There are times in our photography careers where we simply want the best optically when it comes to our lenses. One of the consistent leaders at this end of the spectrum is Zeiss. The company has a long history of high-end, optical quality and this is reflected in one of their latest prime lenses, the Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 Milvus Lens.
85mm has always been a great focal length for portraits, but can also be used for many other areas such as landscapes. As a manual focus only lens, this would suit landscapes and architectural work, basically anywhere high-end optics are a must, with time to focus. Clearly, a lens like this will have a high pricetag, so let’s dig in and see what this Zeiss lens has to offer.
The design of this lens is simple from the outside, featuring just a depth of field scale, distance scale, and that’s about it. This lens follows the model of the Zeiss range in this regard, like the Otus. Simple and straight to the point.
The rest of the lens is made up of the focus ring, with a tanklike build and dust and moisture sealing. A very smart looking blue rear gasket adds a dab of color to the otherwise plain lens. The whole lens comes in at a hefty weight of 1280g. Reassuringly heavy for this quality of lens, I would say.
As for basic specifications, the lens has an aperture range of f/1.4-f/16, 11 elements in nine groups and nine rounded aperture blades. There’s nothing fancy like image stabilization on this lens, just straightforward optics.
The front element of the lens doesn’t rotate when focusing, so things like circular polarizing filters can be easily fitted. The front of the lens accepts 77mm filters, which can also fit a substantial, well-integrated, metal hood.
As the lens doesn’t come with its own protective case, it’s advisable to buy into a high-quality lens case for all-round protection. The lens is also available in Canon and Nikon mounts.
Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 Milvus in Use
Firstly, this is a manually focusing lens. Depending on your applications, if you need to snap at speed with autofocusing all the time, this lens may not be for you, but for those who can deliberate a little when focusing, this lens gives a great experience. The focus ring is very smooth and takes a large rotation to hit focus. This means more scope for accuracy. A depth of field scale helps in this regard, along with the distance scale.
As expected with such high-end optics, the difference in aperture and the total scene coming into detailed view is a cut above the rest. With such a shallow depth of field of f/1.4, it’s easy to blur out aspects of an image, with sharpness where it matters. There is also a small difference between f/1.4 and f/2 in overall image sharpness, with everything hitting its peak by f/4.
Fully wide-open, the lens shows some aspects of softening in the corners, with aspects of three stops of vignetting. Stopping down to f/5.6 gives the cleanest of images. Chromatic Aberration is very minimal and is only noticeable when pixel peeping on very high contrast areas. Flaring from bright sources such as the sun are kept well in check, only starting to appear when going to f/16, but still rendered in a pleasing manner.
With such a shallow depth of field, you would expect high-quality background blur or bokeh to be a calling card. The nine-blade aperture does a very good job of rendering highlights which are very smooth and can produce starlike effects in the right conditions. As expected, backgrounds are lovely and creamy with a very nice transition of colors.
As for sure image quality, you cannot fault how the lens renders an exposure. When the focus is nailed, sharpness is fantastic, with a depth of quality which only shines from such a high-end prime lens. One other aspect of manual only lenses is future compatibility with camera bodies shouldn’t be much of an issue. Basically, unintentional future-proofing.
How Does It Compare?
The 85mm focal length is a popular prime lens choice, so there are a few options on the market. As the Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 Milvus is aimed to be fitted on a range of makes and models, it is fitting to see what the other manufacturers have to offer. The Canon 85mm f/1.2L II is a worthy candidate for Canon people. It costs slightly more than the Zeiss, has a wider aperture with autofocus, but is pipped by the Zeiss for sheer optical quality.
The Nikon 85mm f/1.4G AF-S lens is priced less than the Zeiss lens and also has very good optical performance, just not quite as good as the Zeiss. As another option, there is the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM lens. Optical quality is very good at a much cheaper price point, but again, the Zeiss wins for all-round quality.
|Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 Milvus||Canon 85mm f/1.2L II|
|Blades||9 rounded||8 rounded|
|Elements||11 / 9 groups||8 / 7 groups|
There are clearly other 85mm lens options on the market which fit into this top-end category. However, if you want one of the sharpest and highest quality 85mm lenses, then the Zeiss is definitely one to shortlist. It may not have autofocus or image stabilization and it comes with a high price tag, but for the right applications, this lens is worth every penny.
The Zeiss Otus may be the top of the heap, but considering the quality of the Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 Milvus, it’s not a bad second option. In the right situations where you can take your time with focusing, such as studio portraits and landscapes, and you want the top of the line in optical quality, you really can’t go wrong with the Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 Milvus. It’s also built to last a lifetime, which means, all things considered, it’s definitely worth the money.