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Carl Zeiss Sonnar T* 135mm f/2.8 lens

by Sean Y., 1998

The Sonnar 135mm lens is a very fast, affordably priced Zeiss medium telephoto lens in the Contax/Yashica SLR mount capable of taking some really great pictures. It is essentially a portrait lens, but the longish 1.6 m. minimum focusing distance is the greatest deficiency with this otherwise excellent lens. It is also a good lens for isolating subject matter in architecture and landscape photography.

Physical Characteristics

Construction is metal, glass, and the standard rubberized focusing grip. The aperture ring (f/2.8-22) has full aperture detents although there are half-aperture settings. The focusing scale is marked in both feet (American) and meters (the rest of the world) and there is a red infrared focusing compensation mark and depth-of-field scale (even though all Contax SLRs have depth-of-field preview). The only plastic material is the front and rear lens caps (which I assiduously use).

With a 55mm screw-on filter size, you probably won't whine about buying an entire set of filters. Lens flare is not a problem; I've tossed two Tiffen ND graduated filters (Cokin "P" mount) in front and still got excellent results when shooting sunsets (remember, this lens is great for isolating landscape elements).

There is a very convenient built-in slide-type metal hood that protects against flare. The hood comes out every time I mount this lens on my SLR body.

My Sonnar 138/2.8 was made in Japan and Zeiss claims that it is every bit as good as older German made lenses. The MM-type diaphragm allows for program AE, shutter-priority AE (Tv), aperture-priority AE (Av) and manual mode. The older AE-type diaphragm on certain currently produced Zeiss lenses only supports the Av and manual metering modes; this is solely a function of the diaphragm action and has nothing to do with optical quality.


The Sonnar 135mm ships with a leather drawstring pouch and the aforementioned lens caps. There is a little leather tag on the drawstring; I printed the lens length and speed to make identification easier.

Instead of the built-in hood, one can use the optional Contax Metal Hood 5 with the optional 55/86 step-up ring. I have such a combination, but it resides close to my 80-200/4 zoom lens since the 135/2.8 has a built-in hood (which the zoom does not).


Like all Zeiss lenses, the Sonnar 135mm comes with a technical data sheet written in English, German, French, and Spanish. There are four sets of curves: two MTF diagrams (f/2.8 and f/5.6), relative illuminance at f/2.8 and f/5.6, and distortion. Specifications (number of elements and groups, exact focal length - 134.1mm for this lens, etc.) are also mentioned.


Tack sharp, but the minimum focusing distance issue is a problem if you are a serious portrait photographer; you are better off saving your money for a Planar 85/1.4 or a Planar 100/2 for such applications. Both focus as close as a meter, and yes, it does make a difference.

Of my four Contax SLR lenses (the others being: 28/2.8, 50/1.4, 80-200/4) perhaps this is the lens that I am the least happy with. If the 135/2.8 could focus down to 1.2-1.4 meters, this lens would be killer.


I bought mine in September 1996 for US$395, a one of the least expensive in the Zeiss product line. If you're building a Contax/Zeiss system, this is a cheap purchase. As I said, optically, this lens is a real bargain. However, I just can't find too many uses for a 135mm lens except for portraiture and some minor landscape/architectural applications.

An alternative

Well, for lazy guys like me the Vario-Sonnar T* 80-200mm f/4 zoom lens is an option. The image quality isn't quite as good as the fixed focal length 135mm, but it is very close.

If you care to economize before breaking open the piggy bank to purchase a medium telephoto Zeiss lens, I suggest the 85/1.4 (particularly if astrophotography is an interest) or the 100/2 (a newer design).

Copyright © 1997-98 Sean Y.. All rights reserved.

Article created 1998

Readers' Comments

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Walrus -- , March 02, 1998; 11:43 A.M.


I do not agree on your comment on the minimum focussing distance of the Carl Zeiss 2.8/135. I find it an excellent lens for portraiture as it is, unless you want a tight head crop of a child. Moreover, at 1.6 m it offers exactly the same cross section in the object plane as the 2.8/85 and the 1.4/85 at 1.0 m. Hence a choice should be based on working distance or perspective, but not on maximum magnification.


Bob Royse , March 10, 1998; 05:36 P.M.

This was one of the first Zeiss lenses I owned and found it to be a very versatile little lens for general nature and landscape photography if one also included extension tubes and the MutarII 2x in the camera bag. Its performance wide open with the MutarII is as good, if not better, than the 300f4 stopped down to f5.6. Using all 3 Contax extension tubes give magnification of a not-too-shabby 1/2 life size. Throw in the fact that it is small and light and takes the same 55mm filters as short Zeiss lenses and you have a great value for the dollar from Zeiss. I don't own it anymore only because it was replaced by other lenses, but it was certainly valued for its utility during the several years when I only owned this lens, a 28mm and a 50mm. I'm still satisfied looking at photos taken using it with extension tubes and the MutarII.

Lanier Benkard , March 17, 1998; 07:55 P.M.

Two things: First, 1.6m minimum focus is not that bad at 135, and if it's a problem, this lens performs *extremely* well on extension tubes -- I've used it heavily for macro in the past. Second, I want to add that I find this lens to be top notch optically, despite its low price.

J. Law , March 31, 1998; 03:05 P.M.

For what it's worth, the focal length calculator here calculates a minimal focussing distance of 5.5 feet at 137mm focal length lens at 35mm to fill the frame with an object 1.4feet tall.

That's about a head-and-shoulders crop.Doesn't do a tight half-head-and-eyes crop.

Does anyone have images from this lens? I'm curious about its bokeh performance. Thanks.


J. Law , August 17, 1998; 11:45 A.M.

Well, I've had this lens for about 6 months now, and up until now I haven't found a use for it.

The minimum focus is really not SO significant. It'll handle a head-shoulders-waist crop easily, which is a nice substitute to a 180/2.8, because it gets some of the nice background blur. The bokeh is really quite nice, too.

More importantly, it seems to do beautifully on extension tubes. A 7.5mm tube will get you in just closer to get to fill a head-shoulders crop, and a 25mm tube (actually a Vivitar 2x TC with the glass taken out) will get a close enough crop to just get hairline-to-above-chin. And it performs _admirably_ -- very sharp corner to corner.

This is in direct contrast to the 85/1.4 Planar, which is utterly beautiful by itself, but gets really really quite soft on any extension. It's not a bad thing, especially for portraits and flowers, but it might not be what you're looking for.



Cing-Dao Kan , August 21, 1998; 11:19 A.M.

I think the 135mm focal length is better suited for landscape or general nature photography.

wayne chiu , April 21, 1999; 02:57 A.M.

The 135/2.8 doesn't make the right color some time.It has the tendency with Yellow Color.

Gerhard Schmekt , May 14, 2000; 12:24 A.M.

As for the application potential of the 135mm/2.8 Sonnar, it is obviously a matter of taste but to follow with this thread, I'll state for the record that this is my portrait lens of choice and there is something to be said for keeping a few feet back from your model. I find that it is far less threatening than being a mere meter from their face. The 1.6 meter minimum focus distance is absolutely not a problem in my course of work. This lens is SHARP! Even when blown up to 20x24!

Meryl Arbing , October 04, 2000; 11:06 P.M.

I have this lens and appreciate the excellent quality I get from it but, it is hard to objectively judge one's own pictures. I thought they looked pretty sharp and contrasty but that could just be my own ego. However, I did get an objective assessment. I had gone to our local Zoo here in Toronto armed only with my Contax 167MT and the 135mm lens. I had the film developed at a new camera shop close to my work. When I came in to pick up the shots the technician came out from the back to ask me what camera and lens I had used. He then opened up the package and showed ME his favorites of MY shots. He must see thousands of shots every day for dozens of cameras but the shots from this lens made him take notice!!

Zernan Labay , June 19, 2001; 11:41 A.M.

Ive been using this lens for almost 4 years now w/ subjects ranging from portraiture,architecture,and landscapes. Its a great lens! Minimum focusing is in the same ratio as 85mm 1.4.

Holger Gamer , August 30, 2001; 05:37 A.M.

The Zeiss Sonnar 135 had been tested in Germany by Color Foto some years ago. It was better than all competitors, Nikon, Leica, Canon,... I use a small auto extention tube for portraits to reduce the minimum distance and for me that works just fine.

Tony Samples , November 24, 2001; 08:00 A.M.

Another viable alternative is the Yashica (YUS) 135/2.8. I have had nothing but excellent results from mine.

Frank Bunnik , June 20, 2002; 05:50 A.M.

I own this beautiful lens now for 10 years and I am still very happy with it. One of the best camera related buys I ever made (together with the RTS2). For portraits, using it at f/2.8 to 5.6 sets the subject nicely loose from the background with a wonderful bokeh. Closing it further makes this lens excellent for landscapes as well. I recommend this lens to any contax reflex user. Frank

Elia Freddi , January 22, 2006; 06:14 A.M.

I own this lens since '99. Before I used the Yashica ML 138/2.8, but the Zeiss 135/2.8 is by far better, expecially fully open. This is the first amazing thing: even at fully open diagphram the images are very sharp. In this condition it's remarkable the progressive passage from in-focus to out-of-focus, it give a kind of very nice 3D feeling. I made some enlargement up to 14x and I have been always surprised how small details jump out. The colors are natural, the distorsion almost not visible. The lens is pretty heavy and this help in keep the vibration down (I made some pics at 1/30!). The builtin sun-shade is very handy too.

Daniel Ortego , November 27, 2011; 06:06 P.M.

I'm considering this lens for use on a 'now new' Sony A77 and whatever replaces the A700 or possibly the upcoming A950?. It has received the highest ratings of any other CZ/ZA lens. Sure wish it had the old 1998~1999 pricing! It was a true steal back then. Today, it's one of the most expensive of the CZ lot. Oh well. ~Dan

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