Zeiss APO Sonnar 135mm f/2 (ZF.2) Review
Zeiss is well-known for many things, some of them are documented such as build quality, some are rather mythical, such as famous Zeiss look, but if there is one thing that Zeiss really deserves credit for, its obligatory T* coating.
I have been on few presentation where company experts demonstrated great flare resistance of Zeiss lenses and I experienced that myself in many occasions. With the boom of digital photography however, legacy lenses become more vulnerable because of the sensor reflections.
To fight against sensor reflection is really difficult and most of the flares that we actually see in our images, are more or less related to this phenomenon.
Nikon D800E is not as bad in that respect as e.g. Sony A7, but it is just matter of slight changes in the angle toward sun, to reveal nasty flares with almost any lens….
Following test images are thus rather informative – what can be expected under similar conditions, but because they were taken from the hand (to compensate for sun position), situations are not identical and thus lenses are not directly comparable. (We could use studio light to simulate sun position and make identical set-up for all lenses, but distance to such a light source is much smaller than toward sun, and results obtained that way, might not correspond with a real life experience).
Here are few shots that you can open in gallery view and check the relative lens behavior in sunlight coming from the top right corner at f/2 and f/8, and sun coming directly at f/4 and f/8.
Zeiss have a clear edge in this test, but as I wrote above, if you change angle just a little bit, results might be slightly different. From many other shots that I took however, I feel confident to say, that Zeiss APO Sonnar 135mm f/2 lens does great job when it comes to flare resistance, especially in terms of keeping contrast high. Samyang is less predictable when it comes to flaring, but slight change of the position might bring him very close to Zeiss in terms of contrast. More pronounced rainbow like flares are visible in almost all situations where flare appears. Nikkor shows its age (in terms of coatings in this case) and the loss of contrast in back-lit situations is notable.
There is only one thing that I’d like to mention… I like flares and loss of contrast in back-lit situations for portraits 🙂 Nevertheless I have to admit that Zeiss engineers did splendid job with recent T* coatings and most users will love it.
Have you ever noticed how clever advertising is hidden in this magic word? (Well done KEH.com)
There are few reasons why you might consider lens with such a fast aperture (at this focal length). Either because you think that BIF means Bat In Fly so you need your lens to gather as much light as possible, or you take “sharp as a pin” literally, so that everything behind pin top should be out of focus, or you have heard that fast lens is cool to have or number 2 is your lucky number.
In this part I’d like to focus on the Pin pals… I already wrote that Zeiss APO Sonnar 135/2 is sharp as a pin, but how’s about the rest of the image? What about BoKEH?
I’d like first to show you two sets of images with Zeiss APO Sonnar 135/2 at all apertures from f/2 to f/22
Here is the first one:
Both – blur quantity and blur quality can be observed on those images. There is one thing to consider though. When shooting dominant subject such as model outside e.g., I am always trying to ask myself – how important is surrounding for resulting image. In other words – in many cases I’d like to bring my subject in relation to the background (or foreground), but on the other side I’d also like to isolate it so that viewer attention goes to the right direction. Choosing proper aperture for the desired interaction between subject and background is thus important part of creative process and it depends on many variables, such as structure, color, lighting, distance, content importance etc. In the simulated scenario above, I’d pick aperture of f/5.6 because it gives me nice relation between sharp and blurred areas.
When your subject is smaller and background closer though, wide open aperture and thin DOF often gives most pleasing results. (This is for sure very subjective).
Here is another set of all apertures showing situation described above:
In this scenario I’d pick f/2 as the preferred aperture.
I wrote about this because I am often confronted with the opinion that Bokeh is quantity of the blur. While this might be true according to Wikipedia, I like to think of it purely as a quality of the blur. What we have seen above in those two sets, has more to do with the quantity than quality.
In order to discuss quality of the blurred (and transition to the blurred) areas, it is good to see how lenses render highlights.
Here is set of images of Zeiss APO Sonnar, focused to MFD with a night city lights at infinity distance. This time, aperture was moved by 1/3rd of the stop up to f/5.6, from where it goes by full stops all the way to the f/22.
We might see that circular highlights have tendency to form elliptical shape instead of circle. This, so-called cat-eye shape, gradually increases toward edges and is caused by mechanical vignetting of the lens. To be honest, this was slightly disappointing for me but expected to certain extent when I saw light fall off at widest aperture. Stopped down just 2/3rd of the f-stop, highlight shapes improve to almost regular circles, but aperture blades starts to be visible.
While shape of bokeh is not perfectly rounded wide open, distribution of the light is very smooth and this is one of the most important attributes related to the quality (character) of the bokeh.
Samyang 135/2 ED UMC however excels in both categories. Let’s take a look at following direct comparisons at f/2 and f/2.8
Zeiss vs Samyang at f/2
Zeiss vs Samyang at f/2.8
As you can see, Samyang has almost perfect circular shape of the blurred highlights across the image and both lenses with their 9 aperture blades creates regular shapes wt f/2.8. Both lenses also show very smooth light distribution with almost invisible outline. At this point we might say that because of less pronounced mechanical vignetting Samyang has smoother bokeh, but that won’t be entirely true in practice.
There is another thing coming into play – defocus magnification.
As you can see from above comparisons, from the same position and at the same subject distance, with both lenses focused to MFD, Zeiss creates larger highlight circles (visible at f/2.8) and in effect we might enjoy “more blurred look of the background”.
It won’t be fair to forget about Nikkor at this point. Nikkor has specially designed feature called Defocus Control (thus DC in the lens name). What it does is allowing user to increase spherical aberration either toward front focus or rear focus, in order to create smoother bokeh (improve light distribution and increase defocus magnification).
Increased spherical aberration will soften image in effect, but unfortunately also in the focus plane.
Images will explain this better than I am able to do with my poor English…
Here we have both lenses at f/2 with Nikon DC at neutral position.
Zeiss vs Nikkor at f/2 (DC Neutral)
You might notice slight CA at the highlight edges with Nikkor, slightly lower mechanical vignetting and as you can see,
slightly smaller circles.
In the following comparison we can see what happen when Nikkor is Defocused using Control ring, to its maximum value toward rear.
Zeiss vs Nikkor at f/2 (DC Rear Max)
While there are still traces of CA, light distribution is much smoother with Nikkor lens now, and circles are larger than with Zeiss.
I thought that it would be interesting to compare Zeiss with few other 135mm lenses from our collection, including another very interesting Bokeh master – Sony 135mm f/2.8 (T4.5) STF.
In the following test shots, street lamps were much closer to the lens (closest is approx. 5m), so you’ll be able to better compare magnification aspect.
Zeiss vs Samyang at f/2
Zeiss vs Nikkor at f/2 (DC Neutral)
Zeiss vs Sony Zeiss Sonnar T* 135/1.8 at f/2 vs f/1.8
(There is mistake in the image description above, Sony lens is at f/1.8. Beautiful bokeh isn’t it?)
Next comparison shows Zeiss at f/2 against Sony 135/2.8 (T4.5) STF. This is very special lens which uses built in apodizing filter in order to create smooth gradient of light distribution in the highlights. Sony lens (originally Minolta design) is on f/2.8, but it let only T4.5 light in.
Zeiss vs Sony 135/2.8 (T4.5) STF at f/2 vs f/2.8
That’s what I would call, super smooth bokeh 🙂
Finally we shouldn’t forget strongest player in the field. I am pretty sure that Canon’s EF 135mm f/2 L USM is among those lenses, clear champion in sale figures. It is also most popular 135mm fast lens recently IMHO.
Zeiss vs Canon EF 135/2 L USMat f/2
That is lot of images captured, just to show bokeh characteristics. After making such an effort to compare those lenses in one of the vital aspects of this focal length, we decided to make another two tests with subjects in daylight. Differences in bokeh rendering won’t be as significant as with night lamps, but they will be closer to what most will experience in real life shooting. You can use gallery mode to scroll through.
This is basically it. We tried to show you all aspects of this phenomenal Zeiss lens, comparing it to the best in its class. It’s time to move to the final part of our review, part where we will write a summary/conclusion and show you some people portraits and sample images.
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