Zeiss Milvus 135mm f/2: Meet the Portraitist

Zeiss Milvus 135mm f/2

Zeiss Milvus 135mm f/2

Raj Lalwani tests the Zeiss Milvus 135mm f/2 to see whether it is able to maintain the lofty standards that its predecessor had. Here’s what he found out.

The 135mm f/2 Milvus is not an entirely brand new lens, it is more of a redesign of the Zeiss APO Sonar 135mm f/2 lens, with added features that come with the Milvus treatment. So while the optical construction doesn’t get a major overhaul, the Milvus 135mm boasts of features such as anti-reflective coating, standardised colour characteristics, a declicking function (for the Nikkor mount version that we tested on the D750 and D810) to optimise aperture control during video, and weathersealing.

In addition to its proprietary anti-reflective coating, the lens’ edges are coated with a pitch black lacquer using a complex, manual process, to minimise reflections. While this does not entirely eliminate lens flare in the 135mm lens, the characteristics that the flare acquires almost make this apparent aberration into a desired quality. The fact that the lens doesn’t reinvent the wheel when it comes to the optical construction is okay, come to think of it, as even the previous version of the lens, was the best in its class when it had released.

The weathersealing in the Milvus 135mm f/2 is far more rigourous than the weathersealing that one tends to see with most other manufacturers. In addition to the standard rear gasket, the lens also has a series of internal seals to help prevent the intrusion of dust and moisture. This makes it the best built amongst all 135mm lenses that are available today.

The heft of the lens is solid and reassuring for a focal length that is bound to challenge those who are not used to focusing manually, considering the extremely critical depth of field. The slightest of subject movement or even the photographer’s body movement while breathing can take an image from tack sharp to out of focus, so one needs to instill a very meticulous approach and stringent discipline while shooting. A tripod would be invaluable. Unlike the other Milvus optics, the DOF scale, with markings for f/11 and f/22, is rather pointless, considering the kind of depth isolation this focal length produces.

It isn’t all daunting though, the MF experience itself is fantastic, with a large ring that has just the right amount of dampening. The focus throw is a little too much, I thought, which makes the process of focusing from a close distance to far away slow, but this large focus throw only helps make MF more accurate. Moreover, with the extremely large magnification the lens offers and the electronic aids that confirm manual focus in modern bodies, the process did become a lot easier. That said, if you are planning to invest in this lens, a dedicated focusing screen for your viewfinder is an absolute essential, especially because modern OVFs do not precisely show the depth that the lens is isolating at f/2.

The magnification ratio of 1:4 is extremely impressive for a lens of this class, and the lens’ minimum focusing distance of 2.62 feet is by far the best in its class, allowing headshots from up close to a remarkable degree, while attaining the flattering flattened perspective that a 135mm brings.

The Milvus’ rendition is unique, with softness of tone meeting sharp detail. 1/160sec at f/2.8 (ISO 4000). /Raj Lalwani

The Milvus’ rendition is unique, with softness of tone meeting sharp detail. 1/160sec at f/2.8 (ISO 4000). /Photographs Raj Lalwani

This is a very sharp lens indeed, with an astounding level of performance wide open, that only improves when shooting one stop down. Fringing is virtually absent, and flare is well controlled. It is only in certain situations when a strong burst of light is at the top edge of the lens that one tends to see flare, but instead of the usual ghosting one tends to see, this is a cinematic glow that I almost welcomed every time I saw it, while shooting portraits. Bokeh is outstanding. It is subtle, rich and the tonal contrast and warm colour rendition that the lens produces adds a three dimensional look.

Both Nikon and Canon have fantastic 135mm f/2 lenses. The Nikon one has AF and a rather unique Defocus Control option, while the Canon one is equipped with an even faster AF system that is completely silent. Yet, while both these lenses are very sharp, they just do not match the Zeiss, when detail is compared on a 24MP body (36MP or 50MP shows the difference almost glaringly). Interestingly, Sigma is rumoured to be announcing a 135mm f/1.8 Art series lens soon, which would have two advantages over the Zeiss, a third of a stop of aperture, and autofocus. Going by history, where the Sigma 85mm Art matched the performance of Zeiss’ very best, that’s a lens you may want to keep an eye out for.

But until then, it may be worth noting that the Milvus 135mm f/2 matches, and even outperforms at times, the performance of the higher end Otus 85mm lens, which costs a lakh more. So if you can do without the convenience of autofocus, and are willing to pay a sum of Rs. 1,64,950 for the pinnacle of portrait optic craftsmanship, say hello to the Milvus 135mm f/2.

This article originally appeared in the April 2017 issue of Better Photography.

Focuses really close, declicking aperture
Super sharpness, excellent bokeh
Build Quality
Sturdy, great amount of weathersealing
Superb MF ring, useful magnification ratio, large focus throw for greater accuracy
Warranty & Support
Two year warranty, limited service in India
MRP Rs. 1,64,950
Who should buy it? Portrait specialists who use high-resolution full frame DSLRs and do not need AF.
Why? Optics are better than all else, but if you need AF, you may want to look at Nikon/Canon/the upcoming Sigma.
Tags: Raj Lalwani, Review, Lens, better photography, Zeiss, Zeiss Milvus 135mm f/2, March 2017