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Zeiss ZE 135mm f/2 vs. Canon 135mm f/2L

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We had a chance a few days ago to look at the first copy of the Zeiss 135mm APO-Sonnar CP.2 lens, but today received several copies of the 135mm APO-Sonnar in ZE (Canon) mount. I’ve been wanting to play with it personally, of course, but more to the point wanted the chance to test multiple copies, which always makes me feel better about out test results. I also wanted to compare its direct competitor, the Canon 135mm f/2L.

Unlike the CP.2 lens, the ZE and ZF mount Zeiss 135mm lenses have normal photography housings. The manual focus throw is not nearly as long as with the cinema lens, but it is very smooth and the lens focuses beautifully. With its solid metal housing, the Zeiss weighs in just over 2 pounds compared to 1.65 pounds for the Canon. The Zeiss has a 77mm front element compared to 72mm for the Canon, and 9 aperture blades compared to the Canon’s 8. There’s a bit of price difference, too, with the Zeiss listing for $2,122 and the Canon $989 at the moment.

 

copyright Roger Cicala, 2013

 

Imatest Results

We had 8 copies of the ZE 135mm f/2 to test today — not enough to give absolute limits of variation but enough to at least give us a good suggestion. I’ve shown the Imatest MTF 50 results (in Line Pairs / Image Height on a Canon 5D Mk II) at f/2.0 below. As you can see this is a nice, tight grouping of results.

 

MTF50 for 8 copies of the Zeiss 135mm f/2 ZE.

 

Compared to the average (mean) MTF50 values for the Canon 135mm f/2L, the Zeiss is better wide open across the frame, as shown in the table below. That’s very impressive as the Canon is one of the sharpest lenses around.

Center MTF 50 Avg MTF 50 Corner MTF 50
Zeiss 135mm f/2945840745
Canon 135mm f/2800710640

As we stop the aperture down, though, the Canon catches up quite quickly. As shown in the graph below, the Zeiss slowly sharpens up steradily through f/5.6 on the Canon 5D II, with the corners reaching their maximum at f/8.

The Canon lens peaks at around the same aperture, but resolution increases to a greater degree as we stop down. By f/5.6 the lenses are virtually equal in resolution.

 

Summary

The Zeiss 135mm f/2 APO-Sonnar is a superb lens. It has one of the highest resolutions we’ve tested overall and the corners are amazingly good, even wide open. You definitely pay for what you get, though. The Canon 135mm f/2 is a superb lens and while it doesn’t have quite the resolution as the Zeiss wide open, it is less than half the price and autofocuses. (The 135mm f/2 is always on my list of the best value lenses available.)

Possibly in reaction to the Zeiss 135mm hitting the streets, a very widespread rumor has appeared that Sigma will announce a 135mm f/1.8 OS Art Series lens later this year. That’s exciting, but the key word here are ‘rumored’ and ‘announce’. While Sigma is generally fairly quick from announcement to release, that still sounds like a lens that won’t be available until the end of 2013 or early 2014. Assuming the rumors are true.

For video shooters, particularly, this lens is going to be a superb tool. Photographers wanting the very best will be interested, too. The optics are as good as it gets.

 

Roger Cicala

Lensrentals.com

April, 2013

33 Responses to “Zeiss ZE 135mm f/2 vs. Canon 135mm f/2L”

malchon kao said:

Thanks. I learned from this article.

nepo said:

As you shown,as the aperture is stopped down,the resolution difference diminishes.However,I think the real difference between the APO Sonnar 135 and Canon EF 135 resides in the contrast.Also,color rendition is so different between them.

http://lcap.tistory.com/entry/APO-Sonnar-135mm-f2-Review

Simon said:

How does the Zeiss ZE 135mm f2 above compare to the Sony Zeiss 135mm f1.8?

nepo said:

In my experience,Sony 135 mm 1.8 is excellnt in resolution.However,it has serious bokeh fringing.

David said:

Color rendition would have to be different; there are no controlled comparisons in that entire test. The closest attempt is under the ‘Out of Focus Blur’ section. The first Canon shot is flared out. The second Canon shot was taken under significantly different lighting. The Zeiss may well have more vibrant color, but you can’t make that conclusion from that site.

Chris Jankowski said:

In response to nepo:

Kurt Munger tested the Carl Zeiss 135 F1.8 for Sony Alpha mount. Here it is what he says about bokeh of the lens:

Quote:
Bokeh is very smooth, even stopped down, but looks best wide open in my opinion.
Unquote

He also published bokeh photos at 4 apertures 1.8, 2.2, 2.8 and 4.

Here is pointer to his review:

http://kurtmunger.com/sony_135mm_f_1_8_carl_zeissid266.html

At the end of the review there is a 3 paragraph summary. Worth reding.

My personal experience agrees completely with Carl’s review. It is a wonderful lens IMHO.

Massimo said:

Cant wait to see the ZF.2 on the D800e. Any idea when you guys will get some in?

nepo said:

In response to David,ZF 135 and EF 135 was compared in the same WB.
I usually compare lenses with the WB fixed in “daylight” and converting RAW files in LR in the same setting.Thus,the color difference is real.
Also,I am not saying “bokeh”,but “LOCAs (bokeh fringing)”.

David said:

Nepo, it’s a different composition in different lighting. White balance is the least of it.

KimH said:

Roger,

As usual it is a joy to read your articles! Also to get a repeat of the importance of “sweet spot” aperture.

Maybe it would be worth an article to talk to one of the points commented above – contrast and color.

The 70-300 L has been slapped around a bit on many reviews, but I keep thinking this is one of my best lenses – in particular Color and Contrast. Is it all SSC which determines this or…?

nepo said:

David,why you insist different lighting?
Since I have taken it,Iknow it best.The same lighting,the same composition and the same white balance.I am not a beginner in testing lenses.

David said:

The reflections are different, as is the shadowing. The sun moved. Paste one on top of the other, the differences are not subtle.

Adam said:

Nepo, did you shoot both lenses at same f-stop and shutter speed? That SEEMS logical but the actual transmission of the lenses may be different. The differencs I see on your test seem to be more related to luminance than color rendition. With the exception of the focus shift comparison, the canon image is brighter in all of the direct comparisons, which would of course wash out the color. Just a thought.

Pete Stone said:

The real question is…..how accurately can the Zeiss be manually focused visually ( esp. when shooting at larger apertures ) compared to the AF performance of the Canon. That’s ultimately the problem with lab tests such as this, while measuring peak performance, we forget about effective performance.
Most modern focusing screens on AF DSLR cameras don’t allow precision focusing…..even using the AF indicator in the viewfinder.
I’d love to see a real world test!

Gus said:

A lens comparison without a single image from either lens as an example? Rubbish!

Jacob delaRosa said:

I need a fast 135mm in my life. Sigma shall deliver!

Don said:

There is more differences between lenses than sharpness and resolution. The way each company render colors, the thinking behind the way abbreviations are compensated, the curvature of the image field. Comparing lenses from different companies is like comparing the saltiness of chicken and pork.

Rick Vaught said:

The Zeiss will be great for certain applications. Moving subjects or sports? Not so hot. And
for portraits, when is ultra sharp corner resolution so important? Finally, how sharp is sharp,
and how much do you have to enlarge to actually see the difference?

Jesus said:

To be fear we have to take in consideration that the EF 135/2 L is an aged lens by today. I would like to see the comparison when the 135/2 L II (maybe IS) arrives.

Sahid said:

Still on my bag the “Lord of the red Ring” EF 135mm F/2.0 with EOS 5D Mark II …. great combination ever …

Marton said:

Nice review. I have tested this Canon along with the 70-200 F/2.8 IS II, but the latter is a bit better optically at 135 mm even at 2.8. It can’t compete with the 135 mm lens at f/2 though. And you won’t really notice the difference with a 22 MP sensor. In this regard don1t know why the reviewer wrote, “this lens is great for video”, there is only a slight bokeh advantage, that’s all. I did intensively test some new Sigma lenses in the last couple of weeks and I don’t know why people think the new Sigma lenses are superb in quality. Some of them yes, but according to my tests Sigma has 2 good lens from a 10 pieces batch…

burak said:

135mm L makes more sense for number of reason.

Thakur Dalip Singh said:

Thanks for showing comparison results. You always write very interesting articles.
Here, real use and test of fast lens is at its full aperture, i.e. F2. IMHO , if one wants to shoot at F5.6 or F8 then where is the need to carry such a heavy and expensive lens? F2.8, 135mm will be good enough as they also have Apo lens elements.

Peter René said:

This review is as good as any, we all have different approach and requirements. I´ve had this lense since early februar and its another league. I´ve always loved my Leica APO Elmarit 100/2.8 due its fantastic clarity making it somehow so easy to focus, this is better. If you need autofocus, you need it. Just like chosing a car, some need a sprotscar, other a 16 wheel truck, and they all do their justice – if the owner is happy. I´m in the early fifties, so eyessight is not 20/20, so I need a little more time for each shot than if I had AF, which I no longer own any of. I have turned completely to manuel Leca´s and Zeiss. Form my chair, I like the feeling of taking the picture “myself”, anything not perfect is due to mee in that situation, not the gear. I dont do burst focus and dont want to – its like lifting the camera above people and press the button – who actually took those shots? To mee the camera did, just like pointing bursting with AF on.
This lense is something special!. I did shoot a bunch of pro lenses, but like a F1, it don’t come with a backseat for 4 children.
The most important is your approach to shooting I think, and for a lot of jobs, you would simply need some other gear which will perform much better under those specific circumstances.
For what this lense is meant for, there is nothing similar out there for the moment may 2013, but it will come..:)

Lawrence said:

If you could normalize for the sensor differences somehow, would be great to see a comparison between the Olympus 75mm f1.8. I’ve suspected the Olympus is ‘up there’ in terms of sharpness but would be a fun test (if somewhat flawed due to differences in FOV, etc).

ysengrain said:

The Canon was designed in 1996. 17 years later, it is still one of the best 135 for Canon.
The Zeiss is superlative but with a 17 years later design

daniel said:

This comparison seems like a “quicky” to me. As other said, it skips a lot of parameters that directly affect the perception of image quality (color, contrast, etc.). And again, as other have said, 135mm f2 without auto focus can simply be unusable in the real world.

Matthew said:

A great review, and if I didn’t already own the Canon, I might consider it, but not likely.

I rented and the bought the Canon because of Roger’s comments on this site, specifically being a “special” lens. He wasn’t wrong, and it is one of three lenses that are always in my bag (in addition to a Zeiss 50 1.4 and Canon 85 1.8).

It’s beauty isn’t just the images it produces, which are spectacular. It’s auto-focus is very fast, and very accurate. I routinely use the lens for photograhing domestic animals, in order to keep them from moving to check out the lens. The wide aperture creates beautiful bokeh, and the auto-focus frees me to concentrate on framing and timing the shot. This is one of the few cases where I use the AF, and the Canon delivers – for half the price.

I love my Zeiss 50, but this one just won’t make the bag.

eric said:

Using this lens on the sony NEX series with the Metabones Speedbooster adapter is a dream. It is so sharp and free of aberration that I shot with it wide open the entire time I had it. Not a trace of fringing or haze, just pure clarity, contrast and saturation. Using it with the Sony EVF (nex6) and peaking features makes it very easy to focus. If you like the 100mm Makro-Planar, then this is the dreamy, sharper version of that same lens. It focuses very close too- as close as I have ever really practically used the 100mm.

FYI I shoot weddings and portrait sessions. I use 2 sony nex6 with metabones speedbooster adapters, and the zeiss 15 2.8, 25 2.0, 35 1.4, 50 1.5 (ZM), and this 135 2.0. Its been a winning setup this year- I’ll never go back to a real SLR!

Ashvin Ghisyawan said:

I use the Canon 135 2.0 a long time. It’s a very nice and sharp lens. One of the most important and handy things about this lens is the very fast AF.
I do a lot of wedding and almost every detail you see op http://totaalfotografie.nl is made with this lens. Especially on weddings.

June said:

Can you run a test and comparison between the Canon 135/2 L and the Nikon 135/2 DC?

Tom said:

If there is anything I’ve learned is not to trust a chart. With no pictures to seriously compare I don’t see the review as complete. This Zeiss is really better compared with their own remarkable 135mm 1.8. Since Sony just announced it will be reintroduced this year with SSM- maybe we’ll finally get to see it Dyxo’d as well as real life comparisons. Time to either end the hype or bring the APO F2 back down to earth.

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