There are some lenses that are just special. Optical brilliance and mechanical excellence come together in a manner that truly impresses even the most jaded photographers. These lenses check all the right boxes, from sharpness and contrast and color reproduction and control of chromatic aberration to less tangible, less measurable things like ‘feel’ and even ‘soul.’
Lots of hyperbole, I know. But this is one case where the hyperbole is justified. The Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO Sonnar really is that good. It is Otus-level without the Otus name.
But it is certainly not for everyone.
Just as with the Zeiss 55mm Otus, I’m not going to list points like “no autofocus” and “no image stabilization” as Cons. You should know that going in with this lens. But they are important points to know, and are the main reasons why this lens isn’t for everyone (aside from the price and size/weight).
I see my Zeiss 135mm f/2 as my most “Zen” lens. That’s a bit of an odd thing to say, so I’ll try to explain. This lens rewards careful, deliberate shooting. Some photographers might say you need a “Medium Format” mindset, especially with high resolution cameras like the Nikon D800/E, D810, or the Sony A7R. The 135mm focal length and the extremely high acutance of this lens mean any little bit of image shake will show up in your final shot. But if you take your time, use a tripod and mirror lock-up, or at the very least make sure your shutter speed is high enough and you are braced against something…wow. You will be rewarded.
Can you still take ‘snaps’ handheld with this lens? Sure. Especially if you have steady hands. You just have to be aware that a telephoto focal length like 135mm is going to exacerbate any and all movement of the camera/lens. It’ll be tough to get the pixel-level razor sharp clarity that this lens can deliver if you use it hand held. Bump up your ISO and make sure you have a decently fast shutter speed – minimum 1/200th sec, preferably – and you can still get some beautiful results hand held.
But, to really see what this lens is capable of…Tripod. LiveView and magnification of the focus spot. MLU. Careful, deliberate shooting.
What makes the image quality so outstanding? It is a combination of things, all of which produce that trademark Zeiss ‘pop’ or magic. Specifically:
When everything comes together, this lens truly delivers.
That said, like all manual focus lenses on modern Nikon cameras, focusing will be a challenge thanks to the unfriendly focusing screens now used (which are designed for autofocus). This is particularly an issue here because the plane of “in-focus” is extremely narrow with the 135mm focal length, especially when you get close up and at f/2. On the positive side, the extremely high sharpness of this lens at f/2 and the APO nature makes it much easier to see the in-focus areas within the optical viewfinder than, say, the Zeiss Makro 100mm f/2 (which suffers from high amounts of longitudinal chromatic aberration at f/2, making the image look fuzzy or greenish/purple and therefore much harder to find true focus).
LiveView, tripod, and Mirror Lock Up, again, will give you the best results.
It is a big, heavy lens. Bigger than most of the other Zeiss ZF.2 lenses, but slightly smaller than Zeiss Otus 55mm (although it is very nearly the same weight). It also extends when focusing (increases in length as you focus closer), unlike the Otus. As a result, this may not be your favored lens when you need to hike long distances or for carrying around your neck all day at a wedding.
Similarly – as should be clear from the rest of the review above – if you need autofocus or image stabilization, this is not the lens for you. At the moment, and unless Sigma comes out with their rumored 135mm f/1.8 OS ART, your best bet is probably still going to be one of the 70-200mm offerings out there. The new(ish) Nikon 70-200mm f/4, for example, has good image quality and absolutely fantastic vibration reduction, allowing you much greater latitude for hand-holding than the Zeiss 135mm ever will (see my review of that lens).
But…if image quality matters most to you, and you want the best medium telephoto you can get, and you have the patience to use it right, this is the lens for you. It is for me.
One final, tangential note: many photographers seem to feel that the 135mm focal length is only useful for portraiture. This is certainly not the case. It is a flexible focal length for both detail shots, still life images, and landscapes, as well as just about anything else you want. The relatively high magnification of the Zeiss 135mm (1:4, or a minimum focus distance of 2.62 feet) increases the utility even further.
Basically, if you can afford it and if it fits your needs: buy this lens.