Back in film days, 135mm was one of the most common medium telephoto focal lengths. I never quite understood why. To be fair, it seems to be a reasonable compromise between long reach and relatively small size. In any case, there are literally dozens of different 135mm manual lenses we can adapt to mirrorless systems today.
Some of them are, frankly, very expensive, even today; which is probably logical, if we're talking about f/2 max apertures. But the majority is priced ranging from "modest" to "downright cheap". We are talking f/2.8 to f/3.5 apertures here, and this review centers around such a bargain-priced example, the Jupiter 37a. It was used on the E-M1, and here are my thoughts on the experiment.
There are dozens of choices at the 135mm focal length, some of them quite excellent optically, and fetching quite high prices in the used market. I would note Pentacon and Tacumar versions for M42 mount, at f/2.8 or f/3.5, Contax Zeiss (for Contax mount) and literally scores of other choices.
Although adapting such a lens on FF mirrorless (i.e. Sony) will provide the exact same experience of old, what is the point, you may ask, opting for a manual lens like this, when m43 already offers plenty of options at that focal length?
While it’s true there are several zoom lenses covering this focal length, most of them are “kit” type lenses. At 135mm their max aperture is closer to f/4.8-5.6; they are certainly not useless, quite the contrary, they can be quite sharp in fact, but they remain 1-2 stops slower. Only a few lenses available for the system, such as the marvelous old Four Thirds Zuiko 50-200 f/2.8-3.5 can compete in this respect. And then there is the exemplary Olympus 40-150 f/2.8. Which will set you back close to 1500 euro/dollars.
And this is the main point. The lens I’m frankly can’t hold a candle to the 40-150 in regards to overall IQ. But it’s about 30 times cheaper. And almost half the size.
Therein lies the whole argument about such lenses: as discussed in the an earlier article about adapting legacy glass, when choosing an older adapted lens, you get a cheap(-er) alternative, especially if it’s planned for casual use, you give up autofocus, but gain the element of “character”.
The Jupiter 37a is another one of the various successful copies of the Carl Zeiss Sonnar 135mm f/3.5. If interested, more info can be found following this link at AllPhotoLenses (a great resource for lens info overall). This is a "preset lens", pre-dating the era of auto stop-down, but that's hardly an issue with mirrorless cameras: you just set to the desired aperture and leave it to the electronic viewfinder to boost display brightness, if the image is too dark.
In actual use, the lens is very enjoyable to handle. The focus and aperture rings work comfortably and, from some point on, you really forget you are using a lens made almost half a century ago.
The bokeh is quite beautiful to be honest. This is very much due to the focal length, of course: you will find no nervousness, no weird artifacts, only creamy goodness all around. Quality of the bokeh is very much dependant on the number of aperture blades, and also if they are rounded or not. Most people shoot such lenses wide open, so these characteristics aren’t perhaps so important; still, the Jupiter can be shot stopped down a couple of stops, without sacrificing bokeh quality.
Speaking of stopping down, let’s remind that, with m43 bodies, diffraction is a real issue when you close down at f/8 or higher f-number. The E-M1 has some special software sauce to get rid of diffraction artifacts (in JPEG) but let’s be aware of this issue when using (slower) manual lenses.
The E-M1 has the best stabilization system in the industry, bar none. It makes it child’s play to get sharp images at unbelievable slow shutter speeds. When using such long lenses, handheld, on a body without in-body IS, one would be especially careful; it will not be easy and one may need to boost ISO to uncomfortably high levels, in order to get adequate shutter speed.
Sharpness at the center of the frame is very good. The following test shot is at f/4, due to user error, the camera was left at ISO 1600, which adds a bit of noise, but one can easily see at the 100% crop image, that the lens offers very good detail.
Colors are also surprisingly accurate, and I’ve found them to be on the warm side; of course, if you post process your images, this means little. Chromatic aberrations are notable in their absence.
Haze and loss of contrast can be an absolute nightmare if shooting towards strong light sources. There are some versions of this lens with extra coatings (notably, those intended for export), but, in general, it nothing like modern lenses in this regard, or even some older manual lenses with additional coatings. Still, this is part of the character of the lens, and it isn’t really a problem most of the time.
Most people will like to shoot portraits with this lens, and, used at a medium distance for head and shoulders shots, or further back for wider frames, result can be superb; certainly on par with most modern lenses. Another type of photography for this lens would be wildlife and similar; in fact, I have a number of animal shots in the gallery (some of which presented in a previous post) at the end of this post and, IQ-wise there is nothing at all to complaint about.
All in all, this is a great little lens to have in your bag, as an m43 shooter. While there are faster (f/2.8 or even f/2 lenses) at 135mm, they are often softer at their max aperture; the Jupiter is very acceptable even wide open. And for a lens that can be found at great used condition for about 50€ shipped, it’s a no-brainer.