Zeiss Milvus 85mm f/1.4 review: Introduction

This is the second of the new Zeiss Milvus lenses we have tested recently, the first being the 50mm f/1.4. If these two lenses are related in more than just name, we should be in for a treat as that standard lens performed extremely well.

With its short telephoto perspective 
that’s ideal for portraits, 85mm is a popular focal length, and Zeiss has plenty of competition. Samyang has a pleasingly low-cost manual-focus 85mm f/1.4 model for those who don’t mind doing some of the work themselves, while Sigma offers a rather nice 85mm f/1.4 for those who prefer AF.

Canon and Nikon both have two, with budget f/1.8 options complemented by more exotic faster versions. The Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens in particular is legendary for its ability to render backgrounds out of focus, but some think the extra width of the maximum aperture costs too much in edge image quality – and money. The Zeiss lens here costs about £200 
more than the Canon lens and doesn’t open quite as wide, but going from previous experience that extra money might well 
be accounted for.

Zeiss Milvus 85mm f/1.4 review: Features

The Zeiss Milvus 85mm f/1.4 uses a design based on Dr Paul Rudolph’s Planar from 1896, although this one includes 11 elements in nine groups. The eight elements either side of the stop are essentially symmetrical, while the forward three include a heavily concave front-facing surface to increase the length of the light path and pull the rear element away from the sensor.

Eight of the 11 elements are made of what Zeiss calls ‘anomalous partial-dispersion glass’ – or low-dispersion glass – and all surfaces have been coated with the company’s T* anti-reflective finish to prevent flare and internal reflections.

Zeiss uses what it calls a ‘floating elements design’ in the lens that allows the spaces between elements, and groups of elements, to be adjusted according to the distance between the camera and the subject.

Zeiss Milvus 85mm f_1.4

While the company isn’t explicit, it suggests that many more elements are on the move than is the case with most lens designs. AF lenses tend to have a focusing group, but the Zeiss design appears to move multiple groups of lenses along the axial path to maintain best image quality while focus is taking place.

The aperture ring on the Nikon version has markings from f/1.4-f/16, with 1⁄2-stop clicks between until f/11, where a full-stop click takes us to f/16. Body controls for aperture allow 1⁄3-stop steps to be taken, and those who like to use their DSLR for movie making can deactivate the clicking ring altogether to 
create a smooth-motion iris adjuster.

The Canon version obviously does not have an aperture ring at all – the lens only comes with a mount for Nikon F (ZF.2) or Canon EOS (ZE) cameras. Both models produce an image circle extensive enough to cover a full-frame sensor.

Zeiss Milvus 85mm f/1.4 review: Build and handling

As we might expect by now, the Zeiss Milvus 85mm f/1.4 is not a small, compact or lightweight lens – far from it. Big, dense and heavy, it feels as though it has been carved 
and polished from a solid lump of metal. At 1.2kg it isn’t excessively heavy, though – just heavier than most lenses of its size.

It is, in fact, even better looking than the 50mm lens we tested before, as its extra length provides additional road for those dangerous curves. The dull matt paintwork is very classy, and the 22mm-thick rubber band that forms the focusing ring is nice to the touch.

Zeiss Milvus 85mm f_1.4

It feels well made – as though it will last forever. Even the hood is beautifully crafted, with felt lining the interior of its 1.5mm metal thickness as it extends 56mm from the front of the lens and flares out and back to a 100mm diameter at the forward end. As with the 50mm, the hood flips over to fit perfectly around the shapely barrel for storage.

I used the lens on the Nikon D610 and found the two perfect companions when it came to balance and operation. As the lens 
is big, it is much more suitable for pairing 
with larger DSLR bodies, and cameras that are approaching an equal level of construction. Focusing at f/1.4 is extremely difficult in all but the most contrasty of light, so a great deal of care needs to be employed.

I used the focus-indicator system that exploits the camera’s AF points and uses them to measure when the subject is sharp. With the D610 AF points gathered as they are around the centre of the screen, and I found myself fretting slightly as I focused and recomposed, as the distance between the lens and the subject invariably changed enough to show with such a shallow depth of field. While tripod-mounted and in live view I was able 
to focus anywhere across the frame, working handheld often meant closing the aperture to a safer setting.

As tiny focus adjustments will inevitably be required, the focus ring asks a 270° rotation to take it from the 80cm position to infinity. This provides a good deal of potential for precision, and the operation of the ring is so comfortable that working manually has been made as convenient as possible.

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