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Review: Sony Zeiss 135mm f1.8 (Tested with the A99)

by Chris Gampat on 12/24/2012

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The Sony 135mm f1.8 is one of the fastest aperture lenses at this focal length; and it the focal length is also a mainstay for many portrait and headshot photographers. Sony’s version of the lens was a collaboration with Carl Zeiss, and incorporates autofocus as well as a metal body and some of the best image quality we’ve seen from any lens out there. I was first turned onto the lens when Photographer Brian Smith let me use his for a little bit during a previous Sony event, but when this lens goes in front of the A99′s sensor, something awesome happens.

 

Pros and Cons

Pros

- Extremely sharp wide open

- Even sharper stopped down

- Extremely little distortion and no chromatic aberration

- Well built optic

- Even when the unit isn’t in tip top shape, it still performs flawlessly

Cons

- A tad bit heavy

- The lens hood is pretty much the size of another lens

Gear Used

For this review, we used the Sony A99, 135mm f1.8, HVL-F60M, Pocket Wizard Plus III triggers, and a Paul C Buff Einstein E640.

Tech Specs

Specs taken from the B&H Photo Video listing of the lens

Performance
Focal Length 135 mm
Comparable APS-C Focal Length: 202 mm
Aperture Maximum: f/1.8
Minimum: f/22
Camera Mount Type Sony Alpha, Minolta AF
Format Compatibility 35mm Film / Full-Frame Digital Sensor
DSLR (APS-C Sensor)
Angle of View 18°
APS-C Picture Angle: 12°
Minimum Focus Distance 2.36′ (72 cm)
Magnification 0.25x
Maximum Reproduction Ratio 1:4
Groups/Elements 8/11
Diaphragm Blades 9
Features
Image Stabilization No
Autofocus Yes
Tripod Collar No
Physical
Filter Thread 77 mm
Dimensions (DxL) Approx. 3.48 x 4.53″ (8.84 x 11.51 cm)
Weight 2.17 lb (985 g)

Ergonomics

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The Sony 135mm f1.8 is a big, black, metal, solidly built lens with an even bigger hood. It feels great in the hand and is perfectly balanced with a camera body like the A99.

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When you remove the hood, the lens’s giant focusing ring will become more apparent. It feels great and has a smooth turn to it.

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But besides all of this, there is also still a depth of field scale and focusing scale. Granted the depth of field scale is useless due to the nature of the focal length being so long.

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We’d be negligent to not mention the large front element as well; which seriously looks like you’re staring down the barrel of a howitzer.

Build Quality

This lens has an absolutely incredible build quality. Not only is the exterior solid, but it is also an excellent design.

During the transportation process, the gorillas at UPS roughed up the box a bit and the normal organe marker for lining up the lens and body came off. Plus the metal casing was a tiny bit loose. I told Sony about it, and expressed concern that the elements may have been shifted a bit out of alignment (which makes sense if you know anything about lens construction.) Despite this, it continued to perform very well.

Ease of Use

When coupled with the A99, the 135mm f1.8 is as simple to use as point and shoot. If the camera tends to give you too many problems when focusing, it’s a good idea to just switch to manual focusing: which needs to be done through the A99.

Autofocus

Focusing this lens is a bit of a slow process due to the larger and heavier elements vs lighter and smaller lenses. Still though, it is meant for portraiture; and usually subjects being shot for a portrait are very still.

Image Quality

As we stated earlier on in the review, the image quality from the 135mm f1.8 is simply stunning. The bokeh is super creamy, though not as creamy or gorgeous as an actual Zeiss lens. Additionally, it doesn’t have the micro-contrast pop that a Zeiss lens will, but that doesn’t mean that your subjects still can’t stand out. Afterall, this is a long focal length; so they still can surely be separated from the background as long as you’re shooting in close.

Sharpness

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Sony A99 images with 135mm f1.8 (8 of 8)ISO 400

The Sony 135mm f1.8 exhibits some of the sharpest lens performance I’ve seen from any optic at f1.8 (wide open). With that said though, you’ll need to keep in mind a couple of parameters when shooting this wide open:

- Because you’re lens is so long, you’ll need to shoot at a higher shutter speed to compensate for camera shake despite the fact that the A99 has stabilization on the sensor.

- At f1.8, so little is in focus on a full frame camera body; so even the slightest breath can knock the focus plane off.

Stopped down performance showed excellent resolution and results; where it peaked at around f4.5 in our opinion. That’s fine by us because if you’re stopping down beyond that for a lens like this, you’re doing yourself a great injustice.

Portrait photographers will be very happy with the sharpness that the lens can deliver; and when combined with your studio lights to add in more specular highlights, you can enhance perceived sharpness even more in real life use. Wedding photographers may find similar results, but 135mm is very specialized as a focal length so you’ll probably be keeping this lens in the camera bag unless it really needs to come out. In general though, the Sony 85mm f1.4 might be a better choice due to the fact that it is a much more versatile focal length; though the 135mm f1.8 should still be valued for its sharpness.

Though we’ve been talking about this lens as a portrait optic for the majority of this review, it will it will come out to around a 210mm lens on an APS-C sensor camera. At that length, you’re going into almost sports shooting territory; and this lens is more than sharp enough since you’ll be stopping down anyway.

Color Fringing

In our tests, we saw no color fringing with this lens: which is remarkable. Even in studio tests where specular highlights from studio lights can add some purple or green fringing, there was none evident; so that translated into less work for Adobe Lightroom.

Distortion

We didn’t see any major or visible distortion with this lens. What you pay for is what you get for sure.

Here are more image samples:

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Sony A99 images with 135mm f1.8 (7 of 8)ISO 400

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Sony A99 images with 135mm f1.8 (6 of 8)ISO 400

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Sony A99 images with 135mm f1.8 (5 of 8)ISO 400

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Sony A99 images with 135mm f1.8 (1 of 8)ISO 100

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Sony A99 images with 135mm f1.8 (2 of 8)ISO 400

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Sony A99 review images (16 of 32)ISO 100

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Sony A99 review images (18 of 32)ISO 100

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Sony A99 review images (17 of 32)ISO 100

Conclusions

Overall, the Sony 135mm f1.8 couldn’t be a better lens for Sony’s current lineup of cameras. Not only is it super sharp, but it is extremely well built and focuses fairly fast. When the images are ready to be imported into your post-processing software of choice, you’ll have little work to do aside from some retouching.

If you’re in the market for the Sony system and to be a portrait photographer, this is the lens to spring for.

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