Taking a new look at an older lens. The Nikkor 135mm f2.0. ai.

I've been on a search for the right 135mm lens for a while now. I've had the Rokinon 135 f2.0 in and out of my shopping cart on Amazon a couple of times. I've tested the Nikon 135mm f2.0 Defocus Coupling lens and I spent a day with the Zeiss 135 f2.0, shooting around town. Through all of this I had a niggling thought in the back of my mind. I kept thinking that the lens I really wanted was one I'd owned many years ago. Decades ago. 

I like old Nikon lenses. The fully manual ones. The ones you have to manually focus. The ones with hard stops at infinity. The ones with external aperture rings. The ones that were so well built they might never fail. I'm tired of the plastic exteriors. I'm tired of complexity. I have really come to love the big, accurate focusing rings. I wanted a fast aperture.

My friend, Paul, had been in Precision Camera yesterday and called to tell me that, as a result of a recent expo at the store, there was a lot of great used gear getting put out on the shelves. When I woke up this morning I had visions of the old 135mm Nikkor f2.0 lens I used to use, mostly welded to the front of my F4s camera. I shot many of my favorite portraits with that lens and many more with that focal length across other brands. I walked into the store and straight to the used, manual focus shelf at the back of the store. There it was. Perfect glass. No abuse. Light use. 

My favorite store clerk uses a Nikon D600 to do great food photography and he's a good judge of lenses. He's never steered me wrong. And, to his credit, he's steered me away from more lenses than he's steered me towards. His pronouncement? "That lens is incredible!"

It's really not incredible but it is very good, has lots of personality and feels good to use. There are several 135mm f2.0 lenses that might be a little sharper, if you focus them just so. And that's only at the widest aperture.  All of them have some field curvature designed right in so none of them will be sharp across a flat frame from the center to the far corners, wide open. All of them get sharper as you stop down. But for a lens designed back in the late 1970's it's nicely competitive with the rest, once you factor in price and intended use. 

You know how I'll use it. I'll be shooting portraits under continuous light, from a tripod. I will summon up the courage to shot it wide open as long as I'm on the tripod and using the live view function of the D810 or D750 to nail critical focus. But that's how I've always intended to use every fast, long lens I buy. That's also how I use the sibling of this lens, the 105mm f2.5 ais. It works well. 

If I only shot still images with these cameras and lenses I guess I'd be happy to have autofocus capability but I keep shooting interviews and fun video and I love being able to shift focus while shooting, and to preset two focus points and rack between them. It's something these older optical systems do very well.

I could parrot what others have written or I could rely on my faulty memory of shoots done a long time ago, but I prefer to get the lens on the front of the D810, round up the usual suspects (beautiful people) and do my own optical testing with this particular sample. My preliminary shots are making me happy. Stay tuned and I'll have more to say about this one after I've gotten some portraits done. 

Feeling a bit giddy. It's not every day that you conjure up the image of the perfect portrait lens and then walk into a store that has just what you wished for. And at a price significantly lower than anywhere else. Merry Consumerism! To one and all.


  1. Merely good taste, rather than vulgar consumerism.

  2. My dad left me that little 105/2.5 ais at the bottom of a camera bag and the 135/2.8 Nikkor Q boat anchor at the top. Still, my preference was for the Rokinon 135T2.2, because damn, its sharp. Greentoe came through at $420 for Alpha mount. No complaonts either.

  3. Give an attention on the Nikon 135 mm 3.5 AI
    He is much upper to the 135 mm 2 AIS in the center and on edges in this opening ( 3.5 ).
    If you use 135 ( 2 AIS) in 3.5, it deserves reflection. My 50 cents. Cheers.

  4. I too like my old Nikon lenses. I have had 2 of them made AI aftermarket. I even bought a Novaflex adapter to use all 4 on my Sony Emount. I kept catching that small meter prong on fabric, camera bag, and the foam cozies I keep my lenses in so I removed them. Your photo shows it still attached to the 135. Am I missing something here ? I have them and the smallest screws in the world saved in a coin bag. Correct me if I'm wrong but now Nikon makes kit lenses and prosumer lenses along with professional lenses but back then they only made professional quality lenses.

  5. The spherical aberrations and other imperfections give these old fast lenses their own character. The AIS 35mm 1.4 and the AIS 50mm 1.2 also have a very nice look.

  6. Hi Kirk, Two thoughts to go with your 135mm. First a little dishsoapy water applied carefully will sort out the dusty rubber effect on the focusing ring. Secondly I like your tripod manual portrait style. The other day I was shooting with the tripod on carpet and no cable and had to resort to the 2 second delay, and this for portraits. Very interesting and enjoyable change of pace. Shot five frames where usually I would have shot 20. There were other strange pluses to do with disengaging from the camera and more with the subject that are hard to explain but good. I humbly suggest giving it a whirl.

  7. Try the old 105mm f/1.8. Really looks good and bright enough for even older eyes to focus.

  8. Whoa...
    135mm F2...
    That's a whole lotta glass...

    May your Nikon wear it well : )


  9. Boy, that lens takes me back! It was the first telephoto lens I bought for my brand-new FM back in 1978. A New York store was selling the pre-AI version for $349, so I grabbed one, along with a Nikon 2x teleconverter for a little added versatility. A $20 AI conversion by EPOI San Francisco and I was all set with an up-to-date lens. The only drawback to the lens was it was lubricated for a trip to Death Valley (or Texas in summer). It had the stiffest focusing ring of any lens I've ever used.

  10. it is funny that I happen to find this post right now, as I am offering my Nikkor 135/2 AIs in like new condition on ebay.

    I don't want to use this site for my ebay promotion!!
    But if someone is interested:

    here is it mounted on the Sony A7R

  11. I appreciated your honest appraisal of this lens, which I call "great" knowing full well that, yes, it's not stellar in all of the objective ways we might assess a lens.
    Yet, it has great character, which includes the tactile feel of its fat focusing ring and smooth helical, along with substantial "presence." I'm an avid follower of your blog as well as a long time Nikon shooter (and for the past few years, proprietor of the legacy2digital.com), so I've followed your (can we say?) return to Nikon with keen interest. It pains me that the wonderful back catalog of manual Nikon lenses get relatively scant appreciation, but even more that Nikon extracts marketing benefit from the backward compatibility of the F mount and, yet, has failed to provide its customers a focusing screen that genuinely supports focusing manual optics precisely and easily (and a great pity that Katzeye is no longer offering an alternative screen for us). Nikon didn't even take the obvious step of providing a proper manual focusing screen for the throwback Df (a camera that I was hugely excited about, until appeared).
    Fortunately, the 135/2, and 105/1.8, and other fast Nikkors (add the only 85/1.8 and 1.4 as well as 180/2.8 ED), offer a combination of large aperture light gathering and shallow depth of field, making precise focus at least possible, if not as easy or convenient as it might be.
    I await the day when we have a native F mount body with precise TTL focusing (oh the irony of that wish, 20 years on from the film era).
    Thank you, Kirk!

  12. I just love the way these older lenses were built. I have many of these older lenses with M42 mounts (some Russian) and a bunch of older non-ai and ai nikkors. My favorite at this moment is the Zeiss 50mm f2 makro planar used on my Nikon DF. It's an incredibly good 'normal' lens which can be used for close ups as well. Great stuff.

    Marc J

  13. @ Joshua
    "I await the day when we have a native F mount body with precise TTL focusing"

    you should try a Sony A7RII with a Nikon-G to E-mount adapter!

    You get the best possible focusing TTL with peaking and loupe. And with the control mechanism for G lenses you preselect the aperture on the lens and open and close it with the adapter, like we used to do it decades ago :-)


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