Remember Hattori Hanzo, the master swordsmith from the Tarentino movie Kill Bill? And Solingen, the German town specialised in the manufacturer of knives? Now, you have every reason to ask: what does this have to do with a camera lens? Well, Zeiss are a German company, and they get their lenses made in japan, by Cosina (who also make Voigtländer lenses). You still don’t get the connection between German knives, Japanese sabres and the 135 APO. Let’s say that this short tele produce images so sharp you can shave with them. Sharper than anything I’ve anything I’ve ever seen. Not with its obvious competitor, the older Canon 135L, nor with the more expensive Leica M twins, the Summicron 75 and 90 APO. And it’s not just me, because DXO test numbers concur. The picture above is wide open, without any treatment in post.
Now the top range of lenses at Zeiss are called Otus. But I have it from them that, had the Otus program existed at the time the 135 APO was designed, it would have rated the Otus name. Hence its nickname of “Otus without the name” (and the weight or cost, though it is hardly light or cheap).
Let’s get the package out of the way. A 135 APO will set your bag back almost 2lbs and you wallet by over 2K$. It is part of the ZE/ZF line for DSLRs (though you are welcome to use one with a mirrorless camera with the help of an adapter). As such it has the massive, heavy lens hood that stops you focusing the lens when not mounted for action. Loxia are the same, how awkward is that? (anyone listening in Oberkochen? ). The lens is heavy metal, very robust and well put together, in “Panzer” style. Aperture changes in 1/2 stop increments. Manual focusing is very smooth and quite accurate, but not as extraordinarily easy as with the Otus twins.
So, to the IQ. Did I say it was sharp? As in “seriously sharp”. But that’s not all. Gobs of detail. A tremendous ability to differentiate colours, materials, surfaces. Colour and contrast-wide, it closely resembles its near-sibling the remarkable ZE/ZF 15mm f:2.8. Rich, saturated colours, and strong contrast. The result is testosterone-laden. The very opposite of the delicate, almost ethereal quality that can be coaxed from Sony FE G lenses, whether it be the 70-200 G f:4.0 or the 90 f:2.8 macro. This strong contrast is what helps achieve manual focus despite the focal length and the narrow depth-of-field. If you happen to use it on a stabilised body,that helps as well. Otherwise, if you have questions regarding the IQ, think: Otus. Neutral bokeh, neither totally creamy nor very structured. Wide open performance so close to stopped down that you need to be told to know it.
How about the rendering? While the 135APO is super sharp (in case you hadn’t noticed) and offers gobs of detail, it does not highlight it in the way of a macro lens, like the Zeiss 100 MakroPlanar. But it is tremendously good at what I would call “orderly rendering”, keeping things in their place even in a cluttered picture. What it is not so good at, is 3D. While it is there, it is by no means outstading, certainly in comparison with, for exemple, the Sony G FE 70-200 f:4.0 OSS, which is so unbelievably believable.
This bunch of qualities shows that the 135 APO is good for anything you throw at it: detail, architecture, landscape, flowers, close-ups with a tube, portrait. Yes, portrait. I don’t subscribe to the theory that some lenses are just too sharp, and I (and others) have spectacular results with Otus 55 to prove it.
Overall, I come away from this test with 2 impressions. One is that, like with the Otus, when I shoot this lens, I can be sure that whatever is out there to be caught on the sensor will be on my picture, and with no shenanigans. Some peace of mind… The other one is: “how many heavy lenses do I need? How many can I afford to buy and carry each day?” because having the biggest gun out there gives peace of mind, but it does not mean I can’t lust for a lens with AF for fast(ish)-moving targets, or one with so-called portrait rendering for that old-style look, or…
Now I understand I may not have actually demonstrated how sharp this lens is. Here are pairs of pictures, all straight-out-of-camera, the first one full size, the second one cropped to 100% on a 42Mp body. That I can post wide open SOOC 100% testifies to how good the lens is.
And a last shot, again wide open 100% crop, taken of my goddaughter over lunch. This shows that it can be done despite the MF. And we didn’t need or use knives for the whole lunch either; I sliced everything with the 135 APO.
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