Canon EF 135 f/2 L Lens Review
Let me start out by explicitly stating my bias: I love this lens! It's considered to be the final lens of the "Holy Trinity" of Canon prime lenses (35 f/1.4 L, 85 f/1.2 L and 135 f/2 L). For the price, weight and size, these optics are superb, providing extremely sharp images with wonderful background blur, great color and contrast.
I find this lens to be very sharp, even wide open. I've been shooting with this lens for over two years now, and it never disappoints me. For me, it's the ideal length for outdoor portraiture and glamour, although I could definitely see its use as a very capable sports lens. The large aperture allows for a bright viewfinder image and a shallow depth of field. The eight-bladed aperture contributes to the lovely quality of the out-of-focus areas (bokeh). Two Ultra-Low Dispersion (UD) elements help provide the high contrast and excellent color rendition provided by this lens. The UD lens elements help control chromatic aberrations and color fringing at a lower cost than using fluorite, helping to keep the cost of this lens to merely expensive.
At 1.64 pounds (744 grams), the135 L has some heft, but it is well balanced and easy to carry. Although I don't do much urban candid photography, it seems this lens would make a great lens for that usage, especially on a 1.6 FOV crop camera, given its reach, size and color. Urban photography is all about unobtrusively capturing candid images, so this lens will deliver sharp photos without standing out like the big, white Canon 70-200 f/2.8 L lens. I certainly haven't had any issues carrying this lens around on a heavy 1DMKIIN body for several hours at a time. This lens works exceptionally well with the Canon 1.4x Extender giving the street shooter some extra versatility.
As you can see from the image to the right, the lens provides sharp, clear pictures with beautifully blurred backgrounds and excellent color. The large aperture and long focal length can provide very narrow depths of field, allowing the photographer to easily isolate the subject from the background. This is ideal for portrait photography, but, as with the 85 f/1.2 L, care must be taken not to use a depth of field so narrow that the key elements of the image are out of focus. It's quite easy to focus on the eyes with this lens, only to have the ears and nose of your subject go soft from the thin plane of acceptable sharpness.
Autofocus with this lens is fast and accurate. The lens utilizes Canon's Ring type USM which allows for near silent focus capability with Full Time Manual (FTM) override. The lens features a focus limiter switch with 0.9m - ∞ and a 1.6m - ∞ positions. This lens focuses quickly enough that I've never felt the need to use the focus limiter switch. The minimum focus distance of 3 feet allows for nice headshots even on a full frame camera. The focus ring is wide, smooth and well damped.
The build quality on this lens is excellent and consistent with the L designation this lens carries. The ET-78 II hood fits snugly via Canon's bayonet style mount and is flocked on the interior to absorb light. The hood is made out of high impact plastic and is easy to mount. I reverse mount my hood on the lens for easy storage. Filter size on this lens is 72mm making it easy to share filters with the 35 f/1.4 L, the 85 f/1.2 L and the 200 f/2.8 L.
The color rendition of this lens always astounds me. I'm not sure exactly what it is about this lens that causes this effect, but I find the color rendition to be nicely saturated and warm. As you can see from the image to the left, even in open shade which normally provides a noticeably cool cast to images, this lens provides a lovely color. The image is a jpg straight from the camera, resized for the web and utilizing Auto White Balance.
While I normally shoot Raw files and post process for white balance and sharpness, I wouldn't hesitate to shoot jpg files with this lens if I were in a pinch for CF storage space.
On a 1.6 FOV crop cameras, this lens is a bit too long for indoor portraiture, but I've used it for indoor shots with my full frame and 1.3 FOV crop cameras with few issues. If you have a large studio, it would be nearly the perfect lens for shooting headshots for a model or actor's portfolio.
While not exactly cheap, the Canon 135 f/2 L is not the most expensive lens in Canon's L lineup. In fact, in my opinion, it's quite reasonably priced, as of this writing, at about $900 from most reputable online dealers and slightly more at brick and mortar photography stores.
Finally, I can't let an article about this lens end without sharing my favorite photo I've taken (so far) with it. This is my granddaughter in a photo taken in April of 2007 when she was just 10 months old.
©2007 Mark Cohran, All Rights Reserved
Latest Revision: November 19, 2009