This is a field review of two manual focus 135mm f2.8 lenses for Nikon F mount. The reason I am doing it is because I needed something to replace a Sigma 70-200 f2.8 that, after finishing a project, was very rarely used. It was a large and heavy lens, uncomfortable to carry around for more than 2 hours and specially disturbing to photograph people (strangers). If you point a camera to someone in Norway you are asking for serious problems. So I wanted something compact, lightweight and that was capable of making high quality images. After researching I found a well of knowledge, that I will share in a moment, and the alternative was a manual focus, 5 glass elements lens with no sofistication. The opposite of the Sigma, very versatile with very fast focus, but with the tradeoff of having a million elements in it. Every time you put a glass between the subject and the sensor, the image will degrade, regardless of the quality of the glass.
So it turned out to be the Nikon 135mm f2.8, and I was so happy with it that I decided to buy another 135mm for my film camera. But the next time there were no Nikons available, so I bought a Vivitar 135mm f2.8 in excellent condition and for a very good price. Both lenses share some characteristics: 5 glass elements; 6 blades aperture; f2.8 to f22 with clicks on the ring (the Nikon goes to f32); manual focus; allow the use of matrix metering with some DX bodies and all FX; can be used in Aperture Priority; minimum focus distance is around 1,4m; built in lens hood; compact size; no longer in production (both from early 1980s).
The body used was a D7000 which is a crop sensor camera, making the 135mm lenses have an effective field of view of around 202mm. Repeating, it is the FIELD OF VIEW and NOT the FOCAL LENGTH. For an unknown reason some people spread this wrong information online, I don't know if they think it is the same thing, it IS NOT. Just to clarify it, think of a 35mm negative, now crop it on the sides, this is your cropped image. You are not altering the focal length, just the field of view, so I really don't know why some people say "equivalent focal length". The damn focal length is unchanged, it is 135mm, period, the FOV is equiv to that of a 202mm and that's it. Before we discuss about the lenses and images, I need to make clear what this review is NOT. It is not a definitve test of sharpness (though I can subjectively mention it), chromatic aberration, distortion, you will not find here shots of charts, white walls or the same things being photographed with both lenses. It is a field review, I go out for a few days with each and shoot, check the images and see if I like them or not, if the colors are good or not, if the details are there or not. I don't give a shit about zooming to 400% to see sharp details of bad ideas. I care about the convenience of the lens, if I enjoy using it, if I learn something with it.
Now that we are set, let me share with you my thoughts on each of them. Below you see both side by side. The Nikon looks just a bit taller because it has a Skylight filter on it. They are shorter when focused to infinity and longer when focused closer.
This lens is just an AI/AI-S in a body of cheaper construction. Getting one or another makes no difference in the output image if the optics are intact. Like most Nikkors AI/AI-S, this Series E has a filter diameter of 52mm. This focal length is tricky to focus manually, at f2.8 it is really difficult to get it right while hand holding. Just to give you an idea, at 7 meters from the subject you only have 30 centimeters of depth of field, but close to the focus limits the sharpness is not acceptable, so make it less than 10cm. It means that if you lean forward or backward just a little bit, you will miss focus and won't notice it until you download to your PC.
Stopping down to f4 it is still difficult but more doable, your depth of field increases to 42 centimeters at the same distance, so make it 12-15cm for good sharpness tolerance. The sweet spot for me is f5.6, where I have 60 centimeters of DOF at 7 meters from my subject (a bit less than 20cm of acceptable sharpness), shutter speed is not a problem under good light and the defocus is just as good.
Bottomline, unless shooting with a tripod or monopod, I don't waste my time with f2.8 and rarely ever use f4. Experienced photographers probably don't suffer much with this. As for image quality, there is not much to be said about this lens except it is an exceptional piece of glass, a consensus among owners. But you don't need to take my word for granted, read articles from professional photographers (by professional, I really mean it, and not web sub-celebrities that some clueless people launch to stardom), watch for example Ken Wheeler's 135mm series (The Angry Photographer) and you will be getting advice from someone who REALLY understands this stuff. But be warned: if you are too sensible to mature and frank language and/or afraid of having all your forum myths/beliefs smashed, be careful with his videos, I don't want to clean anyone's tears later.
With only 5 glass elements it preserves constrast, sharpness and tonality as much as possible and is an excellent tool for portraiture. Getting really close is not possible here because minimum focus distance is around 1,4m. A piece of advice: if you are focusing close, like 2 or 3 meters, you'd better have at least a monopod to stabilize the camera, the DOF is sooooo thin at this distance (less than 10cm at f5.6).
You now know the characteristics of this lens, so let's have a look at a few images to see what we can expect. As a reminder, these are test shots of what to expect from the lens, they are not supposed to be inspirational or award-winning. They were also shot in RAW, corrected white balance and added contrast/vignetting. Pretty much what you would do anyway with any RAW or, if shooting JPG, the internal processing by the camera. Since nobody uses unprocessed RAWs and this is not a white wall test, it is useless to show them here. Click to enlarge:
It is known that this lens was manufactured by a few makers and can be identified by their serial numbers. Mine is #28751452, made by Komine, but there are some made by Tokina and are close-focus capable. Do a research on what you can find about this lens. What I immediately noticed is that it is solid as a rock, entirely metal on the outside. A bit heavier than the Nikon and has a focus ring with inverted action, Canon style. The aperture ring snaps and clicks in half-stop increments (Nikon is a full stop), filter diameter is 55mm. My copy is in near mint condition, paint is just a very little bit worn on the aperture ring but other than that, it looks like new. Optics are intact, I just had to clean the front and rear elements when I received it and started shooting right after.
It works as one might expect from a lens of this focal length and aperture, it is no rocket science so I will not overanalyze it. Once it is on the camera, what is really different from the Nikon is the focus: it rotates to the other side so beware of that when using the manual focus assist on your viewfinder (if it tells you to compensate to the right, you have to rotate to the left on this lens), and the focus course is much longer than the Nikon. It means that going from close focus to infinity is a much longer travel on the ring. This can be good to some, bad to others, but to me it was an excellent and welcome surprise, which I will discuss in the closing session.
Let's have a look at some sample pictures. Again, these shots are WB corrected, have added contrast and a bit of vignetting:
Both lenses handle nearly the same, are difficult to get correct focus hand holding at f2.8 and make beautiful images if you know what you are doing. Both have considerable chromatic aberration at f2.8 and f4, improves a bit at f5.6 and f8, and nearly gone on smaller apertures. To be completely honest about it, I don't care if it gets some green halos on high contrast areas behind the focus plane, purple in front of focus plane. If one is too worried about it, spend time correcting in post-processing or just forget about these lenses and get something else.
The defocus effect is personal so "good" or "bad" is a matter of taste. Both have the 6 blades configuration, highlights will be hexagonal and it looks like the Vivitar is a bit busier than the Nikon. It is not unpleasant, I only noticed while comparing them and someone can think different in this regard, so take my word with a grain of salt.
As for image quality, color rendering, sharpness, I will be direct: the Nikon is a better lens, no doubt. Because I don't waste time shooting white walls and charts, it is difficult for me to judge the sharpness across the frame (and I don't care), but on the center, which most of your subjects will be anyway when shooting portraits, the Vivitar is a bit softer at 2.8 and improves as you stop down. The Nikon is already very sharp at 2.8. It simply has a better optical implementation, it is nothing but an AI/AI-S lens on a cheaper construction. Distortion, I don't know. Vignetting either. What you see of vignetting was added in post processing.
Because the Nikon has a shorter focus travel, it is a powerful tool in an expert's hands. You go from close to infinity much faster, but it also means that when you miss focus, you REALLY miss it. The Vivitar with a longer travel makes focusing easier, FOR ME, because it can be fine tuned with a rotation that would immediately get stuff out of focus on the Nikon. Consider this if you are new to manual focusing.
So, is the Nikon the better lens? Yes, no question about it. Is the Vivitar a good alternative? Absolutely, even more if you find the Tokina with close focus. It is easy to get scammed on ebay, demand and availability determine the price of stuff and being the Nikon less available on the used market people will try to take advantage of this. The Vivitar, on the other hand, is easily available and typically goes for less than half of the Nikon's price, but you will get a lot for it. Found a Nikon in good shape for a good price? Get it. None available or people trying to scam you? Don't panic and make no mistake, you will be happy with the Vivitar.
If you liked this review and have any thoughts to share, let me know by dropping a comment.