Photo Gear, Tokyo

Carl Zeiss Batis 135mm f/2.8 – User Review

I’ve been using the Carl Zeiss Batis 135mm f/2.8 for over 2 months now and I’m going to be sad to return it. The Sony E-mount has been sorely missing a 135mm lens in its line-up and Zeiss has finally delivered in convincing style. I’m going to go into detail a little bit here about why I’ve enjoyed using this lens so much, and provide some sample photos for you all to gander at.

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong Carl Zeiss Batis 135mm Review (4)

First of all, it has to be noted that with the Batis series Carl Zeiss has gone and done something a little different to their usual approach to lenses. The Batis series is completely autofocus friendly, which is good news if you’re not comfortable with purely manual focus lenses (although I have a whole diatribe on why MF is back in a big way – here). Paired with the Sony A series’ rather excellent focus and eye tracking system, this makes the latest Batis an impressive lens indeed for all sorts of applications, which we’ll get to. Firstly however, I want to address the elephant in the room, which some people are concerned about.

I’ve been seeing a lot of angry Internet comments about how a 2.8 max aperture is ‘too slow’ or ‘doesn’t have enough depth of field’ for some of the more ‘professional’ camera forum nerds. I’m going to go into a few reasons as to why you might want to hold your judgement until after you’ve picked this lens up for yourself. Here’s a practical reason first up; while 2.8 might sound like a modest aperture, keep in mind that the difference between your photo being good or garbage does not lie between the figures 2.0 and 2.8. f/2.8 is fast – especially with the high ISO performance of the a7RII and the a7SII – and it’s literally the best compromise between speed, size and weight that you are going to get for the Sony alpha series. I’ve owned 135mm lenses from other companies before where the big draw was the max 2.0 aperture setting, and while I won’t name the company, I will say that I never used it at 2.0. The reason being that wide open, the lens performed like garbage – unbelievable chromatic aberration and an overall haziness to the scene that disappeared when stopped down. So I say thank you to Carl Zeiss for not throwing in a half-baked f/2.0 max aperture purely to tick a marketing box, and making the lens bulkier, heavier and more expensive in the process.

Which brings us onto performance – wide open, this lens is jawdropping, and I say that with absolute confidence having been transfixed by the back of my camera at the results it gives. Where do I start? The basics are solid – virtually no chromatic aberration in high contrast scenes and super sharp from edge to edge wide open. The lens focuses surprisingly close for a 135mm, allowing you to really cream up the background in an orgy of bokeh. The bokeh looks fantastic of course – it’s a Carl Zeiss Apo Sonnar design with new lens elements that disperse stray light more efficiently, leading to images that pop with contrast and color. Short story – the lens leaves nothing on the table when it comes to image quality. Technically it is superb, and I can’t think of a single thing that leaves me wanting.

Which brings us onto the user experience. I’ve had the fortune to have used the other lenses in the Batis lineup quite extensively already – the 18mm, 25mm and 85mm, so I more or less knew what to expect in this case. The lens itself is smooth and sleek with no buttons or moving parts other than a wide rubber focusing ring, and that interesting OLED readout on the top. The autofocus is slick and accurate for the most part – but I never know if that’s more due to the camera or the lens. Either way, it’s a smooth experience. The Batis 135mm also works like a dream with the a7RII’s continuous eye tracking autofocus, which can be mapped to a button, meaning that you’ll pretty much always nail critical focus on the eyes – an amazing feature for a portrait lens. My only minor quibble about this lens is that the manual focus mode is electronic, meaning that it’s not the best lens for video as shots requiring rack focus cannot be repeated reliably. For photos it is perfectly usable if a little hard to get used to if you’re accustomed to the smooth focus action of the Loxias or other Zeiss MF lenses.

The real bottom line is well, the bottom line; can you afford it? It’s not the cheapest option out there but since when has a lens by Carl Zeiss needed to compete at the shallow end of the pool? No – if you buy this lens you know you’re shelling out for a premium piece of equipment that has extremely high performance all the way through its aperture range. Whether its dreamy portraiture or reportage from a distance you’re after, this lens performs. And that’s really all there is to say. For further proof, check out the image gallery below.