Photo: Dan Bracaglia

I love shooting wide. No, really: I made a whole video about how I even shoot portraits with wide-angle lenses. Wide-angles provide a sense of depth, dramatic perspectives, a glimpse into the subject's surroundings and even provide an intimacy to portraits by giving the perspective of an observer standing very close to the subject. So you may be surprised by my choice of Gear of the Year: the Sony FE 135mm F1.8 GM.

Perhaps it's just that I needed something different. Spice up my life, venture beyond 35mm, you know, my favorite 'telephoto' lens. Or, maybe Sony just made an amazing lens in the 135mm GM. Perhaps it's a bit of both.

135mm F1.8 allowed me to focus on my backlit subject, and nothing else. Look at that creamy background.

All images converted to taste in Capture One Pro 20.

I took the Sony FE 135mm with me on a recent trip with family and friends, enjoying time together at a cabin and celebrating three years of keeping our daughter alive.

135mm really allows you to isolate your subject, and make it about nothing else, even if some of the environment is included. Rather than jumping around the frame from one point of interest to another, the viewer's eye can just focus on one story which, below, is a simple one of one sibling looking up to another.

The 'tunnel vision' a long focal length paired with a fast aperture provides allows you to create simplistic images that tell just one story, like the love shared between these siblings.

That's not to say that 135mm doesn't allow you to portray your subject against its surroundings, it's just that things are a bit different compared to a wide angle composition. Rather than include an expansive view of your subject's surroundings with an enhanced sense of depth, the longer focal length allows you to compress your subject against only an isolated - and magnified - portion of its environment.

Take the image below: A wide-angle lens would have included the foliage, the sky, the ground, and other potentially distracting elements, all situated at different depths. This creates a more complex image with an enhanced sense of, well, depth. That can certainly be nice, but sometimes I like the simplicity of the subject and the background essentially appearing at just two different focal planes.

The 135mm focal length allowed me to 'compress' the scene, bringing the trees in the background closer to my subject(s), and allowing me to frame my subjects against the green foliage. The long focal length allowed me to magnify only a small portion of the background, allowing me to exclude distracting elements like the sky above or the ground below my subjects.

Technically, the FE 135mm GM lens is superb. Optically, the lens is literally the sharpest lens our friend Roger Cicala at LensRentals has ever tested. That's at least in part due to the XA (extreme aspherical) element designed to minimize spherical aberration.

The Super ED and ED glass used in the elements in the front group replace traditional large and heavy negative elements commonly used to suppress longitudinal spherical aberration. The result is very little, if any, longitudinal chromatic aberration, commonly seen as purple and green fringing in front of, and behind, the focal plane, respectively.

The 135mm focal length allowed me to easily isolate my subject in this otherwise small and busy indoor space. And thanks to the excellent optics, there's no distracting green fringing in the high contrast 'Title' text behind our subject, despite the fast aperture.

Sony's 10 nanometer mold precision and other recent improvements ensure smooth aspherical surfaces, meaning that onion-ring bokeh is non-existent. An 11-blade aperture ensures circular out-of-focus highlights, and generally smoother bokeh, even when shooting stopped down. Sure, there's some mechanical vignetting that leads to a 'cat's eye' effect, but that's to be expected of a lens of this type, and isn't severe enough to result in swirly bokeh in the family portrait above.

Just as important as optical quality is the focus performance: especially for candid portraiture. And here the FE 135mm GM is industry leading: focus is lightning fast thanks in part to its four XD ('extreme dynamic') linear induction motors. These motors are far faster than the previous piezoelectric design of Sony's 'Direct Drive SSM' system, and are capable of moving larger, heavier elements.

Paired with the excellent autofocus system of Sony's recent cameras such as the a7R Mark IV, focus is fast enough that I could easily nail focus on the eyes of erratically running toddlers, even with the aperture wide open at F1.8:

This boy was running through a wading pool and momentarily smiled at the camera. Real-time tracking (with Eye AF) coupled with the extremely fast autofocus speeds of this lens allowed me to nail this moment effortlessly.

I'll admit I'd rarely shot with 135mm primes in the past, typically sticking to a trio of primes (24, 35, and 85) for weddings, or 70-200mm F2.8 lenses for engagement and portrait shoots. I've found the 135mm F1.8 to be a different beast, requiring me to think and shoot differently, while often finding myself running further and further backward to get enough space in between my camera and my subject.

The results were, to me, very rewarding. The 'tunnel vision' effect of stepping back and using a longer focal length to isolate your subject and compress it against a small portion of its surroundings yields a unique look, particularly when paired with a fast enough aperture so that the background is pleasingly blurred and not distracting. Below, you'll see my daughter surrounded by others in a park, but by herself in the wading pool happily marching to her own beat.

I couldn't sum her up any better.

Marching to her own beat.

Note the exceedingly low magenta fringing (longitudinal chromatic aberration) around the water droplets splashing about in front of our subject, despite the magnifying glass the high resolution 60MP sensor of the a7R IV holds up to any lens' optical aberrations.

Sony FE 135mm F1.8 GM sample gallery


* Of course I kid: my wedding kit always includes an 85mm, and I happily use 200mm for compression when I want to isolate my subject amidst its surroundings.