While there are plenty of reviews on the web that include MTF charts, scientific measurements, and other tests that require expensive equipment, I wanted to create a more real-world Canon 135mm f/2L review. You know, by taking photos with it. Lots of photos.
After spending nine months with this lens, capturing thousands of images, and getting to know what it’s capable of, I’m ready to share my thoughts.
So here we go. I hope you enjoy reading my review of the Canon 135mm f/2L as much as I enjoyed creating it.
Canon 135mm f/2L Review
Let’s cut right to the chase. If you photograph people and you’re considering adding this lens to your camera bag, do it. I cannot recommend this lens highly enough. It’s everything you want in a pro lens. Introduced in 1996, it’s not Canon’s newest lens in their lineup. But I’m not sure they’ve introduced anything quite like it since.
In this review of Canon’s EF 135mm f/2L USM lens (that’s the official name), I’ve outlined 55 reason to buy it and love it. You can read the entire review along with the included images, or you can use the quick links listed below to jump to the section you’re most interested in.
- Focal Length
- Image Quality
- Physical Properties
- Included Accessories
- Ratings and Reviews
- Missing Features?
- Review Summary
Unique focal length
135mm is a unique focal length that sits in the middle of two much more popular focal lengths – 85mm and 200mm. It also sits in the middle of the focal length range of Canon’s famous 70-200mm series of lenses.
No, it’s not a giant, white, super-telephoto lens like you see on the sidelines of NFL games. Wildlife photographers might even consider 135mm to be wide angle. (I kid.) But I’ve found 135mm to be a great focal length for capturing a wide variety of images and works well as a general, walk-around telephoto lens. It’s not too long. It’s not too short. I can walk around with only the 135mm and a 35mm and capture nearly any scene.
In fact, since 135mm is a unique focal length, and a prime lens at that, it could inspire you to create images you’ve not created before. 135mm definitely has a look of its own.
The telephoto compression is very pleasing for tightly-framed portraits and headshots, and does a great job of bringing some background elements a little closer to your subject.
In the shot below, the houses in the background are 2 houses away from my daughter, but they appear much closer.
(ISO 100, f/2.8, 1/2000)
For a lens without image stabilization, it’s still a short enough focal length to shoot handheld, as long as you’re shooting with a shutter speed of 1/160 or faster.
I primarily use the Canon 135mm f/2L for professional and corporate headshots using studio lighting. I shoot at 1/200 of a second because that’s the sync speed of my Canon 5D Mark III. With the wide f/2.0 max aperture, chances are your shutter speed will always be fast enough to eliminate camera shake.
(ISO 100, f/2.8, 1/200)
Fill the frame
Many photographers shoot portraits and headshots with an 85mm lens. I did, too, for a long time. But at 85mm, you need to be somewhat close to your subject to fill the frame.
At 135mm, you can still fill the frame with your subject’s head and shoulders without being in their face with a big camera and lens. This could help your subjects feel less intimidated and more comfortable in front of the camera, which could lead to better images.
Many photographers label the 135mm f/2 as Canon’s sharpest lens. Here’s a quote from one of my recent portrait clients. “Oh wow. I can see my pores.” She had never seen a photo of herself with so much clarity.
There’s no doubt, the Canon 135mm f/2L is sharp, even at its widest aperture of f/2. Sure, if you look at MTF charts and scientific tests of this lens, they’ll show some softness in the corners that clears up by f/4. But in real-world scenarios, you probably won’t place your main subject in the far corners when shooting with this lens.
Is it too sharp? Not possible! I’d argue it’s easier to soften a sharp image out of the camera, if needed, than it is to sharpen a soft image.
Use the slider in the image below to see the original image and a 100% crop. These are straight out of the camera with no Lightroom or Photoshop adjustments.
(ISO 100, f/2.8, 1/2000)
Combine the 135mm focal length with the f/2 maximum aperture, and this lens is a bokeh monster. And the bokeh is smooth. Buttery. Creamy. Soft. Backgrounds disappear into oblivion. This lens effortlessly separates subjects from backgrounds. The transition from in-focus to out-of-focus also is quite pleasing.
(ISO 100, f/2, 1/500)
Color & contrast
Color and contrast are just what you’d expect from a Canon L lens. The colors are accurate, lovely, and saturated. I don’t notice any strange color cast. The contrast is consistent regardless of your aperture.
(ISO 100, f/2, 1/3200)
While you may expect it from such a wide aperture prime lens, the Canon 135mm f/2L shows little color fringing – a huge win for a fast prime lens. What is there can easily be cleaned up using the lens profile correction in Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw.
The image of the Corvette below is about the worst I’ve seen. Look at the slight purple fringing around the letters and numbers of the license plate. The image of my daughter swimming in the waves above shows a little color fringing in the water splashing around her, but not much.
(ISO 200, f/2, 1/400)
There is very minimal, if any, lens distortion. If you were shooting a brick wall wide open at f/2, you’d notice a little pincushion distortion. But you won’t be photographing brick walls straight on with this lens. What little distortion is there can easily be removed by applying the lens profile in Lightroom or Photoshop. Or, simply don’t worry about it because it’s not really noticeable.
I corrected the pincushion distortion in the image on the right below using the lens profile in Lightroom.
(ISO 100, f/2, 1/400)
Beautiful looking images
Beyond the tech specs, you just need to see the images this lens can help you create. They’re stunning! The combination of focal length, wide aperture, buttery bokeh, and incredible sharpness is what gives this lens its unique “look.”
I’m always excited to shoot with it to see what kind of images it will help me create. In this Canon 135mm f/2L review, I’ve tried to showcase a wide range of the types of images you can create with this lens, but don’t rely solely on me. Take a look at the Flickr Group to get inspired from plenty of other photographers.
At f/2, it’s one of the fastest, widest-aperture telephoto lenses you can buy for Canon cameras. It sits right in the middle (both in focal length and price) of Canon’s two other f/2 telephoto options – the $5,700 200mm f/2L IS and the $500 100mm f/2.
For what it’s worth, I’ve never used either of those lenses. I can’t afford the first one. When I was looking for a fast, telephoto prime, I considered the 100mm f/2, but I wanted the extra reach, legendary sharpness, and image quality of the 135mm.
Shoot in low light
The f/2 maximum aperture is great for shooting in low light without having to crank your ISO up too high.
The shot below is one of the speakers at a conference I recently attended. The room was dark, and there was minimal on-stage lighting. At f/2 and ISO 3200, I was able to shoot at 1/160 to prevent camera shake. Not bad!
(ISO 3200, f/2, 1/160)
If you’re a sports photographer, the f/2 maximum aperture will let you stop even the fastest action in low light without cranking your ISO too high.
(ISO 800, f/2, 1/320)
Shallow depth of field
If a razor-thin depth of field (DoF) is what you’re after, the Canon 135mm f/2L will not disappoint. The focal length and aperture combination delivers an extremely shallow depth of field.
In the headshot below (shot at f/2), my subject’s eyes are sharp, but the tips of her eyelashes are not. That’s razor-thin depth of field.
(ISO 100, f/2, 1/160)
Round, smooth bokeh
The 8 blade aperture (no, they’re not rounded blades) produces round, smooth bokeh. Use it to your advantage.
(ISO 800, f/2, 1/320)
8-pointed sun stars
If you’re shooting with a small aperture (i.e. f/11 or higher), and you have small points of light in your image, you’ll see 8-pointed sun stars. This is because of the 8-blade aperture.
Check out the 8-pointed sun star in the panning image of my wife and daughter riding a wave runner below.
(ISO 100, f/29, 1/25)
A big advantage of large aperture lenses is having a bright viewfinder image to compose your shot. Personally, I LOVE this. Lenses with maximum apertures smaller than f/2.8 seem dim to me when looking through the viewfinder.
Better use of autofocus points
Another often overlooked benefit of wide aperture lenses is their ability to take advantage of higher sensitivity autofocus points. For more on this, check out Andrew Gibson’s explanation of the various types of autofocus points in the Canon 5D Mark III and Canon 1D-X and how shooting with wide aperture lenses gives you more (and better) autofocusing options. (Well done, Andrew!)
First of all, the Canon 135mm f/2L has Canon’s best USM (ultrasonic motor) autofocus. What does that mean? Fast, accurate, silent autofocusing. All good things.
I have to admit, of all of the great features of this lens, the autofocus speed is one that blows me away every time I shoot with it. I wouldn’t call the autofocus on this lens fast. I’d call it immediate.
Try this experiment. With your camera in AI Servo autofocus mode, and while holding down either the shutter release halfway or using back button autofocus, move the camera around so it switches focus between near and far subjects. Watching through the viewfinder, you’ll notice the insane speed at which this lens focuses. Try it! You won’t be disappointed.
What good is blazing fast autofocus if it’s not accurate? None. Not to worry. The Canon 135mm f/2L’s autofocus is just as accurate as it is fast. The “keeper rate” of images shot with this lens is high (I’m talking near 100%). Words I’d use to describe the autofocus accuracy of this lens are dead-on, nailed it, and perfect.
Here’s a series of heavily cropped action images using AI Servo and high-speed burst. Spot. On. Every. Frame.
(ISO 100, f/2, 1/1250)
Hear that? Me either. That’s the sound of the 135 f/2L’s autofocus. It’s so quiet.
Manual focus override
I shoot in autofocus 100% of the time. Since the 135L focuses so quickly, accurately, and quietly, why do the work manually?
That being said, photographers who are fond of manual focusing won’t be disappointed. With the full-time manual focus override, you can leave it in autofocus and grab the WIDE focus ring to adjust as needed.
I’ve twisted it a few times, and it feels nice to me, but I’m not the best photographer to ask about how a manual focus ring should feel.
Focus limit switch
Let me say this. I LOVE focus limit switches. The Canon 135mm f/2L focuses ridiculously fast as it is, but giving it a hint about how close or far away it should expect to find your subject only helps it focus even faster.
The two settings are 0.9 meters – infinity and 1.6 meters – infinity. If your subject is farther than 1.6 meters away (a little over 5 feet) go ahead a flick the switch to focus quicker.
In case you didn’t catch what I just highlighted above, the closest this lens can focus is 0.9 meters. That’s just shy of 3 feet.
Yes, you can be 3 feet from your subject with a 135mm lens and still focus (see the “Fill the frame” section above). It’s a little crazy how close you can get with this lens considering it’s not a macro lens.
This lens focuses internally. The front element doesn’t rotate. The lens doesn’t extend. Feel free to attach whatever filter suits your fancy.
Lightweight (for a pro lens)
Sure, 1.7 pounds is heavier than a kit lens, but compared to something like Canon’s 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II zoom lens, which weighs in at 3.29 pounds, 1.7 pounds feels light. It’s nearly twice as heavy (.9 pounds to be exact) as the 85mm f/1.8 and a very similar weight to Canon’s 200mm f/2.8L, if you’re familiar with those lenses.
Compact size (for the focal length)
The overall size is not too big to be bulky. Official size is 3.2″ x 4.4.” For the focal length, the size is quite compact. I find this lens balances very well on the front of my Canon 5D III. It’s not a burden to walk around with.
Made from the right stuff in the right spots
The combination of plastic and metal construction is one reason the lens is as light as it it. It’s metal where it needs to be (lens mount, main body of the barrel, and the rubber-covered focus ring) and plastic where it can stand to be (front and rear of the barrel, filter threads, and hood mount).
Excellent build quality
The build quality is what you’d expect from a Canon L lens – excellent. Like the best of Canon’s lenses, this lens is made in Japan. It’s solid.
It really feels great in my hands. The user experience of a lens is important to me. I don’t want to feel like I’m fumbling around with an uncomfortable piece of equipment when I’m trying to capture an image.
The focus limit and AF/MF switches are in their normal (perfect) spot for Canons, the manual focus ring is nice and grippy, and it really is a joy to hold and shoot with. Nothing on this lens will get in the way of you using it.
The Canon 135mm f/2L is multi-coated and contains 10 elements in 8 groups with 2 UD glass elements. This setup is what delivers the super sharp, chromatic aberration-light images.
There’s a focus scale on the lens barrel for the manual focus photographers in the world.
It looks awesome
Put this in the vanity category, but this lens just looks awesome. Take off the lens caps and look at all that glass wide open! When you look into the business end of this lens, all you see is big, beautiful glass. It’s like a car with a really good looking front end. You just want to stare at it.
If it matters to you, this lens looks totally pro.
It’s not white
In my opinion, the fact that it’s not a giant, white, attention-getting lens is a selling point for me. The Canon 135mm f/2L on the end of a DSLR will not be mistaken for a mirrorless kit, but you also won’t look like a wildlife or sports photographer when shooting with this lens in everyday life (apologies if you want to look like a wildlife or sports photographer).
With a retail price of $999 (as of July 2016), the Canon 135mm f/2L is one of Canon’s most affordable L lenses. If you ask anyone who owns this lens, they’ll probably agree it’s a steal even at full price.
For reference, here’s a list of Canon’s 6 lowest priced L lenses (Amazon’s prices as of July 2016). Notice this is the fastest lens on this list. That makes it Canon’s fastest and most affordable telephoto L lens.
- Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM – $599
- Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM – $749
- Canon EF 200mm f/2.8L II USM – $749
- Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L IS USM Macro – $849
- Canon EF 24-70mm f/4.0L IS USM – $899
- Canon EF 135mm f/2L USM – $999
Every so often the Canon 135mm f/2L makes an appearance on Canon’s rebate list with a $100 rebate. If so, it’s a great time to pick one up.
Average used prices range between $700-$800. If you see one in great condition, jump on it. Though, most people who have this lens aren’t letting go of it. (I know I’m not.)
Watch the online Canon store. Occasionally you’ll find this lens refurbished for $799. They rarely make an appearance, so if you see one, grab it before it’s too late. The advantage there is it comes with a manufacturer’s warranty. Bonus!
It’s a prime
I love primes, and I mostly shoot with prime lenses. In most cases, primes are lighter, faster, and sharper than zooms that cover similar focal lengths. I’m a big fan of sneaker zoom.
It’s an EF lens
This means it’ll work on any Canon camera – old or new, full frame or crop, digital or film.
8 Canon Professional Services points
If you’re a Canon Professional Services member (and you should be) and register this lens, you’ll earn 8 points toward your membership. That could be enough to push you to the next level and reap more membership benefits.
You can join and contribute images to the official Flickr Group. Seriously, check out this group for some serious photo inspiration and get more ideas of what this lens is capable of.
It’s undeniable. This lens is a portrait photographer’s dream. The bokeh. The razor thin depth of field. The blazingly fast autofocus. The sharpness. The image quality. Etc.
It’s a little long for a full-body portrait, yes. But if you’ve got the room to back up a little, it’s worth it.
If you’re a portrait photographer – seniors, families, engagement, etc. – the Canon 135mm f/2L should be in your camera bag.
(ISO 100, f/2.5, 1/200)
I’m primarily a headshot photographer, and hands down this is my favorite lens for capturing headshots. I’ve mentioned it a few times already, but with the 135mm you can fill the frame without being in your subject’s face.
If you’re a headshot photographer, the Canon 135mm f/2L should be in your camera bag.
(ISO 100, f/2, 1/200)
Sports & action
Is this a great sports lens? Absolutely! The wide aperture allows you to stop action with a fast shutter speed without having to crank up your ISO, and easily isolates your subject from the background. The autofocus speed tracks well with moving subjects, too.
If you’re a sports photographer and find yourself close enough to the action that you don’t need a 70-200mm or longer lens, the Canon 135mm f/2L should be in your camera bag.
(ISO 100, f/2, 1/4,000)
Indoor sports & events
Indoor sports like volleyball and basketball typically have less-than-ideal light. But again, the combination of the wide aperture, super-fast autofocus, and telephoto reach make this lens great for indoor sports as well as other indoor events like recitals, plays, performances, and weddings.
If you photograph indoor sports and events, the Canon 135mm f/2L should be in your camera bag.
(ISO 800, f/2, 1/400)
ET-78II lens hood
The 135 f2L is not Canon’s best lens when it comes to handling flare. But I’ll bet you’ll rarely point this lens right into a light source anyway. To reduce flare, especially when shooting outdoors, use the included ET-78II lens hood and you’ll be in good shape.
Like all of Canon’s L lenses, lens protection is included. I find these pouches handy for carrying a lens around in another bag without having to carry my entire camera bag.
Pinch-style lens cap
Hooray! The 135mm f/2L includes Canon’s new pinch-style lens cap. These are extraordinarily better than the older style, especially when trying to attach or remove the lens cap with the hood in place. Thanks, Canon!
Extenders and Extension Tubes
If you need more reach, or closer focusing and improved magnification, the Canon 135mm f/2L is compatible with Canon’s lineup of extenders and extension tubes. These are optional accessories, not included with the lens.
The EF 1.4x will turn the 135mm into a 189mm f/2.8 lens. The EF 2.0x will turn the 135mm into a 270mm f/2.8 lens. Though I’ve not used these extenders on the 135mm, they’re known to decrease sharpness.
The EF12 II reduces the minimum focusing distance to 0.69 meters (2.26 feet) and increases magnification to 0.29x. The EF25 II reduces the minimum focusing distance to to 0.58 meters (1.9 feet) and increases magnification to 0.41x.
72mm filter size
The 72mm filter size is popular on many professional lenses. If you already have a decent filter 72mm filter collection, you’ll be in good shape.
No need for a tripod collar
The lens is not so large that you need a tripod collar to mount it on a tripod. I used to own a 70-200mm f/2.8L IS, and I hated having to carry around its tripod collar. In fact, I rarely shot that lens on a tripod because of that reason. Thankfully, the 135mm f/2 doesn’t need one.
This lens has nothing but amazing reviews. As of July 2016, it has:
- 4.9/5 stars from 30 reviews on Canon’s site
- 4.9/5 stars from 274 reviews on Amazon (96% of them are 5-stars, 3% are 4-starts, 1% are 3-stars, and there are zero 1- and 2-star reviews)
- 4.9/5 stars from 608 reviews on B&H (571 are 5-stars, 34 are 4-stars, 3 are 3-stars, and there are zero 1- and 2-star reviews)
- 4.9/5 stars from 72 reviews on Adorama (67 are 5-stars, 4 are 4-stars, 1 is 3-stars, and there are zero 1- and 2-star reviews)
Just ask anyone who’s used this lens and they’ll tell you. It’s legendary.
Like I mentioned previously, with the wide f/2 maximum aperture, chances are you’ll almost always have a fast enough shutter speed (1/160 or faster should do the trick) to capture images without camera shake. If I really had to get critical of the Canon 135mm f/2L, image stabilization (IS) would be a welcomed feature.
That being said, IS would only make this lens heavier and more expensive. And, if Canon’s current trend continues, an IS version of this lens would probably be one stop slower at f/2.8 instead of f/2. For example, Canon’s 24-70mm and 16-35mm L lenses with IS are both f/4 compared to the non-IS f/2.8 versions. Also, Canon’s 35mm with IS is f/2 versus their non-IS version, which is f/1.4. (Check out my full review of the Canon 35mm f/2 IS USM for more on that lens.)
While some photographers may disagree with me here, I’m fine without IS on this lens. It’s a nice-to-have, not a deal breaker.
The Canon 135mm f/2L is not weather-sealed. This is really surprising to me, especially since it’s an L lens. I’m guessing since it’s marketed primarily as a portrait and low-light lens, Canon tried to keep the price low by not including weather sealing.
Similar to IS, it falls into the “It’s a nice-to-have, not a deal breaker” category for me. If I could pick one, I’d take weather sealing over image stabilization.
I just presented 55 reasons to buy (and love) the Canon EF 135mm f/2L USM lens. And in all of that, I can only think of 2 nice-to-haves. I believe Canon has a winner here. This lens is near perfect.
To sum up this review, I’d highly recommend the Canon 135mm f/2 lens for people photographers. Of 55 reasons listed above, here’s my top 3 selling points:
- The combination of a 135mm focal length and an f/2 maximum aperture creates stunning images that have a look all their own. You really have to shoot with it and see the images to understand what I mean.
- The autofocus is ridiculously fast, accurate, and silent. This lens should be the benchmark for autofocus.
- It’s unbelievably sharp with rich, accurate color, consistent contrast, and minimal (if any) “issues” you have to clean up in post (i.e. distortions, aberrations, fringing, etc.).
If you own the Canon 135mm f/2L, I’d love to know why you love it, and if you think it’s missing anything. Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below.
Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this Canon 135mm f/2L review, please share it.
If you want to fall in love with this lens as much as I have, you can buy it here on Amazon.