For years, decades in fact, the gold standard in professional stills photography lenses were the brands made in Germany. Leica, Rodenstock, Schneider Keuznach and Zeiss were the names to conjure with, as the English expression goes, and I built my stills career on hand-made manual-only prime lenses made by all four of them.
When digital photography came of age the digital camera-making contenders were Japanese and so Japanese lenses came to the fore. Zoom lenses and auto-everything became the new standard. The great German optics companies were left in the dust, so it seemed, with the gold standard replaced by another way of thinking about how cameras and lenses worked in unison.
But not any more. Signs are that all that is changing. I first guessed something may be stirring in the lens department with two significant collaborations between up-and-coming Japanese camera makers and long-established German optics designer/manufacturers.
Sony has been manufacturing Zeiss-designed zoom and prime lenses for its A and now E-series cameras and the quality of the optical design, I discovered when borrowing an A7S last year for review, is very good to great. It was a welcome reminder of the optical qualities I loved best about German glass of all four brands – excellent resolution, wonderful micro-contrast and great color rendition.
Panasonic has been relying on Leica-design glass for its video cameras and as a special, higher-priced range of prime optics for its Lumix stills camera lineup. I was accidentally sent a Panasonic Lumix G Leica DG Nocticron 42.5mm f/1.2 lens (what a mouthful) instead of the usual standard zoom lens last year and the first word out of my mouth when I shot my first image with it was “Wow!”
You can read that article here: What a Difference a Name Makes – The Panasonic Leica Nocticron 42.5mm F1.2 Lens Appreciated.
The look of traditional Leica glass in a Panasonic optical-image-stabilized barrel with the choice of fast auto or sure-feeling manual focusing. And that all-too-rare thing in current MFT lenses, an aperture ring. If all MFT prime lenses were like this, with all the best optical qualities of traditional German primes, I thought to myself, then I would jump ship from zooms to primes in a heartbeat.
I am not so sure that will happen any time soon in the world of Micro Four Thirds, though I do appreciate the many positive qualities of Olympus’ M.Zuiko Pro zoom lenses and have standardized on them for documentary moviemaking. But the allure of beautifully-made primes remains.
It was the prime lenses that Zeiss has been releasing for Sony’s E-mount lenses that brought the German company to my attention once again. Just this year, Sony’s A7-series cameras have become really interesting, after looking promising last year. And finally more E-mount lenses are appearing after there being too few for too long.
The Sony A7R II is the larger pro stills camera I would standardize on and the A7S II is the available-light hybrid movie camera I would rely on for shooting in available darkness. But not when equipped with zoom lenses, no matter if their optics are designed by Zeiss.
Why? It is the weight and the size. I just can’t carry the big cameras and lenses and tripods and more that I used to. I would rather resort to two prime lenses, or maybe three if I really had to, than the standard set of wide, standard and telephoto zooms.
Prime lenses, even fast ones, even 35mm full-frame ones, tend to be lighter. Especially non-stabilised manual-only lenses. And I can get away with carrying just two of them at a time whereas two 35mm stabilized full-frame zooms are pretty much out of the question for me now.
Conversations with my contact at Zeiss’ Australian importer revealed they are in the throes of setting up a fully product-laden display room with studio attached so professional photographers and moviemakers can visit and try products out in a real studio setting, in real working rigs. I will be down there as soon as it opens. Zeiss products, I was told, will be particularly prominent.
So the Zeiss Milvus range, all six of them, will be amongst the first lenses I try out. I have no problems with the Milvus lenses being manual-only. In fact, that is one of their main attractions for me. I was never a autofocus person during my time as a magazine photographer, and I have always relied on manual focus on movie cameras.
The only thing that gives me pause is the probable need to pull my Canon EOS 5D Mark II out of storage to use with them. Mirrorless cameras feel so much more natural to me now, and I have come to rely on the many benefits of the current mirrorless generation like focus peaking, zebras, the lack of mirror slap and shutter shake, and a fully info-laden articulated monitor.
I’m hoping to borrow an A7-series Sony to accompany the 5D Mark II to try out Zeiss’ many E-mount lenses too. I am going to relish the pleasure of shooting with great German primes again, autofocus or not.
Combining all that with the many comforts of digital cameras that simply did not exist during the analog-only era is going to be a very interesting experience. I will be looking for the many positive qualities so familiar from using German optics during the analog era – beautiful build, precision in machining, solid construction, and optics evolved from some of the greatest lens design ever.
Names like Distagon, Planar and Makro-Planar. The best of the old world with the addition of the best of the new – exotic glass, advanced multi-coating and luscious bokeh – for this remarkable era of cinematography in 4K and greater, of digital sensors approaching if not surpassing what we could achieve with 8″x10″ sheet film. [bctt tweet=”Zeiss Milvus fast primes for Canon & Nikon DSLRs: six of the classics, beautifully updated.”]
The ZEISS Milvus 2.8/21 super wide-angle lens of the type ZEISS Distagon is the best in its class. Thanks to its maximum aperture of f/2.8, the reflection-free and practically distortion-free super wide-angle lens is perfect for spectacular image compositions of great diversity, dramatic contrast and vivid colors. The further optimization of the lens coating reduces ghosting and flare effects in critical light situations.
When wide angle views go to extremes and beg the control via an SLR viewfinder, which means that the back focal distance has to be much larger than the focal length, a retrofous design called Distagon is the right choice.
- Distagon with 16 lens elements in 13 groups
- Lens made of special glass with anomalous partial dispersion
- “Floating Elements” design
- Excellent imagery, even in difficult light conditions
- Future-proof solution for high-resolution camera systems
- Creative still and video photography through precise, manual focusing
- Long-lasting product with protection against environmental influences
- Stable image performance over the entire focusing range
Learn more about the Product Specifications and Features of Milvus 2.8/21
(cover photo credit: snap from Zeiss)