A Portraitist Lens
Possibly this is the lens that I have been waiting for. That is a pretty big statement, I am sure you are thinking. So it better be good, right? Well as the first word states ”possibly” .
The lens in question is as the title suggests, another older model Nikkor lens. An AF-D model 135mm f/2 DC. As to why it may be the lens that I have really been waiting for should become clear as we plow through this review.
Once again this is another lens that falls into the “brain recovery” program. In case you have not read any of the other reviews that I have posted, here is a quick explanation. In the end of 2003 I sold off a number of prime AI-S lenses. In did not take long before I discovered the enormity of my mistake. Thus I started the above mentioned program to capture back what I had so foolishly “given” away. It is I must say something one should not do, in fact it could even be an axiom.
This one is hard to beat. Really a “hand crafted” feeling lens. Very solid, in that 90’s crinkle finish metal / plastic exterior. With no ten year recycle logo to be found anywhere on the lens. In my opinion not quite as luxurious in look and feel as the older AI-S lenses, but it has that “will last for a long time” essence to it. All letters and numbers are merely painted on and in white. Which to me is a little distracting from the overall quality. It has a very wide rubber focusing grip and feels to me very much like a MF lens when in the manual mode. Also this lens comes with a built-in lens hood, which locks into place. Some may say this hood is too short, but I find it adequate and really appreciate that it is there. Again if you haven’t read any of the other reviews of mine, I shall repeat myself by saying I do not like the new hoods made from “whatever” as I have broken quite a few and or the bayonet mount wears out too fast. Compared to it’s two cousins that I own (the 85mm f/1.4 AF-D and the 180mm f/2.8 AF-D) the 135 has more metal and feels much more solid as a result.
It is a little disconcerting to me that today some of the new primes being made by Nikon (which maybe are superior in their optical quality) should be made from some polycarbonate material and carry that ten year recycle logo on them. With prices over $1500-, can’t we as end users get both good optics and beautiful build quality? This last part may seem a bit off the subject of this review, but I feel it is relevant.
First let’s talk about this DC part of the name. It stands for Defocus Control. Okay what the hell does that mean? It is nothing like a tilt-shift lens or like a “LensBaby” adapter. It is indented for controlling the amount of DOF beyond the normal aperture, subject magnification range. The way it works is that you can set the aperture to say f/5.6 and then move the DC ring so that either the front or rear out-of-focus areas mimic a wider aperture’s DOF. In my brief time with this lens I found this feature to be much more subtle then I had imagined it to have been. However if you perform the reverse, that is have a wider aperture setting then the DC control setting, then what you end up with is a very soft focus look. Very much as if you were to use a “soft tar” filter and it is anything but subtle. Of course I will perform a lot more experimentation with this device in the future. If anything comes up worth reporting I shall do so.
Using the lens just as an f/2, 135mm lens is what I shall concentrate on. Since it is designated as an AF lens, it is the best place to start. Because it is the older style auto focusing system, it has the “clumsy” M/A switch on the barrel. Also because it is the old the “screw drive” it relies on the camera to do the actual focusing. On the pro bodies this is not a problem, though on the lower end consumer models it will be a problem. With that said I doubt very much someone would buy this particular lens and couple it with a lower end body. It is after all something of a specialty lens. On my D3 and D700 it is quite fast if a little noisy. In fact from all of the AF-D lenses that I have shot with it is the fastest and only the 50mm f/1.4 AF-D lens comes close. The big difference between those two is that the 50mm hunts a lot more in low light/contrast situations.
The sample that I have is a used model that I bought off ebay. When I first got it, I found it front focused in close-up situations. Going into the AF fine tune on both my bodies, I got excellent results with the lens after making an +15 adjustment. It is however the only lens that I own where I had to do that. A bit of a disappointment for sure, but since it rectified the problem and that it was a used sample, I cannot complain too much. My recommendation would be to try out several if at all possible and pick the one that focuses best. As noted above the manual focus works wonderfully, though I haven’t felt much need to use it.
At wide open the lens is great and I feel absolutely no hesitation in using it at that aperture. At f/2.8 to f8 it really is as others have said “bitingly sharp” . There are of course more things in a lens then how sharp it is. The other is the quality of it’s out-of-focus areas and how they are rendered (bokeh). This lens is really quite special in that regards. Every bit as nice as the 85mm f/1.4 at f/2. Also at wide open it exhibits some vignetting, not a problem for me as I like it and often add more in post. At f/2.8 and definitely by f/4 it is gone.
One more word on the AF system. Recently I experienced considerable trouble with my 85mm f/1.4 when shooting subjects in the 4 to 6 meter range (12 to 20 feet) at a wedding. Later trying to duplicate the problem, I discovered a way to circumvent it from happening. Don’t laugh, but I have to use a strange expression here. What I found that worked best was to “double clutch” the AF system. What I mean is that I pushed the shutter release twice in quick succession. Double clutching is a term that comes from pre synchro gear box days in trucks. One had to engage the clutch once to pull it out of a gear and then again putting it back into another gear. This method I tried on the 135mm with the same good results. I would be interested if anyone else has tried this technique and what they thought of it.
When I first got my 85mm f/1.4, the camera I was using was the D2X, which with the APS sensor gave me a field of view of 127mm. A focal length that I really got use to and liked. So putting the 135 on a full frame sensor camera like the D3 works almost the same, maybe better. In my portrait work I put the 85 on one camera body and the 135 on another and love the ability to switch back and forth. Yes I know a pro zoom would do the same work on one camera. Not really the same though. Besides the 135 is actually quite discreet in comparison to the 85 not to mention the 80-200 or 70-200 big zooms or even the 24-70. Probably the built in lens hood has a lot to do with it. There is a lot to be said about the discreetness of one lens over the other. Those big zooms or any lens with a 77mm front element and detached hood can become very intimidating.
The acquisition of this lens did come with some troubles that I feel is worth mentioning here. Through ebay I sold a number of old lenses and an F100 camera body, to help pay for the lens. This did not go smoothly. Two of the buyer’s addresses were wrongly posted by ebay and caused considerable trouble in rectifying. Then two of the transactions turned out to be scam jobs by the buyers. In the past I have had a lot of success buying items off ebay and can still recommend doing so. However instead of the old adage “buyer beware”, one thinking of selling should be equally if not more on guard for things to go terribly wrong, thus “seller beware”! In the end I only got taken for the F100. Was the trouble worth it? In my opinion yes, though there were moments when . . .
One of my former students also acquired one and I had hoped to include his feelings and some samples in this post. As soon as those become available I shall make an addendum to this post.
Till next time!