EF 135mm f/2L USM is one of my absolute favourite lenses. For almost 20 years I have felt that putting it on any EOS camera made me try harder with my photography, and raise my game to do the lens justice.
What’s remarkable is that this lens has been in the Canon lineup for so long. It was introduced in spring 1996, which would be just after I started working for Canon Europe. Some years after it’s introduction, and definitely after the introduction of the EOS D30 DSLR in 2000 I purchased my own EF 135mm f/2L USM lens. The lure of the f/2 aperture was the factor I was most interested in. Early shots with the lens showed that it was simply stunning, and actually pretty versatile.
Outdoors is the EF 135mm f/2L USM lens’s natural home
In reality this lens needs working room, so take it outdoors and make great photos on location.
Studio shots are intense, but you need distance
Working in a studio often means the lens limits you to tight headshots, but then the results are pretty special too. One of the challenges is having lighting that you can turn down far enough to capitalise on the f/2 aperture. Though sometimes with super limited depth of field you’ll be glad you shot at f/4 or more to give sufficient depth of field when the subject distance is short.
Sports and action
Action shots are also one of its many strengths. I’ve used the lens for action shots, the fast USM focus motor gets to the subject swiftly and silently. For the best results, make sure to keep the shutter speed fast. When shooting wide open it will be obvious if the subject is not frozen and super sharp. On the side of the lens you’ll find a focus limit switch that selects 0.9m to infinity or 1.6m to infinity. Choosing 1.6m to infinity makes the lens hunt over a limited range for faster acquisition of subjects.
Put the EF 135mm f/2L USM on an EOS R5 or EOS R6 means you won’t get 12fps, more like 6-7fps, so you’ll have to better with your timing, or resort to electronic shutter mode. You can also use all the clever focus trickery; eye-detection, face detection, and it works for people, animals and vehicles.
Chances are that if you are contemplating this lens, then its how it renders out of focus highlights in the frame that’s important to you. Despite only having an 8-blade aperture the bokeh is a big part of the look that the EF 135mm f/2L USM brings to photos. Don’t forget that bokeh is not just background blur, it’s also how delicious the foreground blur is too. Here’s a few examples, and yes I love the look of this lens wide open at f/2 🙂
If you are using an EOS R5 or EOS R6 then mechanical shutter is the one to select for the best looking bokeh. Though it’s hard to see much difference from 1st curtain electronic shutter mode in my view.
Low light focus
In low light, you need to be able to gather up any available light to help the camera focus, fast aperture lenses are a real help in low light, even if you stop down the aperture for the shot.
Surprisingly you can add an Extender EF 1.4x for a 200mm f/2.8 or the Extender EF 2x for a 270mm f/4 lens, it’s one of the few black EF L-series lenses that work with extenders. I have done this on several occasions as the stealth of a 200mm f/2.8 lens in black is quite valuable, it doesn’t stand out or intimidate nervous subjects like a white 70-200mm f/2.8.
Extension tube compatible
With a minimum focus distance of 0.9m, it’s not a macro lens, but add an extension tube and closer focus plus larger magnification is ready for you. Though macro at f/2 is a challenge in itself.
A trinity of f/2 lenses
Canon talked about the “trinity lenses“;
I think that a trinity of f/2 lenses might be better. For me the last 15 months has seen me consider the RF 28-70mm F2L USM, RF 85mm F2 Macro IS STM and EF 135mm f/2L USM to be my f/2 trinity. However I have recently had a change of heart and that saw me try some alternatives, namely an EF 200mm f/2L IS USM and EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM, more to come on this…
Note: EOS 7D Mark II with EF 135mm F2L USM lens at the top was photographed with an EOS R6 and EF 85mm f/1.4L IS USM.
Bad news – EF 135mm f/2L USM is discontinued
Recently with the launch of the EOS R series cameras and RF lenses there’s been a large number of EF lenses that have been discontinued. Unfortunately the EF 135mm f/2L USM is one of the discontinued lenses, which is not too bad after 25 years I guess. If you want one of these lenses – and you should – then get one while there’s still some stock around, or get a used one. Canon service should keep service parts for 7 years once a product is discontinued.
I’m not one to speculate, but there are plenty of rumours of an RF 135mm lens on the internet. What I want is another absolutely amazing characterful, inspiring, magic lens that makes me strive harder for better results. What I don’t need is a huge, heavy, unwieldy lens that has no soul.