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Samyang 135mm f/1.8 - Super Light Mega Bokeh

 

Modern 135mm f/1.8 AF lenses have impressive image quality & AF considering the sheer size of their 'Entrance Pupil'. (that is: How big the max aperture appears through the front of the lens): This massive 75mm* diameter entrance pupil lets in over three times as much light as a 50mm f/1.2 lens. They're great in low-light and provide impressive subject isolation. They just tend to be big, heavy and expensive while retaining high image quality. However, recent advancements in engineering have enabled manufacturers to perform relative miracles in those regards. Samyang's AF 135mm f/1.8 FE is perhaps one the most impressive at doing all three! Weighing only 772g (1.7 lbs), its lighter than the Sony's 85GM, while far out-performing it on image quality, subject isolation and cost.

* 75mm is about as big as they get before focal length, size, weight and cost skyrocket!

Before showing the shallow DoF examples, here's an f/6.3 distant shot. I suggest viewing this on a large 4k monitor if you can...

Sony A1 - 1/320th | f/6.3 | iso 100

 

Fast 135mm AF Lenses

Nikon's novelty 'Defocus Control' 135mm (1995) was the first f/2.0 AF lens, but only a year later Canon's 135mm f/2.0 L USM showed everyone how sharp these fast lenses could be and they held the crown for over 20 years. Since they were late to the auto focus lens party neither got a redesign (and likely never will on DSLR), but other manufacturers were about to shake things up...

In 2007 Zeiss built the first f/1.8 135mm (for the Sony Alpha DSLRs). With Sony's first full frame DSLR (A900) a year later, the combo was impressive, but it weighed a hefty 1,950g (4.3 lbs). The optical performance was still not fantastic, but damn did it look pretty! For another decade nobody else tried to make a fast 135mm lens. Could this have been just too fast to perform well?...

 

In 2017 Sigma proved that theory wrong. They set a new standard for optical performance with their 135mm f/1.8 DG Art (DSLR lens) and right from the widest aperture. It was still heavy, but most people agreed that the quality was simply worth it.

 

Then in 2019 Sony would make the first mirrorless design, with the 135GM. Keeping the performance, but dropping the weight to under one kilogram (2.2 lbs). Within the last two years, three more companies have joined the party, with more planned (Viltrox)... Fast 135mm lenses were a rare thing, but they're now everywhere on mirrorless. 

  • 2007 - Zeiss A - 1,210g (2.67 lbs)

  • 2017 - Sigma - 1,255g (2.65 lbs)

  • 2019 - Sony FE - 950g (2.09 lbs)

  • 2022 - Samyang FE - 772g (1.7 lbs)

  • 2023 - Canon RF - 935g (2.06 lbs)

  • 2024 - Nikon Z - 995g (2.19 lbs)

 

I was extremely impressed by the Sigma 135mm f/1.8 Art, but its 1,933g (4.26 lbs) weight with the Sony A9 meant I often chose something else instead. A few years later I upgraded to the Sony 135GM lens, which took the weight down to a more manageable and much better balanced 1,623g (3.58 lbs). Then in 2022 Samyang brought out a version that would drop the total weight down to 1,445g (3.19 lbs). Now that this lens is almost as light (or lighter) than an 85mm f/1.4 I choose the 135mm all the time. For me, shooting friendly wildlife, this is a much more versatile focal length, especially considering the relatively short minimum focus distance. At less than half the price of the Sony 135GM; Could this lens actually be any good though?...

DSC02611 c.png

Full Frame: - f/2.0 | iso 125

Image Quality

After reviewing the first few photos taken from the Samyang, I was blown away. Image quality is razor sharp from wide open and right into the corners (just like the Sony 135GM).  Another similarity to the Sony lens is the minimum focus distance (69cm / 27 inches). This close focus combined with the extremely high image quality makes it a great option for wildlife, products and even moderate macros (as well as portraits and landscapes). Small animals like mice can pretty much fill the frame and its fast enough to capture them with limited forest floor lighting too. Check out the 100% crop of the above image below for its detail...

DSC02611 d.png

 

I can imagine many considering a fast 135mm lens like this and choosing something like the Sony FE 70-200mm f/2.8 GM II instead, due to the versatility of a zoom. I see it the other way around however. The Samyang is lighter still, a tiny fraction of the cost (£2,500) and over a stop faster. On this camera (A1) I can crop to 23mp for a 200mm f/2.7 equivalent, or 11mp for a 300mm f/4 equivalent. If you think that resolution doesn't sound enough, note the above image is only 0.5mp, or check out the 1mp images at the end of this page. If you're prepared to stitch just 9 images together from the Samyang you can get a 200mp 70mm f/0.93 result (see Bokeh Pano section below). That's significantly better image quality, three stops faster than the 70-200mm lens and for one quarter of the price!

What's The Catch?

Honestly, not much, but there are a couple areas where the Samyang doesn't quite keep up with the Sony lens... The weight savings manifest in a slight reduction in build quality and a less impressive STM focus motor. Focusing is slower to move and doesn't lock or track quite as confidently. That said, the AF performance was still great on both the A9 and A1. Maybe around 20-30% less effective than the Sony 135GM, but it's worth noting that can't keep up with squirrels in motion either. Since the Samyang is a third-party lens the burst speed of the camera maxes out at 15fps (instead of 30fps for the A1). There is no aperture ring or AF switch here, but I never used those anyway so that doesn't bother me. The Samyang hood and front cap are a bit chonkier than the Sony ones, so the actual weight savings over that are actually closer to 165g (5.8 oz).

 

None of those things are deal-breakers for me however and certainly not for its price. I like the design and finish and the build quality does not feel bad at all. The manual focus ring has a nice feel to it (focus by wire of course). It is weather sealed and the hood is a nice length too. I actually prefer these twist-click type hoods over the ones with buttons (Sony 135GM), since, for some reason, they're easier to locate and especially to screw on backwards (for me).

Bokeh Panos

This focal length can feel a bit restrictive, so if you want a winder angle with the dreamy shalllow depth of field you can use the bokeh panoramas technique (A.K.A. "Brenizer Method"). Just shoot a bunch of images with locked settings and stitch them together. I have been shooting these for 15 years now, they're much easier to shoot on mirrorless cameras, with lighter lenses like this.

Bokeh Panos: between 50 -110 images each

Equivalent: 26mm f/0.35 - 34mm f/0.46

Holding this lens up (with the Sony A1) and shooting 100+ images (without a tripod) really made me appreciate the lower weight. I remember shooting the technique with the Sigma version a few years ago and my arms would really start to hurt towards the end of longer batches. 400g (14oz) might not sound like a huge weight saving, but here I get no pain at all. Even compared to the Sony lens the weight savings are more modest, but still noticeable. By the end of a day I had noticeably less shoulder strain from the bag too.

 

Compared

The length, shape and size of these two Sony FE mount lenses is very close. I initially wondered whether the Samyang might be a clone of Sony's optical design too, but diving through the specs online suggests this is not the case.

 

Total Weight

Mirrorless cameras can be quite a bit lighter than DSLR's, but that advantage can disappear once you add a lens. This is especially true with fast and very high quality optics, but some are managing to make lighter lenses while retaining very high image quality. Here are some total weights for these 135mm f/1.8 lenses including a full frame camera:

Nikon FF camera + Nikon Z 135mm f/1.8:

  • Low - Nikon Z5 - 1,670g (3.68 lbs)

  • Mid - Nikon Z6II - 1,700g (3.74 lbs)

  • High - Nikon Z8 - 1,905g (4.2 lbs)

 

Nikon didn't really get the memo that mirrorless cameras can be light. It wouldn't be so bad if their battery life didn't suck so badly, but they make up for it somewhat with decent features. This is especially true of their Z8 model. Which is a great camera, but it's heavier than most DLSRs and it's not even their pro sized body... ouch!!

Canon FF camera + Canon RF 135mm f/1.8 L IS USM:

  • Low - Canon R8 - 1,396g (3.07 lbs)

  • Mid - Canon R6II - 1,605g (3.53 lbs)

  • High - Canon R5 - 1,673g (3.69 lbs)

 

Canon now have some nice and light mirrorless cameras. Although their lightest full frame one doesn't have stabilization, the lens does, so it scrapes through the minimum requirements here. On the high-end there is no stacked high resolution option yet, but the R5 is still a great pro mirrorless option. It's as light Nikon's lowest end camera with 135mm lens, which is really impressive.

 

Sony FF camera + Samyang FE 135mm f/1.8:

  • Vid - Sony ZV-E1 - 1,255g (2.77 lbs)

  • Low - Sony A7C 1,281g (2.82 lbs)

  • Mid - Sony A7IV - 1,431g (3.15 lbs)

  • High - Sony A1 - 1,509g (3.33 lbs)

Panasonic don't have a mirrorless 135mm f/1.8 option. Although there is a L mount version of the Sigma DSLR lens a combo with the S5 II X would weigh: 1,960g (4.32 lbs). That's more than many DSLR options, but is mostly the fault of the DSLR lens.

 

If this sea of numbers is overwhelming to you too, perhaps you'll appreciate it in graph form, with some DSLR comparisons...

135mm + Camera Weights.jpg

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Sony mirrorless cameras are pretty light for what they are, but the main advantage they have on this comparison chart comes from the Samyang lens rather than the cameras themselves. The ZV-E1 may be really close in weight to the Canon R8, while not having a viewfinder and only a 12mp resolution, but... It's essentially a lightweight A7S III with an AI chip for half the price! Unlike the Canon it does have IBIS and its battery life is considerably better.

 

Sony options are often cheaper than Nikon and Canon equivalents (apart from the A1), but the price and weight dynamic goes into overdrive with this Samyang lens. Sony have an abundant selection of light, full frame camera bodies with great battery life and IBIS (at various budgets), but given they also have the biggest selection of 1st and 3rd party lenses by far there's a lot to like.

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Sony A1 - f/2.5 | iso 1000

Cost

If you thought the weight section was impressive, buckle up for this one because the Samyang's value is off the charts... well, kinda firmly inside them, but hopefully you get the point. It's worth noting here that the Samyang is on offer, although it's not even two years old, so I'm not quite sure why. Perhaps the focal length is not so versatile for most people, or perhaps the low price is making people wonder what's wrong with it.

The Samyang is cheaper than even their own 85mm f/1.4 lens, yes the new mkII one! Of course it's cheaper than everyone elses 85mm f/1.4 lenses too. To me that's crazy because the entrance pupil on the 135mm f/1.8 is noticeably bigger than an 85mm f/1.2, while providing far better image quality too. This is hands down the best lens for the price that I have ever seen!

Unfortunately for other mirrorless platforms the Samsung AF 135mm f/1.8 lens is currently only made in the Sony FE mount. This may change though and Viltrox may soon get a similar option, so if you're on Canon or Nikon and looking for a budget and/or lightweight 135mm f/1.8 keep your fingers crossed...

135mm lens prices.jpg

Being able to buy FOUR Samyang 135mm f/1.8 lenses and several official Sony batteries for the price of ONE Nikon lens just sounds obscure, so think about it this way... For the price of either the Nikon or Canon version you can get the Samyang lens and a Sony A7C II camera (new). One of the lightest full frame setups and still feature packed too (33mp sensor, 7 stops of IBIS, AI subject recognition, 4k 60fps 10bit video, 10fps, 7k oversampling, human & animal eye-AF in stills and video, 530 shot battery life). That's just insane!!

Another interesting comparison is if you look at the Canon RF 135mm lens on the R5 body. That combo is very close in cost compared to the Samyang and Sony A1. Personally I feel like the A1 is rather over priced right now, but it would provide an even faster experience, with a stacked sensor. It would also weigh less (164g / 5.8oz), thanks to the lens, and have nearly double the battery life.

Conclusion

If you read the rest of the review it will be pretty clear that I am blown away by this lens. When I say it's an absolutely crazy bargain, that's not a backhanded way of saying its good, but has problems. It really doesn't have much in the way of down sides (at least for me). It has the best image quality of pretty much any lens and an amazing minimum focus distance (albeit the same as the Sony 135GM). I honestly don't know how they can make a lens with this performance so light and cheap... 

 

Will some people miss the AF switch and aperture ring? Maybe, but I never used them and thus prefer them not getting accidentally knocked, so that's actually another plus for me. The only slight down sides from my perspective is that the AF is a bit slower than the Sony 135GM (not by much) and it makes a tiny bit more noise when focusing. It could be the A1 making up for a lot there, but that's it...

I'll end with some of the squirrel and bird photos that I have taken on this lens over the last couple of weeks...

More Squirrels

You can find more squirrel examples on my page about Arosa here. I bought this lens a week before that trip because I wanted to cut down on the amount of weight I was carrying and I really did appreciate that. We spent two mornings on the squirrel trail, so you can see how much I have been loving this lens and how well it has been performing from those examples.

Conclusion

If you read the rest of the review you'll know that I am blown away by this lens. When I say it's an absolutely crazy bargain, that's not a backhanded way of saying its good, but has problems. It really doesn't have much in the way of down sides (at least for me). It has the best image quality of pretty much any lens and an amazing minimum focus distance (albeit the same as the Sony 135GM). I honestly don't know how they can make a lens with this performance so cheap and light... 

 

Sure, some people miss the AF switch and aperture ring, but I never use them, so it's actually another plus for me that they don't get knocked by mistake. The only slight down sides from my perspective are that the AF is a bit slower than the Sony 135GM (not by much) and it makes a tiny bit more noise when focusing. It could be that the A1 and A9 is making up for some of the performance loss here. I really would like to to test it on something like the A7C II or A7R to really take advantage of the low weight of the combo. If I do I will report back soon...

Images

Finally, I will end with a gallery of large single image examples from the lens...