Equipment Review: Canon 135 f/2.0 L Lens

April 15, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

Almost nothing is as exciting for a photographer as testing a new, long-desired lens!  After years of reading endless equipment reviews, I took the plunge and purchased Canon's 135 mm f/2.0 L lens.  Long regarded as "king of the L-lenses", I hoped it would fill a void in my prime lens line-up.  I wasn't convinced that it could compete with my treasured 70-200 f/2.8 L IS lens for crisp portraits with perfectly blended bokeh (background blur).  But, it was love-at-first-shot, even though I learned about the 135's foibles over the next 24 hours.  Read on for details...

Note:  All photos were shot in the late afternoon under thick cloud cover at ISO 200 and f/2.0 to test the lens at it's extreme.  They are shown below unedited except for the "lens correction" application when importing into Lightroom 5.  Hats off to two of my favorite redheads for tolerating yet another impromptu photoshoot with only moderate complaining.

 

First shot out of the box:  a quick candid with no prep; it couldn't possibly look sharp, could it?  Amazing ... I was hooked.

 

Gorgeous soft bokeh and an incredibly crisp focus point.  Shooting wide open at 2.0, I expected a depth of field so shallow that only one eye (the closest always) would be in focus.  But, compared to the Canon 50 mm f/1.2L (which I have a love-hate relationship with because of it's extremely shallow depth of field), the results were beautifully gradual in their blur and popped on my 27" screen.

 

Shooting strait on, every eyelash and freckle is perfectly defined.

 

Testing the lens at a distance, the background still melts away.  

 

This lens is FAST at 2.0!

 

Gorgeous color and perfect skin tones make this a perfect portrait lens.

 

The 135 seemed like it might be my new favorite for portraits, but how did it really compare to my 70-200 f/2.8L IS pride-and-joy?  I had to compare apples-to-apples to find out.

Canon 135 f/2.0L:  Photo at 135 mm, ISO 400, f/2.0, 1/1250

 

Canon 70-200 f/2.8L IS:  Photo taken at 135 mm, ISO 400, f/2.8, 1/500

 

Canon 135 f/2.0L:  Photo taken at 135 mm, 400 ISO, f/2.8, 1/500

 

Canon 70-200 f/2.8L IS:  Photo taken at 200 mm, ISO 400, f/2.8, 1/500

 

Result:  Full frame on my 27" hi-definition screen, I loved them ALL!  Crispness, color, bokeh, everything.  

  • Crispness without IS:  I had worried about my not-so-steady hands with a non-IS (image stabilization) lens like the 135, but it's so fast with its wide aperture that the shots were consistently crisp.  
  • Vignetting: There was definite vignetting (a darkening/fall off of color around the edges of an image) with the 135 at both f/2.0 and 2.8 (much more than with the 70-200 2.8L IS) but it was corrected completely with one click in Lightroom 5.  Besides, I often like the vignette effect on portraits.
  • The 135 was considerably faster at 2.0 than my prized zoom, which would enable shooting with even less light.

Then the disappointment:  when I zoomed up 8x the size, there was a bizarre "purple fringing" around high contrast areas, such as the word "Canon" on the vintage A-1 camera.  Fringing is a ghost like shadow, most often purple, magenta or blueish, that is a form of chromatic aberration.  It is fairly common with wide apertures, but I had never experienced it with any of my other lenses.  It appeared at both f/2.0 and 2.8 with the 135L lens, but not with the 70-200 at f/2.8.  The vignetting was completely correctable in Lightroom 5, but still a disappointment.  See for yourself:

 

First photo above from the 135 Lens (no editing):  (note: the purple fringe is glaring on my full screen, but the effect is slightly diminished here because I had to screenshot to post the example.)  

First photo above from the 135 lens after correcting in Lightroom 5 (desaturating purple, magenta and blue)

Second photo above from the 70-200 lens (no editing, no purple fringe)

 

Bottom Line:  The 135 f/2.0L is a keeper.  There was no vignetting on any of the portraits, which means that this minor flaw isn't a deal-breaker for me.  Even without the convenience of a zoom, the lighter weight and maneuverability with this lens makes the 135 prime more comfortable and steadier to work with than the 70-200 white monster.  I'll be carrying both in my bag!  


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