A Stack Of 135 (And How To Choose Between Them)

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Over the last few years of shooting SLRs, my predominant favourite focal length has been 50 and 55mm.

But after trying a 135mm, I was quickly hooked.

The up close and personal field of view, plus the potential for very shallow depth of field and dreamy bokeh made them instant winners for my style of photography.

I’m at a point now where, although I’ve thinned out my 50s pretty well, I have work to do on the 135 front.

I simply don’t need six!

My gut feeling is I’ll keep three, two in M42 and the one Pentax K mount.

To help myself choose which to keep and which to let go, here’s each one in summary, plus some favourite shots.

Asahi Takumar 135mm f/3.5 (M42)

Beautifully made and feels almost like new, very smooth focus down to 1.5m, preset aperture from f/3.5 to f/22, eight rounded aperture blades. Tiny body, especially for a 135mm. Very similar in use and look to my Takumar 105/2.8, which I love. A class act, a true classic lens, as all Takumars I’ve experienced have been. Being very new to me though, as yet I’ve shot very little with this one.

Jupiter-11 135mm f/4 (M42)

Quirkily shaped Former Soviet Union (FSU) lens, with 12 aperture blades which close down in an almost perfect circle, and preset aperture. Focus is fine but crude compared with the best here. Minimum focus of 1.4m. Capable of lovely images, but not high contrast and punchy, more muted, subtle and vintage.

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Sony NEX 3N, Jupiter-11 135/4, LightRoom preset
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Sony NEX 3N, Jupiter-11 135/4

Jupiter-37A 135mm f/3.5 (M42) 

Similar to the Jupiter-11, though the body is more regularly shaped and compact. Smooth focus (but not Takumar or SMC smooth) down to 1.2m. Again like the Jupiter-11, 12 very rounded aperture blades, meaning deliciously smooth backgrounds. This one on the optics front performs better than the Jupiter-11 (I think) but physically lacks much of the personality and charm of the slower lens.

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Sony a350, Jupiter-37A 135/3.5, LightRoom preset
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Sony NEX 3N, Jupiter-37A 135/3.5, LightRoom preset

Carl Zeiss Jena DDR Electric MC S 135 f/3.5 (M42)

A Sonnar, but most (all?) of these lenses from this era just have a solitary “S” marked, due to trademark wrangles between Zeiss East and West at the time. Close focus of just 1m, and my example is very smooth for a Carl Zeiss Jena, but still not Tak/SMC Pentax class. I love the non-nonsense knurled focus ring. Regular aperture click stops, though on mine f/3.5 and f/4 are identical. Alas only six aperture blades, and not especially rounded at f/8 and beyond. Very capable in the final image.

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Sony NEX 3N, Carl Zeiss Jena DDR MC Sonnar 135/3.5
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Contax 139 Quartz, Carl Zeiss Jena DDR MC Sonnar 135/3.5, Kodak Color Plus 200 expired film

Pentacon Auto 135mm f/2.8 (M42)

Fastest lens here, and the biggest, heaviest and most serious feeling. Focus is smooth enough for a Pentacon, but disappointingly only down to 1.7m. The aperture ring has subtle clicks meaning it’s easy to overshoot the setting you want, if you’re not used to it. Six very straight aperture blades, but interesting on the bokeh front at the wide end.

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Sony NEX 3N, Pentacon Auto 135/2.8, LightRoom preset
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Sony NEX 3N, Pentacon Auto 135/2.8, LightRoom preset

SMC Pentax 135mm f/3.5 (Pentax K)

One of the original SMC K mount range, before the M series. I had the M 135/3.5 and whilst it’s good, this SMC version I far prefer, is even smoother than the M, and optically is significantly superior.

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Pentax K10D, SMC Pentax 135/3.5
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Pentax K10D, SMC Pentax 135/3.5

So which to choose? 

All six lenses are very capable, and if I had only one 135mm lens, any one of these would give me lovely results time and time again.

If I had to have just one, based on the results I’ve got so far, plus its minimum focus, it’s probably be the Carl Zeiss MC Sonnar.

But the Jupiter-37A is very very close. And then the Jupiter-11 has far more charm to use than any of the others here, arguably and does make endearingly subtle images.

Then the newest to me, the SMC Pentax, has got off to a flying start with my Pentax K10D, and has already produced enough evidence to become my sole 135. Plus, when used on a  K mount film or digital camera, the open aperture metering is an useful focusing advantage over the rest of the lenses here, which are all M42 and require manually stopping down.

You see the problems I have choosing!

The two least likely to stay are the Takumar and Pentacon.

The former because it’s near identical in look and use to my Takumar 105/2.8 (which I want to keep as it’s unique in its focal length), and the latter because it’s big, heavy and lacking in min focus. But the Takumar may surprise me, and the Pentacon already has made some interesting and different images, that beg further experimentation.

I may post an update in a few weeks, which could just as likely reveal I have a total of 12 135mm lenses as three.

What are your experiences with 135mm as a focal length? What are you favourite 135mm lenses? 

Please let us know in the comments below.

Thanks for reading. Please share this post with others you feel will enjoy it too.

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27 thoughts on “A Stack Of 135 (And How To Choose Between Them)

  1. I haven’t warmed to this focal length. I tried some portraiture with it last year (an AI Nikkor 135) and ended up with a bunch of blurry shots. Camera shake probably. I dunno. I feel like it’s more me than the lens.

    1. Jim, coming from 50s, the two major things I’ve noticed with 135s are this –

      1. You can’t shoot handheld at 1/30s or 1/15s like you can with a 50. 1/125s is about the limit. The old reciprocal rule.

      2. You have to stand about 2m further away that you think you do! Even now I’m more often than not composing then taking a step or two back to get everything in the shot that I want to.

      Once you embrace these differences I’ve found 135s a lot of fun and capable of fantastic results.

  2. I fancy myself rather a wide-angle-guy but I bought a Canon 135 f:3,5 just to complete the ‘holy trilogy of photography’ (28, 50 and 135mm). One day I mounted it on my Canon T50 and shot a roll…. and I was really pleased at the results and at the fun I had shooting it.

    1. Frank, yes when I first picked up a 135 I was deeply embedded in 50s and found them very different.

      But once you embrace these differences (as I mentioned in reply to Jim above) they’re very rewarding.

      I need to do a similar thing with wides – I really struggle to get my head (and eyes) around 28mm focal length!

  3. Stick with the Jupiter 37A. The Takumar tends to give unexpectedly bad bokeh sometimes. The older Jupiter sounds optically and mechanically inferior and the Sonnar will eventually give you mechanical problems. The Pentacon is not a true keeper in my book, not sharp enough for my taste wide open (at least the one I had). I have no opinion for the newer Pentax, I guess it’s worth keeping since you got the Pentax DSLR. Once again, I have to bring up the Zuikos: The 3.5/135 is by far the best affordable 135mm I’ve had in every respect (mechanically, optically and size-wise).

    1. I have more of an affinity with Takumars than any other “brand” of lens I’ve ever used, and often think about selling everything else and keeping just a core set of say five Takumars (maybe 55/1.8, 85/1.9, 105/2.8, 135/3.5, 200/4), which I could use on pretty much any of the film or digital bodies I have. So the 135/3.5 is going to have to be a big disappointment for me to sell it, I suspect! I shot a few photos with the Tak 135/3.5 on my K10D in the garden today of the kids and their toys and two or three are really lovely, much better than I expected.

      The Pentacon is more likely to go, but I have seen some interesting (and in this length, unique) bokeh I’d like to explore more yet.

      The Sonnar feels very much like the Flektogon you got very recently, it’s the same MC era/version. Great while it lasts, but yes there is always that niggle in the back of your mind that any Ziess or Pentacon will suddenly get stuck wide open or the focus start to slip and/or seize. For this reason I would pick Takumars over Zeiss in M42, long term. If I couldn’t have both!

      Zuikos were the first SLR lenses I bought when I got my NEX about four years ago, because of their reputation of build, optics and compact size. I had a 50/1.8 and 35/2.8 and neither disappointed. Now though, I’m too invested in Pentax. I could easily get an OM adapter for my NEX and EOS, but I’m trying to move away from too many mounts and use just Pentax – M42 and K. Of which there are no shortage of options at all focal lengths, as you know!

  4. 135 was my favorite focal length during my m42 period in the 80th, before zoom lenses got popular.
    Now, while more and more coming back from digital to film, this focal length is again one of my two favorites, besides the 24/28.

    1. Thanks for your comment Reinhold. I think a major reason there are still so many wonderful vintage 135mm primes all over eBay is because the majority of people overlook them in favour of a zoom (usually with AF too). Which is great news for those of us looking for very affordable, very capable primes!

    1. Hi dok, thanks for your comment. I’ve now shot a few photographs with the Takumar 135/3.5 and it’s far exceeded my expectations. Looks like I might be keeping it for a while!

    1. Andrew, my discovery of the NEX cameras (I have a 3N) was revolutionary for my photography and unlocked whole new worlds of vintage lenses!

      Which lenses are on your wishlist?

  5. I’m not going to help you here, but since you’re a Pentaxian, consider picking up a K 135/2.5. It’s a beautiful lens, and better than the f/3.5 version.

    1. Thanks JC, is that the K mount one that’s branded Takumar? Or the one from the original SMC range, like my 135/3.5?

      What do you prefer about it over the 135/3.5?

      1. It’s sharper with better contrast and color throughout the aperture range. Unfortunately it’s also quite a bit heavier, but still comfortable to use and focus.

      2. Thanks, I’ll look out for one. The SMC 135/3.5 I feel lucky to have got, as they’re pretty rare compared with the M series ones, the 135/2.5 I believe are even more rare…

  6. Ok, if we are about to recommend alternatives, then you also should consider the Pentacon 2.8/135 … but it’s older version with 15 blades.

    1. Ah yes I have the later version. I have been on the lookout for months for one of the earlier ones, but have not seen one go for less than about £70, which is just too much for me, for a 135mm. I ended up getting the six blade version for under £15.

      Have you tried both? If so what are the main differences, aside from smoother, more rounded bokeh highlights?

      1. Oh no … only the old one. Owning both would be luxury 😉
        Besides the 15 blades … the min focusing distance is 150 instead of 170 and it has an aperture preset ring.

      2. Thanks Barnaby, just sent you a message via your Flickr. I realise it’d be a good idea to set up a contact form here on 35hunter!

        Thanks!

  7. I have the Pentax SMC-M 135mm/3.5 and have found it to be very good indeed, but it can be hard to focus in low light compared to faster lenses, like my Super-Takumar 105mm/2.8. These excellent, but slower, Pentax lenses make me seriously consider picking up a focal reducer, like the Metabones Speed Booster or the Mitakon Lens-Turbo. As you probably know these add a stop of light as well as correcting the field of view to match the full-frame field of view when a lens is adapted to an APSc sensor mirrorless camera. This would make the little 135mm/3.5 into a bright, easy-to-focus gem at a more general purpose field of view when used on my Fuji-X bodies. I have gotten some wonderful sharp images when using it on my Pentax K5iis, but it can be hard to get critical focus spot on.

    I have a very nice 135mm/2.8 Fujinar lens in Fujica-mount. I wonder if this lens was also produced in M-42 mount? The older Fujica cameras were M-42 I think. But, you are trying to thin the herd, not add new lenses.

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