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TS-E 135mm f/4L macro review

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Canon TS-E 135mm F4L macro lens review

Using Canon’s telephoto macro tilt shift lens


The Canon TS-E135mm f4L Macro lens is Canon’s longest lens with movements (tilt and shift). Keith has been having a look at how it works and the quality you get with this hefty $2200 bit of glass.

This review also covers how you make use of such a lens and the sorts of images you can produce with it.

If you are new to tilt/shift lenses Keith has written numerous articles and reviews. A good place to start is ‘What tilt/shift lenses do‘ with more about tilt in ‘Focusing the tilt/shift lens

TS-E 135mm f/4L macro

Buying the TS-E135mm F4L Macro: B&H | Adorama

Canon TS-E 135mm F4L macro lens

hood 135mmOur lens was on a short loan from Canon, so arrived in a solid carry case – if you buy one it comes with a bag and ET-88 lens hood.

The key features are

  • EF-Mount Lens/Full-Frame Format
  • Aperture Range: f/4 to f/45
  • Maximum Tilt: +/- 10°
  • Maximum Shift: +/- 12mm
  • Minimum Focusing Distance: 1.6′
  • Maximum Magnification: 0.5x (1:2)

Full specs later, but at 1120g (~2.5 lbs.) its a hefty feeling lens.

The manual focus is smooth, with a total throw of about 150º. It’s a completely internal focus mechanism, so nothing moves externally except the focus ring.

At the closer focus end, the focus markings directly refer to reproduction ratios

  • 1:2 – 48.6cm
  • 1:3 – 60.5cm
  • 1:5 – 86.1cm

There are then distance marks right up to infinity – and beyond.

Beyond?  There is a hard stop beyond the infinity setting for two reasons.

1, this lens has some exotic glass components which make the exact focus setting somewhat temperature dependent, and 2, with a tilt lens there are times you want to set the lens focus to beyond infinity – it’s to do with flexibility in placing the focus plane (I’ll come back to this stuff).

The focus scale also has nominal depth of field marks – all these really do is emphasise the very thin depth of field you’ll have when working close, that and that the lens goes to f/45.

focus and movements

[Click to enlarge – there is also a gallery of all higher resolution shots at the end of the article]

Probably the most obvious feature of the lens is the knob for tilting the lens – this is much larger than older TS-E lenses and makes for easier setting and adjustment of the lens tilt.

Below it, in the shot above, is the shift control – in this case sliding the lens to the left or right relative to the lens mount.

With ±10º of tilt and ±12mm of shift, the range of movements are larger than the old lenses (in this case the TS-E90mm since the 135mm focal length is new). A couple of degrees extra makes quite a difference to what you can do with the lens.

In the shot above, the shift and tilt controls are next to each other – they can be rotated to 90º apart (in 45º steps), whilst the whole lens can be rotated 180 degrees relative to the mount (in 30º steps).

On the other side of the lens are the stops and controls for enabling the rotation of the different parts.

135mm lens settings

I’ll try and put some of these features into context later, but if you’re a long time TS-E user you’ll appreciate many of the subtle usability improvements in these latest TS-E lenses.

Here’s the lens on my EOS 5Ds with the movements annotated.

tilt shift complexity

It looks complicated, but approaching such lenses in a fairly methodical way will help you get the most from them – in fact many of the articles on this site about lens movements came about as a result of my learning to use them more effectively.

Specifications

For completeness I’ll show the table covering all three new TS-E lenses – I hope to have reviews of the other two in the coming months.

Canon TS-E 50mm F2.8L Macro Canon TS-E 90mm F2.8L Macro Canon TS-E 135mm F4L Macro
Principal specifications
Lens type Prime lens
Max Format size 35mm FF
Focal length 50 mm 90 mm 135 mm
Image stabilisation No
Lens mount Canon EF
Aperture
Maximum aperture f/2.8 (50mm to f/32, 90mm to f/45) f/4 (to f/45)
Aperture ring No
Optics
Elements 12 11
Groups 9 7
Special elements / coatings Moulded glass aspherical and UD elements + SWC and ASC coatings Moulded glass aspherical and UD elements + ASC coating Moulded glass aspherical and UD elements + SWC coating
Focus
Minimum focus 0.27 m (10.63″) 0.39 m (15.35″) 0.49 m (19.29″)
Shift ± 12mm ± 12mm ± 12mm
Tilt ± 8.5º ± 10º ± 10º
Maximum magnification 0.5x
Magnification
12mm tube
0.74 – 0.23 0.64 – 0.15 0.62 – 0.09
Magnification
25mm tube
1.0 – 0.48 0.82 – 0.32 0.77 – 0.2
Autofocus No
Full time manual Yes
Focus method Internal/external
Distance scale Yes
Physical
Weight 945 g (2.08 lb) 915 g (2.02 lb) 1110 g (2.45 lb)
Diameter 87 mm (3.43″) 67 mm (2.64″) 89 mm (3.5″)
Length 115 mm (4.53″) 117 mm (4.61″) 139 mm (5.47″)
Materials Magnesium alloy
Colour Black
Filter thread 77.0 mm 82.0 mm
Hood supplied Yes

MTF charts and internal design TS-E 135mm

135 lens construction135 mtf

In it’s unshifted/un-tilted state the lens is very sharp even at f/4, with slight vignetting.

At full shift or with significant tilt this becomes more noticeable.

Even stopping down to f/5.6 reduces this considerably and by f/8 you need extreme shift and a smoothly lit background to see it.

The lens is so good at f/4 that improvements in sharpness will need people with good optical measurement kit to clearly show changes as you start to stop down. With my 50MP 5Ds, some slight loss of finest detail from diffraction is visible by f/11. That said, the increase of usable depth of field could easily offset this. I’ve some macro examples later showing aspects of this.

At f/11 the diffraction spikes from my laser pointer test star show ~18 slight spikes from the 9 blade aperture (50% crop) – I didn’t get a chance to properly test this outdoors, but the lens seems very good in handling unwanted internal reflections.

f11 diffraction

Using the laser to look at coma in the bottom corner of the frame, I’ve moved about 10 metres away from the laser.

The first shot is a 100% crop  with the lens unshifted, and the second with it shifted a full 12mm, to put the ‘star’ fairly close to the edge of the lens image circle.

comacoma full shift

At just a few pixels width, the first example is as good as I’ve seen, whilst the second fully shifted shot suggests that this lens would look pretty good on a medium format body.

One other observation – fine focus is absolutely critical with this lens, I found myself wishing for a bit more than the ~150º throw of the focus ring.

Using the lens outdoors

The medium telephoto length of 135mm is a good one for portraits, but since I don’t do portrait/wedding work you’ll have to make do with more static subjects…

More seriously, the lens focus is so critical at wider apertures that you’re going to find sharp manual focus very tricky for hand held stuff. This is much worse with modern focus DSLR screens  (no I don’t have a mirrorless body and adapter to try).

I’ve several not quite sharp photos of the moon that testify for the need of a tripod and live-view for the best results.

This view of a house gable feels sharp at modest sizes.

roof gable

Looking at 100%, you see the limited depth of field – this is at f/5

roof detail

If I needed this shot more widely sharp, I could make use of its planar nature to add some tilt and run the plane of focus along the front of the building. I’d also move to about f/8-11 to get a thicker plane of focus and so that out of focus parts were not so obvious.

Using shift

In my architectural work I use the TS-E17mm and TS-E 24mm lenses quite a lot. For these lenses the ability to correct for converging verticals through shift is vital. Indeed they are sometimes known as ‘perspective control’ lenses.

With a lens at 135mm you’re not usually going to see much convergence, unless it’s a shot like the one above, where it doesn’t matter that much.

This view of a nearby student accommodation block has some 8mm of vertical shift added, so that the camera is level.

code housing

@f/5.6

A 100% crop shows good contrast and the almost undetectable chromatic aberration.

code detail

Using tilt

For some people, mention ’tilt/shift’ and their only thought is to photos with unusual placements of the plane of focus, such as the so called ‘miniature world’  look.

Personally it’s an effect that rapidly outlives its novelty (YMMV), but with the ease of doing it, I’d be remiss in not including some examples…

For the true small world look it helps to be in a position looking down on a scene and placing the plane of focus across the scene, but this view from near my home looks odd enough, with the vertical plane of sharpness cutting through  the red car and the shop.

tilted car and shop

The lens is tilted sideways for this (or ‘swing’ as it should more correctly be called). Adjusting focus will move the plane about, whilst tilt will adjust how close by you it passes.

Moving the plane round to ~45º gives this view of football fans on their home from a match. The body language is always a clue to the result – a draw in this instance.

walking home

A quick diversion to the view out of my bedroom window as it snowed the other day (both @f/5)

Look carefully at the sharp snowflakes, picking out the plane of focus (both these look better at full size)

A horizontal plane.

snow plane horizontal

A vertical plane – note the extreme vignetting that can come from using a lot of swing at a wide aperture.

snow plane vertical

A 100% crop of the image above.

snow plane vertical 100

Ok, let’s go back to a few more useful examples.

I’ve two shots taken whilst sitting near the gallery at De Montfort University.

It’s just this side of the two people in mid shot.

[~8mm upwards shift @f/5.6]

dmu campus

A bicycle attached to a lamp post gives a feel for using tilt, for product photography.

One shot with no swing, and one with some…

bike

Note how the front wheel is slightly out of focus [shot at f/5]

Swinging the lens sideways runs the plane of focus more along the plane of the bike.

bike with lens swing

I’m afraid I don’t know how much the lens tilt was set to since none of Canon’s TS-E lenses include tilt/shift data in EXIF.

Looking along where I’m seated, I can again choose normal depth of field (@f/5), emphasising the wooden block of one seat, or I can tilt the lens downwards to run the plane of focus along the seats (and to the wall beyond).

seats

Composition changes when you tilt the lens, this can to some extent be offset with some shift, but I’m just sitting on a seat taking these hand-held.

seats with tilt

There’s no better or worse in deciding shots like these. The important thing is that having a lens like this gives me creative options you just don’t get any other way.

Using the lens indoors

Whilst searching for examples that show the versatility of the lens (and its quality) I looked down the stairs near my office.

Would it be possible to take a photo with the entire set of stairs in focus?

foot of stairs

By my calculations I should be able to point the camera down the stairs, and tilt the lens downwards to run the plane of focus along the stairs.

Here’s the view from the top – the spiral goes up to Karen’s office, and the big canvas is a 10 foot long print of Cannon Beach in Oregon, where we visited on our honeymoon ;-)

view from upstairs

A quick diversion to how I worked out the initial positions….

The principles and process is set out in much more detail in my article about focusing the tilted lens.

My trusty tilt tables tell me that at 10º tilt, the plane of focus runs just over 75cm (~2′ 7″) below the camera. This is the ‘J’ distance in the diagram below. I’ve copies of the tables, for all current TS-E lenses at the end of the article.

stairs diagram

Here’s the view on the back of my 5Ds.

As you can see, I’ve the aperture set at f/4 and the whole staircase is in sharp focus.

stairs livewiew

Here’s the photos taken with the camera as set above. One shot is at f/4 and the second at f/8

stairs at f4

Note how the wall is more evenly lit below – the shot at f/4 is showing vignetting from the maximum tilt (as with the snow example).

stairs at f8

A look at 100% crops shows the thicker depth of field of the sloping focal plane at f/8

stairs at f4 detail

stairs at f8 detail

Macro and close-up

As you try and focus on closer objects, two things happen.

  • The depth of field gets physically thinner
  • The maximum amount you can tilt the plane of focus lessens

I looked at this with a very simple setup. The 5Ds and lens is sitting on my desk and I’m photographing flat objects at differing distances.

Here’s the basic setup, from above.

closest tilt from above

The line I’ve drawn on the graph paper represents the plane of focus.

The camera is at 1:2 reproduction ratio, so the field of view is twice the sensor size (i.e. 72mm x 48mm)

close focus

Tilt is the maximum of 10º.

I’m using Kuuvik Capture [review] for tethering the camera, since it has focus peaking and split live view. Other times I use HeliconRemote (for stacking photos) or even the excellent (and free) Canon EOS Utility.

Here’s the view.

close focus with tilt

Note how the plane of focus almost meets the strip board in the background.

This stripboard is very good for testing close up photo setups, since not only does it have fine detail, but the holes are 2.54mm apart (0.1 inch)

An un-tilted view shown the virtually zero levels of distortion of this lens.

close focus no tilt

Looking in the corners at 100% shows almost no chromatic aberration and minimal loss of sharpness (and this at f/4).

corner detail

Using the stripboard, I can map out the planes of focus at different distances.

closest tilt

This shows that at 1:2 I can tilt the plane of focus by a maximum of ~30º

A few more tests show how this changes. Note how tilt moves the focal plane backwards – the vertical lines are the un-tilted planes of focus.

tilted focus plane

I’ve included an example of tilt when using an extension tube.

With 31mm of extension, the reproduction ratio is 1:1.24 (~0.8x). I’ve more information about tilted lenses and extension tubes in a short article exploring it with my TS-E90 lens.

I tested the lens with a +3 dioptre close focus lens – it worked, but the image quality was massively degraded. I’ve heard reports that a Canon close-up lens will work, but with the very limited tilt angle available I’d almost certainly want to get a specialist macro lens out for the job, such as my MP-E 65mm.

Handling of detail

An oblique view of a SoDimm memory module gives plenty of specular reflections. These give a good feel for the smoothness of out of focus areas and limited depth of field.

Two shots at f/4 and f/11 and 1:2

closest detail f4

These shots are crops from a landscape oriented image, so the top to bottom sensor height is 24mm

closest detail f11

Two views at 100% resolution from 50MP Canon 5Ds images.

closest detail f4 100%

I note that the f/11 shots are not showing too much softening – definitely usable.

closest detail f11 100%

Objects like this also show that the lens has very low longitudinal colour aberrations – these show up as coloured fringing of out of focus specular reflections.

It’s there at wide apertures, but in very small amounts.

Photographing a product

After the results with the memory module I was wondering again about the ability of this lens to go to f/45.

Double digit apertures like this will be familiar to users of view cameras and some old film lenses, but tend to be avoided in the modern digital world.

As an example I’m going to take a photo of the new version of the TSE Frame I recently reviewed – it’s a specialist mount for TS-E17 and 24mm lenses. This is the shipping version and has some minor changes from the one in my review.

frame photo setup

As you can see, it’s at an oblique angle to the camera.  This means I need to add a bit of tilt, to run the plane of focus along the face of the frame.

This is where using tilt can get tricky to set up.  Neither tilting up or sideways (swing) will do on their own. I need to set the axis of tilt to an intermediate angle.

How to work out the tilt axis?

One simple way returns to my bit of strip board. I’ll place it along the plane I want the focus to run.

Here it is, in front of the frame. A f/4 the depth of field is thin enough that when focussed on the centre, it’s easy to see what parts of the board are sharp or not.

focus plane

I’m using Kuuvik Capture for tethering, since it has focus peaking. You could take a photo and look at it in Photoshop if need be.

The focus peaking (a spatial high pass filter) shows the sharpest bits of the image.

There is a clear directionality to the sharpness, which I’ve marked with the green line.

tilt axis

This green line shows how much you need to rotate the lens tilt axis – some 30º  from the horizontal in this case.

Another option is to use a phone or iPad as the high resolution target – here’s my iPad tilted at an angle, with the interference pattern marking out the direction the tilt axis needs to be placed.

find tilt axis

Here’s the lens (without tilt) rotated by 30º

tilt axis rotation

Now I’ve set the tilt axis, I set the tilt through a combination of tilt angle and focus. Remember back to the setup on my desk – adjusting tilt will move the central point of focus, so I need to adjust both.

I’ve written up more about the iterative close-up tilt focussing method elsewhere if you’re curious. Suffice to say, about 6º was appropriate here.

Here’s a photo of the frame reduced to 740px width, and sharpened for web use.

tse frame mk2

I’ve now 3 larger images [Click to enlarge – or see the gallery below] at f/4.

frame f/4

At f/22.

frame f/22

Lastly at f/45.

frame f/45

The very first web image was the f/45 one, sharpened with a bit of deconvolution sharpening (such as Focus Magic).

A look at 100% crops quickly shows the difference.

At f/4 you can also see a tiny bit of false colour from longitudinal colour aberrations. This diminishes rapidly if you stop the lens down.

small apertures

So, I really can see the occasional use for f/45. For day to day product/food photography I might not often go over f/16, but those large f numbers are not to be feared…

Conclusions

What a lens – in many ways one of the best quality lenses I’ve seriously tested.

The 10º of tilt, 12mm of shift and wide open sharpness make it a joy to use for product photography, giving a level of creative control previously more in the realm of large format view cameras. Make no mistake, this is a lens that you will have to work with to get the best from.

It’s not auto focus – so might be limiting for some users. However I really don’t care about that – the sorts of things you get a lens like this for, tend to be static anyway.

My impression is that it’s readily capable of resolution well beyond the 50MP sensor of my 5Ds.

This is a lens that will either make you order one tomorrow or leave you wondering what the fuss is about.

OK, there’s a third option – I’d love one but just don’t have £2200 spare in the new lens fund – particularly since I’ve not yet tried the new TS-E90mm and TS-E50mm lenses. Thanks to Canon UK for loaning it to me ;-)

Having used the original TS-E90 F2.8 for some time I particularly appreciated the extra bit of tilt and 1:2 close-up capability. The larger tilt knob and multiple adjustments just make the lens easier to set up and use. It would have been nice to have tilt and shift data recorded in image EXIF data, but I can live without it.

I  don’t have optical test equipment here (or to be honest the patience to use it) so my observations about vignetting and sharpness are somewhat empirical – or as I prefer to see it – enough to know how the lens performs when I need it for a paying job…

I hope the review has given a bit more of a feel for -why- you would want a lens like this, rather than just a few sample images.

If you’d like to support the site, please consider buying the TS-E135mm F4L Macro
…or anything else, via one of our links?
B&H | Adorama

Tilt tables for current Canon TS-E lenses

For detailed explanations of why these tables are useful and why I keep laminated prints of them in my camera bags see ‘How tilt works

tilt table metric

And one for when I’m still thinking feet and inches

tilt table mixed

 

Has this review piqued your interest in camera movements but you can’t justify a lens like this?
I learned a lot about camera movements by making (for a few pounds) a simple DSLR adapter for a view camera I’d bought from eBay – more tilt and more shift, just not so practical.

Image gallery

Click on images to open at larger size.

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