Review: Zeiss 85mm f1.4 Milvus (Canon EF)

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Zeiss 85mm f1.4 Milvus lens product images (7 of 7)ISO 4001-125 sec at f - 2.8

When a camera system and lens system are released, I tend to put the highest emphasis of the judging process on the quality of two specific lenses: the 35mm and the 85mm equivalents. So when Zeiss recently announced their 35mm f2 Milvus and their 85mm f1.4 Milvus I was already a bit skeptical about the 35mm. Perhaps it could be that not many people can beat Sigma when it comes to their award-winning 35mm f1.4; but that still leaves a very strong possibility for Zeiss with the 85mm. For years, the company’s 85mm lenses have matched or outdone everyone else’s. And so the 85mm f1.4 Milvus gave me lots of hope.

The Zeiss 85mm f1.4 Milvus lens lives below the 85mm f1.4 Otus and above the standard 85mm f1.4 in the company’s lineup of DSLR lenses. Considering how excellent its Batis lens is, I had lots of faith that Zeiss wouldn’t deliver anything less than the absolute best here.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Only a hair less sharper than the 85mm f1.4 Otus
  • Weather sealing
  • Great feeling in the hand
  • Wonderful, wonderful colors though a bit too saturated for skin tones
  • Zero color fringing

Cons

  • Long focus throw makes focusing very precise, but manually focusing the lens while handheld isn’t so simple due to you actually moving and not staying still. It’s best done with a tripod
  • Quite expensive; $1,799 though that’s cheaper than the Canon 85mm f1.2 L.

Gear Used

We used the Zeiss 85mm f1.4 Milvus lens with the Canon 6D and an Impact 5-in-1 reflector. This lens was designed for portraits; and that’s what we shot with it.

Tech Specs

Specs taken from the B&H Photo listing of the lens.

Performance
Focal Length 85mm
Aperture Maximum: f/1.4
Minimum: f/16
Camera Mount Type Canon EF
Format Compatibility 35mm Film / Full-Frame Digital Sensor
Angle of View 29°
Minimum Focus Distance 2.62′ (80 cm)
Maximum Reproduction Ratio 1:8.3
Elements/Groups 11/9
Features
Autofocus No
Physical
Filter Thread Front: 77 mm
Dimensions (DxL) Approx. 3.54 x 4.45″ (90 x 113 mm)
Weight 2.82 lb (1.28 kg) 

Ergonomics

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Zeiss 85mm f1.4 Milvus lens product images (3 of 7)ISO 4001-125 sec at f - 2.0

The Zeiss 85mm f1.4 Milvus lens is one that is design to be as simplistic as it possibly can to the user; and if you’re an experienced veteran then that won’t be problematic. Most modern photographers don’t know the first thing about manually focusing though. Anyway, we start our ergonomics tour with the very front of the lens–which holds a 77mm filter thread just in case you want to work with a polarizing filter to get better skin tones.

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Zeiss 85mm f1.4 Milvus lens product images (1 of 7)ISO 4001-125 sec at f - 2.8

Move to the top of the lens and you’ll see much of the design that you’ll need to pay attention to when using the lens. The exterior is a beautiful metal finish (oh yeah, this lens is metal) with a giant rubber focusing ring and a depth of field scale/distance scale.

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Zeiss 85mm f1.4 Milvus lens product images (5 of 7)ISO 4001-125 sec at f - 2.0

The side of the lens is devoid of many controls. In fact, there are none–and that’s because this is a manual focus lens and there is no image stabilization.

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Zeiss 85mm f1.4 Milvus lens product images (4 of 7)ISO 4001-125 sec at f - 2.0

Here, you’ll also note that the lens is much smaller when you take the hood off. But your hard invested money is better spent with the hood on.

Build Quality

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Zeiss 85mm f1.4 Milvus lens product images (2 of 7)ISO 4001-125 sec at f - 2.0

The Zeiss 85mm f1.4 Milvus lens is weather sealed with sealing on the lens mount and internally with gaskets to keep out moisture. The lens isn’t waterproof, but it surely can resist quite a bit of abuse. A little bit before I started writing this review, the lens took a tumble off of my three foot night stand in my room. It’s fine and still works with no problems. Perhaps a part of this has to do with the metal construction of the exterior.

Ease of Use

Zeiss manual focus lenses aren’t for the faint of heart or for those who complain that they want autofocus. You’ll need to put a lot of focusing work into this lens by using the giant manual focusing ring and therefore you’ll also pay much more attention to creating a better image in the viewfinder. Part of this is due to the long focus throw, which many photographers may truly appreciate for its ability to deliver precision. Using the viewfinder may be tougher than using the LCD screen here.

Using Nikon’s rangefinder system, the lens and camera will tell you when you’ve reached focus on the specified AF point. With Canon, it’s a simple highlight of the focusing point. This will require you to carefully choose your points first, focus with careful attention to the details, and make sure that your exposure is exactly what you want.

Trust us, it will genuinely make you a better photographer since you’ll think more about your images.

Focusing

The Zeiss 85mm f1.4 Milvus is a manual focus lens. Considering that it is such a long focal length and the depth of field is so thin at most apertures, you’ll need to pay very close attention to where you’re focusing to ensure that you’ve got your subject perfectly in focus. This is tough with all long Zeiss lenses though; but it’s well worth the effort.

If you’re photographing a model, it will slow down the pace of the shoot as you constantly need to make sure that the subject is in focus. So just be sure to relate that to your model.

Image Quality

EXIF DATA HAS BEEN KEPT IN THE IMAGES. SIMPLY CLICK THE PHOTO AND IT WILL APPEAR IN THE NAME/URL.

Model: Natalie Margiotta

Model: Natalie Margiotta

Yup, you win here Zeiss.

Sharpness? This lens bleeds and oozes with it. It’s a tad less sharper than the Otus, and I appreciate that when it comes to needing to retouch skin in images. But overall, the lens is still very sharp.

Colors? Overall they’re great but I needed to tone down the saturation in the skin tones a bit using Adobe Lightroom. That isn’t such a big deal.

And the rest? Oh, you’re about to fall for this lens.

Sharpness

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Zeiss 85mm f1.4 Milvus review portrait extras (1 of 6)ISO 8001-125 sec at f - 5.0

The sharpness that this lens offers is perhaps the best balance of both sharpness and softness that I need in a portrait lens. You don’t want a portrait lens to be too, too sharp. The Zeiss 55mm f1.4 Otus is the company’s sharpest, then the 85mm f1.4 Otus, then the 135mm f2 and then this one. But even so, the numbers are negligible in real life situations (i.e. not pixel peeping like I read about DPReview’s forum goers talking about our site yesterday.)

Wide open, this lens is sharper than the offerings of any other manufacturer. When stopped down, the performance evens itself out a bit more. Zeiss does this without adding micro-contrast to their lenses either; so you’re getting just pure sharpness.

Bokeh

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Zeiss 85mm f1.4 Milvus review images (6 of 7)ISO 1001-800 sec at f - 2.0

If you’re a bokeh lover, then you’ll love this lens. It’s creamy, dreamlike, well colored, and overall just so nice that it doesn’t distract you from the subject in focus. Again, it’s probably the best in the business here.

Color Rendition

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Zeiss 85mm f1.4 Milvus review images (2 of 7)ISO 4001-1250 sec at f - 1.4

The colors from this lens are very saturated and in one way that’s a great thing. If you’re shooting outside during the golden hour though, it’s going to render skin tones a bit more orange than you’d prefer. Depending on the skin color of the person; that may be better or you’ll want to tone it down a bit more. Darker skin colors I’ve found look better with a healthy warm glow. Lighter skin does too, but not to the extent that darker skin tones do.

In the studio with controlled lighting, this obviously won’t be a concern.

Color Fringing

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Zeiss 85mm f1.4 Milvus review portrait extras (4 of 6)ISO 4001-160 sec at f - 4.0

In our tests, we found no color fringing. For what you’re paying for this lens, we’d expect nothing less.

Extra Image Samples

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Zeiss 85mm f1.4 Milvus review portrait extras (2 of 6)ISO 4001-320 sec at f - 2.8

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Zeiss 85mm f1.4 Milvus review images (5 of 7)ISO 4001-1250 sec at f - 2.0

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Zeiss 85mm f1.4 Milvus review portrait extras (6 of 6)ISO 4001-500 sec at f - 2.2

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Zeiss 85mm f1.4 Milvus review images (1 of 7)ISO 4001-640 sec at f - 2.8

Conclusions

Likes

  • Perhaps my absolute favorite 85mm lens when it comes to image quality
  • Weather sealing

Dislikes

  • You really need to use a tripod to get the most from this lens due to the way the focus throw works.
  • Quite expensive unless you have the work that can justify you getting one.

The-Phoblographer-Editor's-Choice-Award-Logo

Where Zeiss’s 35mm f2 Milvus failed to impress me that much, the 85mm f1.4 Milvus more than makes up for it. Zeiss has always done incredible portrait lenses and this one is no exception. It’s super sharp wide open and you may never even need to stop it down. It renders beautiful image quality with solid color performance, no fringing and it even features weather sealing.

To be fair, you’re paying quite the price for that. But when you consider weather sealing, image quality like this and almost Otus levels of sharpness, then anything like the Canon 85mm f1.2 L or Nikon’s 85mm f1.4 look inferior.

And if you can justify the price of those lenses to yourself, you can absolutely justify this one.

Phoblographer-Star-rating

The Zeiss Milvus 85mm f1.4 receives our Editor’s Choice award and a rating of five out of five stars. Want one? Check out B&H Photo’s listing for more.

Recommended Cameras

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Zeiss 85mm f1.4 Milvus lens product images (6 of 7)ISO 4001-125 sec at f - 2.8

Canon 5Ds: If you want to best sharpness.

Nikon D810: If you want the best focusing experience

Canon 6D: Shoot your images and then transmit them via WiFi to Instagram to promote your work.