Why I Love My Canon 135mm f2 L USM Lens

In the “Why I love my…” articles we will be asking photographers to tell us about a specific piece of equipment that they have developed a strong bond with and whose presence has improved their photographic experiences.

It could be highly technical, or very basic. It might be a relatively new, current product, or an old, battered ever faithful bit of gear. It might be a near perfect combination of form and function that is to be put up on a pedestal and worshipped, or a flawed and challenging device that requires a fair bit of effort to wrangle the best out of, but whose companionship is essential.

Here, Mark Stephenson tells us why he loves his Canon EF 135mm f2 L USM Lens.

Why and When?

Just over a year ago I upgraded my camera. I’d been shooting with a Canon 450D and liked using the Canon 85mm f/1.8 lens on it. I found it good for shooting people, and I loved the shallow depth of field the relatively long focal length coupled with the large maximum aperture of f/1.8 gave. I upgraded to a 5D Mark II and since my new camera had a bigger sensor, I needed a longer lens to achieve the equivalent field of view that I was getting on the 450D with 85mm. Enter the Canon EF 135mm f/2.0L USM.

It’s an ‘L’ lens. This is Canon’s top tier of lenses, the best. There are no set rules when defining an L, but generally the main differences are optical quality, build quality, usually a large maximum aperture (and fixed if we’re talking zooms - but there are exceptions) and  weather sealing on most of the newer ones. Another difference some people may notice is the price. Canon tend to charge a premium for all these niceties, and if you buy the most expensive you won’t get much change from £10,000. However, the 135L is modestly priced, coming in as one of the cheaper ones.

Coupled with the Canon 5d Mk II, the 135mm f2 L USM lens is excellent for shooting portraits

The Pros?

The Canon EF 135 mm f/2.0L USM is a telephoto fixed focal length lens. It has a large maximum aperture of f/2. It is well built – I’ve dropped it from just above waist height onto a hard wood floor and it took no damage, although I wouldn’t recommend trying this!

The combination of the 135mm focal length and the large f/2 aperture allow for great subject isolation. That is, the subject in focus and not a lot else. This effect can be great for portraits, especially when the background is out of your control or you just want to get a bit arty. The areas of the image you want in focus are sharp, very sharp. The lens is often credited with having great sharpness ‘wide open’, that is, when shooting at f/2. This further adds to its magic when the in-focus parts of the image are razor sharp. The final characteristic that contributes to the beautifully rendered images is the 8-blade aperture. This means out of focus highlights will be rounded, smooth and dreamy rather than the angular shapes some lenses produce.

The lens also has a relatively short minimum focus distance of 90cm giving a maximum magnification of 0.19. This allows you to get in fairly close, but adding a set of extension tubes, as I have recently discovered, lets you get right in. It is by no means a replacement for a dedicated macro lens but is a cost effective way of having a go and I have been happy with the results.

The focus on this lens, powered by an ultrasonic motor, is fast, quiet and accurate allowing full time manual focus. The addition of a focus limiter switch helps even more if you know your subject is going to be far away as it tells the lens to ignore anything within 1.6 metres.

This lens is impressively sharp when shooting wide open

The cons?

The fixed focal length of this lens will put some people off immediately. But in my mind, everything is about compromise. If the lens were a zoom and covered a range of focal lengths, at least one of its great qualities would need to be sacrificed, probably the physical size or the f/2 aperture.

The only way I can see this lens being improved would be if it had image stabilisation and weather sealing. Shooting handheld, which I do 95% of the time, the general rule of thumb for the slowest shutter speed you can use without introducing blur from lens shake is 1/[focal length], so in this case 1/135 seconds. This is quite a fast speed and although the lovely f/2 aperture allows in lots of light, sometimes it will not be enough and you will have to crank up the ISO on the camera.

It's an incredibly versatile lens despite its fixed focal length

So why do you love it?

Versatility is what this lens does best. Initially I had it pigeonholed as a portrait lens but after owning it for a year, the majority of my shots with it have no people in at all.

From sunsets to Jersey cows and bugs in my garden, the range of images I’ve shot with this lens is vast. And I’ve not even tried it for sports yet - one subject matter it is particularly popular for, especially indoor sports when light is scarce and IS isn’t going to help you.

I’ve used it for portraits, landscapes, still life, and with the addition of extension tubes it can pull its weight in the macro department too. And talking of additional accessories, this lens is also compatible with both the 1.4x and 2x teleconverters. I’ve got the 1.4x, giving me a 189mm f/2.8 lens with minimal loss of image quality and focus speed - great if you know your subject is going to be further away.

Add extension tubes for brilliant Macro photography

The sharpness, contrast and beautifully rendered bokeh are stunning and all delivered in a package about the same size and weight as a decent standard zoom. Compare the size and weight to its sibling the 70-200mm f/2.8, and you’ll really appreciate the form factor, giving you a relatively inconspicuous lens.

The only reason this lens would possibly leave my bag would be if Canon released a version II with any one of IS, weather sealing or an even bigger aperture. Mmmm Canon 135mm f/1.8 IS USM L...

To see more of Mark's work, visit his Flickr page here.

Do you have a particular piece of kit that has become your trusted photographic friend? Is there a gadget in your bag that, despite being old and superseded, you keep going back to time and time again? Have you got a bit of equipment that has become your talisman for great photographs?

If so, we'd love you to write a Why I love my... article for the WEX Blog! Simply write to us telling us what the item is, why and when you originally bought it, its pros and cons, and why you’ve come to love it so, plus include any own photos of your gear in use.

We're hoping to publish one of these a month, so get thinking, shooting and writing and send your submissions to [email protected].