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 …)
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 …
Try to direct your glance away from this beautiful person and look at the background.
– What background?
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.
Still, even in the hands of a total beginner, the lens really shines.
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.
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)
As 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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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