The first question that usually arises when discussing the need for the best 135mm lenses around, is why the need? A personal perspective is usually the most straightforward explanation, which in my own case came from constantly using the very capable 70-200mm zoom lens for portraits. Zoom lenses are extremely versatile, but for the same types of work, in this case portraits, I was consistently using the same focal lengths.
The one used the most was 135mm, which led to the path of simply buying a prime lens version. Then there’s the question of if I already had that focal length, why buy a dedicated prime lens in the first place? There’s the advantage of lens compression, added sharpness, and generally wider apertures for better low-light capabilities and bokeh effects. Plus, while zooms are high-quality and very versatile, a prime lens puts all of its efforts into one focal length, from an optical quality perspective.
Therefore, let’s have a closer look at the best 135mm lenses available for the most popular camera makes and what you get for your hard earned cash.
1. ZEISS Milvus 2/135 ZE (Overall Winner)
Available for both the Canon and Nikon mounts, if you want the best in optical quality, look no further than the ZEISS Milvus 2/135 ZE. As per usual with ZEISS lenses, this one is big and heavy (1123g), with manual focus only, but also produces sumptuous images.
Inside the lens are 11 elements arranged in eight groups, with four anomalous partial dispersion elements and the ZEISS T* anti-reflective coating. The lens is also fully weather-resistant and employs a unique floating element system to retain image quality throughout the focusing range.
The price of this lens comes in at almost twice the price of the Canon below, but lenses of this quality also obey the laws of diminishing returns. For that added level of quality, you have to stump up more money for the privilege. Image resolution can’t be faulted here, with colors that ‘pop’ and in some cases look almost 3D. If you want the ultimate in image quality at this focal length, it’s highly recommended to give the Milvus 2/135 a workout.
For dedicated Canon users, there is the option of the EF 135mm f/2L USM. Just like the rest of the lenses on this list, the 135mm f/2L isn’t a budget option, serving as a high-quality portrait lens for the more discerning types. The lens itself is constructed with 10 elements arranged in eight groups, with two ultra-low dispersion elements and Fluorite and Super Spectra coatings.
The closest focusing distance comes in at three feet and internally the lens has an eight-blade rounded diaphragm and the tried and tested ring type Ultrasonic Motor (USM). Build quality is to the usual L-series standard, with basic external workings featuring an ‘AF/MF’ switch, basic distance scale and smoothly turning focus ring.
This lens is extremely sharp even at f/2, while also producing some extremely creamy looking background blur. The f/2 aperture is also a great advantage in low light, which is a great help in scenarios like wedding photography, where you would normally have to break out a flash gun or strobe. If you want to stick to a Canon only brand, this lens is a great option.
I’m a big fan of Sigma’s Art series lenses as they provide equal or better optics than many same camera brand offerings, while also coming in at respectable price points. In this case it’s the Sigma 135mm f/1.8 DG HSM Art lens, which is currently available for the Canon, Nikon, Sony, and Leica mounts.
This is a fast prime lens, featuring a f/1.8 aperture with a rounded nine-blade diaphragm, Two F Low Dispersion (FLD) and two Special Low Dispersion (SLD) elements and a Super Multi-Layer coating. An integrated HSM (Hyper Sonic Motor) handles autofocusing duties, and while the lens barrel is not fully weatherproofed, the bayonet mount is made from brass with a rubber seal to keep out the nasties of the world.
As with the rest of the Art series prime lenses, this one isn’t exactly lightweight as it comes in at 1130g, but the image quality more than makes up for things. It’s extremely sharp throughout the aperture range, with the only letdown being chromatic aberration at f/1.8, and it’s sometimes slow to focus on high contrast areas. In all other respects, this is an excellent lens and definitely worth the price.
For the best quality available at 135mm on the Sony platform, the Sony FE 135mm f/1.8 GM is a great choice. Optically this lens features two extra-low dispersion, one Super ED, and one XA (extreme aspherical) elements, along with a Nano AR coating for good measure. Another standout feature is the 11-blade rounded diaphragm, focus hold buttons, focus limiter, and a bright f/1.8 aperture.
The XD Linear Motor system is extremely quick and quiet to lock into focus and handles low-light situations extremely well. The lens is also fully weather-sealed to protect against dust and moisture, and you cannot fault the rock solid build quality. The de-clicked aperture ring is a nice addition to see the results of each aperture setting in real time, while also being a benefit to video applications.
Image quality is extremely sharp throughout the aperture range and at the widest, it produces some excellent bokeh effects. This lens is definitely expensive, but also produces the goods. It’s a long-time keeper for the Sony platform.
5. Samyang 135mm f/2.0 ED UMC (Budget Winner)
Samyang is well known for producing good quality optics at a reasonable price, which is no different with the Samyang 135mm f/2.0 ED UMC lens. Available for the Sony, Canon, Nikon, and Fuji mounts, this lens may be manual focusing only, but it also offers great value for money.
Featuring a fast f/2 aperture, along with one extra-low dispersion element and an Ultra Multi-coating to increase optical quality and reduce artifacts like chromatic aberration. The lens has a large manual focusing ring, aperture ring, and solid build quality. The nine-blade rounded diaphragm produces very good background blur, while overall sharpness hits its zenith at f/4.
A manual only lens may seem like a disadvantage at first, but after practice the hit rate and keepers dramatically increase. As a cost-effective solution for the 135mm focal length, this is a highly recommended lens.
Summary of the Best 135mm Lenses
Investing in a 135mm prime lens can be seen as a very specialist application, but for those who shoot predominantly portraits, this focal length is a great solution. The effects of compression seem to be just right for portraiture, but this focal length can also be used for other applications, such as landscapes, in the right situations.
Once you get over the fact that these are expensive lenses, the long-term quality far outweighs the initial money outlay. Plus, it’s guaranteed that you will still be reveling over the image quality for years to come, which can’t be said for cheaper lenses.