Zeiss Milvus 85mm f/1.4 Lens Review

With a Zeiss Milvus 85mm f/1.4 Lens in your hands, you are holding one of the finest 85mm lenses ever made. This lens not only meets the very high Zeiss Milvus build quality standards, it delivers also-impressive image quality – image quality that rivals even Zeiss' ultimate series of lenses, the Otus line, but without the rivalling price.

Zeiss Milvus 85mm f/1.4 Lens Front View

This manual-focus-only lens will not be heralded for its light weight, but ... it will likely be around to make great images for even your grandkids.

I have been on a Zeiss Milvus lens review marathon, now reviewing the 5th of the 6 lenses announced in a single press release. Of those 6 new lenses, two received new optical designs and this lens was one of them. That new Zeiss lenses would be amazingly well built was totally expected, but the Milvus 85 f/1.4's new optical design, along with Zeiss' Richard Schleuning's strong words of praise for this lens at the PhotoPlus Expo, created a strong anticipation for me. Few expected the Milvus 85 to optically match the best-available 85 f/1.4 lens, the Zeiss Otus 85mm f/1.4 Lens, but we knew that Zeiss understood how to make an amazing 85mm lens.

Before reading any further, you need to know that this lens, like all other Zeiss Milvus lenses, is manual focus only. If AF is a prerequisite for your needs, this lens will not be the right choice for you. If you think a manual focus only lens might work for your applications, this lens should have your attention.

Zeiss Milvus 85mm f/1.4 Lens Side View with Hood

Focal Length / Focal Length Range

What is the 85mm focal length used for? Good first question to ask. To me, the 85mm focal length screams portraits and if I am shooting portraits, I very frequently have an 85mm prime lens or a zoom lens with the 85mm focal length covered in my hand.

The classic portrait focal length range is from 85mm through 135mm (after FOVCF is factored in). An 85mm lens hits the bottom classic range figure on a full frame DSLR and, at a 136mm angle of view equivalent on an APS-C 1.6x body, it essentially remains in the ideal portrait range on this format also. An APS-C format DSLR of course requires a longer working distance to get the same framing as a full frame DSLR (and therefore will have more depth of field and a less-strongly blurred background at the same aperture).

Move in as close as required for moderately-tightly cropped head shots or move back as far as you care to. Without modifying this lens' minimum focus distance, there is no perspective problem from getting too close and being too far away is seldom a problem for portrait perspective. I have done entire senior sessions with a wide aperture 85mm lens.

The "portrait photography" designation is a broad one that covers a wide variety of potential still and video subject framing (from full body to head shots) and a wide variety of potential venues (from indoors to outdoors). Portrait subjects can range from children to seniors and from individuals to large groups. Think engagements, weddings, parties, events, families, small groups, senior adults, fashion, documentary, lifestyle ... all are a great use for the 85mm focal length. There is often adequate space in even a small studio for portraiture with an 85mm-provided angle of view.

Helping to justify the high acquisition cost of this lens is that portrait photography is one of the most-revenue-producing genres and I argue that people are the most important subjects available.

Regardless of the camera format being used, the 85mm focal length (like most others), can be used for landscape photography. Also, if you are adept at manual focusing, this lens can be used for sports in under even very poor lighting conditions. This focal length also works very well for architecture, products (medium through huge – depending on working space), commercial, general studio photography applications and a wide range of other subjects.

Zeiss Milvus 85mm f/1.4 Lens Angle View

Max Aperture

With few exceptions, the f/1.4 max aperture made available by this lens is as wide as DSLR lenses get, with the Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM Lens being a notable exception. The wider the aperture, the more light that is able to reach the imaging sensor. More light reaching the sensor means that a faster shutter speed can be used and subject and camera motion can more easily be stopped in low light circumstances. It seems that there is always enough light to handhold a camera at f/1.4. This wide aperture is especially valuable after the sun sets, when shooting indoors and under shade including indoors using only ambient window light.

The shallow f/1.4 depth of field must of course be acceptable to you in these circumstances, but shallow depth of field is another highly desired lens capability, excellent for making the subject pop from a blurred background. I can't get enough of the shallow DOF look that draws the viewer's attention to the subject by eliminating the background distractions. This capability adds artistic-style imaging to this 85mm lens' capabilities list.

Zeiss Otus 85mm f/1.4 Lens Sample Picture

I borrowed the above sample photo from the Otus 85 review – the results from this lens will appear similar at this resolution.

Note that, especially under full sun conditions, a 1/8000 shutter speed may be only marginally fast enough to avoid blown highlights at f/1.4. Cameras with shutter speeds limited to 1/4000 may need the assistance of a neutral density filter to keep images dark enough at f/1.4 and 1/4000.

Those using the Zeiss Milvus 85mm f/1.4 with the Nikon ZF.2 mount have a manual aperture ring available. Also available 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). Always wanted to try f/3.1? This lens has you covered.

Zeiss Milvus 85mm f/1.4 Lens on Tripod

Image Quality

When light hits the glass, optical truths are revealed. And, I really like what this lens' glass reveals. At f/1.4, Zeiss Milvus 85 images are sharp across the vast majority of the full frame image circle. Stop down to f/2 to get a noticeable bump in contrast for razor sharp images. Only a minor improvement is seen at f/2.8 and the primary value in stopping down to f/4 and beyond is to gain more depth of field or to reduce the amount of light reaching the sensor.

View the Milvus 85's image quality results to see what I'm talking about with your own eyes. I'll also share some real-world image sharpness examples below.

The following sharpness comparisons were captured with an ultra-high resolution Canon EOS 5Ds R. Images were captured in RAW format, processed in Canon's DPP using the Standard Picture Style with a sharpness setting of "1" (very low) and cropped to 100% resolution. The center of the frame examples are first up.

Zeiss Milvus 85mm f/1.4 Lens Sharpness Comparison Example

With a shallow f/1.4 depth of field in play, be sure to make comparisons using the most-in-focus details, such as the acorn top. The difference between f/1.4 and f/2 is noticeable and the bump at f/2.8 is discernable. As mentioned, a very low amount of sharpening has been added to these images and much of the f/1.4 deficit can be erased with a small additional amount of sharpening, as seen in the "sharpened" example.

For the next comparison, we move to a location just inside the bottom right corner of the frame.

Zeiss Milvus 85mm f/1.4 Lens Sharpness Comparison Example

Easy to see is that, even though vignetting is becoming noticeable, great image quality is holding out to near the periphery of the image circle.

The sharpness discussion to this point covers 95% of the frame. As usual, the absolute full frame corners, utilizing the most outer periphery of the image circle, are the weakest from an image quality perspective.

Here is a look at the extreme bottom right corner.

Zeiss Milvus 85mm f/1.4 Lens Sharpness Comparison Example

Obvious is that the f/1.4 corner is soft and that the area of sharpness pushes outward as the aperture narrows.

Here is one more look, showing the top left corner.

Zeiss Milvus 85mm f/1.4 Lens Sharpness Comparison Example

As seen above, this lens has a strong amount of vignetting at its widest apertures. However, this amount of peripheral shading is normal for an ultra-wide aperture lens in this class, showing roughly 3 stops of shading in full frame corners. As always, you should be aware of how this shading affects your images. Use the Milvus 85's vignetting test results to see the peripheral shading contour map and consider where your subject will fall in the frame. If the subject has a face (people, pets, etc.) and it falls under a darkened portion of the frame, vignetting correction might be needed. Increased noise in the corrected area of the frame is typically the penalty for vignetting correction.

Or, stop down the aperture. At f/2, about 2 stops of vignetting remains in the corners and at f/2.8, the amount is reduced to approximately .8 stops. Vignetting continues decreasing until a negligible .2 stops remains at f/5.6 through f/16.

Lateral (or transverse) CA (Chromatic Aberration) is the most easily noticed CA, showing as different colors of the spectrum being magnified differently with the mid and especially the periphery of the image circle showing color fringing at lines of strong contrast (where the greatest difference in wavelengths meet). This defect is generally easily correctable, but ... that will not be necessary with this lens.

Here is a 100% crop taken from the corner of a 5Ds R-captured image. While I can see a little fringing, the amount is very minor and this is one of the best performing lenses available in this regard.

Zeiss Milvus 85mm f/1.4 Lens Chromatic Aberration

Taking some of the blame for the difference in sharpness at f/1.4 vs. f/2 is spherical and axial chromatic aberration. These issues are mild and even in challenging situations, the amount of color fringing is low. Notice the modest purple fringing in the foreground and the green fringing in the background in the 100% crop sample below?

Zeiss Milvus 85mm f/1.4 Lens Spherical and Axial Chromatic Aberration

Even with the sun in the corner of the frame, this lens does an excellent job at controlling flare. Few or no flare effects will be seen until roughly f/16 where only a mild amount of flare effects are seen even against a clear blue sky.

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 and significantly resolves when the lens is stopped down. The pin-point stars in the night sky are the subject that brings this aberration out most easily for me. Fill the Milvus 85 frame with stars and a low-normal amount of coma will be visible in the corners at a wide open aperture. Here is the example:

Zeiss Milvus 85mm f/1.4 Lens Coma

This lens does a great job at controlling linear distortion. Let your straight lines fall near the edge of the frame and this lens will make them look good. The following image shows the entire image width (reduced) and cropped to the top edge of the frame. That the edge of this window remains straight is exactly what you want to see.

Zeiss Milvus 85mm f/1.4 Lens Distortion

The entire Zeiss Milvus line is turning in good quality bokeh and this lens does the same. Out of focus specular highlights have the normal outer concentric bright rings, but the centers are very smooth as seen in the two examples below.

Zeiss Milvus 85mm f/1.4 Lens Bokeh Example

With a 9-blade aperture count, distant point light sources showing a star-like effect will have 18 points.

Overall, this lens performs extremely well optically. Image quality is not going to detract anyone from adding this lens to their kit.

Zeiss Milvus 85mm f/1.4 Lens Angle View with Hood

Focusing

Image quality is highly dependent on accurate focusing and, with all Zeiss Milvus lenses, that accuracy is completely in your hands. The Milvus 85 and the other Zeiss Milvus lenses are manual focus only. But, these lenses deliver the ultimate manual focusing experience.

The extremely smooth focusing ring has a massive 270° of rotation. Manually adjusting from minimum focus distance to infinity requires a very significant turn (multiple turns actually) of this large diameter focus ring, but very precise focusing is made available at all focus distances.

The focus ring is smooth in a second way. While the ring consumes most of the lens barrel, only the rear half is rubber coated. With that smooth-surfaced rubber coating transitioning to smooth metal without a diameter change, it is not always easy to find the grippier portion of the focus ring by touch.

As expected, there is no play in this focus ring.

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 85mm f/1.4 provides a full DOF (Depth of Field) scale and, with the large amount of rotation, this ring includes aperture marks as wide as f/4. While some other non-Zeiss lenses include depth of field marks, few provide marks wider than f/11.

Of note, primarily for videographers, is that Milvus 85 f/1.4 subjects change size in the frame by a modest amount during moderate or longer 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, 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.

With a 31.5" (800mm) MFD (Minimum Focus Distance), the Milvus 85mm f/1.4 is capable of 0.12x MM (Maximum Magnification). While that spec is unlikely to raise any eyebrows, it represents a modest increase over the Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 Classic's 0.10x. Ranging from 0.11x to 0.13x, the current 85mm f/1.4 lenses do not stray far from each other in this respect and the Milvus 85 f/1.4 is precisely average in this regard. In the overall rankings, this entire class of lenses rates near the bottom in this capability and there may be times when you wished for a shorter MFD, such as for very tightly framed head shots.

Here is a comparison table:

ModelMFDMM
Canon EF 85mm f/1.2 L II USM Lens37.4"(950mm)0.11x
Nikon 85mm f/1.4G AF-S Lens33.5"(850mm)0.12x
Samyang 85mm f/1.4 Lens39.4"(1000mm) 
Sigma 85mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM Lens33.5"(850mm)0.12x
Zeiss Otus 85mm f/1.4 Lens31.5"(800mm)0.13x
Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 Milvus Lens31.5"(800mm)0.12x
Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 Classic Lens39.4"(1000mm)0.10x

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 compatible third party teleconverters exists due to the far rearward placement of lens elements.

Zeiss Milvus 85mm f/1.4 Lens Top View

Build Quality & Features

Some lenses are fun to use because of their superior build quality and this is one of them.

A new lens from the ground up, the Milvus 85 f/1.4 shows little resemblance to its predecessor, the Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 Classic (shown to the left below). Apparently bigger is currently considered better in lens design as we have been seeing a number of better performing lenses being released in larger sizes.

Zeiss Milvus 85mm f/1.4 Lens with Predecessor

The lens the Milvus 85 does take strong design cues from is the Otus 85 f/1.4 (shown to the right above). The smooth overall shape and smooth rubber focus ring are very Otus-like. As with the Otus and the Classic, all Milvus lettering and other markings are etched into the metal lens barrel, focusing ring and lens hood as with the Otus. Having the focal length and aperture so easily visible on the hood is especially nice, making lens ID easier.

Zeiss Milvus 85mm f/1.4 Lens Product Images

MFD |    w/ Hood:  MFD |    Rotated        Compare »

The focus ring is primary. There is so much focus ring that just enough fixed lens barrel at the rear of this lens is available to grasp for mounting and dismounting. As made obvious in the above images, this lens extends slightly (0.26"/6.6mm) when adjusted to closer focus distances.

Without autofocus, image stabilization, a zoom range and any other features, this lens needs no switches. Without those features, there is considerably less risk for component failure and this metal-constructed lens feels as if it would last for generations of professional use.

A physical feature new with the Milvus line is dust and moisture sealing. This feature was made visually attractive by a classy blue rear gasket.

Zeiss Milvus 85mm f/1.4 Lens Mount

A large, high quality, metal-constructed short telephoto lens with an ultra-wide aperture is going to show its presence on the scales. That the Milvus 85's weight is essentially the same as the Otus 85 (actual measured weight) was very surprising to me. These two lenses are very much the heavyweights in their class

ModelWeightDimensions w/o HoodFilterYear 
Canon EF 85mm f/1.2 L II USM Lens36.2 oz(1025g)3.6 x 3.3"(91.5 x 84.0mm)72mm2006
Nikon 85mm f/1.4G AF-S Lens23.3 oz(660g)3.4 x 3.3"(86.2 x 84.0mm)77mm2010
Samyang 85mm f/1.4 Lens18.2 oz(516g)3.1 x 3.1"(78.0 x 78.0mm)72mm2011
Sigma 85mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM Lens25.6 oz(725g)3.4 x 3.4"(86.4 x 87.6mm)77mm2010
Zeiss Otus 85mm f/1.4 Lens42.4 oz(1200g)4.0 x 4.9"(101.0 x 124.0mm)86mm2014
Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 Milvus Lens45.2 oz(1280g)3.5 x 4.4"(90.0 x 113.0mm)77mm2015
Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 Classic Lens20.1 oz(570g)3.0 x 3.4"(77.0 x 86.0mm)72mm2008

For many more comparisons, review the complete Zeiss Milvus 85mm f/1.4 Lens Specifications using the site's Lens Spec tool.

Most will not find this lens uncomfortable to use for reasonably long periods of time, but all will know that something of significance is in their hand. Here is a visual comparative of some of the similar lenses.

Zeiss Milvus 85mm f/1.4 Lens Compared to Similar Lenses

Positioned above from left to right in their fully retracted positions are the following lenses:

Nikon 85mm f/1.4G AF-S Lens
Canon EF 85mm f/1.2 L II USM Lens
Sigma 85mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM Lens
Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 Milvus Lens
Zeiss Otus 85mm f/1.4 Lens

The same lenses are shown below with their lens hoods in place.

Zeiss Milvus 85mm f/1.4 Lens Compared to Similar Lenses with Hoods

Use the site's product image comparison tool to visually compare the Zeiss Milvus 85mm f/1.4 Lens to other lenses.

The Zeiss Milvus 85 f/1.4 Lens accepts ultra-common 77mm filters. These filters are not small and are not the least expensive, but finding a lens to share 77mm filters with is not difficult.

All of the Zeiss Milvus lenses come with a very strong metal hood included. These hoods are designed to beautifully integrate with the lens body, providing a substantially enlarged and very comfortable working surface.

The 85's hood is large enough to provide significant protection from bright light and impact, and the flat top provides a solid surface to stand the lens on. 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 gets a lot of use and that the cap stays properly attached is important for protection of the lens. The Zeiss Milvus front lens cap is one of the best-designed caps I've used, featuring an easily graspable center-and-side-pinch design.

Zeiss Milvus Lens Rear Cap

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 Milvus 85mm f/1.4 Lens Box

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.

Zeiss Milvus 85mm f/1.4 Lens Top View with Hood

Price and Value

The Zeiss Milvus 85mm f/1.4 wears a premium price tag. If this lens is compared against its Canon and Nikon peers (and the AF capability of those lenses is ignored), it appears appropriately priced. If the image and build quality is compared among these lenses, the Zeiss appears to be a very good value. The Sigma option has a much lower price tag and makes the Zeiss appear to be less of a bargain. The Zeiss Otus 85 makes the Milvus 85 appear to be a great bargain.

The Zeiss Milvus 85mm f/1.4 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 very 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 reviewed lens was retail-sourced.

Alternatives to the Zeiss Milvus 85mm f/1.4 Lens

As usual, there are many lenses that can be considered alternatives to this lens, including f/1.8 and zoom models, but I'll stick to the 85mm f/1.4 and f/1.2 options here. I'll start with some generalizations to avoid repeating the same statements many times.

Important for many is that, except for the Zeiss and Samyang (Rokinon/etc.) options, the comparison lenses have autofocus. The Zeiss lenses are superior to the rest from a build quality perspective – and the Otus and Milvus weigh considerably more than the rest. Only the Milvus and Nikon 85mm f/1.4G are weather sealed. At f/1.4, the Zeiss Otus and Milvus are considerably sharper than the other lenses in this class, and especially sharper than the Samyang and Zeiss Classic 85. At f/1.4, the Zeiss Milvus shows at least .5 stops and often 1 stop more vignetting than the rest of this group.

The Canon EF 85mm f/1.2 L II USM Lens is priced modestly higher than the Milvus 85, but has the f/1.2 max aperture advantage. The Nikon 85mm f/1.4G AF-S Lens is priced modestly below the Zeiss. Both are very good lenses. Neither is up to the Zeiss' optical performance.

The Samyang 85mm f/1.4 Lens is a downright cheap lens and for that, it gets noticed. I can think of no other reason for recommending the Samyang over this Zeiss.

Sigma 85mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM Lens is perhaps the non-Zeiss lens that competes most strongly to the Zeiss Milvus in optical quality. Though the Zeiss optical advantage remains noticeable, the Sigma's price advantage is also quite noticeable.

The Milvus 85's predecessor, the Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 Classic Lens, is considerably smaller, lighter and less costly. However, the optical and build benefits of the new lens make the Milvus upgrade an easily justifiable one.

I have been salivating over the Zeiss Otus 85mm f/1.4 Lens since it first arrived. As it turns out, the Milvus and Otus are more similar than they are different. While the Otus is slightly larger, the Milvus weighs essentially the same amount and adds weather sealing. The Otus is slightly sharper in the center of the frame at f/1.4, but the Milvus performs slightly better in the periphery at this aperture. Both are very impressive.

I've wanted to add the Otus 85 to my kit for a long time, but have not been able to justify the cost for me personally (primarily because I often need AF at 85mm). The Milvus 85, costing considerably less than half as much as the Otus, just made the Otus purchase much harder for me to justify. I think that I know which lens is going to be the better seller.

Zeiss Milvus 85mm f/1.4 Lens Front Second View

Summary

With the Milvus 85mm f/1.4 Lens in its lineup, Zeiss arguably now has the two sharpest wide aperture 85mm lenses made. The Milvus 85 combines best available optical quality (or no worse than second best if you like the Otus better) with best available build quality for a very attractive package. The price is not low, the lens is not light and AF is not featured, but otherwise, this lens is worth drooling over.

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