GEAR REVIEW - PENTACON 135mm f/2.8
If you're a bit of a hipster when it comes to your photography equipment and want true retro styling and rendering of a portrait image, look no further than the Pentacon 135mm f/2.8. This sharp and creamy-bokeh'd East German lens dates back to the mid 1960s and the Cold War era. Earlier versions can be found under the name Meyer-Optik Görlitz. Pentacon had a fine pedigree of camera and lens making, but after German reunification, the company was closed in 1991 as it was hemorrhaging money and woefully inefficient.
I suspect the design for the 135mm f/2.8 lens was solely that of Meyer-Optik Görlitz and it was simply re-branded upon merging into the Pentacon stable and underwent some restyling too. It is regarded by many as the "Bokeh Monster" due to it's 15 blade aperture that forms beautiful circles, no matter the F-stop you select. It is manual focus and also a preset lens. This means you have to stop the lens down prior to taking a photograph. The aperture is not automatic. The drawback with this is that in order to get critical focus (using the shallowest depth of field) you have to open the aperture up, then stop it down to take the photograph. You can keep clicking away so long as you don't change your position or the exposure doesn't alter. Still, for the results it delivers, it's a small price to pay.
It's certainly not a lens designed for action photography, that's for sure. The focus is very slow, requiring 360º degree rotation of the barrel to go from near to infinity. Although this may sound like a bit of a flaw, it actually makes it very precise and great for it's intended use - portraiture. There is nothing more annoying than trying to nail focus with a manual lens, when you have very little thread to play with. Whenever you're manually focusing though, it's always best to tripod mount, use the LCD screen and zoom in if possible, to get it spot on, especially if your vision is less than perfect.
Optically, this lens is lovely. Even wide open at f/2.8, it's acceptably sharp and once you tweak it inside Photoshop, it looks as good as modern glass. The more I progress in photography, I find that sharpness is not the be-all-and-end-all to a lens, particularly at the resolutions we primarily view our images in. There are other attributes like the bokeh, colour and rendering of a scene, which adds that certain something to an image, which is often missing in technically more "perfect" modern lenses. The 135mm is only single coated, so it doesn't handle ghosting or flare all that well but, again that can be used creatively. Multi-coated versions came much later in the "electric" model, which has far fewer aperture blades and is pretty much a different lens entirely. The 15 blade version is the one you want!
Below are a couple of photographic examples I took quickly. Shot wide open and stopped down to f/11, to show that even at deeper depths of field, the bokeh is still very pleasing. There is also 100% crop at f/2.8 to show the level of detail. Aside from white balancing inside Adobe Camera Raw, these are straight out of camera and have had no sharpening whatsoever! For a 45 year old lens, wide open, on a 36MP camera, that's definitely not bad going.
Prior to achieving the "sleeper" status and people rediscovering just what a gem this lens is, it could be had on eBay for about £20 for a decent copy. Now you can expect to pay anywhere between three to five times that amount, especially if it's in its original box. Build quality is nothing short of phenomenal. I nickname this lens "the hand grenade", as it's about the same size as one and is solid metal throughout. They just do not make lenses like this anymore. It weighs in at just over 500g and if you dropped it on your foot, it would still work perfectly, although I suspect your foot wouldn't!
Mine is an M42 mount, although it came in Exacta mount too. The draw back with using M42 mount lenses on a Nikon body is the inability to achieve infinity focus, unless you modify the lens or use an adapter with a correcting element in it. These tend to deteriorate image quality massively, so I would advise against them. Thankfully the 135mm gives you more than enough length for portraits. An M42 mount 50mm lens gives barely a couple of meters on a Nikon body, so is useless for all but close up headshots. With other brands like Canon, Pentax, Panasonic, Olympus, etc, you are absolutely fine but, just be aware of the limitation with Nikon.
A common problem with the lens; aside the usual dust, fungus and hazing that any optic can acquire over its lifetime, is oil on the aperture blades. Both my copies suffered with this. Being relatively technically minded and thanks to the design of the lens, I didn't find it that hard to disassemble and clean the entire thing. I had to rebuild the entire aperture system on one, which was a little more involved but, with patience it's doable.
That's pretty much all there is to say about this lens. If you can live without manual focus and auto aperture, the quality of the images produced are rewarding enough. I'd regard the Pentacon 135mm as a specialty portrait lens, a bit like the Lomography 85mm f/2.2 Petzval or Zenit 40-2 85mm f/1.5. It's a lens you need to take your time with and think about what you're doing. To be honest, that is never a bad thing. Generally the more time you take composing a portrait, the better the end results.
Despite the often relatively high price this lens now commands, it is definitely worth the money in my mind. Just make sure the copy you are buying has oil free blades and is optically clear. Then you should be golden for many more years to come. You certainly won't be using your new lenses in 45 years time, once the electronics pack up. So while they are extremely convenient to use, they can't hold a torch to the longevity of some of the legacy lenses out there.