Review: 135mm f/2 D DC

Specs and purchasing info.

135mm sometimes seems like the forgotten focal length. Dead-smack in the middle of the 70-200 range, most professional shooters have replaced this lens with more versatile and f/2.8 zooms. But a prime lens still has some advantages — it’s twice as light-sensitive wide-open, and much smaller and lighter to boot. Below, here is the 135mm flanked by the 24-70mm f/2.8 and 70-200mm f/2.8 zooms:

Not only is it lighter than even the normal-range 24-70, it has a built-in lens hood, so you don’t have to deal with bulky reversible hoods. But this is a double-edged sword — the smaller built-in hood is much less effective at reducing flare and protecting the lens element.

So is this lens any good? Yes, it’s great … in some ways. In some others, this lens, which has been essentially unchanged for 18 years, is sorely in need of an update.

BUILD QUALITY: It’s solid metal, with the great crinkly focus rings of other pro Nikon lenses from the 90s. It has the vaguely annoying AF-MF switch because it’s a screw-driven lens, but everything operates well. It has an aperture ring, so it will work on pretty much any Nikon SLR ever made for the past 50 years, but it’s not going to autofocus on the D40 or D60. It’s light enough to be well-balanced with all but the smallest cameras, but not too light for the D3.

DEFOCUS CONTROL: The 135mm, like Nikon’s 105mm f/2, has a special trick called "Defocus Control." What this essentially does is use multiple focal planes to give your subjects a hazy glow without being exactly out-of-focus. Here’s an example at it’s most extreme. First, without the effect applied, and then one at the maximum setting:

Nice, contrasty and sharp

I am zee sexy, no?

Let me get this out of the way: I hate this effect. It’s an artifact of 80s and 90s portraiture that hasn’t aged any better than parachute pants or Vanilla Ice, basically a high-tech way to smear Vasoline on your lens. It had some use when everyone was shooting film and it was a good way to soften the wrinkles on older subjects. But computer retouching can do a much better job these days without, say, hazing someone’s flesh tone over their eyeball. So I find the very thing that makes this lens unique more of an annoyance than a feature. The good news is that when you switch this feature off, it makes a pretty darned good fast telephoto.

OPTICS: It’s fairly sharp (not as sharp as my sharpest lenses, but sharp enough to count the eyelashes on your subjects even wide-open) and has smooth bokeh. I had hired a model to show off the bokeh, but she stood me up, so you’re left with this ugly mug:

As you can see, this is a good focal length to take fairly tight portraits without distorting someone’s features. The disfigured bokeh on the edges is normal for fast lenses. You can choose whether or not to care that you can see greenish chromatic aberration in the highlights even at this tiny size.

It was meant to be a portrait lens, and it works well as one. It will focus more closely than either the 70-200 or the 85mm f/1.4, making it easier to get close-up shots or tight portraits of children, like so:

Its color transmission is consistently great, right up there with the best Nikkors:

AUTOFOCUS: It’s a screw-driven lens, so it depends on your camera’s focus motor. On the D40 or D60 there’s none at all, on a big-motored camera like the D3 it’s pretty zippy, faster than the 85mm f/1.4 since it has a smaller front element to move around. I shot a few high-school basketball games with it as a favor for some relatives and it kept up OK — the initial focus acquisition is very fast, but it’s a bit sluggish at tracking a subject. Perhaps not coincidentally, this means it works very well in focusing for portraits, which this lens was made for, but is middling for sports:


CONCLUSION: If you really love the speed and depth-of-field of f/2, or hate the lack of close-focus and weight of the 70-200mm f/2.8, this may be a good lens for you. It’s a great lens for portraits, and 135mm paired with a 24-70mm covers a lot of situations on full frame. On DX cameras, it functions like a 200mm, which may make it less useful since that’s more of a sports focal length, but in the end that’s up to you. It would be nice if Nikon could update this into something similar to Canon’s 135mm f/2, which casts aside all the Defocus Control stuff to just be a fast, tack-sharp lens. Even better would be going to 135mm f/1.8 to compete with the Zeiss lens for Sony’s mount, but don’t hold your breath for either of these. Nikon hasn’t been too keen on updating general-use primes, and really needs to fill their fast-wide gap first. In the meantime, this current lens is a solid performer, great at some things and merely good at others.

Review: Sigma 50mm f/1.4

Question: Which of these is an ultra-fast prime lens, four times as light-sensitive as pro zoom lenses?

It’s a trick question: They both are. In fact, both of these lenses have the same focal length and aperture. On the left is the tiny Nikon 50mm f/1.4 AIS. On the right is the new Sigma 50mm f/1.4. You might ask: Why the heck is it so huge? Part of it is the addition of a fast, silent focus motor, but most of it is Sigma rethinking what the role of a fast 50mm lens should be.

The optical formulas in most 50mm lenses date back decades, to when they were the absolute standard lens, sold included with most new SLR cameras. They were optimized to be light, cheap and, when you closed the aperture a bit, sharp as heck. It worked great, since without modern autofocus systems it was hard to shoot them wide-open anyway. "f/8 and be there," the saying went.

Flash-forward to today. SLR autofocus, for all its quirks, tends to work astonishingly well. Moreover, zoom lenses have taken the place of the kit 50mm lens, and with computer-aided design even most of the cheap ones are pretty darned sharp at moderate apertures. So if you’re going to shoot at f/8, why not have the convenience of a zoom? The main advantage today of prime lenses is that super-fast aperture for low-light shooting and paper-thin depth-of-filed — but most 50mm lenses, designed for a different era, aren’t all that great wide-open. Heavy vignetting, low contrast and choppy bokeh abound. (The brand-new Nikon 50mm f/1.4G isn’t available for testing in the States … yet).

Sigma, normally branded as a budget lens company threw a curveball, deliberately over-engineering a lens to make a better, more expensive version of what other companies were offering.

Did they succeed? Yes. The new lens is an optical marvel, sharp and contrasty even at f/1.4 and with a smooth rendering of out-of-focus areas that, while not quite as good as the best portrait lenses such as the 85mm f/1.4, at least isn’t completely outclassed by them, like every other 50mm I’ve ever used. It focuses quickly, silently and (at least on the Nikon D3 and D700) quite accurately. You can read a detailed technical report at DPReview.

But that doesn’t mean that this is necessarily the lens for you. Look at that picture at the top again. I can stick the Nikon 50mm in any pocket I have, even pants pockets, meaning there’s no reason not to take it wherever I go. To try that with the Sigma, you’d need MC Hammer pants. It’s hefty, feeling a bit unbalanced with smaller camera bodies. It takes big 77mm filters, which is great for pros with expensive zoom lenses since you can use the same lens caps and filters, but for most users it just means more expensive accessories. And then there’s that price tag — $500, twice what some of the competing lenses sell for, and five times as much as the manual focus lens pictured.

But if that’s not a deal-killer, here are some samples of the stellar image quality. Clicking on the photos will open larger versions.:

Lit by a store window. 1/50th, f/1.4, ISO 720

Open blue skies show lens vignetting all too well, but even wide-open there is very little. ISO 100, f/1.4, 1/8000th.

Relatively smooth depth-of-field transitions, and it’s razor-sharp where the focal plane is. Link goes to full 12 megapixel image.

Focus is good even in low or mixed lighting.

The highest recommendation is this: It was good enough that I bought one for myself.