Bokeh hunting with the “Lord of the Red Rings” Canon EF 135mm L-lens vs. 2 classic lenses

Why bokeh hunting with fast 135mm telephoto lenses?

For a maximum of subject separation and a creamy bokeh a fast 135mm lens is a good choice. Lenses with longer focus than 135mm allow even better image separation but the versatility of usage scenarios reduces. Read Micael Widell’s article with many arguments for using fast 135mm f2 prime lenses for a good subject separation and a creamy bokeh:

6 Reasons You Need a 135mm f/2 Lens

Canon 135mm f2 USM L-lens: The Lord of the Red Rings

Canon EF 135mm f2 USM L-lens - The Lord of the Red RingsMany refer to the Canon 135mm f2 USM L-Lens as the “Lord of the Red Rings” and think it is one of the – if not the – best and sharpest among all Canon L-lenses. See here:

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wordpress.com

The Canon EF 135mm f2 USM L-lens is renowned for its image sharpness and perfect creamy bokeh, the background out of focus just melts away. More specifically, the Canon lens has decent sharpness at f2 with sharpness increasing to impressive at f2.8. Especially impressive is this lens’ corner sharpness where it puts most zoom lenses to shame.

Can the inexpensive Carl Zeiss and Nikkor vintage prime lenses compete with the legendary Canon EF 135mm f2 USM L-lens ?

This article compares the legendary Canon EF 135mm f2 L USM lens with two vintage prime lenses to check if the tested 30+ years old vintage lenses could be used as an alternative regarding image and bokeh quality.

The 135mm lenses under test

Following lenses were compared in center and corner sharpness on a Sony a7ii full frame camera at f2.8 and f8 (except the Nikkor lens which was used on a Sony a6000 APS-C camera):

  1. Canon EF 135mm f2 USM L-lens (approx. EUR 1000 new, 72mm filter, 708g weight)
  2. Carl Zeiss Sonnar T* 135mm f2.8 (approx. EUR 200 used in e-bay, 55mm filter, 585g weight)
  3. Nikkor Ai 85mm f2 (approx. EUR 180 used in e-bay, same field of view on APS-C as a 130mm lens on full frame, 52mm filter, 310g weight)
Canon EF 135mm f2 USM L-lens compared with Carl Zeiss Sonnar T* 135mm f2.8 and Nikkor Ai 85mm f2
The legendary Canon EF 135mm f2 USM L-lens (Lord of the Red Rings) compared with the Carl Zeiss Sonnar T* 135mm f2.8 and Nikkor Ai 85mm f2 lenses

To fill up the comparison sheets with a 4th interesting lens, I added following lenses to the sharpness test:

Why adding those lenses as the 4th lens for comparison?

  • The Canon FD 135mm f2.5 seems to be a far predecessor lens to the Canon EF 135mm f2 L USM, so the technical lens improvement over time can be verified
  • Including the modern Sony FE 24-240mm zoom lens at f8 gives you an impression how you can easily exceed the image quality by using an inexpensive prime vintage lens

Sharpness test results

135mm-f2.8-lenses-Liechtenstein-center

135mm-f2.8-lenses-Liechtenstein-center
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Comparing the center sharpness of the lenses. All lenses shot at aperture f2.8.

Bokeh test results

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A7_05831-Canon-EF-135mm-f2
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CAMERA & LENS: Sony a7ii, Canon EF 135mm f2 USM L-lens
APERTURE: F 2
FOCAL LENGTH: 135 mm
SHUTTER SPEED: 1/2000 sec
ISO: 100

Learnings

  • Sharpness: The Carl Zeiss Sonnar T* 135mm f2.8 is a bit sharper in the corners at aperture f2.8 than the Canon EF 135mm f2 USM L-lens and the Nikkor lens at aperture f2.8. In this discipline, the Lord of the Red Rings has found it’s master in the Carl Zeiss lens. Otherwise the Canon EF 135mm f2 USM L-lens and the Carl Zeiss Sonnar T* 135mm f2.8 on full frame and the Nikkor on APS-C have a very similar good sharpness performance at f2.8 and f8. The 40+ years old Canon FD 135mm f2.5 lens and the modern Sony FE 24-240mm lens lag far behind and are rather blurry at the corner of the test images.  
  • Image separation and bokeh: The Canon and Carl Zeiss lenses play in an own, very pleasing league of bokeh. The bokeh of the Nikkor lens on APS-C is normal creamy and restless for far distance backgrounds. The Canon EF 135mm f2 USM L-lens has a significant smaller depth of field at open aperture f2. If you like high quality images with a minimized shallow focus, the Canon EF 135mm f2 USM L-lens excels, this lens is a strong performer and hard to beat. If you want to create portrait photos like the Russian photographers Elena Sumilova or Anka Zhuravleva, better get the Canon EF 135mm f2 USM L-lens.
  • T-stop: The Canon EF 135mm f2 USM L-lens and Nikkor Ai 85mm f2 lenses seem to have a better T-stop than the other lenses (because the shutter speed is faster than other lenses at the same aperture setting).
  • Surprising Nikkor full frame lens on APS-C camera: Because the Nikkor Ai 85mm f2 is used on an Sony a6000 APS-C camera, a crop factor of 1.52 applies. This means the field of view on the a6000 camera compares to a approx. 130mm lens on a full frame camera. The Nikkor lens performs surprisingly well in sharpness on the a6000. The APS-C sensor only uses the sweet-spot of this lens, so the Nikkor lens shows less vignetting than the other lenses at open aperture.
  • Neutral-density / ND-filter: If you plan to go bokeh hunting with one of those fast 135 lenses using the open aperture in bright daylight sun better have a ND filter for the lens with you. Especially if you do not have a camera with 1/8000 sec. or faster shutter speed and ISO 50 or less. Otherwise you will probably come home without any photos because you could only take overexposed photos. Using a ND 0.9 or x8 ND-filter would be a good choice to shoot with those lenses at open aperture in bright daylight sun.

As a Lannister always pays his debts in Game of Thrones, a Canon L-lens will always pay its debts in the Game of Lenses!

 

Rundown for bokeh-hunters on travel

If you look for a small and fast prime telephoto lens for high-quality travel images with shallow focus at open aperture then have a look for the Nikkor Ai 85mm f2 lens using on a APS-C camera like the Sony a6000. So if you are a bokeh-hunter on travel, this might be probably the telephoto lens/camera combination with the best price/performance ratio and smallest form format.

Canon EF 135mm f2 L-lens compared with Carl Zeiss Sonnar 135mm f2.8 and Nikkor Ai 85mm f2
For bokeh-hunters on travel: Nikkor Ai 85mm f2 adapted on a Sony a6000 APS-C camera, a light-weight and inexpensive combination for high quality travel telephoto images with shallow focus at open aperture
Car Zeiss T* Sonnar 135mm on Sony a6000 camera with APS-C sensor
Beautiful subject separation of a more far distance subject (the couple and their dog) and a unsharp background. Shot with the Carl Zeiss T* Sonnar 135mm lens at f2.8 on the Sony a6000 camera with APS-C sensor where the lens behaves like a 200mm lens on a full frame camera. You can enlage the photo by clicking on it.

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