The combination of the Zeiss Milvus 100mm f/2 mounted via adapter to the Sony a7r II begs several questions. The first: in an era when even smartphone cameras are very good imaging devices, when is it worth the time, money and effort to invest in something great? The second: what is great, after all? Herewith, our tentative answers focusing on the Milvus (a full a7r II review is coming separately).
I’ll cut straight to the chase: this combo is magic.
But what’s magic?
For me, magic is an image through the viewfinder or on a screen at the moment of capture that knocks my socks off – and then knocks my socks off again when I look at it on a large high resolution display or print. It’s that “holy crap” moment when the image is the reward, when all of the effort to get it and all of the reasons why it shouldn’t have been possible to capture it fade into nothingness.
But magic is also the way the gear works with my hands and engages my soul.
I think magic is a pretty good indication of greatness.
The thing about magic, though (to paraphrase Arthur C. Clarke), is that it’s just science not yet understood.
And, of course, is in the eye of the beholder.
Review of Zeiss Milvus 100mm on Sony a7r II. Whaaat?
Why This Canon Mount Lens on a Sony Body?
Why on earth would I mount a lens meant for a Canon body on a Sony?
Great question. Answer: Canon bodies don’t do it for me anymore (no flame wars, guys – it’s just where I am at the moment — your mileage may vary and that’s fine), and Zeiss itself suggests that the Milvus is a natural choice for mirrorless cameras via adapter..
Another great question. Answer: I already know they’re awesome (having gotten my hands on both) but I wanted to experience Zeiss manual focus in a portrait length lens I could actually afford (the Otus was out of the question).
I met my nephew for lunch in midtown Manhattan and then stopped in at the New York Public Library on 42nd Street for some shots before continuing to Washington Square Park where we met fellow blogger Chris Gampat of The Phoblographer.
Our objective was to catch golden hour light for portraiture.
Of course the weather chose not to cooperate, but no matter: the overcast day gave us wonderfully diffused light into dusk.
Once we connected with Chris we decided to head over to the High Line for most of our shoot. We finally hoofed it back up to Penn Station where we said our goodbyes and called it a day.
Our meandering through the streets of Manhattan was a hit of pure, creative O2. Thanks for joining us, Chris!
The manual focus Milvus just oozes build and image quality. Truly, I’ve never used a lens I enjoyed shooting with this much, and I’ve used some good ones. The silky smooth, beautifully weighted, robust, and for me perfect ergonomics were exceeded only by edge to edge sharpness, wonderful colors, eye-popping micro-contrast, and outstanding bokeh.
On the High Line, New York
On the High Line, New York
Weather sealing? Icing on the cake.
I shot indoors and at dusk without additional lighting and found that I preferred – for the most part — to leave the images as they were because they captured what I actually saw. With the a7r II, I was able to apply the Milvus’ image quality in lighting conditions never before possible for me. The wide maximum aperture and focus-peaking were fantastic in this light, though interestingly enough I never shot more than ISO 6400 (and never lower than 1/50th of a second). With in-body image stabilization and f/2.0, the a7r II never broke a sweat.
42nd St. Public Library, New York
42nd St. Public Library, New York
I call that magic, too.
I found myself wanting to shoot only wide-open, with utter confidence that I could frame subjects off-center and still have razor sharp (and razor thin) images. Because it is a macro lens, I was able to get far closer than other exceptional but non-macro portrait length lenses like the Batis 85mm f/1.8, Canon’s 85mm f/1.2L II USM and Canon’s 100mm f/2.
I loved filling the frame.
Of course it’s not perfect, but in this instance “bad” is also in the eye of the beholder. I’d almost prefer to call this section “Not All Things to All People.”
1) Even though the Milvus isn’t huge, it is exceptionally heavy. Carried inside a Domke Chronicle bag with a pile of other gear over the course of almost 6 miles of walking, I found myself thinking about how I could cut total weight in half (I have to admit that the a7r II is barely larger than my own little Sony a6000, and was therefore not part of the weight-saving options I considered). I would, however, do with a pair of RØDE smartLav+ next time instead of my trusted TASCAM DR70D and pair of RØDElink Filmmaker kits. Then again, other people will love the Milvus because of that heft.
2) In combination with my Commlite adapter, Lightroom 6 and Apple Photos read the Milvus as a Tamron or Sony lens between 0 and 50mm – it obviously yielded partially incorrect EXIF data, (ISO, shutter speed and f-stop all seemed OK, as did actual focal length). I don’t know if this is a function of the adapter or some other hand-off, so I’ll simply note this particular combination at this juncture. This will be a biggie to some, irrelevant to others.
3) I was surprised to see (without pixel peeping) very apparent lateral chromatic aberration. But with this written, Lightroom 6 already has a profile for the Milvus 100mm f/2.0, and with a couple of clicks and slides it all but disappeared. That is its own kind of magic, too. If one has to make a compromise in order to have everything else this lens does, this is a pretty painless compromise.
Empire State Building, New York
4) There’s no image stabilization on the Milvus, and IS makes a big difference. Yet this is also why the a7r II is such a wonderful partner with its own IBIS and such outstanding noise suppression even at 6400 ISO: I never had to shoot below 1/50th of a second, and blur was never an issue.
5) Another thing that surprised me (of course it shouldn’t have – I wasn’t thinking) is that the focus ring moves forward or backward as one focuses. For still photography this is a non-issue, and if you’re racking focusing by hand for video this is also irrelevant (again, that damping is exceptional and make manual focus pulls a joy). But if you want to use a follow focus, you’re out of luck.
6) Because it’s manual focus (that’s why you’re interested, remember?), you can’t take advantage of Sony’s outstanding Eye-Focus AF – which in my case would have allowed a higher proportion of spot-on focused pictures, though my yield was very high even in manual thanks to the Sony focus assist (peaking)
7) Finally, there’s the issue of price. At $1,843, it is more expensive than all of the lenses I’ve mentioned here save the Canon 85mm f/1.2L II – it’s almost four times the price of the Canon 100mm f/2. Depending on what you’re looking for, Zeiss' own Batis 85mm f/1.8 or Sony’s 90mm f/2.8 Macro G are also extraordinary lenses at almost half the price in native Sony E-mount. Then again, with the Milvus you’re getting very near Otus 85mm f/1.4 territory for less than half the price, giving up one stop but gaining minimum focusing distance and a narrower field of view that I personally prefer for portraiture (my favorite focal length for portraiture is in fact 135mm).
The Bottom Line
The Zeiss Milvus 100mm f/2 is an extraordinary lens — a magical lens — and for the person looking for the ultimate manual focus portrait length lens in EF or E-mount, it is absolutely worth the time, effort and money to have it.
If you can afford it.
The ironies are that it achieves its highest expression of magic on a non-Canon body and its chief competitors are two other lenses with Zeiss’ fingerprints all over them.
But once untethered from the studio, it is the a7r II’s in-body image stabilization, wider dynamic range, focus aids, ability to do an APS-C crop, and low light performance that allow the Milvus to capture images it can’t with the 5Ds, with little to no sacrifice in real world resolution – including leaving the tripod and flash at home.
(cover photo credit: snap from Hugh Brownstone)