Nikon Nikkor Z 135mm f/1.8 S Plena Lens Review

A Nikon Nikkor Z 135mm f/1.8 Plena lens is attached to a Nikon Zf digital mirror-less camera, and the whole kit is being held by a photographer.

Nikon Nikkor Z 135mm f/1.8 S Plena Lens Review

2200 1238 James Tocchio

In September of 2023, Nikon unveiled the Nikkor Z 135mm f/1.8 S Plena, a super-fast, high spec, mid-tele portrait lens for Nikon’s Z series mirrorless cameras. The Nikkor Plena is only the second Z series lens to be given a “name” – the other being the astonishingly fast and very expensive Nikkor Z 58mm f/0.95 S Noct.

Nikon does not often name its lenses. Since its beginning in 1933, the company has manufactured over 110 million lenses, and very few indeed have been engraved with any names other than Nippon Kogaku (Nikon’s old name), Nikon, or Nikkor. When Nikon names a lens, it’s because they want us to notice. It’s because they feel they’ve made an extraordinary lens, one which rises above their own typical optical excellence.

The Nikkor Z 135mm f/1.8 S Plena does just that. It is practically an optically perfect lens, it handles beautifully, with only a few minor drawbacks, and it’s not even that expensive (relatively…).

I’ve been shooting the Plena in real-world scenarios for the last three months. Let me share some thoughts on the newest named Nikkor, the Nikon Nikkor Z 135mm f/1.8 S Plena.

Specifications of the Nikon Nikkor Z 135mm f/1.8 S Plena

  • Mount : Nikon Z mount
  • Focal Length : 135mm
  • Maximum Aperture : f/ 1.8
  • Minimum Aperture : f/ 16
  • Format : Full Frame (FX)
  • Maximum Angle of View (DX crop-sensor cameras) : 12°
  • Maximum Angle of View (FX full frame cameras) : 18°10′
  • Maximum Reproduction Ratio : 0.2x
  • Lens Formula : 16 elements in 14 groups; 4 ED elements, 1 aspherical element; 1 SR (short wavelength refractive) element
  • Diaphragm Blades : 11 rounded blades; smooth opening and closing
  • Vibration Reduction Image Stabilization : Only with Z series cameras with in-body VR
  • ARNEO Coat : Yes
  • Meso Amorphous Coat : Yes
  • Fluorine Coat : No
  • Focus Mode : Auto/Manual, user-selectable; 2 STM (stepping motor); Internal focusing
  • Minimum Focus Distance : 2.69ft (0.82m) from focal plane
  • Filter Size : Screw-in 82mm
  • Approx. Dimensions (Diameter x Length) : 3.9 in. (98 mm 5.5 in. (139.5 mm)
  • Approx. Weight : 35.1 oz. (995 g)
  • Price : $2,499 USD [B&H Photo Affiliate Link]

A Nikon Nikkor Z 135mm f/1.8 Plena lens is attached to a Nikon Zf digital mirror-less camera, and the whole kit is being held by a photographer.

What’s a Plena?

When Nikon issued the press release announcement of the Nikkor Z 135mm f/1.8 S Plena, the brand elaborated on the name.

The name “Plena” is derived from the Latin term plenum, which denotes the state of a space being completely full. This name was chosen to reflect the lens’ ability to fulfill the user’s creative vision with superior light gathering capability, beautiful well-rounded bokeh and outstanding sharpness and clarity throughout the frame.

I suppose this means that the lens is full. Full of stuff. And it is!

It has 16 lens elements in 14 groups, 4 extra low dispersion glass elements, 1 aspherical element, 1 short-wavelength refractive element, 11 rounded aperture blades, 2 auto-focus stepping motors, two function buttons, a focus switch and a focus ring, a programmable function ring, a weather-sealed body made of metal, and both the largest front and rear lens elements that I’ve ever seen.

That is indeed a lot of stuff, the purpose of all of which is to help us take gorgeous photos.

Nikon touched on this in their press release as well. They claimed that the Plena is a lens like none before it. Nikon promised astonishing edge-to-edge clarity and dreamlike circular bokeh, both at the same time, and affirmed that the lens was designed to be shot wide open at f/1.8.

Tired old photo nerds will know that the two mentioned optical characteristics aren’t particularly  rare. There are many lenses which provide edge-to-edge clarity, and many others which provide dreamlike circular bokeh. The trick, as the experienced among us also know, is to find a lens that does both at the same time. And wide open, no less? That really is a trick.

A top down view of the Nikon Nikkor Z 135mm f/1.8 S Plena lens mounted to a camera.

Ergonomics of the Nikon Nikkor Z 135mm f/1.8 S Plena

The Plena is a heavy lens.

It weighs 35 oz (995 grams), which is about 2.2 lbs. That’s 75% the total weight of the Nikon Z9, Nikon’s heaviest mirror-less camera, and almost double the weight of the Z5, their smallest and lightest mirror-less. So, with the Plena fitted to a Z9 we’re carrying 5.15 lbs of camera and lens; fitted to a Z5 we’re carrying 3.5 lbs. Pretty heavy, and for extended photo shoots, such as a wedding, it could become tiresome. (In fairness, this is true of basically all modern, fast, mid-tele portrait lenses.)

It’s also big. When not fitted to my Nikon Z5 or the on-loan Nikon Zf, it occupied essentially all of the space in my everyday carry camera bag, and about half the space in my photo gear travel backpack.

That said, it’s hard to care about weight and size when we see the images the Plena can make.

We realize pretty quickly that it’s a lens that defies comparison. Nikon’s 85mm f/1.8 Z lens is smaller and lighter by about half, but it can’t match the Plena’s images. The closer optical contender, Nikon’s excellent Nikkor Z 85mm f/1.2 S, is similarly out-shined, and that lens is even heavier than the Plena. Then there’s the Sigma Art 135mm lens for the Nikon F mount weighs even more than the Plena (even before we fit the F mount to Z mount adapter).

And then there’s the fact that, from the perspective of build quality and finish, the Nikkor Z 135mm f/1.8 S Plena is the finest lens in the Z lineup.

While most of the lenses in the Z series are housed in plastic bodies, with some (like the otherwise amazing 40mm having even their mount made of plastic), the barrel, body, and mount of the Nikkor Plena are all made of metal. It feels amazing in the hands, with a gorgeous finish of high sheen satin black paint (or powder coat, or anodized metal?) that matches perfectly with the sheen of the black bodied Nikon Zf.

The knurled rubber focus ring is precise and positioned well, with a static rubber knurled ring sitting ahead of it on the barrel so that holding the lens steady while rotating the focus ring with an extra digit becomes effortless.

The diamond knurled customizable function ring is tucked closer to the lens mount, and this too actuates with luxurious and click-less fluidity. It can be mapped to control ISO, aperture, exposure compensation, and many other functions. The two function buttons are positioned well, with the top-mounted button being most useful when using the camera in portrait orientation.

Drawbacks of the design are nearly non-existent. The only real qualm that I’ve had with the ergonomics being that there’s a tendency to accidentally actuate the customizable function ring in between photos.

This might happen due to behavior brought on by the combined weight of the camera and lens. The whole kit weighs so much that when not using the camera, I’m reluctant to let it hang from a neck strap. But I also find that the lens is so chunky that holding the rig by the camera body feels awkward and front-heavy, and holding it from just the lens feels equally weird. Thus, a natural place to hold the camera and lens when not in active use seems to be the base of the lens barrel. It balances nicely, but this is also where the function ring lives.

The chain of events in real-world use is such that I might shoot some photos, and then I’ll hold the camera in the manner mentioned while I’m repositioning for a different angle or otherwise occupied not taking photos. The function ring spins without my realizing it, this way or that, and when I next raise the camera to take a photo I find that whatever function I’ve mapped to the ring has changed in its setting – the aperture that was once set to f/1.8 is now f/4, for example.

This problem can be easily mitigated by simply holding the camera in a different way, or remembering to check my settings with a glance every time I raise the camera to my eye, or by setting the function ring to a less critical control, or by deactivating it entirely.

In truth, I seek to find problems in every lens and camera that I review. That’s my job. The fact that this lens’ biggest issue is one so trivial should give a good indication of its ergonomic soundness.

And don’t forget that it’s a weather-sealed lens. Peace of mind is nice.

Image Quality of the Nikon Nikkor Z 135mm f/1.8 S Plena

Nikon has been keen to emphasize that there is no more important metric when measuring the effectiveness of the Nikkor Z 135mm f/1.8 S Plena than that of image quality. The lens was made for one purpose – to be an artful and optically perfect lens. They have striven to make a lens which can provide crystal clarity from edge to edge when shot wide open, as well as dreamlike bokeh in both foreground and background elements of a shot, all at maximum aperture.

And they’ve done it.

The Nikkor Plena is unlike any other lens that I’ve used. It does indeed create incredible sharpness. When shot wide open, this sharpness is simply astonishing, and true to Nikon’s claims, this sharpness does extend from one edge of the image to another. Individual strands of hair are easily discernible. A shot that I made of a boat floating in a harbor some twenty yards away from me (at night, and lit only by a streetlamp) shows minuscule droplets of water clinging to a fine line. I can count my daughters’ eyelashes in hastily-shot, badly-lit portraits.

Bokeh is smooth and uniform both in front of and behind the point of focus. Bokeh highlights are pleasant and bubbly and show almost no cat’s eye warping effect as the out of focus highlights reach the edge of the image area. Even when we stop the aperture down, bokeh is still quite round as a result of the many curved and rounded aperture blades. Transition from in-focus to out-of-focus elements is subtle and gradual, never jarring.

There’s no effective vignetting, as the frame is evenly lit at all apertures, edge to edge. Nikon has achieved this through the lens’ massive and curved rear element. It is physically larger than any other lens they’ve yet made, and coupled with the Z mount (which is similarly enormous) the lens is able to project light evenly across the camera’s full-frame sensor.

Chromatic aberration is non-existent. Color bokeh and “onion ring bokeh” is controlled through Nikon’s optical coatings. Glare is mitigated with ARNEO and Meso Amorphous coat technology (Nikon’s highest spec anti-reflection coating), so that backlit subjects remain well-defined and clarity remains high even when shooting directly into sunlight. Flares are incredibly hard to achieve. Only by shooting directly into the sun on an extremely bright day was I able to create a small, purplish flare.

The Nikkor Z 135mm f/1.8 S Plena in Real World Use

There is a tendency amongst reviewers (and human being, generally) to compartmentalize things, to put things in boxes so that the world is easily understood and digested. Following this tendency, it’s almost natural to assume that since the Nikkor Z 135mm f/1.8 S Plena is a 135mm lens, it must therefore be a portrait lens suitable only for people who make a lot of headshot photos. It is specialized, and shouldn’t be considered for use by everyday photo takers.

I can’t really agree with that. I’m not a portrait photographer. I don’t know any models, or actors, or financial advisors looking to spruce up their resume with a photo. I’m just a person who likes to take photos of my family and the places we go, and to take pictures of neat stuff that I see as I’m living my life.

In the time that I’ve had the Plena, I’ve fallen in love with it and used it in surprisingly varied scenarios.

Sure, I’ve used it to make portraits of my kids, a task which it performed better than any lens I’ve ever used. But I’ve also used it for birding. I’ve used it for street photography and landscapes. I’ve used it for product photography and abstract work. I’ve used it on Christmas Eve, in the middle of the night, when the only light to be seen came from a few feeble Christmas lights and a half-dozen candles.

The thing about the Plena is that it’s a lens that offers something no other lens can offer, and half of the fun of using it has been in discovering what it can do in scenarios that aren’t necessarily its raison d’etre. It’s a low light vacuum, a bokeh factory, a scalpel so sharp it can split the atom.

The only really limiting factor which keeps me from recommending it to literally every single Nikon Z series camera owner, is that it costs $2,500 USD, which is a lot of money.

I can rationalize the cost. I can tell myself that a lens like this is unique and special, and I wouldn’t be lying to myself. I can amortize the cost, remind myself that a lens like this will be owned and loved and used over a span of a decade, two decades, three! And all of it would be true. But $2,500 is still a lot of money. And I won’t tell people how to spend theirs.

Sample Images

[click or tap to enlarge]

Final Thoughts

When I began writing this review some days ago, I was in the midst of a bout of the flu. My head was splitting and my entire body ached. I was tired, and my eyes felt as if they’d retreated deep into their sockets. I rubbed my temples with my fingertips and blinked stupidly at the blank page headlined, Nikon Nikkor Z 135mm f/1.8 S Plena Lens Review. But no words sprang to mind. I simply stared and thought about the Plena.

I thought about how great it was, how lovely it felt to hold, how dense and solid it seemed, how shiny and beautiful it was, and the way its front lens element reminded me of a deep, clear lake. I tried to write my review through the pounding aches, but after typing and deleting paragraph after paragraph, after starting and stopping for a half hour and raking my face and forehead for thirty minutes longer, I knew that no effective words would trickle out of me that day. I’d try again in the morning.

But before I stood from my desk and stumbled off to a fitful nights rest, I scrolled a bit down the page and typed a placeholder – a three word review.

I love lens.

That just about says it all, I think.

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop

All stories by:James Tocchio

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop

All stories by:James Tocchio