The Battle of the 135mm Lenses: Which Lens Takes the Portrait Podium? Leave a comment

The 135mm focal length is one of my favorite portrait ranges due to its compressed rendering of people’s faces, as well as lending itself to stunningly dramatic full-body environmental portraits. Last year saw the release of two new 135mm lenses, one each from Canon and Nikon. Take into account the venerable Sony 135mm G Master and you have all three of the major full-frame mirrorless companies now offering a 135mm f/1.8 lens.

Now, there will rarely be a situation where someone is deciding between a Canon Sony or Nikon lens. And as a reviewer of lenses, I would not normally compare different brands against each other for this very reason. However, once in a while, it’s fun to see how each manufacturer’s offerings compare to one another. So I put each of the 135mm lenses through some tests to see which one is the king of the portrait lenses.

The three lenses are all ruggedly built, similar in size, and fast focusing.

The Battle of the 135mm Lenses: Our Contenders

The Sony G Master 135mm f/1.8 has been out for a few years but at its time of release, it was state-of-the-art (and it’s still great). Its rugged construction and fast linear focusing motors make it a joy to use. It sits in the middle of the pack weight-wise at 950 grams and it has an aperture ring and custom function buttons.

Sony G-Master 135mm f/1.8 badge
The Sony G Master has been around for a few years but it stands up well against its peers.

The Canon 135mm f/1.8 L is the lightest of the group at 935 grams and is handsome in its classic red-striped L series finish. The focusing is fast and the Canon has customizable buttons. Like all L series lenses, it is beautifully made and fully weather sealed.

Canon RF 135mm f/1.8 L badge and buttons
The Canon L 135mm is the lightest of the bunch, and the only one with image stabilization.

The Nikkor 135mm f/1.8 Plena is noticeably larger than the rest and is the heaviest at 995 grams. Like the other two competitors, the Nikon is fast-focusing, has excellent controls, and is built to a pro standard. It is worth noting that it costs roughly 200 dollars more than the Sony and Canon.

Nikon Nikkor 135mm f/1.8 Plena
Nikon is so proud of this new 135mm that it gave the lens its own name.

The Battle of the 135mm Lenses: Loca

LoCA, or longitudinal chromatic aberration, is the appearance of color casts in the out-of-focus areas of an image. This particular aberration is very difficult to remove in post and is something most faster telephotos will exhibit. First, the Sony GM did have some noticeable LoCA, with a distinct magenta tone to the background and a cyan tone to the foreground. It wasn’t a strong amount of LoCA, but it is an undesirable trait for sure. Both the Canon and Nikon suffered absolutely no visible LoCA to speak of. A 135mm lens with an f/1.8 aperture will often show much of the image out of focus, so the less LoCA, the better.

Sony G-Master 135mm f/1.8 Loca test
The Sony G-Master is the only 135mm out of our contenders that exhibited LoCA. It is minor but present.

The Battle of the 135mm Lenses: Flare

Both the Sony and the Nikon were quite resistant to flare, with minimal loss of contrast when shooting towards bright light sources. Ghosting was also well controlled and both lenses had almost none to speak of wide open, with only a little bit of a green flare when stopped down. Considering that these lenses will most often be shot at the widest aperture anyway, I consider this a nonissue.

The Canon is the standout out here, but not in a good way. It clearly showed the most flare and the image tended to wash out easily towards bright sources of light. So much so, that I double-checked to make sure the front element was clean. When stopped down it also showed multiple ghosts opposite the light source. In some situations, flare isn’t a bad thing visually, especially when shooting backlit portraits. The soft look and sun glow effect can create characterful portraits, but I would still prefer a well-corrected lens.

Canon RF 135mm f/1.8 L flare test
The Canon stood out with its susceptibility to flare. Ghosting is also quite apparent at moderate apertures.

The Battle of the 135mm Lenses: Sharpness

Because these three lenses will often be shot at f/1.8, sharpness is important right from the beginning. All three lenses deliver excellent detail at f/1.8, however, the Sony showed the least amount of contrast, and the Canon seemed to be the sharpest. It’s important to note that the differences are incredibly minor. Once all three lenses were stopped down to f/2.8 and f/4 they improved and were basically identical. When looking at the corners specifically, the Sony is still decently sharp and wide-open and the quality improves quite a bit when the aperture gets tighter.

It’s the Nikon that is most consistent from center to corner even at f/1.8. Regardless of where you focus, the Plena is a sharp lens. The Canon struggled with corner sharpness though. At f/1.8, the Canon is noticeably softer towards the corners and unfortunately, even at f/4, the corners aren’t as sharp as its competitors.

Canon RF 135mm f/1.8 dancing portrait
If you have the space, environmental portraits are perfect on a 135mm lens.

 

Sony G-Master 135mm f/1.8 portrait
The Sony is sharp and consistent, especially when stopped down a bit. It’s ideal for head and shoulders portraits.

 

Nikon Nikkor 135mm f/1.8 Plena jaron portait
I love not only what the Plena does to the subject, but also to the background.

 

The Battle of the 135mm Lenses: Bokeh

135mm lenses are shallow depth of field masters, and how they render out-of-focus areas is very important. Ideally, we want soft and smooth-looking transitions between the subject and the background. We also want to avoid any nervous-looking or distracting out-of-focus looks. I’m happy to report that all three lenses give this silky and pleasing look to any out-of-focus areas. I did want to see what specular highlights look like as well, and a string of Christmas lights did the trick.

The Canon and Sony both have a fair amount of cat’s eye effect when shooting at f/1.8. These football-shaped highlights can often be quite nice when framing a person’s face so I don’t mind the look. The Nikon Plena was the only one to provide soft rounded circles, even wide open, and this translates into a natural-looking image with very soft backgrounds. I’d say the Nikon is the most consistent-looking lens again, but bokeh is a highly subjective preference, to say the least.

Nikon Nikkor 135mm f1/.8 Plena bokeh specular highlights
Even at f/1.8 the Nikkor 135mm lens shows perfectly round specular highlights to the edge of the frame.

 

Canon RF 135mm f/1.8 L soft backgrounds
The Canon 135mm has a beautiful transition from subject to background.

 

Sony G-Master 135mm f/1.8 bokeh transition.
The Sony has a really nice look as the image slides out of focus.

 

Nikon Nikkor 135mm f/1.8 Plena bokeh backgrounds
The Nikon Plena really shows off what a good lens can do with soft backgrounds.

 

The Battle of the 135mm Lenses: Most Expensive, Most Consistent

No matter which brand you own, each respective 135mm lens is a worthwhile purchase. All three of these lenses are sharp, well-corrected, and give shallow depth of field. The Nikon 135mm f/1.8 Plena is the most expensive, and bulkiest of the three, but it is the most optically consistent of the three lenses and exhibits no nasty traits. Regardless, if you don’t yet have one of these lenses for your full-frame mirrorless camera, it’s time to seriously consider rectifying the issue.

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