Sony 135mm f/1.8 FE: Rolling review

5/6 UPDATE: I finally have the 135mm in my hands and used it for a wedding on Saturday. Having used it for a couple thousands photos and looking at the images, here are a few thoughts (with more to come here soon):

  • It truly is an astonishing lens. Autofocus tracks incredibly fast, feeling more like a sports supertelephoto like the 200mm f/2 than the light-sensitive telephotos we're used to in most lenses in the 85-135mm range.
  • The rumors are true: It is super-sharp. So sharp that the only people I would ever post 100 percent sections of on the Internet are literal babies -- it shoes every flaw in the skin to an almost microscopic level.
  • At 100 percent we can see two things: the crazy sharpness, which makes my normal sharpness settings look overdone at that size, and the very shallow depth-of-field, which makes a focus lock on the eyelashes instead of pupil actually kind of a big deal in this random grab shot.

Full frame:

100%

With the length of a 135 giving a good deal of compression, you get less of the "sharp eye blurry nose" effect you would get from a 50 f/1.2, because from the perspective of where you are when you are shooting, the face is closer to being all in one plane. This is why sports photos with a 400mm f/2.8 have a baseball or soccer player all more or less in focus even though the DoF is insane.

This also is a big part of my misgivings about whether this is a must-have for wedding photographers: Except in situations where you have to be far away, this focal length is beautiful but boring*. One case where that distance must be maintained is medium-distance sports like basketball or some gymnastics. In weddings the obvious cases are ceremonies and perhaps some first-looks. It is amazing for these (samples from both to come), but so are slightly-less amazing and cheaper lenses like the Sigma 135 or an adapted Canon 135 f/2L (an incredible deal used if you have an adapter already.)

In my own photography, and when I have more choices, I find longer lenses to be unexciting. A big part of the strength of a 70-200 for me is the fact that it can go to 70mm, when needed, where some really interesting photos live.

But here's the thing: That barely matters at all, because whether a focal length is "exciting" is less than 1/1000th as important as whether the things being photographed are exciting. We are not tossing away 99.9 percent of action sports photography because it's shot with a long lens: that thing being flattened by compression and losing context due to extreme bokeh? Who cares if it's an amazing moment.

This is the same thing for a long lens in wedding photography. If that's what it takes to get you right into a moment of incredible emotion -- to show those ceremony tears or that laughter in all its glory, then it is absolutely the right lens. And if a 70-200 is too big for you to want to carry a long lens at all, then a 135 is the right choice for your bag. And if you're going to own a fast 135 … well, this is the best one made for Sony, in size and autofocus and overall sharpness. But the others are pretty darned good as well.

Here's a display of my entirely subjective opinion. This was a ceremony where the first kiss kind of sprung up on you -- no problem, I have learned over the course of hundreds of ceremonies to be in the right place whenever a first kiss is even possible. But I had a choice at the time -- get it close with the 135 or capture some of the scene with my 55.

Review be damned; I chose the 55:

Here's a little math I've learned from calculating Brenizer Method focal lengths, I found that an A7III image cropped to 2445x1630 would turn a 55mm image into almost exactly an effective 135mm, so this is the frame that would have resulted from the other choice:

This is a perfectly fine frame. And, of course, through cropping I have both (though I wouldn't run this as a two-page album spread.) Which one is better? Completely subjective, but I like the top one -- some serious thought went into that ceremony setup, so the context matters. And it allowed me room to also capture any wild gesticulations that would have been out of the 135mm frame.

Now … it just so happens that tomorrow I have a shoot that where the compression plus depth of field is actually likely to be the perfect combination to show off a moment that is important and emotionally charged, so we'll see how this review evolves.

Another wedding sample.


*forgiveness to Ani DiFranco.


April 24:

I have  never tried the Sony 135mm f/1.8. I have not held it in my hand. I have barely looked at online samples, and only at small size.

And yet I could write a 3,000-word essay on it right now — my biggest challenge is to keep this as succinct as I can.

How? Let’s delve into it:

Lens reviews face opposing challenges to their relevance: The first is that, other than at places like LensRentals, the best and most comprehensive lens reviews are still just reviews of *that single lens*. Even the best companies have some copy-to-copy discrepancy that render some level of resolution and sharpness charts less useful. But, on the other side, there is a heck of a lot you can know about a lens from a 30-second glance … so much that first we should discuss what a lens review might actually be good for.

Here are the kinds of things I want to know about a lens in-depth before I commit to permanent purchase: 1) autofocus performance in real-world situations 2) for a long lens, general character of out-of-focus areas. 3) balance and usability with my camera 4) anything that is simply, unexpectedly *wrong* with it.

As long as there isn’t much of #4 — and we usually trust there isn’t with high-end first-party lenses, a lot of the other important stuff can be quickly assumed.

So, let’s run down what we know: First, this lens is more or less 135mm and f/1.8. Obvious, right? But that alone is the most crucial part of why I am fascinated by this lens but probably won’t make it a permanent part of my collection, which we’ll come back to. Both of these are approximate numbers — the Sony specs read as very slightly “longer” than the Sigma 135mm f/1.8, for example — but generally this deviance is unnoticeable. What is sometimes noticeable is “focus breathing,” where an image seems to become a lot wider as it reaches closer focus. This was a big issue when the Nikon 70-200mm VR II came out, and it will be interesting to see what happens with the closer-than-normal focus of this lens, but it is unlikely to be a big thing in a prime lens at normal ranges.

f-stop is also simply a mathematical ratio between focal length and entrance pupil. How much light a lens transmits is measured in t-stops. These can sometimes be significantly smaller than the f-stop measurement, and that is always interesting to know, but it’s super-duper unlikely that this transmits less light at f/1.8 than, say, the Canon 135mm transmits at f/2. But I happen to have a Canon 135mm, and so I will test.

Next, we know that this lens is 2.09 lbs, compared to the Sigma’s 2.5. Sigma has not met a lens that it couldn’t make as large and heavy as possible, so I’m surprised the differential isn’t greater, but the 16% weight discount should be quite noticeable, depending on lens element balance.

Both lenses are 82mm. The Zeiss 135mm f/1.8 was 77mm. Front elements have been victim to inflation in the past decade.

The minimum focus distance is 70 cm (2.3 feet). This is the best in class, but given that the Zeiss 135’s MFD was 72cm, it seems like they might be making a bigger deal than necessary about this (both list maximum magnification as x0.25)

The fact that they are marketing this as a sports lens and really focusing on the speed with the A9 gives me a lot of hope — this is an area where there can be a lot of improvement for Sony users using the Sigma, Zeiss, or Canon options, and if it can track a basketball player, it can track all but the most manic flower girl processionals.

From all this, and from the fairly tame $1900 pricetag, this sounds like the lens I have dreamed of since I first tried the Zeiss in 2006. I spent years and years dreaming of great, fast-focusing 135s because the Nikon 135 was extremely long-in-the-tooth. I bought into the Canon system two different times just to get the 135L. The Zeiss 135 was the first lens I bought when I picked up the A7RII, and now I have the Canon 135 and two different adapters sitting right before me.

And yet … they all sit unused. The Zeiss went back to the store, and in the jobs I used it on, it captured less interesting photos than any other lens — the one above is as good as it gets, and it’s *way* down the list of our favorite portraits from Anna and Kerry’s wedding. You see, 90 percent of what you need to know about a lens is its focal length. During the years I used a 24-70 as my main lens, a 135 seemed a perfect pairing for ceremonies. And it’s still a lighter and more light-sensitive option than a 70-200, enough to keep one around.

And yet … the Canon 135L exists, and if you already have a Canon adapter, there are countless copies lying around dirt cheap. The new lens is doubtless faster … but the Canon is fast enough. The new lens is doubtless sharper … but the Canon is sharp enough. Because, along then way, my shooting changed, and a 135 became less and less useful.

I get closer than I used to. Even an 85 seems too long for most of the documentation I do these days, and longer lenses only come in handy when I am kept from getting too close for one reason or another. And, if my position is constrained? Oh boy, does a 70-200 come in handy then, usually being worth the f-stop given that cameras now go to ISO eleventy billion. Also, I often find that the real benefit of a 70-200 over a 135 isn’t that it goes to 200, but that it goes to 70. Zooming with your feet is a whole different game in the telephoto range.

So I can nearly assure you that I will greatly admire the utility of this lens and help you figure out if it’s right for you, but that it won’t fit for us. It’s important to know what’s right for you, and how a given lens will fit in with the rest of your kit, and how that changes if you are a one or two-camera shooter.

I just placed my order for a review copy, so watch this space and we will show how it might fit for you.

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