Field Report – Zeiss Score Big with the Milvus 85mm Lens

Field Report – Zeiss Score Big with the Milvus 85mm Lens

As they prepare to discontinue their “classic” line of ZF and ZE lenses, Zeiss have released the “Milvus” line of lenses to replace them. I took the 85mm f/1.4 Milvus out for a try and came back much more impressed than I have been with their older ZF/ZE lenses, which have begun to show their age.

Appearance and Construction

The Milvus lenses take cues from the trend that I believe began with Zeiss’ Otus series of massive primes. The body is an all-metal barrel with wide, rubberized focus rings. There are engraved distance markers on the barrel but nothing else. The hood is metal as well (don’t lose it – it’s pretty pricy at around $200) and clicks firmly into place without waffling. The lens is large and not lightweight by any stretch; in fact it’s a few ounces heavier than its Otus sibling. It’s a bit more handholdable than the Otus, in my opinion, which is slightly longer and has a much wider filter ring (77mm vs the Otus’ very odd 86mm).

In fact, because of the weight, I almost wish that there was a way to mount the lens directly to a tripod for those days when you want to really locked it down. However, the Metabones didn’t give me any signs that it couldn’t take the weight, nor did the Sony a7R II.

User Experience

As you can see, I had the Milvus mounted on a Sony a7R II. This lens is available only in Nikon and Canon mounts but I chose to put it on a Sony a7R II because I’m in the process of switching to Sony’s platform. Also, when you’re working with manual focus lenses, as the Milvus is, you will be thankful for the Sony’s focus peaking and magnifications features.

Focus peaking and magnification on the Sony makes using the Milvus a joy

Focus peaking and magnification on the Sony makes using the Milvus a joy.

In practice, this worked a bit better than I expected. Not only was it ridiculously easy to frame and focus with the Milvus on the Sony, it was actually fun. The Milvus’ focus ring is super smooth and allows for some pretty minute adjustments, as it has a long throw.

The metal markings on the barrel also make it relatively easy to zone focus, though I recommend stopping down as much as possible since the depth of field at wide open (f/1.4) is pretty darn narrow (as you’ll see in one of the shots below).

The Results

It’s been a while since I stepped into a lab and ran ISO charts through Imatest, so you’re out of luck if that’s what you were expecting. This is a field report, so I’m going to share some real-world images and my thoughts. All photos were shot with the Milvus 85mm f/1.4 on a Sony a7R II and are edited for color, contrast, and exposure in Capture One Pro 9. Straight-out-of-camera shots are at the bottom.

The San Francisco skyline. Long Exposure (15 seconds at f/16)

San Francisco skyline long exposure (15 seconds at f/16).

First – this lens is razor sharp. I shot a couple of landscapes at f/16 and a few portraits at f/1.4, and honestly, I have ZERO complaints. Even in the corners, I couldn’t really see any dropoff in sharpness in the shot above. There might well be some at the widest-open apertures but, since I usually reserve those for portraits, if there is any loss in sharpness in the corners it simply won’t matter.

Cherish Ortiz, being a good sport as usual

Cherish Ortiz, being a good sport as usual.

Speaking of portraits, I had the Milvus out as we were closing up shop one Saturday afternoon and took a few shots of my colleagues at BL. Cherish Ortiz, whom you’ve seen before on this blog, along with Jo, Bryan, and our former colleague Andrew, gamely put up with me shoving the camera in their faces as I shot these images wide open at f/1.4.

At that stop, depth of field is so small it’s easy to miss critical focus even with the Sony’s focusing aids if you’re not locked down, shooting in a studio, or other controlled environment. While the shot above is in perfect focus and is tack-sharp as a result, the shot below was front-focused slightly, leading to the outer edge of Jo’s right being in focus, while the center of that eye is not.

Depth of Field is ridiculously shallow at f/1.4

Depth of field is ridiculously shallow at f/1.4.

Of course, as you can see, bokeh is simply gorgeous. The Milvus has 9 circular blades that make for smooth out-of-focus backgrounds, as good as any I’ve seen or used. In fact, this lens on a Sony is really easy to focus, even in candid situations, at f/1.4 as focus peaking does better when the area of contrast is smaller.

There is some vignetting at f/1.4, but it’s nothing that a simple click or two can’t correct in your post-production software of choice. It’s pretty low at f/2.8 and I couldn’t even notice it at f/4. Vignetting just isn’t one of those things I worry about anymore as it’s so easily corrected.

Bryan Markwardt preparing to ride home. The vignetting is very apparent in this shot.

Bryan Markwardt preparing to ride home. The vignetting is very apparent in this shot.

I particularly liked the way the lens rolls off from highlights to midtones and shadows. Lower quality lenses make those highlights looked clipped, even on the a7R II and its impressive dynamic range. The Milvus handles them quite well; the result is almost film-like in quality.

Final Thoughts

I’ve had an on-again, off-again relationship with Zeiss glass for some time now. I didn’t like their older ZF/ZE glass but loved the cinema compact primes. I’m still on the fence about the Batis line and never really gave the Touit lineup a try. I’m glad that I took the Milvus out for a turn; it was well worth it, and the 85mm f/1.4 will definitely return to my rental cart in the future.

The Zeiss Milvus 85mm f/1.4 is available for rent now. As mentioned earlier, the Metabones adapter and Sony a7R II I used with it are also available for rent.

Straight out of camera images…

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Sohail Mamdani is a writer, filmmaker, and photographer based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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