Portrait photographers have long clutched their precious 85mm f/1.4 lenses. They have had good reason. The 85mm is seemingly a Goldilocks length—not too long, not too short—and the f/1.4 provides that creamy bokeh we always want when photographing people. I think the 85mm can step aside to make room for the 135mm—specifically, Sony’s outstanding FE 135mm f/1.8 GM Lens.
I would argue that the Sony FE 135mm f/1.8 GM lens is built for the single purpose of producing the smoothest and most beautiful bokeh possible. The extra telephoto length provides a tad more separation from the background and pushing the aperture all the way to f/1.8 combine to give photographers and filmmakers all they could’ve ever wanted. G Master branding also guarantees that Sony took care with the bokeh, eliminating odd artifacts such as onion rings.
Character hasn’t been forgotten. The FE 135mm f/1.8 GM lens still has a distinct look and some of its own, let’s say, aberrations that make it both an artistic achievement as well as an engineering one. One other thing makes the 135mm great: it’s sharp. Tack sharp. Sharp glass with beautiful, smooth shifts into the out-of-focus areas are ideal. Classic bokeh lenses used to have to sacrifice some sharpness to get that creamy look. Examples would be the Leica Noctilux-M 50mm f/0.95 ASPH. and the more recent Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM.
Just don’t always leave it at f/1.8. Not that it isn’t a good look, it’s just very, very shallow. Shooting portraits with it will have the tip of a nose fall noticeably out of focus. That’s fine if that’s the aesthetic you want; I would just advise not relying on it. The lens does manage to get just a tad better as you stop down, too. So there’s no harm in using some other f-stops. With 11 blades in the aperture diaphragm, the lens is able to maintain circular bokeh as you stop down.
One thing I will say is that the bokeh isn’t absolutely perfect in every way. It won’t have the absolutely perfect circles of the FE 100mm f/2.8 GM OSS STF because it doesn’t have that apodization filters. The ultra-wide aperture also contributes to the appearance of cat-eye-shaped bokeh near the edges. This does have a benefit of producing a nice-looking swirl when you have a more active background. This is one of those things that comes down to preference, but I don’t think a bit of a distinct look ever hurt a lens. Filmmakers still choose decades-old lens sets because of their specific flaws.
Flare and ghosting are very well controlled. While I don’t have a great example—partially because it combats flare so effectively—you can be sure that flare and ghosting won’t negatively impact your images. Of course, if you point it directly at the sun, you will get some results, but with careful framing you shouldn’t ever see it. Finally, chromatic aberrations are essentially non-existent. Shooting wide open doesn’t reveal any of these artifacts in any meaningful way. And, even in the rare instances a hair of aberrations appear, it is extremely easy to correct in post.
All of these characteristics, combined, result in what I think is the absolute best portrait prime in Sony’s lineup. It’s also, unfortunately, priced accordingly. If you are a professional photographer who shoots portraits or weddings, I think this is one of those lenses that could easily become a staple in your bag.
All Good Tech
Optics are only half the picture with modern camera lenses. You can’t forget about all those other features that make lenses worth the expense and make our lives easier. Number one on that list is autofocus. It’s an XD Linear Motor System, which essentially means it’s fast. And it is very fast and accurate when paired with Sony’s latest cameras. I had it on the a7 III and had absolutely no issues or delays, even with Eye AF. One other thing I’ve come to appreciate on many newer lenses is that they have lowered the minimum focus distances. The 135mm can get as close as 2.3', which doesn’t sound super impressive, but in practice was very useful.
One very nice feature of the 135mm is that manual focus now has a linear response. Most existing E-mount glass—except the also recent FE 24mm f/1.4 GM—has suffered from a distinctly non-linear focus-by-wire system. This means that repeatable focus movements and a reliable understanding of how much movement is required to shift focus onto the next target was practically impossible. Linear response MF fixes that problem. It also makes the lens very suitable for video and, speaking of video, the 135mm sports a physical aperture ring which can be de-clicked via a switch on the side. Smooth aperture pulls are easily pulled off. Being dual purpose gives the lens a bit more life and value.
Bouncing off the various functions available on the lens barrel, the 135mm is another great lens to handle. It looks big, but is actually quite lightweight. It also balances very well on an a7 series camera using a battery grip—a helpful arrangement for shooting lots of portraits. It has the same design as the other G Masters, and should hold up to professional use with ease.
Are you a fan of the slightly longer 135mm focal length for portraits? Curious about Sony’s latest version? Leave all your thoughts and questions in the Comments section, below.