, 95 percent of my shots are covered by the 24mm to 200mm focal range and capturing them without the need to swap lenses is a major convenience factor.

Here comes my second confession: damn is this combination heavy!

Realizing that I am not getting any younger, I started to pair my 24-70mm with the legendary 135mm f/2L USM during morning preparation and later at reception. My shoulders never felt so relieved. Most importantly, I always feel that guests are looking at my white lens (it sticks out like a sore thumb as I am often dressed in black); the lightweight telephoto allows me to shoot much more discreetly.

Bride portrait during preparation

Both prime and zoom lenses are exceptional for portraiture.

Bride holding bouquet

One image was taken with the 135mm f/2.0L while the other with the 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II. Can you even tell the difference?

The Imperfect, Perfect Lens

Canon has yet to update the 135mm prime despite the rumors. I have heard arguments from both sides, in particular how the lens is so sharp and quick with autofocus (both true) that there's no need to upgrade anything. Some see the 70-200mm as a replacement, or an alternative to the large aperture telephoto.

Canon 135mm f/2.0L lens

Will Canon ever update the 135mm f/2L?

Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II lens

Having used both side by side over the years, my opinion is that they complement each other as opposed to competing with each other.

The 135mm isn't without flaws though. The weather sealing (if any) doesn't come close to the 70-200mm so during critical assignments where durability matters, I just grab the zoom lens. Canon really designed the zoom lens to become a workhorse, there's no better adjective to describe it.

For cinematographers, the lack of image stabilization makes it difficult to shoot without using a tripod. The new Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM is stellar, but the focal length is just too close to the zoom's 70mm. There were instances where I wish I had image stabilization on my 135mm; seeing a money shot slightly out of focus at 100 percent crop can be frustrating.

Meanwhile, Sigma is making a splash in the telephoto arena with both the 135mm f/1.8 DG HSM Art and 105mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art, but unfortunately neither primes offer image stabilization.

Sigma 1135mm f/1.8 DG HSM Art

Perhaps the closest competitor, but despite the higher cost it also weighs 2.49 pounds.

Sigma 105mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art bokeh master

At 3.62 pounds, this lens needs to be spectacular because it's even heavier than the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM at 3.28 pounds.

Here Comes the New Challenger

The recent announcement of the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM is rather controversial, some even described it as an update with new paint.

Those buying the zoom for the first time will not be disappointed and no doubt Canon will sell countless copies of the version III. However, I don't see any reason to upgrade because the existing lenses are just that good.

Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM

Time will tell whether Canon made the right move. For now, my wallet is spared.

Not only is the 135mm still relevant, it is like a fine wine where it gets better with age. At 1.65 pounds, the Canon 135mm is still punching above its weight 22 years later with a trifecta of affordability, lightweight, and optical performance.

Still Hanging Onto the 135mm?

Anyone out there still hanging onto the 135mm and if yes, what will it take for you to let it go? Share your experience using the 135mm in the comments!

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Alex Dylikowski's picture

Strange question. What makes it irrelevant? It can only become irrelevant when Canon releases an update.

Marius Pettersen's picture

Because some lenses from the "film era" struggle to 'cope' with high resolution sensors, but the optics in the 135L should be good enough for a while.

Sergio Tello's picture

Add a bit more sharpness and IS and I'm selling my old one.

Jimmy Chan's picture

Agreed Sergio, if Canon is willing to add IS to the new 85mm f/1.4, there is no reason why they can't do the same for the 135mm.

The 135 f/2 weighs 200 grams less than the 85 f/1.4. Why? Maybe the IS is the reponse. Is very difficult to do a real improve in the 135 without making it weigh more, what is one of its benefits. Perhaps the logic improvements will be the modern coatings and the sealing.

Usman Dawood's picture

Sold my canon to buy the Zeiss but I’d happily get rid of the Zeiss if they did as you suggest. Completely agree with you.

Sergio Tello's picture

I nearly did the same with the Zeiss 135mm apo (classic). That lens blew me away, but I'm not good at manual focusing.

Leigh Miller's picture

I said goodbye to mine when I switched to mirrorless systems. My very last photoshoot on 35mm format featured the 135L.

Aside from the old 35mm L it's the only lens I truly miss from Canon.

Jimmy Chan's picture

Thanks for sharing that picture Leigh. The new 35mm L is great, proving that there is still much room for improvement, even though the 135mm earned tremendous praise throughout the years.

Sergio Tello's picture

The new 35mm L is pure magic.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

A hidden gem in Canon’s lineup. Most people don’t seem to use it, but it’s a great lens to have that has a slightly different look than all the 85mm f/1.2s out there.

Jimmy Chan's picture

Indeed a gem. The longer focal length allows me to capture close ups while keeping my distance, hence my reason to use it over the 85mm.

I'm agree with you, I'm using the 85 1.2 but to capture close ups I will buy the 135

Jonathan Brady's picture

It was my favorite lens when I shot Canon. I initially adapted it to my Sony body when I switched But ultimately decided to give the Zeiss Batis 135 a try and when comparing them side-by-side, even though this Zeiss was a stop slower, the Canon paled in comparison! These Zeiss was just so much better despite my almost fetish-like love for the Canon. I never thought there was too awful much to be improved upon with the Canon lens but the Zeiss really made it incredibly apparent how far Canon could come with a version 2 of their 135L.

Przemek Lodej's picture

Love to see some comparisons. I keep hearing how amazing Zeiss lenses are, but their prices scare me out of my wits.

Jonathan Brady's picture

I've long since deleted my side-by-side comparison shots. I'm sure you can find some online, however.

Jonathan Brady's picture

The image that jumped out at me most was the close up of the Bride. Not for any technical reason but because I noticed her scar on her chest. My daughter also had open heart surgery and whenever I see someone with a scar it always takes me back to that day. In this case, it fast forwarded me to her wedding day and brought a tear to my eye. Thank you for including it in this set, it made my day!

Jimmy Chan's picture

I am glad that you noticed it Jonathan! Indeed she had open heart surgery at a very young age. She's living happily now, being active like everyone else. Without the scar you can't even tell. I am glad that it reminded you of your daughter's wedding, I suppose that's the power of photography. It allows us to relive those moments.

Marius Pettersen's picture

I loved mine, but I hit a phase where I wanted to dabble with something else, so I exchanged it for a the 100/2.8L macro - which is also an amazing lens. The 135L image quality is so amazing, and the low weight is also a key factor to its greatness.

Great little article on my favourite lens! I use an 80D and have used this lens from portaits to landscapes - I love the look, the contrast and sharpness is exceptional, and I don't hesitate to shoot wide open! In fact, I bought it mostly for hockey shots where it gives me an extra stop of light over the usual 70-200 (so, mostly shooting between 1000 to 2500 iso, where double that would be too noisy in my opinion on APS-C) mentioned, fast to focus and I'm not sure there are many Canon primes that are any sharper - I can often clearly read whats written on the puck as it flies through the air! Its a bonus that it is relatively portable, and not terribly expensive...definitely often overlooked.

Rex Larsen's picture

The headline is so strange I didn't bother to read the article.

Timely article.

I own Canon ef 50mm f/1.4 usm, EF 85mm f/1.4 and EF 135mm f/2.

I am not a pro and I barely use 135mm. Recently I bought a fujifilm x-t2 and I was thinking about selling 135mm and buying 35mm prime for fuji. I guess, the 135mm stays for now.

Even though I have the 50-140, I will pick the 90 over it whenever possible. Thanks to having the X-H1, I have 5-axis IS with the 90 which further benefits me. The 90 provides creamy bokeh and can focus very close which really helps for range.

I like the way the 35 f/1.4 renders images but it is a noisy lens. I still prefer it over the f/2 but that is just my preference.

Charles Diaz's picture

I have the Canon EF 135mm f/2L and absolutely love it. It will never be irrelevant in my world. Would I buy a new one with IS? Only if it renders like the old one. It is a true gem and certainly a big bang for the buck. I am no pro, but I do love this lens.

Kerem Oktay Bilgici's picture

And here I was considering trading my 70-200 f4 L IS with this one. Maybe I should.

Will Gavillan's picture

Would be good if they could work on the heavy CA

If they released a 135 with IS I would preorder immediately. I use it as much as I can on wedding days, but usually the versatility on the 70-200 wins. It truly shines on engagement sessions where I can do crazy things like a 20 image brenizer with it.

Krzysztof Kurzaj's picture

"To be fair, releasing a version II will not make the original any worse." I don't want to sound like an ass but this pretty much answers the big question.
I personally have trouble understanding the whole chase after the latest updates in gear. Something either works or not for a given photographer. Can a lens from 1996 be improved optically today? Of course. Are there other, more recent lenses that can outperform it optically? Surely there are. Does every photographer need those improvements? I'm pretty sure quite a few out there don't even care. So for them the lens is still relevant.

Mr Hogwallop's picture

Because a 135 f2 has a slightly different look than a zoom set at 135 at 2.8 enough to make a difference sometimes

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