11.04.2015

The mania for lens speed is limiting our rational choices...



I used to carry around a 135mm f2.8 lens for my Contax film cameras. It was a nice companion to the 85mm f2.8 lens and, when I also had the 50mm f1.4 lens along for the ride, I felt as though I could cover anything in my usual style. It's only in the age of rampant generalism that I feel the pressure to also cover the desperately wide focal lengths as well.

But something nasty happened when we ventured into the populist age of digital photography; the masses adored the idea of zoom lenses, and they love the basic 70 or 80 to 200 mm versions best of all. At some point I guess the single focal length lenses that were covered by that range just fell off the radar entirely. At one time Nikon made a 135mm lens in f3.5, f2.8 and f2.0 variants. If you needed the speed you carried the weight. If you needed the focal length without the speed you were rewarded with a choice of two very well corrected lenses at two lower price points. My favorite was the ais version of the 2.8 which was small and not too heavy. It fit nicely in a bag and compressed images well. Best of all, being a single focal length lens it was very well corrected and very sharp for the price.

My first 135mm was a Vivitar 135mm f2.8 that was in the original Canon FD mount, and though it was only $79, brand new, it was a great lens and could be shot wide open with reasonable results. The camera I mostly used it on was my first SLR, the Canon TX, a fully manual, all metal camera body with shutter speeds up to a whopping 1/500th of a second... That camera had one great feature: It was impossible to break.

I dragged the combo across Europe one Fall and came home with a number of great Tri-X images.

Lately I've been hankering (Texana) for a 135mm lens that fits those same parameters. Not too heavy and not too big, but plenty sharp and better optically than the "fast" zooms. Sadly, the only prime 135mm left in the Nikon catalog is the 135mm f2.0 DC lens, which I consider a specialty optic. Yes, it's very sharp and also has the feature of being able to dial in spherical distortion for a more pleasing bokeh, but the damn thing is three times as heavy as the old 135mm and three times as expensive. Great fashion lens --- crappy lens for walking around.

Almost every 135mm lens out there is a variation of a fairly simple optical formula so I can't think that the mid-speed ones are expensive to build, but because of the influx of people into the craft who always think, "faster is better" and "zooming is better", the choices we used to take for granted have disappeared. If you happen to have an old 135mm Nikon f2.8 ais or ai lens you'd like to get rid of you might want to drop me a line. It's the current gap in my portrait pantheon that's driving me a little nuts.

Are there focal lengths that you loved that have disappeared? Would you buy it if it re-appeared? Or are you as happy as can be with the "holy trinity" of f2.8 zoom lenses?

17 comments:

Anonymous said...

I went to Iraq a few years ago, about five minutes after the Nikon D3 came out, to fly with an assault helicopter battalion. I took a D3 and a D300 and the three f2.8 zooms and a lot of batteries and nothing else and they served me wonderfully. But they're a load to carry, and they're really best for journo-style work; nothing particularly sexy about them. So, as I think you have said any number of time, you pick the gear for the assignment. If I were doing your work, I don't know if I'd have any zooms at all. If I were to take the same trip again, I'd take three Panny m4/3 bodies and Panny's equivalent zooms, and throw in a couple of specialty lenses and get away with about half the weight...As good as some of the specialty lenses are, and as neat as some of the effects are, sometimes that zoom thing is the "thang."

JC

Yoram Nevo said...

You have the - Olympus M.Zuiko ED 75mm f/1.8 - that on the OMDs will be 140mm equivalent.
Everybody says it is a great lens (I have no personal experience with it).
Also it is small and light (i.e. not heavy)

Nigel said...

The Sigma 60mm 2.8 on your Oly ?

Don Parsons said...

Back in the good ol' days when I was a newsie, I carried around a 24 f2, 35 f2, 50 f1.7, 100 f2.8 and 200 f4 with a couple of bodies. I figured I could shoot about 95% of anything with those lenses. For sports, I had a 300 f4 but it wasn't an everyday lens.

I got to where I just took my 35-50-100 on most assignments.

Don

Dave Jenkins said...

Sometime around 1997, Phillip Greenspun, the founder of photo.net, wrote that "one cannot be a professional photographer without a 70-200mm f2.8 lens." That caused me some consternation, because I had been a professional photographer for years before I owned anything longer than a 135mm.

I did eventually get away from the 135. My last kit of all prime lenses, which I carried on a documentary assignment to Singapore, India, and South Korea in 1992, consisted of 24/f2.8, 35/f2, 85/f2, and 180/f2, all Olympus Zuikos. The 180, in particular, was a sweet lens. However, after that I left the true faith and succumbed to the seduction of zooms (and the autofocus charms of Canon).

Nigel said...

And yes, the Oly 75mm is indeed a really nice lens.
Slightly too long to fit the brief, though (& I find myself wishing it were slightly shorter).

Gato said...

We think too much alike. Since I bought the D800 I have shopped several times for a 135, preferably 2.8. I'm very tempted by the AI Nikkors but lack confidence in my manual focus skills - I'm way out of practice.

Back in my newspaper days most of my lenses were 2.8 - I usually carried 24 2.8, 85 1.8, 200 2.8 and in the car had a 300 2.8. I really preferred my 100 2.8 to the 85, but with Tri-X and available light 1.8 helped - if I had to push a roll for one headshot that could mean an extra film run when I got to the darkroom. With today's high ISO capabilities 2.8 would be no problem.

I use the Sigma 2.8 lenses a lot on m4/3 - I love the 60 and really like the other two. I was just on ebay looking at 80-200 2.8 for Nikon, but would really prefer a 135.

Robin said...

I have the Canon 135mm f2 lens which is a beauty, but since getting a 70-200mm IS zoom, I confess I rarely use it. If I need a single prime tele I prefer 85mm for general use. I think I would use the 135mm more if it had IS because, in practical terms, IS is much more useful than the extra stop it gives me. But, it is a really nice lens and I can't bear to sell it. When I was with Leica-R I used 90mm and 180mm, so 135mm is, ultimately, perhaps neither fish not fowl.

Dave Jenkins said...

Correction: my Olympus Zuiko 180mm lens was f2.8, not f2.

Mark Bridgers said...

https://www.keh.com/search/list?m=1&fl[]=135mm

couple choices....

Carlo Santin said...

I still use the Nikon 135mm 3.5 on both film and digital bodies (D300, F100, FE). If you do not need the speed it is a great lens, very sharp and lively. I paid well under $100 for it a few years ago, small and not too heavy with a built-in retractable lens hood. You could manual focus that on one of your Nikon FF bodies no problem. The viewfinder on the D300 is quite nice and large, so I can get 99% of the way there just looking through the viewfinder, using the green focus dot to get me home. Works great for me.

Dave said...

Old Nikkors.
- 55mm f/3.5 (sharp, sharp, sharp), probably bought it for $35
- 135mm AI (2.8) costed all of $35,
- 75-150mm f/3.5 contrasty and within a whisker of the vaunted 70-200mm second mortgage VR and cost me like $50.

Of these the 75-150 is probably the most overlooked and does great things on my Nikon APSC and was amazing on the EP1 & Panasonic GH cameras. I'm not the guy to dump $2,000 on a single lens -- ever. When I went to China on business it was the 75-150 that made the trip since there was no way I was lugging the 80-200 AFS.

These days it would just be my RX10 and RX100. The old glass sits there like a lonely pup that the kids no longer play with. But I can't bring myself to part with them. I'll probably pick an abandoned D700 at some point just because they're cheap and the world is wanting uber pixels.

Craig Lee said...

Rokinon has a 135mm prime that is chipped for the Nikon mount. I seem to recall that you have a couple of Rokinon lenses that you've written. Of course it'll be manual focus, and doesn't have stabilization.

Anonymous said...

Second the 75-150 Nikkor E, when I'm carrying the Df and feeling retro.
The 135 is a great lens. Pre-zoom, it was often the "second" lens in a kit. You'd buy your Minolta SRT-101 with the Rokkor 5x/1.7, and they'd throw in an off brand 135.

It's a funny focal length. The longest lens a rangefinder 35mm used to be able to focus, and therefore somehow ever after it was a thing.

mudhouse said...

Looks like we started out with similar kits—mine was a Mamiya-Sekor 1000DTL with an M-S 50 and a Vivitar 135/3.5, back in 1971...

The Nikkor 135/2.8 AIS lenses are still around, and can be gotten for cheap if you're in the right place at the right time. My wife was rummaging about in an estate sale a few years ago and she found a lens, so she called me to ask whether I wanted it. It turned out to be a 135/2.8 AIS in pristine condition for $60. I rarely use anything over 50mm these days, but I don't part with lenses. You never know when you're gonna need 'em. In fact, I'm still hanging onto (my second copy of) the 43-86, the most beautifully built, worst performing lens I've ever owned... ;-)

Hugh said...

I bought Canon just so I could use the 135/2.0.

Just got rid of everything except a 5D3, 35/1.4L II, 85/1.2L and 135/2.0L.

I only had a 35mm and 135mm for several years in the film days, and I could happily go back to just those two lenses. Less decisions, pure Zen.

Anonymous said...

I know it is a bit of a cheat - i.e. not an exact comparison - but on a Nikon DX camera, the perspective from Nikon's excellent 85 mm f/1.8 will be similar to the 135 on a full-frame camera. Each of the recent flavors of that lens (AF-S and AF-D) is very well made, small and lightweight. AF-D lenses will not autofocus with the lower end cameras, but will do just fine on the D7xxx series. Just a thought. Ken