Sony has announced the ninth addition to their G Master series, the FE 135mm f/1.8 GM, and it's the sharpest lens I've ever used. Check out all the details and download my raw photo files in this first-impressions review.
Starting with the most basic specifications, the new Sony 135mm GM is a 2.09 pound (950 gram) lens that measures 5 inches long (127 millimeters) by 3 5/8 inches (89.5 millimeters) in diameter. This is half an inch shorter than the Sigma 135mm f/1.8 Art E-mount lens and over half a pound lighter.
The outside of the lens features a number of controls beyond the linear manual focus ring and physical aperture ring including a focus range limiter switch (Full, 0.7–2 meters, 1.5 meters–infinity), an AF/MF focus mode switch, an aperture de-click switch, and two focus hold buttons (top, left). The 82mm filter threads match those of the 16-35mm f/2.8 GM and 24-70mm f/2.8 GM.
This lens is built with a magnesium alloy chassis and features gaskets placed throughout the barrel to improve dust and moisture resistance. The front element has a fluorine coating that repels fingerprints, dust, and water while also making it simple to clean.
Inside, the Sony 135mm f/1.8 GM is constructed with 13 elements in 10 groups. There is one XA (extreme aspherical) element, one Super ED element, and one ED element near the front end that are used to suppress spherical and chromatic aberrations. Using a new optical design, Sony claims the lens can maintain 80 percent contrast at the edges and corner-to-corner resolution. From the MTF charts I was shown, it readily beats the Sigma 135mm f/1.8 Art, and just for fun, the Canon EF 135mm f/2L USM.
Sony attributes the creamy, natural out of focus quality of the 135mm f/1.8 GM to three things. First, that XA element is developed using a specialized glass moulding process — rather than being ground — with 0.01 micron focus precision. Basically what this means is that the surface of the XA lens, when looked at very closely, is less rough than conventional aspherical lenses. And it's these rough imperfections on the surface which can create the dreaded “onion ring” bokeh effect. Secondly, the wide f/1.8 aperture in a 135mm focal length lens creates a shallow depth of field and effortlessly can create those sought-after isolated subject shots. And third, in tandem with the wide aperture, the FE 135mm f/1.8 GM incorporates 11 circular aperture blades to create a circle that Sony said will maintain that shape even when stopped down one or two stops.
With the 31st overall full-frame E-mount lens, Sony continues to push their technology into new territories. This is the very first Sony lens to incorporate front and back double XD Linear autofocus motors that use a floating focus mechanism. That means there a four XD linear motors total, and the two separate internal focusing groups move independently resulting in what Sony said is the "highest possible autofocus speed." Other effects from this groundbreaking floating focus mechanism include control of unwanted aberrations, minimized focus breathing, quiet and smooth continuous autofocus, as well as increased close focusing capabilities.
The minimum focus distance of the 135mm GM is 2.3 feet (0.7 meters) which equals out to be a 0.25x maximum magnification. Applications for this would namely benefit wedding photographers who also need to capture fine, close-up details throughout the day. In comparison, the Sigma 135mm f/1.8 Art has a maximum magnification of 0.2x and the Zeiss Batis 135mm f/2.8 0.19x, each close focusing up to 2.8 feet (0.87 meters).
At the time of the announcement, Sony has said the FE 135mm f/1.8 GM will priced at "approximately $1,900." For quick reference, those two previously mentioned lenses, the Sigma 135mm f/1.8 Art and Zeiss Batis 135mm f/2.8, cost $1,399 and $1,699 respectively.
Update: B&H has the Sony 135mm GM listed for $1,798 with preorders beginning on February 28 at 10 a.m. Eastern.
Update 2: B&H changed the price to now show $1,898.
The release date is set sometime at the end of April 2019, with a more definitive answer coming down the line.
Moving along to my initial impressions, I spent a few quick hours using the new Sony FE 135mm f/1.8 GM lens in Brooklyn, New York last week. I opted to shoot the lens exclusively mounted on the high-resolution Sony a7R III camera as I felt this would be a popular combination for many photographers and the image files would really showcase the sharpness and detail that the lens may be capable of. I have no regrets in hindsight, because the resulting photos show incredible potential.
Build Quality, Handling
Like any Sony lens, the looks are very utilitarian in approach and woefully lacks the elegant styling that say the Zeiss Batis brings to the table. In lieu of good looks, it's a functional workhorse that gives me many controls at my fingertips.
I've always enjoyed using the physical aperture rings when provided on Sony lenses, and I'm not above admitting that "hard locking" my aperture straight on the lens versus spinning a tiny dial on the camera makes me feel like I still have some authority over these technologically mind-blowing devices. For run-and-gun videographers that are handholding their cameras, de-clicking the aperture and silently spinning it on the lens itself is of course the way to go.
As far as the build quality, you can imagine I have no idea how the lens will hold up over time with only a few hours of use. I did get it lightly wet with snow while photographing outside for a couple minutes, and it's no surprise it functioned fine afterwards. I'm sure the most non-weather-sealed lens would have a similar ending.
The balance point of the lens and the a7R III was right at the dip of the lens where it goes inwards to meet the camera's lens mount. This kept my fingers off the aperture ring as to not accidentally move it but still within a comfortable thumb stretch to adjust switches.
The weight itself I don't find to be an issue, other than if you carry around a backpack with plenty of other gear, this one will take its fair share of the scale. While in use it's a comfortable full-grip experience that does more to remind you that it's a serious lens doing some serious damage rather than thinking about your arms getting tired.
The bokeh is just about everything as promised. Shooting wide open at f/1.8 there is a cat eye effect as I look towards the edges of the frame, however at f/2.8 it's a perfect circle all around. There is no onion ring effect inside the bokeh balls that I can find in the images I shot, and the backgrounds seem to just melt away.
One of the primary reasons one would purchase any 135mm f/1.8 is to achieve a shallower depth of field over a greater distance, and in no way does the Sony G Master punish you for shooting in this style of subject isolation.
As I said in the beginning, I've never tested a lens that was this sharp. And most of my time I shot wide open. I'm almost a little concerned that Sony is going to have to tweak some camera firmware because while out shooting I thought the images in playback mode looked oversharpened from the in-camera raw to JPG preview.
Of course sharpness can be a matter of taste, but when I imported the raw files into Capture One, using the default sharpening that's applied to all raw images was all that I deemed necessary. In fact, for at least one of the images what I needed to do was pull back the sharpening in the hair because I thought the ultra fine, high contrast strands of hair were distracting me too much from the model's eye.
One of the concerns that photographers have is that lenses that have great out of focus qualities tend to be a little soft, or lenses that are tack sharp can have busier bokeh. Sony nailed it with the 135mm f/1.8 GM in achieving both great bokeh and crazy sharpness.
If I had to pick one area where I was most let down, it was the autofocusing. And it's not that it was bad, but from hearing how there are four XD motors in two groups it sure seemed to me to be put on a pedestal by Sony. Personally, I didn't recognize any difference between this lens and the other Sony G Master lenses, so perhaps all that emphasis on its autofocusing system was more to keep it on par with the others being that it's a cleverly designed, relatively smaller 135mm telephoto prime lens. It would be interesting to test this lens side by side with other 135mm primes or against similar Sony lenses, like the FE 100mm f/2.8 STF GM OSS.
What I do know is that going from the minimum focus distance to infinity, or vice versa, took around one full second with the a7R III in testing. However, focusing within a reasonably closer range of distances it was immeasurably fast. I was only in one shooting environment, so this may be a different case depending on what's being close and far focused, or could be the camera not telling the lens fast enough what it should change focus to. This will need to be looked at more in depth in a full review.
As for tracking, the 135mm GM appeared to be well suited to the task of taking full advantage of Sony's Eye AF and face detection. Subjects walking anywhere within the camera's focus point range were never dropped and it was only in extreme face angles that it would lose the eye for Eye AF. Below is one test where I shot a sequence using Eye AF while the subject was making the camera work by never looking directly into the lens. Whenever the eye was dropped and the fallback was to go to the face and then reacquire the eye, the lens could snap right into the correct position with no hesitation. In my testing it's only those dramatic sweeps in focus that cause long delays.
Sample Photos Download
I've placed seven of my raw images shot with the FE 135mm f/1.8 GM lens and a7R III camera in a ZIP file for you to download and peruse in your favorite raw converter software. Feel free to share your thoughts on the optical quality in the comments below.
Only briefly working with the Sony FE 135mm f/1.8 GM, the greatest impression it left behind is how much I want to shoot with it again. A man can get utterly spoiled seeing images come out looking this solid. This is a lens one could develop an entire style and build a career around, if I wanted to dabble a little more in hyperbole. But it's kind of true. After shooting with the 135mm GM I felt inspired by the cinematic look I was getting and now I feel like there's an empty space in my camera bag.
Needless to say I look forward to continuing into a more in-depth review of the Sony FE 135mm f/1.8 GM.