Splendid Subtlety: Zeiss Milvus 85mm f/1.4


The Zeiss Milvus 85mm f/1.4 is a complete overhaul of the company’s classic Planar design, and may well be the best portrait lens around, as Raj Lalwani finds out.

There is a lot more to optics than sharpness and aberration control, and that is best realised when you use a Zeiss lens, not with a controlled test chart (where it usually excels, as well), but take it out on a shoot and see the way the image renders. The company has introduced its new Milvus family with that thought in mind. How does one produce a distinctive rendering of the image, while maintaining the technical excellence that the newer, high resolution cameras demand (which most proprietary lenses are not really able to do full justice to)?

The optical design of the Milvus 85mm f/1.4 bears a striking similarity with the revered Otus 85mm f/1.4, despite being less than half the price of the pricey Otus. Both lenses have eleven elements in nine groups. Where the Milvus is different is the exclusion of the aspherical element. This is a lens that is entirely made of spherical elements, which not only changes the way the image is rendered, but greatly changes the amount of microcontrast once can expect in the picture. Though the aspherical element allows the Otus to get that extra bite in its look, portrait photographers would prefer the design and subsequent rendition of the Milvus.

The quality of bokeh is also something that benefits from an entirely spherical element design. Even compared to the Otus, the Milvus 85mm f/1.4 has significantly softer bokeh without any texture or harshness in the highlights. The resultant background blur is less clinical and thus, incredibly pleasing.

Aside from this, the lens benefits from the usual Zeiss goodies—a T* antireflective coating and extensive stray-light reduction that encourages you to make pictures against extreme backlighting without any restraint. The lens edges are provided with a special pitch-black lacquer in a complex manual process to further avoid reflections.

The Milvus line has been optimised for video and are probably second only to dedicated cine lenses. The focus throw is long and smooth, ideal for pulling focus gradually. The Nikon-mount version that we tested on the D750 and the D810 also allows a silent, continuous aperture setting with a declicking option.

The Milvus version is significantly smaller than the Otus 85mm, but it weighs nearly the same, with heft that inspires a certain amount of confidence. Most crucially, the Milvus lineup is weathersealed, with special seals for protection against dust and water splashes. The barrel, too, has a better feel and grip than the Otus, and isn’t prone to scratches, a problem that affects the other lineup.

With the extremely long focus throw, manual focus is a joy for precision, but is largely restricted by the fact that most modern-day viewfinders aren’t optimised for manual focus. You have to slow down and ideally, use the Live View, or better still, a tripod. This is no criticism of the Milvus, but instead a comment that a focusing screen or LCD magnifier will help you make best use of a lens like this.

The distance scale engravings are extremely clear, even in the dark. Careful, dedicated use of the lens will ensure that you do not miss the convenience of AF for portraiture, and are able to prefocus easily for slightly more unpredictable subjects.

The Milvus shines when shooting against the light, its bokeh being subtely soft and pleasing.

The Milvus shines when shooting against the light, its bokeh being subtly soft and pleasing. Photograph/Raj Lalwani

If the Otus lineup can claim to be the sharpest in the world, the Milvus 85mm actually comes quite close, at least in the centre of the image. The corners are sharp from f/4 onwards, but the slightly softer edges are something that portraitists wouldn’t mind. What one sees is a rendering that is subtle and beautiful, not the pop and bite one sees with the Otus, but a more graceful, yet sharp look that is a joy for fashion and wedding photography. The bokeh is absolutely gorgeous, both behind and in front of the subject, and the spherical aberration one tends to see in the 85mm lenses of camera manufacturers (and which we also saw in the older Planar) is virtually eliminated. The colour rendition is a little on the warmer side, but I personally quite enjoyed that.

The Milvus 85mm f/1.4 is an astonishing piece of optics that makes the right compromises and decisions while steering away from clinical perfection, which actually make it a more perfect photographic tool for its intended target audience. With build quality and finesse that makes it relatively future proof, it easily justifies its cost of Rs. 1,24,950.

Declicking aperture, f/1.4, spherical design
Soft corners wide open, excellent rendition
Build Quality
Sturdy all-metal body, weathersealed
Large focusing throw, a little heavy
Warranty & Support
Two-year warranty, limited service in India      
MRP Rs. 1,24,950
Who should buy it? Those into people photography
Why? Excellent quality and a subtle, but characteristic look


Tags: Raj Lalwani, Lens review, portrait lens, april 2016, Zeiss Milvus 85mm f/1.4, Zeiss classic Planar design, Zeiss Milvus Family