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

Zeiss Milvus 50mm f/1.4

I decided to make the switch back to the Nikon D810 after using Sony for about 6 months (a7r, a6000, and a7ii). More on the reason for going back to Nikon at another date. The one constant in this transition has been my continued use of Carl Zeiss lenses. Since the trip to Iceland in February I've used 7 Carl Zeiss lenses (3 of those temporarily loaned by Carl Zeiss and 4 purchased by me). Deciding to move back to Nikon I knew the first lens I wanted to buy was something from the new line of Zeiss Milvus and I decided to play it safe and start with the 50mm. 

After 5 client shoots exclusively using this lens and some other fun stuff I feel comfortable giving some initial impressions.


The big factor. It's manual focus...aaaahhhhh...

It really isn't so bad nor should it be a reason to discount this lens from consideration. The focus confirm indicator works well and using Capture One's "Show Focus Mask" tool I am teaching myself how to focus better. What I have learned on my missed focus shots is that I tend to focus closer than I should so over time I'll learn how to slightly adjust while shooting. Most of my shooting has been between f/1.4-2.8 just to force myself to get better...it has been good for me. I'm still learning but I enjoy this challenge. The focus ring is a bit stiffer than the Classic or Otus lenses but it will likely loosen up over time.  

The focus throw is quite large but in order to help with managing this I am trying to get in the habit of checking focus distance prior to framing the shot. 


Bokeh is creamy. The separation from subject to background is crisp. I'm not technically savvy but I imagine the quality of separation has just as much to do with the camera as it does the lens. I did not experience the same thing shooting Zeiss on my Sony cameras although it was still good on the Sony. Not much else to say on this other than show some of that bokeh! 

Couple more closing thoughts:

Carl Zeiss has finally improved the lens cap design! The lens hood also fits much better than the classic lenses I've used in the past. I've encountered loose caps and hoods with the classic lenses but these feel very secure.

One more thing...I guess it is weather sealed! 

Nexus 6

Nexus 6

Overall, I'm very happy with this purchase.  I'm not a gear reviewer so please forgive me if I've missed some things you wanted to know. If that's the case, just ask your question in the comment section below. I'll leave you with a few more pictures taken with the Zeiss Milvus 50mm. Enjoy! 

Give me a follow on Instagram if you'd like- @tom.f.watson

Happy Shooting! 



Hong Kong with the Sony a7ii and a few Carl Zeiss lenses

This has been such an amazing year so far. I do not normally travel but so far this year I've been able to go to Iceland, Japan, and Hong Kong. On this last trip to Hong Kong I brought along the Sony a7ii and 2 Carl Zeiss lenses (2/35 Loxia and 2/50 Loxia). While I was there I located probably the only 1.8/85mm Carl Zeiss Batis lens available in the US or Hong Kong so I picked it up immediately.  Probably 90% of the time I kept the 35mm lens on set to 5.6, 1/125, and auto ISO with a pre-set range from 100 to 2000. 

The purpose of the post is to give a review of the Sony a7ii and each lens along with sharing some of my favorite photos. 

Sony a7ii

I carried the Sony a7ii around using my Peak Design Slide and with the 35mm Loxia it was a very lightweight but capable set up. I typically used the black and white picture setting on the street which worked pretty well. The battery life was sufficient in that I normally left the hotel with 1 fully charged battery and I was fine. In order to help on the battery life I leave the viewfinder turned off and shoot with the LCD screen.

There are 3 complaints so far about this camera:

  1. At least a couple times a day I would accidentally open the memory card door which is annoying (Sony, please fix this!!). 
  2. The ISO selection on the dial is easily bumped which causes the ISO to go to 50 and this is very inconvenient when I'm ready to take a shot at night and then notice my exposure is way off. 
  3. The image export function to my phone is awesome but they only come out at 1080px across which only really works for Instagram (follow me @tom.f.watson). When I want to export and upload to Facebook I'm always disappointed with the IQ.

Carl Zeiss Loxia 2/35 and 2/50

Yes, these lenses are manual which I hear from some people as a big reason not to buy them. You have to understand that I did not grow up in the film days shooting manual lenses nor do I have a lot of practice with these on the street and it really isn't that difficult (especially on the a7ii). When I was walking on the street I would typically have the lens prefocused at about 5ft and then just be ready to adjust when necessary. 

The performance of these lenses are excellent. I have no complaints. My only hope is that they come out with a 21 or 25mm in the Loxia line. I would prefer that over the 25mm Batis which is a big lens and also includes automatic focus which isn't quite necessary on such a wide focal length. 

Here are a few images using the Loxia 2/35 and 2/50. 

Carl Zeiss 85mm Batis

Now to my exciting find in Hong Kong! I mostly do portraiture and head shots so I've been waiting on this lens to become available for my Sony a7ii. This is the first autofocus lens I've have for the a7ii so I'm getting used to which settings work best for me. I was able to shoot a couple of corporate portraits in the ICC building (the tallest building in Hong Kong) which ended up being a pretty heavily back lit scenario. I noticed the camera was having a hard time finding focus at times. This of course isn't the lenses fault but just something to mention. I really like this lens. The focus ring and overall design reminds me of the Zeiss Otus lens I used in Japan. The IQ is outstanding. 

I'll mention 2 small things I wish would change:

  1. I want a metal lens hood like all the other Zeiss lenses I've owned.
  2. The fit of the back lens cap between the Loxia and Batis is different. The design is the same but the Batis cap causes the gasket on the Loxia to push out leaving me concerned about it wearing out over time. Easy solution is to always bring each back lens cap but I don't want to always have a loose rear lens cap to keep track of in my travel bag. 

Here are a few of the images using the 85mm Batis.

The last night of the trip I went up to Victoria Peak which gives you an amazing view of Hong Kong. A 35mm isn't quite wide enough to capture everything I wanted to show so I decided to try and stitch 8 images. Since the 35mm lens was shooting down there was a bit of distortion in the buildings which wasn't difficult to fix in Lightroom. I haven't done this before and considering the air pollution I'm pretty happy with the results. The settings on the camera were ISO 100, f8, 10 seconds (no remote unfortunately just manually pressing the shutter which I know isn't the best thing for IQ). The final image is 140mb and 9796px × 4777px.

Let me know what you think! I'd be glad to hear your experience with this camera or these lenses. If you have any questions I'll do my best to answer. 

Barker Rassenti Hogosha Collaboration Folder

I had the opportunity to shoot this collaboration piece by two of the hottest custom knife makers in the industry. It will enter an online open bid auction during Blade Show 2015. John Barker has had a custom knife go for as high as $25,000...look for this to be one special catch! 

  • Blade- .180" CTS-XHP Steel
  • Handle- Integral Mokuti 

Japan Recap of the Nikon D810 and Carl Zeiss Otus 55mm 1.4

Wow, what a wonderful experience visiting Japan for the first time. Unfortunately due to the colder temperatures I was there about 1 week before the cherry blossoms were in full bloom. Overall, it was an excellent trip and I came away with great memories and few favorite images. 


All of these photos were taken hand held with the Nikon D810 + Carl Zeiss Otus 55mm 1.4. I had planned on bringing my underwhelming Vanguard Altra Pro 263AB but the more I've used it over the last 1.5 years the less I like the tripod...don't get it.  I definitely need to invest in a better tripod very soon! The Black Rapid Sport strap did help tremendously because this set-up is pretty heavy (4.07lbs/1850g). 

The Otus 55mm 1.4 is an amazing lens that is very easy to use on the Nikon D810. When you put that glass in front of Nikon's 36mp sensor it has the ability to produce amazing files. I wasn't concerned about the manual focus on the lens based on my previous experience with Zeiss glass in Iceland. The focus confirm feature on the Nikon is very easy use. In case you are unaware of this feature, it allows you to confirm in the viewfinder when your subject is in focus. 

Is this a travel lens? Yes and No.

If you are able to avoid crowded places and not have to walk all day then this is a great lens. It would have been a dream to use this in Iceland where I could take my time and compose the shots I wanted relatively close to my car. Zeiss doesn't sell this as a travel lens of course but more of a studio/commercial/landscape option for those using a camera like the D810. 

Overall, I'm happy with this set up but would want to use it primarily for my studio portrait work and bring the smaller but exceptionally capable Zeiss Distagon T lenses for extensive travel/walking/crowded scenarios like the photo above (Harajuku). 

One more image to show taken in the studio with the Otus 55mm. 

Have you had a similar experience with this set up? What about your photography trip to Japan? Any questions? Let me know...