The Zeiss 135mm f2.0 Apo Sonnar is one of the best 135/2.0 lenses available. It delivers beautiful-looking images with crisp contrast and very fine resolution across the board, even with the aperture opened to f2.0. And this performance is coupled with a tank-like build-quality.
But the price-tag of 1800 USD/EUR means that any negative aspects of this lens come under very close scrutiny. Let me go through them step-by-step.
Longitudinal CA: This is a lens designated Apo(chromatic) so it should have minimal color aberrations. And the Zeiss is clearly better than many modern large aperture primes which sadly too often spoil there otherwise fine performance with green and magenta outlining of contrasty out-of-focus subjects. But you can still clearly see loCA when shooting with the Zeiss. That the 500 EUR Samyang 135mm f2 with only one special dispersion element is even slightly better than the Zeiss in this respect shows that there is room for improvement.
Background Bokeh: Background isolation and Bokeh is an important factor for a 135/2.0 lens. The Zeiss produces large, homogeneous Bokeh balls with only little outlining and without the green coloration of lenses with stronger loCA. But still the background Bokeh is a little nervous especially towards the borders of the image. Again the Samyang does a better job of smoothing away the background at f2.0 – at the cost of a foreground that is more nervous than from the Zeiss. But in real life the background Bokeh is clearly more important. So that’s another score for the Samyang.
Manual focus: This is the biggest let-down of this lens. And more critical than with say a manual focus wide or standard lens because the normally larger magnifications when shooting with a 135mm lens makes the depth of field shallower and thus focus harder to nail. If you’re similar to me at manual focusing you have to cope with the risk of having around 40-70% of your shots with less than optimal focus/sharpness – unless you work from a tripod. This certainly is a killer for many photographers who need to nail their shot with only one try – and fast. They should absolutely avoid this lens and look for an alternative with autofocus, there’s no denying it. But if you work from a tripod using magnified live-view, have the chance to swap the focusing screen for one better-suited to manual focusing, or simply have the time to take a second or third shot if necessary, then you need not shy away from considering this lens. Plus if you mount it on a modern mirrorless camera, you can exploit technologies like focus peaking to further ease manual focusing..
Let’s see how the new lens compares to the competition.
Compared to Samyang 135mm f2.0 ED UMC
This lens too is manual focus only! But Samyang did an astounding feat when they designed their version of a 135/2.0 lens: It is as sharp as the Zeiss, has a little less longitudinal CAs plus a better Bokeh in the background. And at 500 EUR it is much cheaper. Only the plasticky feeling of the lens is a let-down. So if you need a robust long-lived lens that can take a beating, the Samyang would not be your first choice. But other than that I actually prefer the Samyang over the Zeiss. See my Samyang 135mm f2.0 ED UMC review.
Compared to Nikon AF DC 135mm 2.0D
The optical design of the ageing Nikon DC 135/2.0 is quite unique: It lets you control the distribution of blur in front and behind the plane of sharpest focus. If you need this effect in your photography, then this Nikkor is the lens for you. Be aware though that the 20 year old design has one major deficiency: it has heavy color aberrations when used wide open or at f2.8. Not only tend loCA to cast green outlines around background subjects but there’s also a lot of magenta fringing around bright light sources. To avoid these effects you should stop down to f4.0. The lens is solidly built with lots of metal and it feels like it can take a beating. Still it does not match the impression of sturdiness of the Apo Sonnar. But at 1300 EUR it is also cheaper than the Zeiss. Personally I’d shy away from a lens that carries a great risk of producing color artifacts at f2.0 and f2.8 from loCA and spherical aberrations. If you don’t need the Defocus-image Control feature or the autofocus I’d rather recommend getting the Samyang or Zeiss instead.
Zeiss 135mm f2.0 Apo Sonnar final verdict
Every high priced modern Zeiss design is greeted with high expectations: It should have excellent optical performance combined with a build quality to match. Well, it looks like the Zeiss delivers, again: Sharpness and contrast are indeed excellent and you can easily use this lens wide open and get sharp shots right into the corners of a high resolution full-frame sensor. And it’s “Built like a tank”.
But competition is a great thing: It shows what others can do and what you can expect from a modern lens design. In this case Samyang came up with an optical design that is even slightly better in loCA and background Bokeh than the Zeiss while delivering the same stunning sharpness and contrast. Not to mention that it costs less than a third of the Zeiss Apo Sonnar. But that only shows in the build quality: there the Samyang is no match for the Zeiss’s sturdiness.
And to say it again: This lens is manual focus only! You should clearly understand whether you can cope with that before considering getting one.
All-in-all the Zeiss 135mm f2.0 Apo Sonnar has well earned a Recommended. But that it couldn’t beat a 500 EUR lens in optical performance costs it a higher recommendation. Below I have listed the good and bad points of the Zeiss 135mm f/2.0 Apo Sonnar for you.
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- Excellent sharpness and contrast across full-frame sensor even wide open.
- Very good build-quality.
- No autofocus.
- High price.
- Background Bokeh could be smoother.
- Some loCA still visible.
- No weather sealing at the lens mount.
- No image stabilization.