Sigma Art 135mm f/1.8: A Classic Focal Length is New Again

Sigma Art 135mm f/1.8: A Classic Focal Length is New Again

The first telephoto lens I owned was a Zuiko 135mm attached to an Olympus OM-10. In the 1980s, 135mm was considered a premiere focal length for portraiture. Nowadays, the focal length is uncommon for prime lenses – a victim of the new focal lengths du jour at 85mm and 105mm. Nikon still sells a 135mm f/2 DC that they introduced in 1990. Canon is allegedly working on a new version for 2018, but the current f/2 iteration dates back to 2002. Neither Sony nor Fuji makes primes in this focal length.

So it’s both surprising, but not totally unexpected for Sigma to release a 135mm f/1.8 version for their heralded Art series of lenses.

Increased sensor resolution and performance has necessitated new lens designs. Beyond price point, an arguable part of Sigma’s (and the other 3rd party manufacturers) success has been its ability to release more modern lens designs at a faster clip than the Nikons and Canons of the world. And this particular lens is faster and cheaper than the name brand competition.

Like other lenses in the Art range, the lens is a hefty piece of glass weighing in at 2.49 lbs. With the hood attached, it’s big. Maybe not 70-200mm big, but the lens is still pretty conspicuous. Like most modern lens construction, it features Sigma version of low dispersion and fluorite elements to reduce optical distortions.

On my first few days shooting with the lens, I tried to re-familiarize myself with the focal length. Since I’m much more inclined to use wide angle lenses, it was fun to have the added reach and compressive effects of the telephoto. Everything was looking good on my camera LCD, but when I pulled the images up on the computer, nothing seemed sharp. I’ve been known to miss focus on more than a handful of images – especially with slim depth-of-field, but this was something different.

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Several years ago, I tested the Sigma 35mm f/1.4, and based on the fantastic optics of that lens, I had a hard time believing that the 135mm would be so optically inferior. And then I recalled reading something Michael Clark had posted on Facebook. While testing his Nikon D850 with a number of lenses, he mentioned how small problems that might have been previously unnoticeable became amplified with the 45MP sensor. In his case, images that were sharp at a given shutter speed on a lower resolution sensor were now exhibiting blur with the increased resolution.

In my case, I suspected that I needed to play around with the autofocus fine tune menu. Using Reikan FoCal software, I discovered that the camera needed an autofocus fine tune value of -12 (moderate back focus). Once I made that adjustment, the lens started to shine. In other words, you MUST fine tune your lenses (particularly your longer lenses) with high resolution sensors. I didn’t have Sigma’s USB dock, which would have allowed even more fine tuning of the lenses.

Focus speed is fast. Color rendition and contrast is fantastic. The lens exhibits expected vignetting wide open, but it’s unnoticeable at f/2.5 and smaller.

ISO 64, 135mm, f/1.8 at 1/4000s

ISO 100, 135mm, f/4.0 at 1/250s

I didn’t run into any flare or ghosting even when shooting into the sunset.

ISO 100, 135mm, f/2.5 at 1/1000s

Chromatic aberration was non-existent even shooting into backlit situations.

On bright days, the hood definitely helped reduce indirect light from bouncing around the glass.

ISO 64, 135mm, f/2.5 at 1/5000s

ISO 200, 135mm, f/5.6 at 1/800s

I’m not the type of person to obsess over the bokeh. To me, the best quality of out-of-focusness is non-descript and has no identifiable characteristics. The sharpness of the lens combined with the depth-of-field of the focal length can yield some really nice depth from foreground to background.

This shot was a pretty good indication of sharpness.

Look at the hair on his arm. That’s pretty astonishing detail at 1:1.

ISO 80, 135mm, f/7.1 at 1/640s

On the Nikon side of the fence, the $2200 105mm f/1.4 is the Sigma’s nearest competitor. Nikon also has two options at 85mm: a $476 (f/1.8 with 7-blade aperture) and $1596 (85mm f/1.4 with 9-blade). I’ve used the 105mm f/1.4 (built like a tank) and the 85mm f/1.8 (incredibly light). All of these lenses perform admirably and at different price points, which is great for photographers. The modern designs almost guarantee high optical quality.

There’s not much to criticize about this lens. It’s a fantastic intersection of sharpness, weight and price. Image stabilization would have been an added bonus, but that would have increased weight and price. Perhaps the greatest compliment I can give the Sigma 135mm f/1.8 is that I would seriously consider adding this lens to my arsenal. But on the other hand, I might need to try out the newly announced Sigma 105mm f/1.4 first…

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This article was written by

Allen Murabayashi is the Chairman and co-founder of PhotoShelter. He co-hosts the "I Love Photography" podcast on iTunes.

There are 2 comments for this article
  1. Andrew at 12:59 pm

    135mm is such an awesome focal length!
    For the sake of correctness, I would like to point out that Fujifilm DOES make a 135mm (equivalent) lens for their x-series cameras in the 90mm f/2!

  2. Jimmy Smits at 7:43 am

    As you pointed out, many Canon users have been using a 135 for a long time. Nothing “new” again about this lens. 85’s for a long time, (even in the 70, 80’s 90’s) were considered the premium portrait lens.

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