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 Impressions
Here are my first impressions of each of the Milvus lenses I was able to try, with sample images. Click on any image to see a full resolution version.
Zeiss Milvus 2.8/21
In effect a reincarnation of the Zeiss Distagon T* 2.8/21 from 2008, this is an ultra-wide prime for shooting such things as landscapes and interiors. It has a widely flared front of the barrel and comes with a petal-type hood. The UK RRP is £1299 inc. VAT.
The 21mm is perhaps one of the most practical of the Milvus family – the extensive depth of field offered by wide angles means that manual focus is less of a hindrance compared to the telephotos. Optically it’s pretty impressive, even at f/2.8, resolving lots of detail in the centre of the frame, and only obviously starting to soften a little in the extreme corners. You can see this in the 100% crops below; remember these are from 36MP D800E files.
There’s some obvious vignetting visible when looking at the overall image, but this clears up on stopping down to f/5.6. Lateral chromatic aberration is very low indeed, so there’s very little colour fringing in the corners of the frame.
It’s also possible to get some nice shallow depth of field effects, although obviously a 21mm wideangle won’t blur backgrounds hugely. But in the example above, focused close and shot wide open, the landscape progressively blurs away into the background.
In the shot above we can get an idea of how the lens deals with flare. The sun is in the top left corner of the frame, but there are few ill effects in the shaded archway. Zeiss says its pays a lot of attention to minimising flare, considering its importance second only to sharpness, and it seems to have paid off.
Zeiss Milvus 1.4/50
The Milvus 50mm f/1.4 is, along with the 85mm, one of the most interesting of the new lenses. It has a new optical formula, of the retrofocal Distagon type, and unusually with a concave front element. Zeiss didn’t claim any special benefits from this approach, saying merely that it was how the optics emerged from the computerised optimisation calculations.
The new 50mm f/1.4 is sharp. Really sharp. The studio shot above at f/5.6 shows superb detail, as can be seen in the 100% crop. Of course, we’d expect this at f/5.6, but what about larger apertures. Let’s take a look, starting with f/1.4:
Even shooting wide open, there’s plenty of fine detail to be had, although the micro contrast is inevitably a little lower than at f/5.6. By far and away the biggest problem, in practice, is getting correct focus, especially when using the optical viewfinder of an SLR – I had the most success using the D800E’s ‘digital rangefinder’ function, in which a green dot in the viewfinder status display indicates correct focus. On the camera I was using, relying on the focusing screen tended to give fractional back focus.
Stop down to f/2.8 and the lens gets visibly crisper, with every eyebrow and eyelash clearly delineated. The background remains attractively blurred, although obviously not as blurred as at f/1.4. Overall though this is a really impressive result from the new lens.
Zeiss Milvus 1.4/85
Like the 50mm f/1.4, the Milvus 85mm f/1.4 features a new optical formula, including an unusual concave front element. Again like its sibling, it’s stunningly sharp; if anything, I think it might be even better.
Shot wide open at f/1.4, the detail here is extraordinary. The background has been blurred quite nicely too, despite being pretty messy. There’s a little vignetting visible, which in this case adds to the image, as it so often does.
Again, though, accurate focusing is critical, especially with lenses this sharp where the transition from in-focus to out-of-focus is very obvious indeed. It’s tremendously easy to end up a little bit out, especially when relying on the camera’s focus screen, which negates the point of having such a good lens. One a more positive note, out-of-focus regions of the image are usually rendered beautifully.
The lens’s impressive sharpness and lovely bokeh means that images also lens themselves well to black and white conversion:
Again, from my initial shooting with this lens, it looks very promising indeed. Zeiss’s biggest problem, in fact, may be that it stops people from buying the Otus 85mm f/1.4.
Milvus 2/50 Macro
Like the 21mm f/2.8, this is a reworking of an existing ‘classic’ Zeiss lens. At f/2 it has an unusually fast maximum aperture for a macro, but the trade-off is its maximum half-life-size reproduction. But while purists might complain this means it’s not a ‘true’ macro lens, the reality is that this is much less meaningful with digital compared to film.
Like the other Milvus lenses, the 50mm f/2 combines impressive sharpness at maximum aperture with lovely bokeh:
In the pair of pictures below, of the same subject shot at f/2 and f/11, we can see how the lens gives an impressive degree of creative control – one shows shallow depth if field and the water from the fountain ‘frozen’ with a fast shutter speed, the other has much deeper depth of field and blurred water.
This means that the Milvus 50mm f/2 Macro can double nicely as a fast normal prime, and as a close-focusing macro lens.
Milvus 2/100 Macro
This is another lens that’s based on an existing optical design – the legendary Macro-Planar T* 2/100. Even from shooting just a couple of studio portraits with it, it’s clear to me that this is also a very nice lens indeed.
Like the image below, this isn’t technically perfect; focus is a bit off, and the shutter speed is marginal, so there’s just a hint of camera shake. But if you take a step back and look at the image, rather than the pixels, it’s very nice indeed.
We fully intend to test several of the Milvus lenses fully in future – particularly the 50mm f/1.4 and the 85mm f/1.4 – but just from a few quick samples, it’s clear that they’re very nice indeed. As we’d expect from as respected a name as Zeiss, the optics are excellent, and the build and handling is superb. The only real question is how many photographers will be prepared to trade the convenience of autofocus for this kind of image quality, and pay the price premium that the ‘Made in Germany’ badge commands.