The Minolta 135mm f/2.8:
Uber Sexy, Small and Sharp!
The Minolta Maxxum 135mm f/2.8 is one of the rarest of regular prime lenses in the Minolta line up. Production began in 1985; I'm not sure of the exact date it was discontinued, but based on the limited number and high price they command for sale on Ebay and other forums, I'm betting the lens may have had a 5 year run at the most. While the 135mm is certainly a fine lens, I think the short supply also contributes to the lens' used price tag today.
How would such a great lens be in such limited supply? To coincide with the introduction of the Minolta AF system in 1985, besides releasing many very nice prime lenses, Minolta engineered an attractive, affordable and fine performing line of telephoto zoom lenses, specifically the 28-135mm f/4-4.5, 100-200mm f/4.5 and the Beercan (70-210mm f/4) that offer coverage of 135mm. Consumers of the day were smitten with the convenience (and relatively good optical performance) of these three zooms and as a result, the 135mm's sat in display cases gathering dust, or requiring special order due to lack of interest. The 135mm became an early and tragic casualty of the success of telephoto zoom marketing and acceptance in the 1980's when it was ultimately discontinued.
But I digress! The Maxxum 135mm lens is a very unique lens from the original vintage line up. What struck me initially when I first got one was how small it was. I'd seen photos of it, but lack of scale and the extreme close up nature of the average lens pic led me to perceive that this lens was fairly big, perhaps like a 28-85mm f/3.5-4.5 lens. Was I mistaken! (see my photo below) The 135mm lens is about the size of two stacked 28mm f/2.8 or 50mm lenses. The front element opens up to 55mm to essentially occupy the entire front of the lens. A convenient and sturdy built-in retractable hood extends about a half inch beyond the glass to prevent lens flare. Those familiar with the integrated hoods on the vintage 50mm's and 28mm's would appreciate this design improvement on the 135mm! With all that glass and vintage metal build, the lens feels solid and weighs in at a hefty 390g, or just under one pound. Quite heavy for such a small package.
The Minolta 135mm next to a 28mm prime.
For number junkies, the lens features 7 elements in 5 groups.
Weighted MTF for 135 mm: f2.8 0.72. f4 0.76. f8 0.79
Average Weighted MTF: 0.78 Grade: 3.6
Data from Photodo.com
What do these numbers mean? The higher the scores, the better the contrast and resolution of the lens. A 3.6 grade is extremely good. A grade above 4 is only seen in dedicated Macro lenses, the finest primes and G series lenses.
The lens includes Internal Focusing - in my opinion a hallmark of finer lenses. Once you've used your circular polarizer with IF, you'll never want to go back to a rotating front element! Closest focus is 39" or 100cm, not particularly close. The overall cosmetic design of the lens mirrors many others from the original Vintage series and makes it easily recognizeable. Unfortunately, this does include the very thin focus ring (recall the 50mm f/1.7) which is even harder to grip unless the hood is pulled forward. As I've already mentioned, the filter thread is 55mm. The mount sports the usual 5 pin contact.
I really enjoy using this lens. I find the AF fast enough (much faster than the average telephoto zoom of course) and accurate. Because of the f/2.8 maximum aperture, the viewfinder is bright. On my 7D, the lens is a contradiction, being dwarfed by the bulk of the body and VC-7D grip. But travelling light without the grip, it looks nicely balanced. I think on a KM 5D or Sony A100, it would be a perfect match. On film, the 135mm made a great portrait lens, but on digital, I use it more for candid shots when I want to be stealthy and a little further removed from the action.
Photos are a little soft at f/2.8 (as with most lenses, "G" series excepted) but sharpen up nicely throughout the rest of the apertures. With the f/2.8, you can get some nicely blurred backgrounds as the bokeh on this lens is superb. Colors are neutral to very slightly warm, which I find nice. On digital, I can pick up a little CA (chromatic aberration) or "purple fringe" in areas of very high contrast. A photo of my son swimming with bright sunlight reflections behind him in the water comes to mind - it was minor and not distracting. I really only picked it up when enlarging to 100% in PS2. APO Chromatic coatings would have solved or reduced CA, but who was thinking digital crop factor back in 1985?
In the digital domain, the 135mm lens approximates a 200mm lens with the 1.5x crop factor. On the telephoto side, this is certainly one of the advantages of digital SLR's. Have a look on Ebay at the 200mm f/2.8 HS APO lens prices (>$1000USD) to appreciate the value this lens offers, even at $300. I won't argue the HS APO lens is a completely different class of lens performance, and of course becomes 300mm on digital, but you can appreciate the value, compact size, build and performance of the 135mm in comparison to anything else Minolta produced that covers this focal length. There are no other longer and/or faster prime Minolta lenses until you look to the Professional G Series. It's just too bad that more Minoltians didn't recognize these points 20 years ago when they were available - then we could all have one!