This is a guest post by Boris Buschardt, whom you will have seen mentioned in this blog a few times. Boris is a world class landscape photographer who runs wild-places.com. Be ready to be awed when you visit that website.
In June I spent two weeks in Namibia. It was the first real test for my recently acquired Zeiss Apo Sonnar 135mm lens. Normally I use wide-angle or standard lenses for my landscape images, but Namibia is a location where a short tele lens works really well for landscapes.
Technically the 135mm Apo is a nearly perfect lens. Color, sharpness, micro contrast and build quality are top-notch. I would even rate it slightly higher than the great 55mm Otus.
Contrary to many other lenses you could use it wide open even on a 36 MP camera (in my case a Nikon D800E) without making any compromises. It can for example be used for landscape images with limited DOF and a very pronounced background separation. The following images were all shot wide open at f/2.
But even this lens improves stopped down. Modern aspherical lenses which are calculated for great sharpness wide open nearly always show a slightly nervous bokeh with artifacts in high contrast OOF areas. Even lenses like the Otus or the 135mm Apo can’t avoid this completely. But stopped down to f/4 – f/8 these artifacts are gone with the 135 Apo and the bokeh smoothens slightly while still keeping an interesting structure.
Often the 3D effect of an image is also improved by stopping down to f/5.6. The main object gets more definition and slightly more texture while the separation from the background is still very good. The following images were shot at apertures between f/5.6 and f/8.
Stopping further down is not recommended. This lens gets significantly less sharp even at f/11 due to diffraction. The 55mm Otus is at bit easier in this regard. While f/11 is fully useable with the Otus it should really be avoided with the 135mm Apo.
Of course the 135 could also be used for wildlife photography although you have to get pretty close to your subjects and a longer lens is often preferable. The following images are slightly cropped.
The biggest problem besides size and weight of the 135mm Apo is the keeper rate. More than 90% of the images I had shot handheld in Namibia with this lens were unsharp for two reasons:
Motion blurring: even with exposure times as short as 1/500 sec about 50% of my images were blurred, at 1/250 sec nearly all images were blurred, 1/1000 sec is pretty safe to use.
Misfocus: if you use this lens wide open or slightly stopped down perfect focusing is mandatory, otherwise all your images will look unsharp. If for some reasons precise LV focusing is not possible (one reason could be that you are using some kind of old fashioned DSLR like me 😉 stop down to at least f/8 or forget it.
Even some of my images shot from a tripod were unsharp due to motion blur. I used a Gitzo Series 2 tripod with a BH55 head in Namibia which was apparently not sufficient for this lens in windy conditions. The 135 Apo in combination with a 36 MP camera is extremely demanding regarding your technique. A very stable tripod, mirror lock-up and LV focus are a must with this lens.
But despite this I really love this lens and it will be from now on part of my standard landscape kit (together with the Otus 55mm and the Zeiss 21mm).
If you want to read more about my travel experience in Namibia take a look at my blog:
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Magnificent shots, and great travelogue, Boris!
I have a question: why did you shoot everything wide open?
In particular, I have trouble understanding shooting the magnificent “Moon Valley” picture wide open. And the background doesn’t look as blurred as I’d expect with a 135 at f:2.0. But is a fantastic shot, one I’d gladly print big and hang on a wall.
Thanks Philippe! Only the first 3 images were shot wide open. The other images were shot between f/4 and f/8.
Boris, just a thoroughly enchanting trip…I am jealous.
I am also one of those who’s pulled the trigger in my dreams to get the Zeiss 135mm wonder! But I have not pulled the trigger while awake…yet.
Clearly, it is the top ranking lens for acuity when you are in the league of owners who believe $4k makes the Otus brothers impractical. And the 135mm is accessible and on sale for $300 off.
But it has it’s charm and it has its drawbacks.
Auto focus has been mine.
But you bring up some true-to-life issues, i.e. being 1 over the focal length in speed, or when using the behemoth D810 et. al., then 1 over double the focal length. You article even suggests that you needed to be 1 over 3x on a windy day (on tropod).
So, here’s my question. If you had a D750 with 24 Mp, would your happiness be so much greater that you would forget that it’s not 36 Mp? This may suggest that you fine article is really about the camera rather than the lens.
Of the 5 top best lens in the world, that are not Leica or Otus, I own the 200mm “Fatboy” and the 85mm King of Bokeh (both Kings). If I bought the 135mm, then I could have a travel lens since my “Fatboy” is…well, fat.
My main travel requirement is that my tools must fit into the hotel room’s safe. I took my 200mm once….never again. I have to swim and sail.. cannot be on vacation to relax unless I am relaxed with everything safely locked up.
So, would a D750 24 Mp solve your issue and make you a happy camper again? Your photos are simply spectacular. Wow!
Oh Boris, by the way, for those of your readers that are wondering what kind of lens are these guys talking about…
The Zeiss 135mm came out well before Otus was even a thought on the minds of the Zeiss engineering team.
It is one of those lens that is specifically designed to give you accurate colors. Accurate? All lens are accurate!
This is one of only a couple of lens that are designed to have accurate color…period.
In addition, it has a mystique on its “look”. It’s Bokeh is often referred to as dreamy…certainly, it is unique.
Also, it has immense accuracy for small, defined features that other lens blur.
And it’s accuracy increases to its peak at around F4 , with almost as good shots taken one F stop above and below. But all the while having far greater sharpness than any other lens.
But Boris is right. This lens can give you blurry shots if you are not patient. But I hope it is an artifact of using a 36 Mp sensor.
Thanks Mike for your kind words!
Regarding your question: there is a huge difference between a 36MP camera and a 20-24MP camera. I’ve no experience with the D750 and have never used the 135 Apo on a camera with less than 36 MP. But I’ve extensively used the Zeiss 100MP on my Canon 5D Mark II in the past and also for a couple of days recently with my Nikon D800E. While it was a nearly perfect lens on the 5DII it clearly showed some weaknesses on the D800E. The difference between the 100MP and the 135 Apo was (in some situations) significant.
Would I prefer to shoot with the D750 (or any other 20-24MP camera) instead of my D800E? Definitely not! Even if there is a big sharpness advantage for the 24MP camera at 100% pixel level, reduced to the same image size, the 36MP image will always be as sharp or sharper.
The above image of the Moon Valley is a good example. At 100% pixel level it is not really sharp due to motion blur, but reduced to a 1400 pixel web size image I think it’s sharp enough for publication.
First may I please say that anyone who is currently reading my comment MUST GO BACK and look at each of your photo again by clicking on the photo.
A full size image will pop up on your screen. Enjoy. Enjoy the work of a true Master.
Forgetaboutt the 90% of the images that you threw out with their image blur. These photos are simply SPECTACULAR!
I now can better understand your comment about 36 Mp sensors because the tree at sunset with the orange glow is almost alive. Wow.
Thank you for sharing this experience. I wished that you had photographed Cecil The Lion before his life was ended. I am sure that that photo would have earned you a Nobel.
Great photos, no, spectacular photos. Just wow.
Thank you, Inread this two-weeks-ago and my 135 APO Sonnar arrived last week. It is magnificent, and far easier to focus and hold on a Canon 6D with S precision matte focusing screen.