If only I had a dollar for every time somebody said the 85mm was the perfect portrait photography lens. My fascination with such statements spiral when they start discussing the merits of why that specific focal length is the be-all and end-all of the portrait photography genre. It’s usually followed by the bull of “my 50mm gives me 75mm on my crop and that’s basically the same thing”, which is like saying that driving a Toyota Prius is basically like driving a Toyota Hilux. I should rather not go into too much depth about this pet peeve of mine, so let’s focus on the lens very few people mention for portraiture – the Sigma 135mm f/1.8 prime lens for Canon EF and Nikon FX mounts.
Let’s start with the 85mm lens. I’ve had the privilege of shooting with the Canon EF 85mm f/1.2 L II USM lens. Being a Canon shooter, I can safely say that I have danced with the devil and it has made me drunk… the Canon 85mm is absolute magic! Normally when I explain portrait photography lenses, I highlight how its distortion and compression should work in favour of the subject, although not always in 100% technically correct terms. The fact is that a narrow view lens, as opposed to a wide view, has a lovely effect on the subject and its background. That is why the 85mm enjoys the top spot with prime shooting portrait photographers, which brings me to another favourite, namely the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8 l IS USM Mk II lens which is a great zoom alternative.
But, there is another unsung hero. And in enters the 135mm lens into the fray… One hundred and thirty-five millimetres – that’s how special its focal length is! When compressing the background, it brings a soft effect to the image whilst your subject remains tac sharp making for a very appealing image.
The Real McCoy
Most Nikon users won’t be familiar with the 135mm focal length as, for some reason, Nikon just hasn’t gone down that alley. The Canon 135mm f/2 and Zeiss 135mm f/2 lenses (with manual focus only) were pretty much the options to choose from, until now… Finally, the Sigma 135mm f/1.8 has hit the South African shores with smooth bokeh and sharp detail all invited to the party which starts at f/1.8.
Without further ado, I managed to get my sweaty gear-testing hands on one of these bad boys and started arranging a shoot over a long weekend, on short notice which, in hindsight, was not the easiest thing I have ever done. After many phone calls and messages, I finally found someone who was willing and available to shoot. So, we quickly hit the streets for a sunset shoot. For those who don’t know, I love shooting into the sun!
Testing Out the Lens
While testing out the lens, I started searching for the problems I usually encounter. Shooting into the sun is a major issue when it comes to focusing as there are too many light reflections bouncing off the different lens elements. But, with the Sigma 135mm Art, I wasn’t experiencing any of these issues as I would’ve when shooting with 135mm lenses. The focusing was fast and accurate. If anything, I was having problems keeping the focus on the right spots. I could clearly see where my subject or I moved and where the depth of field was too shallow, hitting the focus on her nose instead of her eyes.
Shooting close-ups with this lens at f/1.8 definitely has its challenges, but it’s a risk I took and it paid off. The focus was brilliantly sharp. As the street’s traffic passed us, I tried panning on them with the lens to test out its continuous focusing speed. Mesmerised with the lens, we carried on shooting for the best part of 40 minutes. The shoot was so effortless that is was over before I realised it.
Back to my PC for postproduction, I downloaded the images and started scrolling through them. Soon, I realised that I wouldn’t easily be able to pick only five good shots – there were so many! I ended up copying the JPEGs to Google Drive and forwarded the link to the model so she could choose her favourites! Problem solved. Well, kind of as I was tempted to edit even more than her selected favourites.
The Pros & Cons
It is sharp – sharper than an Idols host’s wit. It has a beautifully dramatic bokeh that I can only compare with the pleasing smell of fresh, home-baked choc-chip cookies.
The Sigma 135mm f/1.8 is the fastest focusing lens I have ever shot with. But, it is by no means a sport / action lens. It’s a massive piece of glass! It is big and heavy (1.13 kg) and short on the heels of the 70-200mm f/2.8 in weight, which is about 1.5 kg, so you better man up before getting this lens.
In closing, this lens isn’t for everybody. It is perfect for the professional portrait / wedding / fashion photographer who wants to shoot full length and up to head and shoulder type shots, and on location with the most awe-inspiring creamy smooth backgrounds. Its large aperture makes for truly mesmerising bokeh and it’s beyond sharp… everything you expect from Art Series glass!