When I first received the Zeiss Milvus 21mm f/2.8 Lens, my first declaration was that this is the world's most beautiful lens. More good news is that this lens feels at least as good in your hands as it visually appears and it mechanically functions with similar quality. Does the last primary component of this lens, the image quality, also match? Read on to find out.
As with the just-reviewed Zeiss Milvus 100mm f/2M Lens, the Zeiss Milvus 21 lens' optical design was borrowed from its predecessor, the Zeiss 21mm f/2.8 Distagon Lens. While the Milvus refresh brings a nicely improved lens, from both an aesthetic perspective and from a durability one (including weather sealing), few will feel compelled to upgrade from the older lens for similar image quality.
Before reading any further, you need to know that this lens, like all other Zeiss Milvus lenses, is manual focus only. If AF is on your requirements list, this lens will not satisfy you. If you think a manual focus only lens might work for your applications, this lens is worthy of consideration.
The first reason that you should be considering this lens is because the 21mm focal length makes sense for your application. Of the primary DSLR lens manufacturers, including Canon, Nikon, Sigma, Samyang and Sigma, only Zeiss offers a 21mm prime lens. While 21mm is not a common prime lens focal length, it is not significantly different than the 20mm offerings from Canon, Nikon and Sigma. Most importantly is that this is a useful focal length, notably able to give the viewer a sense of the presence in the images captured by it.
Some of my favorite uses for 21mm include architecture, landscapes, cityscapes, environmental portraits (including eventscapes, weddingscapes and probably any other "scapes" you can think of) and product images (at least for larger items including automobiles). Along with still photographers, videographers can find many good uses for 21mm.
On an ASP-C/1.6x sensor format body, the 21mm focal length provides an angle of view similar to a 33.6mm lens on a full frame sensor format body. The 33.6mm angle of view is close enough to the highly popular and very useful 35mm focal length to be considered useful for those same purposes. While there is some overlap in usage between the 21mm and 35mm focal lengths, they are rather different.
The 35mm focal length is a great choice for capturing a natural perspective. It is wide enough to capture the big scene but not so wide that people and other subjects are readily distorted by the close perspective invited by ultra-wide angles.
The 35mm focal length is great for photojournalism. Wedding and portrait photographers like the 35mm focal length, especially for full to mid-body portraits and for group portraits. Landscape photographers have plenty of use for the 35mm focal length. 35mm is also very popular with videographers, especially for creating documentaries. Many medium and large products are often captured at 35mm. Parents love 35mm lenses for capturing their indoor events. I'm always happy when a 35mm lens (or a zoom covering 35mm comes across my desk), because I know that I can assign it around-the-house use.
The full list of 35mm uses is massive. I've only scratched the surface here.
As made obvious by its product name, the Zeiss Milvus 21mm f/2.8 Lens has an f/2.8 max aperture. An f/2.8 aperture is rather narrow for a high end prime lens, but few lenses wider than 24mm have a wider aperture. At review time, there are there current Sigma lenses with a 21mm or wider focal length and an aperture wider than f/2.8. Surprisingly, two of those are zoom lenses.
With an f/2.8 aperture, action can be stopped in relatively low light levels and with a relatively wide angle 21mm focal length tending to keep details small or close, the camera can be handheld in moderately low light levels, often including indoors. I consider this aperture and focal length combination to be just fast enough for night sky photography.
Here is a short aperture walkthrough created with the previous version lens. With the same optics, the new lens would create the same images, but while the rock looks the same at this moment, the impending winter season has rendered the flowers long dead. And, with Mikayla now being 5 years older, I get to reminisce.
Pair a moderately wide aperture with a wide angle focal length and subjects must be close with a distant background to get a strong background blur even at the max aperture. When moderate focus distances are combined with a scaled down image size (to 650px wide in this case), background details remain very recognizable at f/2.8. More obvious than the increasing depth of field is the decreasing vignetting (more later).
Those using the Zeiss Milvus 21mm f/2.8 with the Nikon ZF.2 mount have a manual aperture ring available. Additionally featured in this Nikon lens version is a de-clicked aperture feature that can be enabled with the turn of a screw, allowing smooth, completely variable aperture changes (of primary interest to videographers).
While this lens does not have the widest aperture available, its widest aperture delivers very usable quality with images rendered quite sharply across the vast majority of the frame of even ultra-high resolution full frame DSLRs. While resolution is very good at f/2.8, there is a noticeable increase in contrast at f/4, making real life f/4 images appear brighter, even in the center of the frame without vignetting influencing the results. Images captured at f/4 are impressively sharp in the center and mid-frame with no benefit realized by stopping down to f/5.6.
A weakness for this lens is full frame corner sharpness. Extreme full frame corners start out slightly soft and slowly improve through f/11, but with diffraction setting in at that point, they never become completely razor sharp. If you need this area of the frame to be razor sharp, this might not be the right lens choice for you.
I tested two copies of this lens after finding the first (sample "2" in the image quality tool) to be very sharp in the center but underperforming in the corners.
I'll share some real life examples with you now. The 100% crop images in the next three example sets were captured in RAW format with a Canon EOS 5Ds R and processed in DPP using the Standard Picture Style with sharpness set to "1". First up are the center of the frame examples.
Notice the brightness of the pumpkins increasing at f/4. Also notice that the f/5.6 image is nearly indiscernible from the f/4 image. There is no need to take up your time with an f/8 sample download.
The next set of crops illuminates the extreme bottom right corner of the frame.
The next set of images was taken from the extreme top right corner of the frame.
As discussed, the full frame corners out of the lens are not anything to write home about.
Clearly seen in the corner crops is vignetting resolving as the aperture narrows. Roughly 3.5 stops of peripheral shading drops to about 2 stops at f/4 and to about 1.2 stops at f/5.6. Further reductions are very minimal with a barely noticeable roughly 1 stop of vignetting remaining at f/16.
APS-C format DSLR owners will see a bit over 1 stop of shading in the corners at f/2.8 with that shading clearing at f/4.
Hard to see in the corner examples is lateral (or transverse) CA (Chromatic Aberration). Lateral CA, the most easily recognized type of CA, shows as different colors of the spectrum being magnified differently with the mid and especially in the periphery of the image circle showing color fringing at lines of strong contrast (where the greatest difference in wavelength magnification is present). This defect is generally easily correctable in software and fortunately, this lens shows only a mild amount at worst. Here is a worst case example taken from a high resolution (magnifies the effect) 5Ds R corner.
Not on this lens' positives list is control of flare. This lens' predecessor was one of the most flare-prone lenses I've used. With 16 lenses in 13 groups and a wide angle of view, it was not hard to find the effects of flare in the frame. The new Milvus variant gains improved lens coatings and I do see less veiling flare, but this lens will still produce strong flare effects, especially at narrow apertures. Flare can be very difficult to remove and with this lens and its predecessor, embracing the flare seems a better idea.
With a wide focal length and a reasonably wide aperture, this lens may get pointed to the night sky on occasion. And, stars are one of the best subjects for illuminating another common lens aberration, coma. Coma is generally recognized by sharp detail contrast towards the center of an image and long, soft contrast transition toward the image periphery. Coma is most visible in wide aperture corners as seen below.
The amount of coma this lens shows is mild, with stars retaining their pinpoint shapes reasonably well in comparison to other lenses in this class.
One of the advantages often held by a prime lens over an equivalent zoom lens is low distortion. While this prime lens does not have strong distortion, it is not distortion free and unfortunately, it exhibits wave/mustache distortion. The linear distortion is primarily revealed by a straight line running near the edge of the frame. The edge of the window running along the top edge of the frame (below) clearly shows this effect.
Correcting this type of distortion, when necessary, is best done utilizing distortion profile data specific to the lens.
While this lens does not create the strongest background blur, the quality of the blur it creates is nice. Here are some examples of out of focus specular highlights.
With 9 aperture blades, this lens will create strong 18-point star-like effects from point light sources when used with a narrow aperture.
While I would like to have seen this lens get an optical redesign similar to the what the Milvus 50mm f/1.4 Lens and the Milvus 85mm f/1.4 Lens received, the Zeiss Milvus 21mm f/2.8 Lens is still a reasonable performer from an optical perspective.
Image quality is highly dependent on accurate focusing and, with all manual focus lenses including the Zeiss Milvus line, that accuracy is completely in your hands. Fortunately, Zeiss Milvus lenses deliver the ultimate manual focusing experience.
The extremely smooth focusing ring has a huge-for-21mm 125° of rotation with very precise manual focusing available at all focus distances.
The focus ring is smooth with the lens barrel and not particularly large, consuming only the rubber-coated portion of the lens. Fortunately, it is not too difficult to find as the focus ring is located just behind the tapering section of the lens. The focus ring resistance is ideal and there is no play. As I keep saying, there are few non-Zeiss lenses as nice to manually focus as the Milvus lenses.
As with all Milvus lenses, infinity and minimum focus distances are hard stops with distant subjects (such as stars) often being sharp *just* before the hard stop at infinity. Focus distance settings/marks are easily repeatable, a feature highly valued by videographers.
The Zeiss Milvus 21mm f/2.8 provides a full DOF (Depth of Field) scale including aperture marks as wide as f/4. While some other non-Zeiss lenses include depth of field markings, few provide markings wider than f/11.
Of note, primarily for videographers, is that Milvus 21 subjects show very little change size during even full extent focus distance adjustments.
As expected for a lens of this class (and for all of the Zeiss lenses I've used to date), the front element does not rotate during focusing. This is important for use of some filter types including circular polarizer filters.
As mentioned, focus accuracy is 100% your responsibility with a manual focus-only lens. In the old days, manual focusing was all we had but in those days, we were given bright viewfinders with split image rangefinders and microprisms.
Today's DSLR viewfinders are optimized for autofocusing and the provided focusing screen makes precise manual focusing a challenge. Focusing screens can be replaced (either via accessory drop-in replacements or via a service provided by a third party camera service center), but one challenge potentially remains and that is focus calibration. If the focusing screen is not precisely calibrated with the imaging sensor, perfect viewfinder-based focusing can result in a front or back focus condition.
The viewfinder's in-focus indicator light will come on when the camera thinks that accurate focus has been acquired, but this is an imprecise indication. Ideal is to use live view under maximum magnification where very precise manual focusing can be very reliably established. The downside of course is that not all situations permit use of the magnified live view method. Though depth of field is related in part to the reproduction ratio being used at the time, I often use wide angle lenses such as this one to take in the bigger picture and in those cases, I have a greater manual focus success rate using the stock focusing screen.
The Zeiss Milvus 21's 8.7" (220mm) MFD (Minimum Focus Distance) is able to generate a 1:5 reproduction ratio or 0.20x MM (Maximum Magnification) which places this lens in the middle of its class. While 8.7" does not sound that close, remember that working distance is significantly less and that means that the front of the hood is very close to the subject at MFD.
Here is an 18 to mid-twenties mm comparison chart:
|Canon EF 20mm f/2.8 USM Lens||9.8"||(250mm)||0.14x|
|Canon EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM Lens||9.8"||(250mm)||0.17x|
|Canon EF 24mm f/2.8 IS USM Lens||7.9"||(200mm)||0.23x|
|Nikon 20mm f/1.8G AF-S Lens||7.9"||(201mm)||0.23x|
|Nikon 24mm f/1.4G AF-S Lens||9.8"||(250mm)||0.18x|
|Sigma 20mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art Lens||10.9"||(277mm)||0.14x|
|Sigma 24mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art Lens||9.8"||(250mm)||0.19x|
|Zeiss 18mm f/3.5 Classic Lens||11.8"||(300mm)||0.09x|
|Zeiss 21mm f/2.8 Milvus Lens||8.7"||(220mm)||0.20x|
|Zeiss 25mm f/2.0 Classic Lens||9.8"||(250mm)||0.17x|
To reduce the MFD and thereby increase the MM, mount an extension tube behind this lens – with the understanding that infinity and long distance focusing are sacrificed while doing so. Zeiss does not have teleconverters available and it is unlikely that a compatible third party teleconverters exists due to the far rearward placement of lens elements.
If you spend a lot of time with a camera in your hands, you especially appreciate using a quality lens. The beautiful Zeiss Milvus 21mm f/2.8 Lens feels like a precision instrument and nearly assured is that pleasure will be derived from simply using this lens. All photographers can appreciate the aesthetically pleasing curving lines of this lens.
Here is a look at the new vs. old Zeiss 21mm f/2.8 lenses:
Aside from a considerably modernized shape, these two lenses do not appear radically different and that is not surprising since the optical design remains the same.
We first saw this new shape make its appearance in the Zeiss Otus line, with the Milvus lens series now inheriting the smooth overall flow and the smooth rubber focus ring is similarly Otus-like. All lettering and other markings on this lens are etched into the metal lens barrel, focusing ring and lens hood. Having the focal length and aperture so easily visible on the hood is especially nice, making lens ID easier.
Though this lens' rear element moves in and out during focusing, you are not going to see any movement when this lens is mounted on your camera – it remains fixed in size.
Without autofocus, image stabilization, a zoom range and any other similar features, this lens needs no switches and that leaves nothing but focus ring and lens barrel. Just enough fixed lens barrel is available behind the focus ring to grasp for mounting and dismounting.
Merge very a high quality build with few features and high reliability can be the expected result. Featuring an all-metal exterior, the Milvus lenses all feel like they would last a very, very long time even with regular professional use.
A new physical feature for this lens and the entire Milvus line is dust and moisture sealing. Of course, Zeiss made even this feature visually attractive with a classy blue rear gasket.
The Zeiss Milvus 21 is a medium-small lens that is sized nicely for use and weighted lightly enough for even long term use. But, a strong build quality will often show up on the scales and as might be expected, this lens is a heavyweight in its class even without AF or image stabilization. Only the Sigma 20mm Art Lens, with its 4x wider f/1.4 aperture, is heavier. The table below shows manufacturer specs and that Zeiss includes the 2 oz (55g) lens hood in the weight spec should be taken into consideration.
|Model||Weight||Dimensions w/o Hood||Filter||Year|
|Canon EF 20mm f/2.8 USM Lens||14.3 oz||(405g)||3.1 x 2.8"||(78.0 x 71.0mm)||72mm||1992|
|Canon EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM Lens||22.9 oz||(650g)||3.3 x 3.4"||(83.5 x 86.9mm)||77mm||2008|
|Canon EF 24mm f/2.8 IS USM Lens||9.9 oz||(280g)||2.7 x 2.2"||(68.4 x 55.7mm)||58mm||2012|
|Nikon 20mm f/1.8G AF-S Lens||12.6 oz||(357g)||3.2 x 3.1"||(81.3 x 78.7mm)||77mm||2014|
|Nikon 24mm f/1.4G AF-S Lens||21.9 oz||(620g)||3.3 x 3.5"||(83.0 x 88.5mm)||77mm||2010|
|Sigma 20mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art Lens||33.5 oz||(950g)||3.6 x 5.1"||(90.7 x 129.8mm)||n/amm||2015|
|Sigma 24mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art Lens||23.5 oz||(665g)||3.3 x 3.6"||(85.0 x 90.2mm)||77mm||2015|
|Zeiss 18mm f/3.5 Classic ZE Lens||16.6 oz||(470g)||3.4 x 3.3"||(87.0 x 84.0mm)||82mm||2010|
|Zeiss 21mm f/2.8 Milvus Lens||30.0 oz||(851g)||3.8 x 3.7"||(95.5 x 95.0mm)||82mm||2015|
|Zeiss 25mm f/2.0 Classic ZE Lens||21.2 oz||(600g)||2.9 x 3.9"||(73 x 98mm)||67mm||2011|
For many more comparisons, review the complete Zeiss Milvus 21mm f/2.8 Lens Specifications using the site's Lens Spec tool.
Here is a visual comparison of a subset of the above-listed lenses.
Positioned above from left to right in their fully retracted positions are the following lenses:
The same lenses are shown below with their lens hoods in place.
Use the site's product image comparison tool to visually compare the Zeiss Milvus 21mm f/2.8 Lens to other lenses. I preloaded a different comparison in that link.
The Zeiss 21 has 82mm filter threads. While filters of this large size are relatively expensive, they have been relatively common. And, with a step-up filter adapter ring, they are wide enough to be used on a very high percentage of other lenses (though their hoods may not fit).
All of the Zeiss Milvus lenses come with a very strong metal hood included in the box. These hoods are designed to beautifully integrate with the lens body, providing a substantially enlarged and very comfortable working surface. This sculpted hood is so well integrated that the lens doesn't look quite right without the hood in place.
The 21's hood is large enough to provide significant protection from bright light and impact while circular polarizer filters remain accessible for adjustment even with the hood in place. I am happy to report that, unlike the predecessor lens, the Milvus 21's hood cannot be installed in a position that causes strong mechanical vignetting. Reversed, Milvus hoods stow compactly. These hoods feature interior flocking for maximum light blocking.
Milvus line lenses come with an upgraded lens cap. While a lens cap may not seem important, it is a part of the lens that most use a lot and the cap staying properly attached is important for protection of the lens. The Zeiss Milvus front lens cap is one of the nicest I've used, featuring an easily grippable center-and-side-pinch design.
The rear cap features a double-wall design, a change from the older single-wall cap included with the pre-Milvus lenses. Zeiss says that the purpose for the rear cap redesign is purely aesthetic, though it appears to be a slightly more protective design.
Zeiss does not miss with the out-of-the-box experience. Remove the outer box sleeve to find a somewhat large but very protective hinged box with cut-out foam cradling the lens and hood in place. This box is nice enough that I wish Zeiss had taken the next step of providing a hard plastic shell case with latches or something similar that would hold up better for use in the field. At review time, the Lowepro Lens Cases get my vote for very nice and affordable solutions for single lens storage, transport and carry.
Few are going to be touting the Milvus 21mm f/2.8 Lens' low price as there is a price to be paid for superior quality and the street price of this lens will be the biggest determent of Milvus 21 purchases. The peace of mind that comes from having a reliable lens has value and a lens that doesn't fail during a big shoot has far more value.
The Zeiss Milvus 21mm f/2.8 Lens is available in Canon (reviewed) and Nikon mounts. At this point in the review, I always include my standard disclaimer, warning of potential issues when using non-camera manufacturer brand lenses. Since the Zeiss Milvus lenses do not include autofocus, I view the risk of incompatibility in existing or future camera introductions as being quite low. Zeiss Milvus lenses include a 2 year warranty, twice as long as Canon's USA and international warranties, but less than half as long as Nikon USA's 5-year lens warranties.
The Zeiss Milvus 21mm f/2.8 review lens was retail sourced.
Looking at just the prime lenses in the 18-24mm range gives us many alternatives to consider. Because this lens has a relatively narrow max aperture for a prime lens, there are also many f/2.8 (and even faster) zoom lenses that could be considered direct alternatives. That many of the competing lenses have autofocus is a big consideration for many of us. To its advantage is that the Zeiss' build quality including its manual focus experience is unbeaten. Note that all f/1.4 lenses referenced below have 4x wider apertures available – I will not keep repeating this difference either.
Hitting the streets at the same time as the Milvus 21 was the lens I expected to compete most strongly against it. That lens was the Sigma's 20mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art Lens. While the Sigma review remains high on my to-do list, what I currently see is the Art lens being sharper than the Zeiss in the center of the frame at f/2.8 but showing more astigmatism in the corners. The Sigma shows significantly less flare and both lenses show some light distortion with the Sigma showing the more common barrel type. As with all of the f/1.4 lenses listed below, the Sigma shows significantly less vignetting at f/2.8. The Sigma loses points for its lack of filter threads, but ... gains significant points for its price.
Based on specs alone, the Canon EF 20mm f/2.8 USM Lens appears to be an obvious alternative. However, a quick look at the image quality comparison shows this lens to be in a different league (to its disadvantage). I prefer the Canon's linear distortion footprint to the Zeiss', but the Zeiss has less vignetting. Also in a different league (to its advantage) are the Canon's price, size and weight.
Also primary spec-matching is the Nikon 20mm f/1.8G AF-S Lens. This lens, being 22 years more modern than the similar Canon option, better competes against the Zeiss, but at a significantly higher price than the Canon. The Zeiss remains the better lens optically and of course physically, with the Nikon being smaller, lighter and still noticeably less expensive.
If a 3mm longer focal length works for you, there are several 24mm prime alternatives. The Sigma 24mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art Lens is perhaps the optical favorite at this moment and at f/2.8 equivalent apertures, the Sigma is optically advantaged over the Zeiss. The Art lens is sharper and has less distortion than the Milvus 21 along with a much more palatable price tag.
Beside the Zeiss 21, the Canon EF 24mm f/2.8 IS USM Lens is going to appear as a great value, challenging the Zeiss optically and adding image stabilization while playing in a different league in the size, weight and price comparison.
Another Canon lens more similarly priced and also marketed to professionals is the Canon EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM Lens. While the Canon is not perfect at f/1.4, it is a very solid performer at the f/2.8 equivalent, besting the Zeiss.
Close behind the Canon optically and close to the Zeiss in terms of marketing niche is the Nikon 24mm f/1.4G AF-S Lens. The Nikon is sharper at f/2.8 and has less distortion, though it has more lateral CA. The Nikon is much kinder on the wallet.
At review time, Zeiss has not announced a Milvus replacement for the Zeiss 18mm f/3.5 Distagon Lens and, at only 3mm wider, it should also be considered an alternative. Expect slightly sharper images from the Milvus 21 with the 18 showing more lateral CA and more vignetting. You will have considerably more showing in your bank account after a Zeiss 18 purchase than after a Zeiss Milvus 21 purchase.
The now discontinued Zeiss 21mm f/2.8 Distagon Lens is of course worth comparing. Primarily, the Milvus' advantages are an upgraded physical design including weather sealing and strong aesthetic improvements. A better lens coating "reflects" in less veiling flare in the Milvus. Few will find these improvements worth the cost of upgrading.
Would I liked to have seen an optical improvement included with the Milvus update of the Zeiss 21? Well, that question has only one answer for me, regardless of lens model being referred to. Yes. While the purchase of many Zeiss Milvus 21mm f/2.8 alternatives can be (and will be) justified for a wide variety of reasons, the purchase of this lens is also justifiable. If you need very good image quality from one of the best manually-focusing lenses made that will reliably get the job done every day and look amazing while doing it, this may be your lens.
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