Zeiss 85mm Classic vs Milvus- Studio Portrait Challenge

After purchasing the Zeiss 50mm Milvus and thoroughly enjoying every aspect of the lens it was time to turn to finding the best portrait lens since this is the work I focus on mostly with my business. The last time I owned the Nikon D810 I had the Nikkor 1.4g and loved it. Because of my fanboy status with Carl Zeiss lenses I thought I should try their portrait lens options to see if any would work for me. 

First purchase was the Zeiss 135mm f2 APO Sonnar but I didn't really care for the compression that focal length offers for close up head shots. It has great IQ, don't get me wrong, but the 85mm focal length is just my favorite option for portraits and head shots. Below you will find a comparison shot of the following lenses: Zeiss 85mm f1.4 Planar T* ZF.2, Zeiss Milvus 85mm f1.4 ZF.2, Zeiss 135mm f2 APO Sonnar T* ZF.2. 

The rest of this post will focus on the 85mm options from Zeiss (minus the Otus...dreaming). 

Before getting into the studio test I'll go over some handling comparisons. 

Milvus vs Classic

Milvus feels sort of like holding a thick tree limb where the Classic has...well, a classic manual lens feel. 

Milvus has a better feeling focus ring. It is easier to manipulate due to the size and rubber ring. This also makes a bigger difference because of the larger focus throw and more precise focusing abilities on the Milvus. 

Milvus is very heavy compared to the Classic. Just over 1 lb difference! The Milvus does have almost 2x more elements inside (11 vs 6). The Milvus also weighs slightly more than the Otus. 

Milvus has the much improved lens cap and hood. The copy of the 85mm Classic that I have has some play in the lens hood which is annoying. This is standard fare with the other 3 classic Zeiss lenses I've used. Now on to the test...

Studio test at 1.4, 2.0, 2.8

Spoiler alert on this one is that the Milvus cleaned house. I was hoping the Classic version would be close enough because I would much rather be into my portrait lens for half the cost. 

Disclaimer on my subject...it's my precious, patient, and long-suffering wife. You photographers know how it is when you need to test gear. She's a champ and puts up with me. Just don't tell her I put these photos in a product review! 

Each photo the focus was on her right eye. The Milvus nailed focus the first time on 2 shots and on another it took me 2 tries to get focus. The Classic lens is either soft wide open or I just could not get focus after 3-5 attempts on each image. Subject was not moving and focus was confirmed on the eye but each image is a bit soft. This is a deal breaker for me. It would be internet-easy to say this is user error but when I can get focus immediately on the Milvus and fail to get focus on the Classic after 3-5 attempts it has to be more than user error I believe (which I why I'm thinking it could just be softer wide open). I pretty much don't have to test anything else at this point in order to make my final conclusion because this, for me, is the most critical point in my testing. 

For all 3 shots I was on a tripod, ISO 64, 1/80, using a Profoto B1 and a Elinchrom 39" Deep Octa. 

Image 1 @ f/1.4

Can you tell the difference? 

Here it is at 150% 

Image 2 @ f/2 

Can you tell the difference? 

Here it is at 150% 

Image 3 @ f2.8

Can you tell the difference? 

Here it is at 150% 

After looking at all 3 of these images I have to say that I was surprised at how large the image quality gap is between these 2 lenses when you get into the details. Overall, I think from a distance both look just fine but the Milvus just smokes the Classic in the studio test at wide open apertures. 

Does this surprise you? What are your thoughts? Is there anything I could have done differently that you think would have produced different results? 

Here are 3 additional images from another shoot where I only used the 85mm Milvus @ f/1.4, ISO 64, 1/200. I'm amazed at the detail at this aperture! If the Otus can beat this I doubt it is by very much at all.

Thanks for your time and for coming to my site. Give me a follow on Instagram if you feel inclined- @tom.f.watson

Tom F Watson10 Comments