Andy Westlake takes a closer look at Zeiss’s new manual focus lenses for full frame DSLRs, including a quick analysis of initial sample images
Zeiss Milvus Lenses First Look
Zeiss Milvus lenses at a glance:
- Manual focus
- For Canon and Nikon full frame DSLRs
- 21mm f/2.8, 35mm f/2, 50mm f/1.4, 50mm f/2 Macro, 85mm f/1.4, 100mm f/2 Macro
- All-metal barrel construction
- Dust- and splash-proof
- £829 – £1,379 inc VAT
Carl Zeiss AG is one of the grandest old names in all of photography, with a history dating back to 1846. Along with Leica, it’s one of only a handful of names to have survived the shift in dominance from German to Japanese camera makers during the 1950s and 1960s. Based in Oberkochen, Germany, it’s made some iconic lenses in its time, such as the famous Tessar and Sonnar optics. More recently it’s offered premium manual focus lenses for use on Canon and Nikon SLRS, and partnered with Sony in producing Zeiss-badged lenses for its Alpha system cameras.
In the past couple of years, though, it’s shown signs of upping its ambitions. The Otus 55mm f/1.4 and 85mm f/1.4 are designed to offer the ultimate money-no-object optical quality for high resolution full-frame DSLRs, and the Touit line for APS-C compact system cameras saw the firm dipping its toes into the waters of modern autofocus lenses. With the latest Loxia and Batis ranges, Zeiss has started making lenses for the Sony Alpha 7 full frame mirrorless system, and very nice they are too.
Despite this flurry of activity, Zeiss must have felt under pressure from a newly-resurgent Sigma, whose top-notch Art line of lenses has demonstrated that enthusiast photographers are quite happy to spend in the £500-£1000 bracket in order to get optics that can match the potential of the latest high resolution sensors in the 36MP – 50MP range. With the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art coming close to matching the Zeiss Otus 55mm f/1.4, but at a quarter of the price and with the added benefit of autofocus, it was perhaps only a matter of time before the company felt the need to offer a response.
The result, announced at a European press event at the company’s headquarters, is a new line of manual lenses designed for high resolution DSLRs. In line with the company’s somewhat whimsical policy of naming its ranges after bird species, it’s been called Milvus. The lenses will go on sale on October 15th 2015, and it’s clear that this new line-up will replace most of the current ‘classic’ ZE and ZF.2 lenses, offering a more modern design and some nice new features.
The Milvus range
The initial Milvus lineup consists of 21mm f/2.8, 35mm f/2, 50mm f/1.4, 50mm f/2 Macro, 85mm f/1.4 and 100mm f/2 Macro lenses, all wrapped up in Zeiss’s signature matte black and curvaceously modern barrel design. Of these, the 21mm f/2.8, 35mm f/2 and the macro lenses are essentially re-housings of existing optics, although with a number of refinements, including improved coatings to minimise flare. However the 50mm f/1.4 and 85mm f/1.4 are completely new designs, which appear to be heavily influenced by their Otus-series big brothers. Interestingly though, the 85mm uses only spherical lens surfaces, which Zeiss says sacrifices a little in sharpness but gives especially attractive background blur. The older ‘classic’ 50mm f/1.4 and 85mm f/1.4 lenses will remain on sale for users who appreciate their specific optical characteristics.
All of the lenses have a common set of features, including super-smooth manual focus with a large rotation angle and no backlash when you change focus direction. The focus rings have broad rubberised coatings with engraved distance and depth of field scales. The barrels are constructed entirely from metal, with no plastics in sight, and the lenses are dust- and spash-proof, with a blue rubber seal around the mount. They’re even colour-matched for movie work, and the Nikon-mount versions have an aperture ring with clicks at every half stop, and can be switched to clickless operation for video work.
Some might be surprised that Zeiss hasn’t progressed to making autofocus SLR lenses. However this is a company that’s spent years arguing that its particular brand of premium optics can only be realised within the tight mechanical constraints of manual focus designs. In particular, there’s no optical compromise from having to use relatively small lens groups for autofocus, and this means that distortion can be minimised and sharpness maximised across the full range of focus distances.
This is still Zeiss of course, and prices aren’t by any means cheap. The Milvus 2.0/35 will cost £829; the Milvus 1.4/50 and Milvus 2/50M, £949; the Milvus 2.8/21 and Milvus 2.0/100M, £1299; and the Milvus 1.4/85, £1379. This clearly makes them niche products, but by no means out of the question for photographers willing to spend over £2000 on a high-resolution full-frame DSLR.
Overall First Impressions
I was able to shoot with most of the Milvus lenses at Zeiss’s press event and was very impressed indeed. They’re beautifully made, and the manual focus action is exquisite. Optically they are absolutely stunning; I shot on the Nikon D800E, with its 36-million-pixel sensor and ‘cancelled’ optical low-pass filter, and even when shooting wide open, sharpness was exceptional and most aberrations effectively minimised. Indeed the biggest problem with these lenses is focusing them accurately enough to get the very best results; I often found that my images were just fractionally misfocused when viewed at the pixel level. This isn’t the lens’s fault as such; instead it’s a reminder of just how good your shooting technique has to be to fully take advantage of such exotic optics.
But when your pictures do work out, they are absolutely stunning. On the next page I’ll be looking at each of the lenses in turn, with sample images.