The Zeiss Milvus 35mm f/2 ZF.2 is a very recent purchase for me but has been some time in planning. Zeiss lenses for DSLRs are manufactured in significantly smaller numbers than their equivalents from the major brands, I see them much less frequently than Canon, Nikon and Sigma who seem to be going through a resurgence of popularity. Understandably, there is less information and fewer reviews on the web, despite the recent launch of the Milvus line replacing some of the long standing “classic” range for Nikon and Canon mounts. Hopefully I can add some information to what is available in this article.
35mm has always been a favourite focal length for me for general travel and people photography, but this is my first 35mm prime for Nikon FX full frame digital. I was looking for a no-compromise lens; the best resolution and image quality across the entire frame at all apertures and smooth rendition of out of focus areas, not easy to achieve in wide angle lenses (even harder in zoom lenses). Actually, I have been chasing the quality of my Leica 35mm Summicron M lenses since I moved away from film, that is my benchmark.
My choices were the Nikon 35mm AF-S 1.4G, comparatively expensive but with an excellent reputation, the significantly cheaper 1.8G Nikon and the Sigma ART, which is revered in many web forums but arguably less reliable. I also considered older Nikkors too, they had lovely image quality but generally significantly lower resolution / sharpness, so I quickly ruled them out for this lens purchase — I was looking for a lens that would maximise the benefits of modern high resolution sensors and offer a degree of future proofing. Whilst I did look at reviews, of most use was the time spent looking at photos, predominantly on Flickr — I would strongly advise others to assess lenses in this way, it is the next best thing to hiring in advance of a purchase. Lens qualities are so subjective that you need to see which lenses you like as much as relying on scientific measurements.The Zeiss was on the radar but not the obvious choice before seeing what it was capable of.
Both Nikons are excellent, there is lots of information available comparing the two, ultimately it is an uplift in price for the 1.4 over the 1.8 giving marginally better bokeh rendition and colour performance, and significantly better build quality. The Sigma ART seems good value but ultimately I preferred the build of the Nikon and have higher confidence in the reliability, so this too was ruled out. However the photographs from the Zeiss Milvus and in fact the previous Distagon, which shares the same optics albeit with revised coatings, seemed to have more appealing colour, contrast and smoother transition of tones than all the others. The extra half stop of speed is not a concern, at f1.4 you do lose sharpness and having a maximum of f2 on my Leica film cameras was never a barrier. Current digital sensors are capable of shooting at such high ISO whilst maintaining good quality, that it is not really relevant. I always struggle to make sense of paying extra for super fast lenses that need to be stopped down to achieve comparable quality with slower lenses in these days of image stabilisation and very usable high ISO performance.
The final decision was made easier when I had the chance to handle the lens and see that not only was image quality outstanding, but handling was superb. Whilst the Zeiss Milvus is heavy for an f/2 lens - at around 650 grams it is similar weight to the Sigma ART and Nikon f1.4 lenses and more than double the weight of the Nikon 35mm f1.8 - nothing came close for build quality or ergonomics, weather sealing is a nice bonus too.
The elephant in the room with the Zeiss is the lack of autofocus. Manual focus doesn’t bother me in itself, but unlike my Leica rangefinders and Nikon film bodies, the D750 is built for autofocus lenses with a smooth and bright focus screen that is not designed to be interchangeable. Prior to purchasing, this was a concern. Manual focus is easy with magnification in Live View, but this doesn’t suit handheld shooting through the viewfinder that I prefer, so I am limited to perceived sharpness in the finder and the electronic focus aids, consisting of little arrows in the viewfinder and a small dot when focussed. These are easy to see in peripheral vision but there is a small range of focus in which the dot shows, meaning wide open and at closer distances, there is the potential for less accuracy. Nevertheless, I have not found this to be a problem at all in real use and despite my fears, focussing has proved to be quick and accurate. Whilst I would not go longer than 35mm with manual focus on a D750, it is perfectly usable at this focal length and wider.
In summary, I am delighted with my choice, image quality is outstanding — really as close to that of my Leica lenses as I could hope for — sharp for items in focus, very smooth rendition of out of focus areas in front of and behind the plane of focus, smooth transition of greys in mono images, accurate colour. These are of course my opinions, be open minded if you are facing a similar decision and above all, look at the images produced, handle or hire the lenses in advance.
I am now using the Nikkor Z 35mm f1.8S lens on my Nikon Z 6, there are some details on my post here using the lens in New York City - in my opinion this is likely the best 35mm lens Nikon have produced and is very close in performance to the Milvus. For my thoughts on a very different lens, click here where you can read about my Nikon 20mm f3.5 AI-S, I have a more recent article on 35mm equivalent lenses for Micro Four Thirds here. Or view all of my photography articles here.