In my last article I looked at 135mm Lenses in general and the Pentax offerings in particular. That overview considered those made for the Pentax-specific K-mount, but also those for the M42 mount, which is easily adapted to Canon, Nikon and other systems. In this article I'll be looking at some of the third-party offerings, and again much will be applicable no matter what system you use.
With dozens of brand names and hundreds of models, where does one start? I went to the various forums and blogs where people chat about such things and gathered up as many recommendations as possible. Thirteen lenses were tested by Michel Pollet on a Canon, five of which I could strike off my list since they were zooms or incompatible with Pentax (your criteria may vary). Seven lenses were tested by Dave on Pentax Forums. A related discussion managed to list 40 possibilities.
My selection criteria includes image quality, portability, price and usability. Since I didn't have the opportunity to try any of these, I based the selection on common recommendations, examination of sample images on Flickr, and so on.
Along the way I discovered such rarities as the Vivitar Telephoto 135/1.5 Professional, which was produced in a tiny batch in 1968 and sold for the equivalent of $2,400! It is fair to say that this is a collector's piece and not something I'm going to stumble across on eBay for fifty quid -- the price point I am targeting.
Carl Zeiss Jena
First up is the "Carl Zeiss Jena DDR MC S 1:3.5 F=135mm", a simple optical design of 4 elements in 3 groups that has stood the test of time. Though it is in fact a Sonnar, for patent reasons it bears the abbreviation "S" instead. This M42 mount lens weighs 430g and is 89mm long, but extends to maybe twice this length. It is thin for a 135mm, taking a 49mm filter. It is an "auto aperture" with the A/M switch I described in SLR Aperture Control Mechanisms. The minimum focus is 90cm and minimum aperture f/22. The diaphragm has 6 blades.
This lens is black with a large ribbed focus ring. For convenience it has a built-in lens hood that retracts when not needed. I love this design since it makes the lens more portable. There is an earlier "zebra" styling, but it's not multi-coated. SLR Lens Review has test findings of the MC version, which are very positive. The Carl Zeiss Jena sells for £50 to £80.
Vivitar Series 1
The second option is the "Vivitar Series 1 135mm 1:2.3", from back when Vivitar were a first rate brand that had only the best Japanese companies manufacture their glass -- in this case Komine. I have their 28mm from that same series and it is excellent, especially when one considers it is an f/1.9! But back to the 135mm which uses 6 elements in 6 groups and is reputed to be quite sharp (but not the absolute pinnacle).
Available in a variety of mounts, including M42 and K-mount, this lens is a hefty solid metal 675g and 88mm long. For convenience it also has a built-in hood. The lens is an unusual shape, flaring out significantly to a 72mm filter. The minimum focus is 89cm which provides a maximum reproduction ratio of 1:4.5. Like the Jena, the minimum aperture is f/22, though it ups the blade count to nine.
The Vivitar Series 1 listed for $220 in 1977 but now goes for a reasonable sum (£80) in off-brand mounts but sometimes double or more for Pentax, since it has something of a reputation in those circles. The blog Making Not Taking has some lovely photos of this item. There is also an earlier version that lacks the coating and the neon blue VMC lettering that advertises this fact.
The third choice is the "Pentacon 2.8/135" -- but it's important to specify the correct variant. VEB Feinoptisches Werk Görlitz manufactured many, starting in 1965. The first was branded Meyer-Optik Orestor and was a zebra model. Then followed a similar lens, also zebra, under the Pentacon name. Third was a black finish model, with a thinner focus ring. Following this was a version with red distance measures in feet and a wider knurled focus area ... and then four more variants as documented by Jörg Vetter. (Horst Neuhaus shows these in relationship to the Exacta lenses made by the same company... an incredible resource for those interested in lens history.)
All the variants so far mentioned have a preset aperture. It is stepless, meaning that rather than having detents at different aperture settings, you are free to choose anywhere in between. The 15-blade aperture produces perfect circular specular highlights in the out-of-focus areas of an image. For this reason the lens is nicknamed the "Bokeh Monster". (For those not familiar with this Japanese term, "bokeh" is used to describe the quality of the out-of-focus zones.)
The Pentacon 2.8/135 Preset weighs 470g and 112mm in length (including the hood), has a 55mm filter and minimum aperture of f/32. The minimum focus is only 150cm, which can hardly be called "close" focus! It comes with a dedicated screw-on hood and is commonly found with a hard case -- I believe this was included with the lens when initially sold. Though it is superficially similar to the Carl Zeiss Jena, this lens is an updated 5 element in 4 group design.
Following the many models already mentioned, the company released "Auto" and "Electric" versions. These have automatic apertures and only 6 blades. They are multi-coated but reportedly do not offer the same smooth out-of-focus area or gentle rendering. Avoid buying one of these lenses by mistake. A quick glance at even a poor photo will reveal if the preset ring is present.
At the top of this article you will find a picture of the fourth version of the Pentacon 2.8/135 Preset, on my Pentax K20D. To my eye this is one handsome lens! The build quality is excellent and it is neither too long nor too heavy. However, the mount is so narrow that the body contacts are exposed, so I'd think twice about taking this out in inclement weather. The following profile view highlights this problem.
Why did I buy the Pentacon over the other two recommendations? No reason really; it just happened to come up for a good price. I am sure I'd be equally happy with the others. But I must say I was intrigued by the idea of 15 blades, wanted an East German lens in my collection and thought it looked fab. Besides which, this is my first preset aperture lens and my first with stepless aperture control. So it's a great learning experience!
If you have a little more to spend, don't forget the Takumars and other Pentax lenses mentioned in the last article. Whichever lens you purchase you'll find working at 135mm on a cropped sensor to be a new photographic experience.