Review – Canon EF 135mm f/2L

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Review – Canon EF 135mm f/2L
By: Justin VanLeeuwen | Twitter
Discuss the Canon EF 135mm f/2L

Exploring the pantheon of Canon prime lenses, I find the standard telephotos don’t get as much attention as they possibly should. Everyone talks about the 50mm 1.2, the 85mm 1.2 or even longer focal lengths like the 200mm f/2 and those up in the “super-telephoto” range, but what about 100 to200mm? Did the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 L IS II steal all the hype and made everything else in this range antiquated and irrelevant? Not Quite. To those who know, the Canon 135mm f/2 L is one of the sharpest and most capable telephoto lenses available. It’s fast, it produces gorgeous images and it won’t cost you nearly as much as the highest rated zoom.

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The Canon 135mm f/2 L is a bit of an older lens, but it does not lack in the quality of build you’d expect from an L series lens. When handling it for the first time, you realize that it is no larger than some of the wider-angle primes. Indeed, this lens is quite discreet given its focal distance. It’s also relatively light as it doesn’t contain extra lens elements like a zoom, it has a relatively small front lens element (72mm), and (for better or worse) lacks Image Stabilization.

The lens features a durable black metal construction. While it’s not weather sealed with a rubber gasket where the camera & lens meet, it honestly doesn’t need to be; this isn’t an outdoor sports lens. In fact, its size and weight is comparable to the Canon 16-35 f/2.8 L and 24mm f/1.4. Thus, despite its telephoto range, it won’t draw too much attention, which is a plus when attempting more discreet photography.

The image produced by a lens is what really matters, right? I mean, people buy plastic Diana lenses to get that certain “look” just as others also buy very expensive wide-open aperture 85mm 1.2 L’s to also achieve a specific look. The 135, with a very sharp wide-open f/2 aperture is highly regarded for its own look.

Chromatic aberration was present, though not altogether uncontrolled when shooting scenes with strong contrast. Having this lens in winter gave me plenty of white to dark transitions, and some of the snow I photographed had a soft purple “glow” to them. While this is correctable in post, RAW processors will just de-saturate the affected areas, possibly leaving the image worse-off.

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When pointed at a light source, the lens is capable of creating beautiful, if not outright artistic, lens flare. This is not the “soft” kind of white flare you can get from some lenses, but a well-defined ring pattern with colour and its own beautiful texture.

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Many lenses vignette when wide-open and the 135 f/2 is no exception. I tend to enjoy a strong vignette on my telephoto lenses, even often adding one in post. Vignetting is also very easy to correct in most image processors. Of course, vignetting disappears when you stop down, but why would you do that? This is an f/2 lens; why else would you buy a fast lens other than to shoot it wide open to create dreamy creamy bokehlicious backgrounds.

Who’s it for?
I feel that anyone can take good photos with this lens (as long as you properly account for camera-shake and a narrow depth of field). With a focus range that can cover tight-headshots to full-body portraits while maintaining a blurred background, the 135 f/2 is ideal for photographs of the human form, photojournalists may be pleased with the savings in weight and space a 135L will afford them over a 70-200 zoom. Compatible with Canon’s 1.4x teleconverter, you can easily have a 189mm f/2.8 lens with little added cost or weight.

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I have seen remarkable editorial and wedding photography come out of this lens. Full length bridal portraits with the background blurred out perfectly, but retaining all the loving detail of a gown. Event shooters may like the extra 2/3rds of a stop of light over the 70-200 f/2.8 L II, but I still find the versatility of a zoom plays better in some fast-paced commercial settings.

My time spent with the Canon 135 f/2 L was addictive, and I feel that I barely scratched the surface of the possibility of remarkable images I could create with such a lovely lens.  Anyone looking for a fast and relatively inexpensive portrait lens that will make your images stand out should seriously consider the Canon 135 f/2 L. APS-C crop body users might find the 216mm equivalent a bit much for day-to-day use, and many do find their way to an 85mm lens (136mm equivalent). And like the 85mm lenses, the 135 f/2 L is a bokeh-machine, producing great images, seemingly, without me even trying.

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I loved using this lens for portraits. You can confidently take outstanding images of people in almost any setting; it is capable in low light, rendering lovely colour and contrast in the sun, and managing everything in-between. If you photograph people, this might be the last lens you’ll ever need.

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