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News & Insight

Opinion: Why the New Zeiss Batis 135mm Misses the Mark

By Bing Putney on April 12th 2017

I’m a Sony E-mount shooter, and I’ve previously lamented the fact that my chosen system lacked a 135mm prime lens. I’m a huge fan of the compression and shallow depth of field you can achieve with a fast mid-telephoto lens, like Canon’s 135mm f/2L, which is a great lens. It’s fast, sharp, and (relatively) affordable, but it doesn’t autofocus on my A7R ii, even with an adapter. I voiced all of these gripes only a few short months ago, and things have changed significantly since then.

First, Sony introduced the FE 85mm f/1.8 and GM 100mm f/2.8 STF, the former being a basic, budget-friendly but solid short telephoto portrait lens (full review coming soon), and providing serious competition for Zeiss’s Batis 85mm f/1.8. The 100mm STF, by contrast, is a more niche piece of gear, sporting an apodization element, which smoothes the bokeh and reduces the lens’s transmission by 2 full stops. It’s not for everyone but promises to deliver a beautiful, unique look for portrait photographers.

Then, shortly thereafter, Sigma announced their 135mm f/1.8 Art. The Art lineup is already held in high regard by photographers from nearly every system, and this 135mm was greeted with similar enthusiasm. It’s a big, heavy lens, as necessitated by its huge maximum aperture, and fills a similar role to Canon’s classic 135, simple, sharp and fast.

And into this landscape comes the newest contender from Zeiss: the Batis 135mm f/2.8. At first glance, the specs seem respectable- it’s relatively lightweight, features weather sealing, image stabilization, and that nifty OLED display, plus it’s a Zeiss with autofocus. At long last, the 135mm of my dreams has finally arrived, right? Not quite.

$2,000 USD. Two grand. That’s the price that the good folks at Zeiss decided was appropriate for this lens. It is now the most expensive prime lens in the E-mount ecosystem, beating the 85mm f/1.4 G Master by $200. By comparison, that 100mm f/2.8 STF is $1,500, and also features image stabilization and weather sealing. Sigma’s 135mm is $1,400 (very expensive for a Sigma) and is more than a full stop faster than the Zeiss. Of course, if you want to use the Sigma on a Sony body, you’ll need an adapter, so it’ll actually only end up being $350 cheaper than the Batis.

It’s not my intention to complain about a pricey lens. High-end gear is expensive, and I’ve accepted that. The question is, what do you get for all that extra money? Compared to the Sony 100mm STF the Zeiss has slightly more compression and reach, and more transmission, but lacks that groovy smooth bokeh. Compared to the Sigma, the Zeiss is considerably lighter and has image stabilization.

[RELATED: Hands On With The New Sony 100mm STF f/2.8 GS | A Possible Cult Classic]

Having a lightweight camera/lens combo is nice, but at $2,000 this is intended for professionals, and pros will take performance and versatility over weight savings every time. Also, at 135mm, this lens is clearly geared towards portrait photographers, and image stabilization won’t keep your subject sharp if it’s moving, like, for example, a human being. I think most portrait shooters would gleefully trade IS for an extra stop of light. In order to truly compete in this marketplace, in my humble opinion, the Zeiss should have been at least a full stop faster, considerably cheaper, or, realistically, both.

To top things off, consider the Sony 70-200mm f/2.8 G Master. At $2,600 it’s certainly no cheap bargain, but it’s also a staple for many professionals. Anyone who already owns this lens, or has it high on their wish list, will have absolutely zero reasons to buy the Zeiss, because it already covers 135mm at f/2.8 with stabilization, and it zooms! Performance and versatility, these are the considerations of the $2,000 lens buyer, not weight-savings and a gimmicky OLED display.

I haven’t shot the Zeiss Batis 135mm, and of course, there is more to a lens than its specs. Perhaps this new portrait lens is an astounding piece of optical engineering and will far exceed all expectations, but even if that’s the case, unless it comes with a staff position at Vanity Fair, I don’t know who they expect to actually buy it.

About

Bing is a professional portrait and on-set still photographer who lives in Los Angeles, and frequently travels the world to explore new and interesting cultures and pastries.

Website: bingputneyphotography.com
Instagram: @bingputney

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Ian Cuthbert

    Always best to try something before reviewing. It’s a wonderful lens, I absolutely love it. I got mine street price, £1200 (about $1600). That’s in the UK, with our currently terrible international exchange rates. I think this lens is well worth it.

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  2. Jonathan Brady

    update on this…
    “Perhaps this new portrait lens is an astounding piece of optical engineering and will far exceed all expectations”
    It DOES exceed all my optical expectations. It is, perhaps, the sharpest lens I’ve ever used and aberrations are practically non-existent.
    As I commented previously, THIS article should have NEVER been written by someone without a hands-on impression of the lens with images to back up their conclusions. I know it’s not, but it comes off as a smear piece.

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  3. Peter Liu

     so you don’t have the lens yet, but you wrote a “review” on it?

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  4. Dwight Looi

    What I REALLY want from Zeiss or Sony is not another $2000 prime or some big, fat, heavy, fast, zoom. The A7 (now A9) is a small camera. I want a small walkabout lens to go with it. Price is no object, but size is and optical performance is. Give me a 25-50 F/2.8  (or even F/3.3) Vario-ApoSonnar T* that is the size of the 55/1.8. No need for optical IS since the camera has sensor shift IS. Keep it simple, keep it optically superlative, keep it small.  I’ll pay $2000 for that. Give me something to along the lines of the Contax Mount Zeiss 35-70/3.4 Vario-Sonnar T* except that 25-50 is a better range than 35-70. 35 being not wide enough and 70 being not quite a portrait. 25 on the other hand is a great landscape angle (wide enough for landscapes, not so wide that distortions become difficult to deal with) and 50 is great for a human eye perspective.

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  5. Jonathan Brady

    By the way, the Canon 135L does, in fact, AF on the α7RII. Even Eye AF works. If yours doesn’t, you need to update your firmware of either the body, the adapter, or both.

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  6. adam sanford

    Or you could just get the Sigma 135 Art.  LensTip just declared that it’s sharper in the corners wide open than the Canon 135L is in the center of the frame at its best aperture.  Yowza!

    https://goo.gl/ayPRg1

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  7. Stephen Jennings

    I was a little jealous when I heard about this lens for Sony. Then Sigma announced their 135 Art and I got all excited again.. then I shot a session with my Zeiss 135 f/2 APO and realized nothing will ever beat it, autofocus or not. But it does make me wonder.. if Zeiss has been making amazing 135’s for so long, this lens seems like a weird bastardization of their previous offerings – both for their APO’s and Sony 1.8. 

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  8. Ralph Hightower

    But it’s a Zeiss!

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  9. adam sanford

    Why to buy this lens:

    1) It is apochromatic.  I’m no lens whiz, but depending on how they implement it, it could mean you get much nicer light falloff / bokeh for its max aperture.  Perhaps [coughing fit] *using this lens and talking about what you’ve learned* might warrant a warmer reception than a near instant condemnation for its speed and price.

    2) It has IS.  That does not suck.  Not all 135s offer this.

    3) Fast (f/2 and f/1.8) 135mm primes typically weigh 2.0-2.5 pounds.  This Batis weighs less, around 1.3 pounds.  Also does not suck.

    4) It is weather sealed.  Not all 135s are.

    I’m not saying this is the 135 to get, but at least give it its 60 seconds on stage and consider things other than speed and price before you reach for the gong mallet.  :P

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  10. Reginald Dennis

    He gave his opinion on why the Batis 135 misses the mark without shooting with it yet. Valid points but I wish this was stated in the beginning. There is an old saying “Never judge a book by its cover.” 

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    • Bing Putney

      This is why the first word of the title is “opinion” and not “review.”  And I disagree with your assessment of the piece as judging a book by its cover. As I mentioned, specs aren’t everything, but they do tell you some essential things. This lens will have the depth of field and transmission of a 135mm at f/2.8. This is physics.

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  11. Ben Perrin

    The A7RII has IBIS though. I know it’s not quite as good as optical IS but it is something. I’d like to see some actual examples from this lens. I love the Canon 135mm but can’t use it on a sony even with the adapter so I was hoping this would be a good alternative.

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  12. Wendell Weithers

    We’ll have to wait and see but you could argue you get more bang for your buck buying an a6500 and the new 85mm 1.8. 

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  13. Jonathan Brady

    I wish you would have started this piece with the first sentence of your last paragraph. Would have saved me from reading a minimally informed opinion. 

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    • adam sanford

      He did open with the title of “OPINION…”, but I think the title might be better served with “Opinion:  Given the crowded field of 135s we’ve seen lately, a slower one for $2k had better do my taxes for me.”

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    • Ben Davidson

      Agree 100%

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