All photos were shot with a Nikon D600 and Zeiss Milvus 50mm and converted straight out of camera to jpeg unless otherwise stated.
In fall 2015, after my recent photography high of shooting in Vietnam with a simple film Olympus OM-1 with a 50mm f/1.4 Zuiko lens(read review here ), I decided that it was time to invest in a serious full frame system. My experience with the OM-1 made me fall in love with manual focusing. Every photo felt more calm, planned, and personal. The only other camera I’ve shot with prior to was the Fujifilm X100, which is also an extraordinary camera in every regard. Though I lusted for a Leica, the obvious financial restraints of a middle school teacher made me opt for a Nikon D600, which I reasoned to be the most affordable entry into the full-frame market.* The lens, I decided, would be my splurge.
*This is due to the D600’s technical difficulties upon release(dirty sensors) leading to the creation of the D610 (which was 98% the exact same camera). As a result, this saturated and confused consumers and can allow one to snag a full-frame DSLR body for the price of a Canon Rebel (the entry level offering). I got mine for $700 at the time.
I could barely contain my excitement when the Milvus line was announced. Exceptional build quality? Check. Weather and dustproof? Check. Orgasmic color and bokeh? Double check. I made the decision and preordered the lens from B and H photos, and it arrived just in time for the perfect testing location–the renaissance festival.
I was taken aback by the immediate heft and solidity of the build. Weighing in at 875g (1.93lbs), the lens felt like a cannonball in my hand. Though I had resolved and trained myself at the gym in preparation for this lens, the camera and lens weighed almost 4lbs together! But as with most things, there had to be a tradeoff between performance, convenience, and price. Nonetheless, the lens never disappointed.
Zeiss lens are known for their slightly warmer renditions of images, and the Milvus continues this trend somewhat while also adding a unique vibrancy and 3D pop to each photo. At maximum aperture, there is some vignetting, but I find this adds to subject isolation in most cases and saves me time in post-processing. Barrel-distortion, to my eyes at least, is barely noticeable and can be easily corrected as well. This isn’t surprising as Zeiss’ classic lens are superb.
The Milvus improves on every aspect of a classic Zeiss lens, but two areas where it definitely excels is build quality and bokeh. Though heavy, the all-metal construction gave me incredible peace of mind. I could not count how many time the metal lens hood rammed into posts or trees with barely a noticeable nick. I didn’t have to worry about my $1200 investment not being able to take a beating. The sheer ruggedness of the build is unmatched, even by the Otus line, which lacks weatherproofing for some reason.
A bit of vibrance added; cropped image
The blue of the jacket is beautifully rendered to capture all the angles of light. In addition, micro-contrast is present in bounds, especially looking at the beard. Here is a 100% crop if you want to split hairs (pun intended):
Bokeh might have been my main reason in purchasing this lens; it was made to be shot at maximum aperture. Bokeh is smooth and creamy and offers a delicate swirl that share some commonality with, dare I say it, the 50mm Summilux ASPH from Leica. There is something magical about the way it is rendered. Fall-off from in-focus to out-of-focus is exceptional and it does a splendid job of isolating the subject. I had a hard time not shooting at maximum aperture due to how amazing the rendering was.
Focus was on the metallurgy instead of the blacksmith. Shooting with the OVF is challenging, to say the least
The lens lives up to the hype in terms of sharpness as well. I spent weeks comparing images from the Milvus and its Otus brother, and I can confidently say the Milvus approaches 95% of the IQ of the massive (and much more expensive) Otus. It is nearly impossible to tell unless you’re pixel-peeping, shooting in extremely bright light that induces chromatic aberrations, or printing massive photos to be put in museums. At f/1.4, the center is sharp as a tack with some expected softness at the corners. Stopped down to f/4.0 or higher, the lens approaches 99% of the Otus, which has been advertised and confirmed by many to be the epitome of sharpness.
Exposure compensated; touch of vibrance added
The sky is blown out, but I already expected that to be the limitation of the d600 on a bright day. The lens is bitingly sharp, but the thin DOF means that focusing prowess is essential. In the image above, I actually failed to focus correctly on her majesty and instead focused on the steps. The 100% crop below should give you a good idea of the sharpness of this lens:
Perhaps it is the path to power that deserves focus?
One of the things I didn’t expect to fall in love with was the way the lens rendered color. Images are vibrant and lively, but never seem overly saturated. The rendition may not be as flattering for skin tones as something from a Fujifilm camera, but I prefer the more realistic depiction.
I cannot praise enough how lovely blues and greens are rendered on the Zeiss. This lens would undoubtedly be great for land and oceanscape.
Arguably my favorite costume, albeit a mismatch with the era.
A classic medieval thigh measuring contest. Subjective possibly, but undoubtedly fun.
Being a fast lens, low-light performance was spectacular. While the ISO performance of the d600 is nothing noteworthy, the lens performed exemplary in low light. I was able to recover a lot detail from shadows in post, and in fact, I felt like the main limitation was my own hand’s stability at that point; shooting all day with a 4lb kit was definitely a first for me.
The lens is heavy, perhaps ridiculously so. It surprasses the monstrous Leica Noctilux’s weight by almost 50% and makes the d600 feel very front heavy. Shooting with this lens is both mentally and physically demanding. I had to alternate hands carrying it, and I suspect allowing it to hang from your neck for anything longer than 30 minutes will lead to some neck soreness and pain. The manual focus means that one has to legitimately practice to get better at shooting this beast, and this is further true considering the razor thin depth of field. Nailing exact focus on a person’s eye at f1.4 is impeccably difficult with the optical viewfinder due to the extremely shallow depth of field. Many of my photos were sup-optimal because I simply could not nail the focus.
I failed to nail focus here on the subject’s eyes. This was a difficult shot, even in bright light.
A lovely couples’ costume, if only I could have focused better. Drats!
Focusing is even harder to get right with less light at night. I found I had to rely on live view for pinpoint focus by zooming in on the image. This slowed down shooting significantly. In addition, the 225 degrees focus throw is a bit of a mixed bag. While it helpful to achieve perfect focus with the len’s thin DOF, the barrel throw has a bit more resistance than I’d like. Furthermore, I’m much more used to the 180 degrees throw of the Zuiko 50mm F/1.4 where focus, although less sharp, was much easier to achieve due to a more forgiving DOF.
This lens absolutely humbles me. Even when I dare believe that maybe I’ve taken a great shot, closer inspection at 100% crop reveals my naivete.
The Zeiss Milvus 50mm F/1.4 is a cruel and unforgiving mistress that forces you to toil and labor and only rewards you just enough for you to keep going. It is a sink-or-swim lens that forcefully demands patience, stamina, and sheer determination to master it. Like Hercules after his twelve labors, I have no doubt that this lens is capable of some extraordinary pictures if one puts in the work to tame it
However, not many will be able to surpass the obstacles to come, especially not in an age where full-frame mirrorless technology armed with ultra-fast AF lenses can easily provide some astounding photos as well with simply the push of a button. Indeed, it doesn’t make sense that anyone should have to pay $1200 for a lens that weighs almost 2lbs and demands that its user adapt to it instead of the other way around. But, perhaps there is a necessary duality in both the tumultuous journey that this lens propels the user into as well as the reward they find at the end.
The two are inevitably linked, as the torment you receive from missing focus to the satisfaction of nailing that perfect shot epitomize the roller-coaster of thrill and despair when using this lens. Manual focus has been and will be increasingly inferior to ever-improving auto-focus technology. Anyone that states mastering zone focusing can provide equivalent speed and efficiency is simply in denial. It’s true that all the complicated algorithms stored within digital sensors and lenses can secure you many fantastic photos if you are in the right time and place, but the feeling a modern AF lens/camera system can invoke pales in comparison to the ecstasy one receives when finally taking a correctly composed, focused image with this lens. And to many enthusiasts like myself, the feeling a lens/camera invoke is of the utmost importance in pushing us to continually pursue photography, despite time or monetary constraints. This sense of romanticism is what is keeping film (and Leica to some extent) alive.
A rather accurate personification of what it’s like to shoot with this lens
To the layperson that just wants an easy camera that takes good pictures (and there is nothing wrong with this), I would never recommend this lens; something like the Sony RX100 is much more appropriate, since it is also extremely capable of producing fine images without the extra hassle. Yet, for young padawans who demand the purist approach and are resolute for the journey ahead, this lens can be a powerful tool if proper time and training is dedicated to its mastery. The only question is if you have the will to do so.