Photography / Hands-on Review

Thoughts on Coming to Terms with 135mm Lenses

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As a photographer, I’ve learned to appreciate the subtle and not-so-subtle differences between lenses of differing focal lengths. I’ve used full-frame lenses as wide as 10mm, as long as 1200mm, and just about every focal length in between but, for some reason, 135mm lenses have never resonated with me.

Give me an 85mm or 105mm lens and I’m happy. Ditto 150mm and 180mm lenses. But mount a 135mm lens on my camera and something in my creative soul curls up and starts rocking back and forth in fetal position. Why? I don’t know, but when a friend recently bequeathed me his late father’s 1969-vintage Nikon F camera system, low and behold, the first lens I pulled out of the bag was a 135mm f/3.5 Nikkor-Q. Oh, happy days…

If it wasn’t for the fact I had a positive experience reviewing a Zeiss Milvus 135mm f/2 ZF.2 this past year, I might have let the lens sit in the bag for another decade or two, but I really liked the Zeiss 135, so I decided to give the lens a try.

Unlike modern 135mm fixed primes, many of which allow you to focus as close as 2.6'—or about a quarter life size, the 135mm f/3.5 Nikkor-Q only focuses down to a paltry five feet, which is fine for head-and-shoulder photographs but a total no-go when it comes to capturing tight facial close-ups. This was a key reason I found my earliest 135mm lens so frustrating to use.

I was about to toss the lens into a box of yard sale specials when I decided to give it a second chance to win me over. I mated the lens with my Sony A7R II using a Metabones Nikon F to Sony E-mount lens adapter and headed north up Ninth Avenue to see what I could see.


Modern digital cameras don’t always jibe with 50-year-old lenses, especially at wider apertures, where chromatic aberrations reign supreme. Stop most lenses down a few stops and the image quality vastly improves, and this lens was no exception. Even wide open, the image files were relatively aberration free.

I’ve long been partial to wider-angle lenses. Regardless, I can quickly adapt to longer focal length lenses and come away with photographs that satisfy my needs and/or my clients. Perhaps it’s experience or perhaps a greater level of patience since I first went out with a 135mm lens but, this time around, I felt far lower levels of resistance to the lens and before long I began seeing pictures.

As a street shooter, one thing I had to readjust to when using a lens triple the focal length of lenses I typically use, was the added space between me and my subject. As a wide-angle shooter, I usually work within close range of my subject. When shooting with a 135mm lens, I found myself waiting for pedestrians to pass and, in the case of buses, cars, and taxis, a red light to hold up auto traffic while I crouched in the middle of the street, framing my shot.

Head-and-shoulder portraits are easy with the 135mm lens, and the focal length serves well in maintaining a comfortable distance between the subject and the lens. There’s no denying that getting in real close to one’s subject can result in strong visual dynamics but, at the end of the day, you work with what you have and in the case of this lens, it means working with a wishy-washy close focusing distance.

Shooting at the lens’s closest focusing distance at f/3.5 produces pleasing portraits that display gentle falloff of image sharpness fore and aft of my friend, New York City portrait photographer Louis Mendez’s eyes.

As mentioned up front, I tend to get close to my subject and though this particular lens comes nowhere close to a macro lens, I was able to find and photograph abstract visuals along the way that hold their own when compared to photos taken with closer-focusing lenses I enjoy using.


After several jaunts with the lens, I must admit I might have passed judgement on 135mm lenses prematurely. Often, we dismiss things that don’t meet 100% of our expectations the first few times we try them and, for me, this was certainly the case.

Perhaps it’s experience, or maybe the fact I’ve learned to be a bit more patient when it comes to learning or experiencing new ideas (and focal lengths). Regardless, I doubt if the thought of mounting a 135mm lens on my camera will be psychologically traumatic moving forward. Truth be told, I’m probably going take it out for a walk during my lunch break today. (It’s real nice outside!)

Do you have a lens or focal length that you had to come to terms with? Let us know, we’d be curious to hear about it.

5 Comments

I have a Canon FD 135mm f2 which I use with my AE-1 and T-90 and with a Novoflex adapter on my MFT Olympus cameras. It is a wonderful lens.

I suppose it all boils down to eing comfortable with the focal length.  I started out with a 135mm on my old Nikon FTn (or was that the F Photomic T...I really don't remember) and still have the lens.  The 135 f3.5 gets regular use in a somewhat unusual way to this day.  I have the lens reverse ringed onto my old Nikon Bellows and use the rig for macro photography on a Nikon digital camera.  I've even used it on the bellows with a D3100 (and bracketed each shot + - 4 stops at 1/2 stop increments) for still-life photography.

In the absence of other comments I shall digress slightly.

I have the opposite problem with older manual-focus glass - because I wear multi focal contact lenses I often find manual focus a trial, and so struggle with a variety of lenses and focal lengths.

In a similar situation to Allan, a Vivitar 70-150 Autozoom fell into my possession. It's only problem is that it has a "resting detent" at 150mm which makes it difficult to rotate the barrel, so I regularly run it at about 135 where it rotates freely. It's an awesome lens and has absolutely forensic split-screen focusing which never fails me and is always 100% accurate. It's a K-mount, so I use it on an early K1000. This lens, along with slow speed black and white film (like Pan F 50 or RPX 25), and Ilford Perceptol development is getting me shots that are indistinguisable from good digital (when scanned and edited).

And I love street shooting at this focal length, it's just enough to not be intrusive when you're not always sure how people will react. Some initial research led me to realise that various incarnations of this lens were made by different manufacturers contracted to Vivitar - revealed by the serial numbering - I can't remember the exact codes off hand, but realised mine is one of the "good" ones.

Your lens is defective. It's mpossible to take a picture of Louis Mendez without a smile :-)

Not at all. The trick is to tell him you just got word the last known stash of flashbulbs just went to the highest bidder at Sothebys and moviving forward he's gonna have to settle for TTL Speedlites.

He knows me and my sense of humor so I had to work fast.

AW

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