#402. Zeiss Milvus 1.4/85 brief review

By pascaljappy | Review

Sep 13

The Zeiss Milvus 1.4/85. Probably the most anticipated lens we’d never heard about.

It was unveiled to the press and bloggers, including yours truly, in Oberkochen, a few days ago. The whole Milvus range was. And that has many stars, notably a very well transposed 50/2 Macro and a lovely 21/2.8. But this 85/1.4, this is what I would have wanted to try first had I been aware of the existence of that range (and need I remind you I sold my belongings and my kids to buy an Otus 85 …)

Sony A7rII & Zeiss Milvus 85/1.4 @ f/1.4

Sony A7rII & Zeiss Milvus 85/1.4 @ f/1.4

Why ? Bokeh.

This new toy is made up of 11 lenses in 9 groups, uses no less than 7 special glass elements and no more than zilch aspherics. Yup, it’s an all spherical design, all that to avoid introducing any form of harshness in the out of focus areas.

Being a Milvus, it is designed with one specific use case in mind, one scenario in which it must excel to the level of über-lenses. In this case, portrait.

This is not a formal review, simply a quick glance at the lens’ performance during the portrait workshop held in Schwäbisch Gmünd during the Milvus range launch. I’ll test the lens more completely as soon as a review sample comes my way.

Does it work ? Rather well, if you ask me …

Sony A7rII & Zeiss Milvus 1.4/85

Sony A7rII & Zeiss Milvus 1.4/85

Try to direct your glance away from this beautiful person and look at the background.

– What background?

– Exactly!

All these photographs were made in the middle of town, in harsh sunlight and with a busy road and buildings all around us. Being the lazy grabber type, I just shot a few frames and counted on post-processing wizardry to work my way out of bother. No reflector, no nothing. Milvus unplugged. So portrait specialists with any sort of self-respect will undoubtedly use more appropriate gear and methods and get far better shots than these.

Sony A7rII & Zeiss Milvus 1.4/85 @f/2

Sony A7rII & Zeiss Milvus 1.4/85 @f/2

Still, even in the hands of a total beginner, the lens really shines.

Son A7rII & Zeiss Milvus 1.4/85

Son A7rII & Zeiss Milvus 1.4/85 @f/4

After a few portraits, I turned to flowers, feeling sorry for the pretty ladies.

Being glorified by someone as gentle and talented as Drew Gardner (our instructor during the portrait session of the Milvus launch, and an utterly brilliant photographer, if you ask me) is one thing. Surviving the onslaught of dozens of middle-aged blokes pointing huge lenses up your nostrils is another. How these young girls handled it is beyond me. But they did and remained composed throughout the session while I turned to cabbages and bees to continue my testing. Kudos, ladies.


Sony A7rII & Zeiss Milvus 1.4/85 @f/5

You all want to know one thing: is it sharp?

It’s superbly sharp (warning: compressed jpeg ahead. It looks a lot better in LightRoom)

Milvus85-2Here’s another.


And another

abeilleAs you can see, focusing is extremely accurate. It’s just a little slow. Plus, this lens exhibits many of the characteristics that define the OTUS 85. Wide open, it layers planes while, closed down a little, it has interesting 3D. Colours are very strong and clean (all this taken around midday on a very sunny day).


Sony A7rII & Zeiss Milvus 1.4/85 @ f/2

Bokeh is, as promised, out of this world. Here the choice of spherical lenses really pays off. It makes the lens larger and heavier but the creamy out of focus zones make the results pleasing whatever the aperture. There is no mention of the number of blades in official literature but my guess is about 10 (see OOF hightlights in the last portrait, below), which helps as well.

Minimal focusing distance is a useful 80 cm, which equates to a 1/8 image ratio.

Perhaps as important as the bokeh is the apparent lack of fringing that keeps edges so clean and colours so clearly separated. Although not promoted as an APO lens, the Milvus appears to exhibit very high control of chromatic aberration. This is truly an optical jewel.


Sony A7rII & Zeiss Milvus 1.4/85 @f/1.4

So, a perfect lens, right ?

Well no, not for everyone. As much as the optics convince me, other aspects weren’t to my liking.

At about 1200g, it weighs in more or less exactly the same as the OTUS 85. Heavy, but very manageable in my experience.

Having no aperture ring (in Canon mount) is a deal breaker for me, however. Others like me, please speak up. The aperture ring is an endangered species. Still, the ZF.2 corrects that ill. So, no big problem here.

No, mostly, my lack of haptic joy is due to the issue I already brought up in the first article about the MILVUS range: the focusing ring is too stiff for my liking. While this wasn’t an issue at all with the short focal Milvuses (Milvi ?), namely the 21 and the two 50s – I didn’t try the 35,  the 85 and 100 did bother me in that respect.


Sony A7rII & Zeiss Milvus 1.4/85

If you take a closer look at those portraits, not one is in focus. The hair is sharp, the back of the head is sharp. The nose, the rear eye. You name it. But not the leading eye. It is simply too difficult to follow the movement of a model with the focusing ring.

However, this is me, a travel photographer. I am not the intended user for this lens. I am not a portrait photographer. Had I been, I’d have blasted 20 shots in burst mode while moving slightly back and forth to ensure one shot was in perfect focus, as in the case of the bee, above, or our model, below (both more by accident than design). Plus, I’m talking f/1.4 where depth of focus is tiny at close range. Close down and it all becomes a lot easier. I never had a problem for mid or long distance shots.

For landscape photographers (yes, this portrait lens can handle landscape with aplomb), the focusing mechanism will be great news. In fact, it was tightened specifically on their request. No more accidental changing of focus after 10 minutes of careful efforts. Anyone using the Milvus on a tripod will love it.

On the plus side, the metal housing looks modern and elegant and feels indestructible. It is also weather sealed! Build quality is superb.

So alles ist gut, rejoice.


Melting 10 guys with a look – Sony A7rII & Zeiss Milvus 1.4/85 @f/1.4

Just for kicks, here is a 100% enlargement of the model’s eye (note that the artefacts in her eyes and around are due to the jpeg compression) :


Price ? 1800$. Totally worth it if the operational description above fits your needs. You already know if you want one.

And if you do, but really shouldn’t, direct your wrath towards this gentleman. Senior Product Manager for the photo line at Zeiss, he is largely responsible for that parting-with-your-money bit that will inevitably follow if you’re into portraits and happen to try this amazing lens.


Brains & looks – Sony A7rII & Zeiss Milvus 1.4/85

So, well done guys.

Before I close: for those wanting to take a closer look at other aspects of performance, here’s a set of full-size jpegs from the A7rII. Again, bear in mind these are jpegs and not the sharper RAW. f/1.4 isn’t included because the subject is too oblique and there’s so much of it out of focus. So f/2; f/4 and f/8 it is.

You will see very slight purple fringing at f/2 as well as lowered resolution and a slightly lifeless character. The very slight softness that is so desirable in portraits tends to make this scene a little dull. Close down, as you should in landscape photography, and everything comes to life again. So the “portrait pro” description is not just marketing talk. This lens, as announced, is a true specialist and excels at what it was designed for.


Milvus 85 @f/2


Milvus 85 @f/4


Milvus 85 @f/8

Optically, this is so desirable that it begs the question “why use aspherics at all ?” Part of the answer has been given in this article already: size. Aspherics let you shrink the lens (but there’s no free lunch). The other half is clearly explained in these MTF curves.

Milvus 85 MTF curves. f/1.4 at top, f/4 at bottom.

Milvus 85 MTF curves. f/1.4 at top, f/4 at bottom.

This might scare some away, but shouldn’t. My Distagon 2/25 ZF.2 is very similar and is magnificent.

Compared to the OTUS 85, performance is slightly lower at wide apertures (though it does give portraits a wonderful look) and corners crumble a lot more quickly. For one-third of the price, then, you get a lens with a slightly more limited range of uses and slightly less refined mechanics but 80% of the magnificence. Sounds like a fair deal to me.


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  • Bstrom says:

    Looks like bokeh gets busy once you get past f4 – looks nice otherwise. More than a little surprised at the lackluster results at f2 – losing two stops before seeing acceptable results seems typical for the 85mm paradigm. No mention of any distortion but that should be minimal or nonexistent in this short tele.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi Bstrom. I wouldn’t say lackluster. The lens is optimised for 1:30-1:50 (I think), so that’s about 3-4 meters. I find performance absolutely superb close up (see how lovely the model’s eye turns out to be) and less stellar from afar (that’s at full aperture, of course. At f/5.6, it’s brilliant at any distance). Mostly, there is a slight softness to the lens that’s great for faces but dulls out other subjects at full aprture. So this is indeed a specialist lens. Zeiss market it as such, so it’s all par for the course. It is a courageous decision, though, as anyone using the lens too far outside of its design envelop will find it hard to justify the weight and cost.

      Distortion is kept under 0.5% at the very edges of the frame, pincussion.

  • James Moule says:

    What adapter do you use to glue a Milvus to a Sony A7rII?

  • Vincent TARROUX says:

    Thanks for this very early review!
    It’s seems in these pictures that the lens has a soft global contrast.
    I share the concern about weight (85 and 50mm) and also additional weight to Milvus Line that was already a reason to move from the ZF Line.
    You can have a whole set of lenses (3) instead of this one.
    A Batis kind of weight would have been great or at least try.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi Vincent. One of the driving forces for the Milvus range is durability. Camera bodies change very often but once you’ve learned to use a lens, you often don’t want to let it go. So the Milvus are built to withstand a lot and they are weather sealed. Since they also employ optical formulas that optimise a certain use rather than weight, the whole result is quite heavy. In had, I found the 85/1.4 and the 100/2M took some getting used to. But with the 50/1.4, 50/2M and 21/2.8 (although still heavy), you really do not notice the lenses. They balance beautifully and are a joy to use. The Batis are made lighter thanks to much smaller lenses (plenty of aspherics) and lightweight bodies. The AF focusing mechanism means that manual focusing isn’t as precise as on the other ranges. For some that’s not an issue, for others it is.

      What is certain is that Zeiss are taking the risk of alienating some users with the Milvus. Instead of a good alround lens set, they have made them really excellent (Otus level) in some areas and made no compromise in optical formula, size or weight to achieve that goal at a cheper price point.

      So it’s really up to the user to decide the type of lens they want. General use (Loxia, Batis), specialized & rugged (Milvus) or superb in any conditions but expensive (Otus). I don’t know what will become of the ZM range in all this.

  • Ironymous says:

    Well, at least this time Zeiss delivers a (fairly) complete range. Perhaps I am alone in wishing they had spent their time finishing off the Loxia line instead. Do they really need a fourth range? What’s the hurry? It would make more sense for these lenses to have been part of the Batis line, instead of an entirely brand new one. But that’s just me.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Ah well, I can’t answer the second part of your question as I lack the strategic insight. But the Loxia range is being extended, do not worry. Mots of the Milvus lenses are based in existing designs, which helped ship a complete range. Loxia and Batis are part of Zeiss’ future, they will be adding lenses to these ranges regularly.

      • Ironymous says:

        Hi Pascal,

        exactly. Given that the Loxia are also based on an existing design — the ZM range — I would have thought some tweaks here and there would have quickly delivered to us the 21mm, 25mm and 85mm, at least. Certainly the last two — I use the Loxia for video and I find the 35mm the only useful one of the two currently available. The 25mm and 85mm would be the ones I want to complete the so-called lens trinity.

        If I were Zeiss, I would optimise the Loxia line for video, with the A7S in mind. Make them all a standard f2.0, with the same filter dimensions, please! Zeiss can keep the exotic speeds and topsy turvy filter sizes for their Batis or Mylvus or whatever half-baked range they’re going to come out with next.

        Sony Zeiss for entry level, Batis for mid-range, Otus for high-end, Loxia for video. Fill them out one range at a time. Done. Unfortunately, Zeiss seem to be infected by Sony’s Half Baked Virus. It’s somewhat better for Sony now, but you know that for a long time the running joke was they had more camera bodies than lenses.

        Their Sony Zeiss line, however, remains just as bad. It seems Sony and Zeiss can only think in terms of two focal lengths at a time. So now we have 35-50 for Loxia, 35-55 for Sony Zeiss, 25-85 for Batis. We’re not even counting the Touit. Put them all together and they’re not even one complete set covering the typical 19mm-135mm range!

        Worse still, they all have different designs and ergonomics that make it harder to assemble them together for video!

        I have no idea what Zeiss/Sony seem to be thinking, or if they even have a plan. When Panasonic and Olympus were first developing their m43 lens range, they played it smart by not overlapping one another at first. Only once the line is more mature do we get multiple choice per focal length. Result: fuller coverage at a faster rate. I guess Sony is still thinking as an electronics company, after all.

        • pascaljappy says:

          Hi again.

          I’m not sure about hafl-baked. The photo division at Zeiss is not that big and the ressources to evolve 4 ranges at a time are simply not there. Pana is a giant, by comparison. The ZM range has some excellent lenses but not all of the optical formulas are usable on the Sony sensor. The biogons, aren’t for instance. So the 25 would have to be a complete redesign. I’m not sure what the priorities are in Oberkochen, but if another 8 lenses are released next year, I’d really be surprises if BATIS and LOXIA didn’t get 2 each at least. Just a little more patience 🙂 If you need a **great** 25mm, I use the Class ZF.2 Distagon 2/25 and it works brilliantly on the A7 range. Good luck 🙂

  • Scott Edwards says:

    The results are stunning, of course! I’d LOVE TO HAVE THIS LENS… But I want a system-friendly lens that can slip into automatic mode and which does not require an adapter. So I continue waiting and waiting for the Batis 85M 1.8F for my Sony A7RII which seems quite difficult to get here in the U.S. What is going on? Is there a QA/QC issue with the Batis?!?!?!? I’m totally sold on Zeiss. My Distagon 35MM 1.4 is borderline criminal it’s so good.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi Scott, it seems that quite a few people have taken delivery of their Batis 25 by now so, hopefully, your 1.8/85 is not far behind. I think the orders for Batis lenses were 3x higher than expected and these lenses aren’t made in a continuous mode. So whole new batches had to be made as soon as the production lines had a slot.

      Yes, the 35/1.4 ZM is absolutely fab. It’s my default lens. Often my only lens.

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