People love fast things. Fast cars, fast guns, fast internet. When it comes to lenses, it is the fast primes that often garner attention from the slower zooms that sit on many a DSLR. Unfortunately, the 135mm f/2.8 Series-E (for a history of the Series-E lenses, see here) is not one of those lenses. Despite its fast f/2.8 aperture, good reach (200mm FOV equiv on APS-C, 270mm on m4/3), and compact size, the 135mm–and other Series-E lenses–were largely considered dinky and consumerish. Due mostly to their sub-par build quality (at the time, compared to the AI-s counterparts), they never gained popularity with the masses. Good news for you and me, most of these lenses used the same (or similar) optical formulas as the AI-s lenses, and can be had at a bargain at your favorite online auction house. For instance, this lens goes for about $90/€71, while its AI-s counterpart regularly sells for at least twice the price. Though I do not have the AI-s version (yet), I have my doubts that it is twice-as-good as the Series-E version. Time will tell.
There’s no doubt that one of the most used applications of the 135mm focal length are for portraits, it is in the upper limit of the supposed 85-135mm “ideal” portrait range. Due to the crop factor of the NEX-7′s sensor, portrait usage at normal range (~15 feet) wouldn’t necessarily be bad, per se, but shots may look a little tight and constrained. That said, this lens could easily be applied to take closer-range headshots while still being at a distance from the subject, so for that, portraiture is still viable. Other uses for the 200mm equivalent field of view could be for closer-range sports photography (such as tennis or volleyball, and yes, sports photography with manual focus is doable), candid street photography from a distance, and even landscapes with certain areas emphasized. Whether or not I can whole-heartedly recommend the 135mm f/2.8 E for these areas of interest remains to be explored in this review.
Full Title: Nikon 135mm 1:2.8 Series-E (note the lack of the Nikkor designation)
Dimensions: 3.5 inches/88.5mm long, 2.5 inches/62.5mm in diameter, with a weight of a very light 14 ounces/395 grams. By comparison, the Nikon 105mm f/1.8 AI-s weighs 20 ounces/565 grams.
Close Focus: Marked at 5 feet/1.5 meters, but you can get just a bit closer. The 135mm f/2.8 E is NOT a macro lens.
Miscellaneous: 7 straight-bladed aperture stopping down to f/32 (useful for longer exposures and maximum depth of field), 52mm filter thread, built-in telescoping lens hood (though it doesn’t lock into place like the removable twist-on hoods of other lenses).
As I mentioned in my first impressions of the lens, the 135mm f/2.8 E just feels right when used on the NEX-7. It is only a hair wider than the adapter (3mm), the focus is amazingly smooth and lightly damped (likely due to a liberal amount of grease on the focus helicoid rather than a high-quality helicoid, but that is speculation), the aperture ring locks into stops with solid and tactile clicks, the mounting is smooth and strong (metal mount), a very handy sliding lens hood keeps internal reflections low, and to top it all off the weight nicely balances a bit front-heavy to rest in the left hand. From those specs alone it sounds as if the 135mm f/2.8 E would be a bonafide Nikkor AI-s, right? I would think so too, as it feels that a good portion of the lens is made of metal. But that is just it. Not all of the lens is metal and glass, characteristic of the AI-s Nikkors. What’s funny is Nikon only shaved off 1.4 ounces/40 grams from the AI-s version, meaning the Series-E has almost as much metal in its construction as the Nikkor (unlike the plasticky 35mm f/2.5 E). Why exactly Nikon didn’t make more of the lens lightweight plastic is a mystery to me, but this is good news to those that had reservations about the Series-E construction in general. Rest assured, the 135mm f/2.8 E is very well built.
I really, really like the 135mm f/2.8 E, more-so than I was expecting to. Before I received it in the mail I had already written it off as a “lesser” Series-E (despite my positive experiences with the 50mm f/1.8 E so far), and wasn’t really expecting to be blown away. I was wrong on many levels. Optical performance in almost every regard ranges from good to excellent, though there is a very odd performance quirk with sharpness that will be discussed. A few friends of mine tell me they used to use this lens for studio sessions and corporate head shots, so if you needed some reassurance that the 135mm can be used in professional situations, there you have it. For DSLRs, I can recommend this lens. For APS-C mirrorless cameras, I can highly recommend this lens. For m4/3 cameras with IBIS (such as the Olympus EM-5), I can again highly recommend the 135mm f/2.8 E.
Though sharpness is supposed to be only a small component in a lens’ performance, many feel it is the deciding factor between a good or bad optic. I personally fall somewhere in the middle. I love seeing pixel-level sharpness (especially with a 24MP sensor), but it isn’t terribly important that all my shots are sharp when viewing at 100% on screen. With that in mind, I have tested the 135mm f/2.8 E to find a very strange characteristic in its performance of sharpness. The lens starts pretty sharp, and eventually gets very, very sharp. The only problem is it takes a lot of stopping down to get to the optimum aperture.
Let’s start out with some simple center crops by aperture:
Starting out wide-open, a lot of detail is still visible, though contrast is rather low. With regards to sharpness, f/4-8 look about the same, with contrast improving a bit at each stop. Center sharpness and contrast peak at f/11, where overall detail is excellent. At f/16 diffraction begins, and by f/32, the image is heavily softened due to this effect. For critical work, stay in the aperture range of f/8-16. Wider apertures should only be used in cases where depth of field or shutter speed are the priority. For the smaller apertures, reserve use for longer exposures or for greater depth of field. However, don’t hesitate to shoot from f/2.8-5.6, as contrast can always be helped out (if needed) in post-processing, and sharpness never makes a good photograph.
Moving on to corner crops by aperture…
Thanks to the “sweet spot” advantage of using full-frame designed lenses on smaller sensors (this case APS-C), the corners on the 135mm f/2.8 E do very well. Detail wide-open isn’t very clear due to low-contrast and some vignetting, but is acceptable. More detail is visibly seen at f/4, but contrast is still low. In this case, both sharpness and contrast improve at every f-stop following, but the optimum is yet again at f/11. Blown up to 400%, diffraction slightly dulls detail at f/16, and by f/32 the corners have lost detail and contrast due to the effect. As above, contrast can always be addressed in post-processing, but as far as critical detail in the corners, the best apertures are about the same as the centers, f/8-16. In real photographs, pixel-level sharpness in the corners doesn’t particularly matter anyway, so feel free to shoot at whatever aperture you need to get the shot (though, admittedly, degradation at the image level may become apparent at f/32). Since the corners in most shots are out of focus anyway at the larger apertures, the lack of corner detail is a non-issue:
Some may be disappointed that the 135mm f/2.8 E peaks in performance at f/11, rather than something like f/5.6 (such as the 180mm f/2.8 AI-s ED). There are some zooms that peak at f/8! The good news in all of this is the images start out pretty sharp wide-open, but only improve from there. This means that the 135mm becomes a more versatile lens in more shooting situations, as detail remains good in a larger aperture range. There is no harsh drop off in image quality at most apertures (save for the lack of contrast wide-open and the diffraction-affected f/32), and the steps to get to peak performance are small and graduated.
Sharpness at Infinity
Just as in the test chart range, the optimum aperture at infinity is f/11. It is worth noting when using long focal lengths, atmospheric conditions usually are a larger thief of sharpness than aperture ever is:
Sharpness at “Macro”
As mentioned, the 135mm f/2.8 E is NOT a macro lens. Even when used on a cropped APS-C sensor, the focusing distance is too long. When shot on a m4/3 camera, one can get a little “closer” due to the increase in FOV length, though the focusing distance remains the same. If you so choose to shoot at close-focus often, and desire optimum pixel-level sharpness, f/8 is the best aperture:
And now for a “real-world” example of the close-focus distance:
“Bokeh” is an artistic term of Japanese origin for the character of anything in the image that is not in focus. Typically, smooth bokeh, where out of focus objects and highlights seem to “melt” into the background, is favorable. In regards to the 135mm f/2.8 E, bokeh is very good to excellent depending on what is in the background.
By aperture (these are NOT 100% crops):
As far as bokeh smoothness goes, the 135mm f/2.8 E displays smooth and un-distracting backgrounds at all larger apertures. Foreground bokeh is a mixed bag. At f/2.8-4, there is noticeable business and doubling that can be distracting. Once stopped down to f/5.6-8, foreground bokeh is decently smooth, an odd but welcome characteristic.
Now let’s look at how this lens handles out of focus highlights, by aperture. The following are NOT 100% crops from the highlights from the decorative item in the macro set-up:
Another welcome surprise, the 135mm f/2.8 E handles out-of-focus highlights very well. From f/2.8-4, there are no rings around the highlights, and they remain a very solid color (the aperture shape begins to show at f/4). At f/5.6, it is almost as good, but rings start to appear on most point sources of light. At f/8-11, the rings aren’t as noticeable, but many of the highlights begin to get distracting artifacts in the highlight. That said, these artifacts will only be noticeable when printing very big (and in critical situations, even the harshest highlights can be fixed in Photoshop). I would still personally prefer to stay in the f/2.8-5.6 range if there were many highlights in a picture.
A form of chromatic abberation (a type of distortion where certain colors do not hit the image sensor at the same convergence point), purple fringing is typically seen in fast lenses at their wider apertures when shooting scenes of contrast, such as branches against sky. Though purple fringing can be cleaned up very well in post processing nowadays (see my detailed post on that here), it is still an important point to take in consideration if one either doesn’t have the time to post process, or has purple objects in the frame that does not want to be desaturated. To assess purple fringing, I used this scene:
Using Lightroom 4′s excellent de-fringing sliders, even f/2.8 can look just fine after 15 seconds of editing:
I must mention in normal shooting situations, purple fringing even wide-open isn’t a real problem with this lens. Don’t shoot tree branches wide-open, and you’ll be just fine.
Longitudinal Chromatic Aberration
Longitudinal Chromatic Aberration (also known as “bokeh fringing”) is another form of aberration that is mainly prevalent on large aperture lenses in areas that are out-of-focus (hence the bokeh designation). A lens that suffers from LoCA has objects in the background tinged with green, while objects in the foreground are tinged with purple. Stopping down a lens only marginally helps in reducing LoCA’s, all stopping down really does in most instances is bring more objects into focus (anything out of focus will still have the aberration). Usually the purple hue on foreground objects is of a different hue than purple fringing, so foreground LoCA can be very difficult to remove in post-processing. Fortunately, Lightroom 4 also has a dedicated aberration slider for the green hue, so background LoCA’s can be removed easily. If you take a look again at the “fixed” image for purple fringing in the last point, you can see very easily that the branch to the far right has purple LoCA, while the branch to the immediate left has heavy green LoCA. Here is a minute’s worth attempt at fixing these aberrations:
A real-world example of how distracting the green LoCA’s can be:
One of the cost-cutting measures for the Series-E lenses was to only single-coat the lenses. Lenses that are single-coated tend to not have very good flare control due to many internal lens reflections. Nikon eventually started to give multi-coating to the later Series-E’s, which helped control flare much better than any single-coating ever could. Based off my time with the lens, I believe my copy of the 135mm f/2.8 E may actually be multi-coated. Flare performance is very good. The following images were taken at f/32 to keep from too much overexposure. I also took two series of shots, one with the built-in hood retracted, the other with it extended. I expected to see at least a little difference in flare control depending on the hood position, but no dice. Both sets were identical in performance. This leads me to guess that the hood may only protect from point light sources shining directly onto the front element at an extreme angle–other than that there’s no reason to extend it except to get a little more contrast. WARNING! With the NEX-7 and its EVF, I don’t have to worry about shooting into very bright sources of light. If you attempt to do these shots on a DSLR, you’ll go blind before you see any evidence of flare!
With these shots and my own personal experience in mind, flare is not a problem at all with this lens. Shoot around bright sources of light all day long, with the hood positioned wherever you like.
Vignetting, to put it simply, are darkened corners as a result of shooting near the wide open aperture. Another result of the “sweet-spot” advantage, most full-frame lenses tend to have little to no vignetting problems when used on an APS-C or smaller sensor. The 135mm f/2.8 E fortunately fits within the majority. Vignetting, even wide-open at infinity focus, is negligible in actual use.
One of the many advantages of shooting with prime lenses, distortion on the 135mm f/2.8 E is negligible pincushion. However, if you insist on setting up a lens profile, a -1 correction in Lightroom 4 should completely get rid of any and all distortion when focused at 10 feet.
Now let’s hit the old recap of this Series-E:
Pros and Cons
- Super compact, lightweight, and at an affordable price
- Great build quality (almost as good as the AI-s Nikkors) with only a slight amount of plastic construction. Overall operation is superb.
- Tack-sharp performance in the center when stopped down at all focusing distances, but is completely useable at the larger apertures (see cons). Corner performance is consistently good.
- Very smooth background bokeh at all apertures, smooth foreground bokeh starting at f/5.6.
- Out-of-focus highlights are generally clean and non-distracting from f/2.8-5.6
- Purple fringing is all but gone by f/4
- Flare is a non-issue with only one small blob in a few instances
- Negligible vignetting
- Negligible distortion
- The 135mm f/2.8 E is much smaller, lighter, and cheaper than ANY 80-200 f/2.8 zoom, and probably has less distortion and more light transmission (fewer elements for light to pass through)
- Wide-open, contrast is lacking in the center, while the corners are lacking in both sharpness and contrast. Stopped down to f/32, image-level degradation may become noticeable.
- Optimum aperture is at f/11. Though this allows for a greater working range, those that may prefer optimum performance at hand-holdable shutter speeds may be disappointed. There are zooms that have their optimum at f/8, for comparison, and some great primes, such as the 180mm f/2.8 AI-s ED, peak at f/5.6.
- Foreground bokeh is busy and distracting from f/2.8-4
- Purple fringing wide-open in high contrast scenarios is very bad, though is mostly correctable. In normal situations it is nothing to worry about and is completely correctable for critical work.
- Longitudinal chromatic aberrations are very pronounced and distracting, both in the background green hue and in the foreground purple hue. These are generally possible to edit out, but in some situations can prove to be difficult to correct.
- Manual focus only, in case you had forgotten
The Bottom Line
I have some major praise and some reservations on this lens. There is no set-in-stone recommendation I can give out. Let me put it this way: if you are wanting a compact fast telephoto (APS-C) or a super-telephoto (m4/3) for your camera that performs well in generally all situations at a bargain price, the 135mm f/2.8 E should be on your short-list. If you are like me, and are wanting a faster telephoto with greater depth of field control and a larger optimum aperture for hand-holdable shutter speeds at peak performance, then you may want to reconsider the 135mm f/2 AI-s (which is much, MUCH more expensive than the 135mm f/2.8 E or AI-s). That said, I am going to hold onto this lens for the situations when I need a bit more reach and a lighter kit than my 105mm f/1.8 AI-s. Though I would love to shoot with the 135mm f/2 AI-s, I’m not sure it would see as much use–it is over two times as heavy as the Series-E 135mm, weighing in at 30.2 ounces/855 grams!
Here are some various sample shots taken with this lens and the NEX-7 over the past couple weeks to finish this review up:
And hey, look at me, I managed to keep flower shots out of this one. Anyways, hope you all liked this review, comments and criticisms welcome, as always. With that, have a great one guys.