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The 135mm lens is a magical wonder for many photographers. It’s a long lens: arguably the longest practical portrait lens. In the past, many photographers loved the lens for more than just portraits. It’s a great candid lens; you can be far from a subject before being noticed. And if you’re a certain type of photographer, it might never leave your camera. The 135mm lens has lots of desirable qualities about it, but before you make the commitment, let’s go over a few things.
Arguably the Best Portrait Lens, But They’ve Got Tradeoffs
The 135mm is considered by many photographers to be the perfect focal length for portraits. Optically speaking, no one looks bad on the other end of this lens. It gives the right compression level to faces, bodies, heads, cheeks, noses, etc. As the years have gone on, 135mm has become better, though they may be a bit too clinical for some photographers these days. Some legends of this focal length are the Canon 135mm f2 L, Sigma 135mm f1.8, Sony 135mm f1.8 G Master, Sony 135mm f1.8 A-Mount, and the Zeiss 135mm Milvus lens. We’ve used all of them in studio and on location. Shooting with a 135mm lens requires you to think differently than you would with any other lens. If that’s intimidating you, you should probably stop here.
Otherwise, continue on and check out some of the best 135mm lenses we’ve tested.
First off, attach a 135mm lens to your camera and you’ll realize it’s very long and thin. It’s a huge prime lens. If you’re the type of photographer who likes small lenses, avoid the 135mm and reach for an 85mm lens instead. (Eighty-fives are excellent, and something akin to a 55mm lens.) What’s more, a 135mm gets even longer when you put a lens hood on, so I’d shoot without one. The newer ones are a lot more clinical, so I’d use a polarizing filter to make colors pop a bit more. Otherwise, there’s the PrismFX stuff that we’ve reviewed.
They’re Hard to Get and Keep a Subject in Focus
135mmm lenses are notoriously hard to get in focus. If you’re on a DSLR, you need to nail the focusing point and ensure you don’t move. With mirrorless cameras, there’s face and eye detection. After you get it in focus, you need to make sure tracking is on to constantly follow the eye or the face. At f1.8, they’re super hard to get in focus. I think the easiest 135mm lens I’ve ever worked with is the Zeiss Batis 135mm f2.8. It’s an autofocus lens and the slowest of the bunch. But it’s also pretty nice with its render.
Most people have shaky hands. They’ll probably end up shooting portraits in burst mode and have to cull through hundreds if not thousands of photos later. Otherwise, you can shoot on a tripod and carefully focus. If you happen to be good at handholding a lens, you won’t have an issue.
You Need a Lot of Room to Use Them
135mm lenses render super tight if you don’t have a lot of room. If you’re shooting indoors, be sure to have at least 10 feet between you and a subject. Arguably, the best thing to do is shoot outside. If you shoot outside, you have more options with where you can shoot. But, of course, you lack the control that indoor shoots can provide.
Usually, 135mm lenses are more of a pain than what they’re worth. But I’ll admit they can create beautiful photos.