Do you have a lens in your collection that brings you joy every time you use it? One that begs to be used because of how beautifully it renders the world around you, and you can’t help but wonder what a specific subject might look like when photographed with it? I recently found this lens for myself with the Zeiss Milvus 50mm f/1.4, and to be honest, it’s been an unexpected love affair.
You see, my main interest in photography is portraits, and I had pretty much covered my bases already with my 35mm f/1.4, 50mm f/1.8, 85mm f/1.4 and 70-200mm f/ Canon lenses. . There really isn’t much you can’t do with these focal lengths for photographing people, and the L lenses in my collection excel at what they do in almost every way. They are sharp, focus very quickly, have great color and contrast out of the box, and have minimal chromatic aberration. There is very little to complain about here. However, I have started to miss the days of using the Mamiya Sekor W 110mm f/2.8 (50mm full frame equivalent) lens on the Mamiya RZ67 Pro II which I unfortunately no longer own. I once heard someone say that modern Canon L lenses have a “just the facts” rendering style, and I couldn’t agree more. When shooting commercially, this is the perfect look in my opinion. But the 110mm lens I had was just pure magic to me. I promise I won’t start using phrases like “3D popm” but there was definitely something extra special to go along with those huge 6×7 negatives. I left the film for reasons I’ll talk about in a future post, but I’ve come to realize there’s been a void in my photography ever since.
When I started my search to find something that could recreate the magic of the Mamiya Sekor 110mm lens, a couple of things became obvious to me. First of all, I would require the lens to be wide open, as I have owned several over the years that were not acceptable to my liking unless stopped. I also wanted bokeh that inspires me, something intangible that I wasn’t getting from my current lens lineup. Weather sealing is also a must these days as I often shoot in dusty environments. This short but important list led me to consider the Zeiss Milvus 50mm 1.4 ZE lens, but it was not an obvious choice and certainly not a no-brainer. For the uninitiated, the vast majority of Zeiss lenses are manual focus only, and this one is no exception. I absolutely hate trying to focus manually through a DSLR’s viewfinder because it doesn’t inspire confidence and frankly wasn’t designed for that anyway.
Again, referencing my beloved Mamiya RZ67, I just loved the manual focus on this camera as it had the tools to make it as easy as possible. A flip-up magnifying glass above an already large focusing screen meant I rarely missed focus. How could I have a similar setup with my DSLR? After a bit more research, I came across the Hoodman HoodLoupe LCD Sight with Baseplate Kit, which quickly answered my question. Anyone who uses a modern mirrorless camera will find this to be a complete pain, but when manual focusing with a DSLR, I sincerely believe this is the way to go. It certainly adds bulk to the overall kit, as you’ll see below, but when using live view and zooming in to check focus, the lens suddenly becomes quite easy to use. The eyecup is also very nice when shooting.
Now that I have been shooting with the Milvus 50mm f/1.4 for several months, here is my general opinion on this lens:
I don’t have any major complaints in this department, as it fulfills my desire to have a sharp lens when shot wide open with satisfying bokeh. It is indeed very sharp at f/1.4, and with my focus setup mentioned above, I don’t miss focus often. It’s hard for me to describe bokeh without sounding obnoxious, but I think the word “paint” makes sense here. I really find that this 50mm lens turns ordinary subjects into something more like art without much effort, like the controversial Zeiss 50mm Sonnar f/1.5 ZM (which I also enjoyed for a while time), except with no change in focus and noticeably sharper at wide aperture.
The slight downside here is that chromatic aberration pops up from time to time. I’m not bothered by this as I don’t find the effect overpowering unlike some other lenses I’ve used over the years, but if you see pixels in difficult backlit lighting conditions you can to encounter. Nothing in life is perfect, and the same is true here.
The focus ring looks questionable, but in use it’s sublime. The focus range is quite long which, while not ideal for outright situations, is nice for precise focusing in both photography and cinematography. I’m fully aware that the focus ring makes the lens look like a travel coffee mug that only gets dirty and scratched shortly after using it, but in practice, that has not been my experience. I’m a neat freak with my gear, so I try to take great care of the lens, but my initial concerns about the focus ring’s vulnerability to damage and scratches are so far unfounded. I admit that the ring takes up the lens a bit too much, so mounting and removing the lens from a camera body can be a little clunky. And yes, I would have preferred an all-metal lens, but all that to say it’s better in use than it looks in the photos.
Height and weight
With a 67mm filter thread, the Zeiss 50mm f/1.4 lens size is well balanced for a full-frame DSLR or mirrorless body. It gets much smaller with the sun visor removed, although it looks like something is missing, almost like an incomplete design without it. It does have a bit of heft due to its metal exterior, which makes the lens feel like it’s built to a higher standard than I’m used to. Weight is not a burden to include in my backpack with my Canon lenses. However, a bag full of Milvus lenses may require a trip to the chiropractor, so you’ve been warned.
Build quality and miscellaneous
The weather sealing of the lens inspires confidence, and I love the blue gasket used by Zeiss to seal the frame. Also, even after frequent use, I didn’t experience lens mount shaking like I did with the Zeiss 50mm Sonnar f/1.5 ZM, which can be infuriating for someone with TOC trends when it comes to camera gear.
The lens hood is also metal and gives the lens a minimal modern look when attached. My only complaint (and it’s debatable) is that the inner lining is felt. I understand and appreciate that it helps minimize glare, but it gets dirty far too easily. I would have preferred an all-metal hood, but others may disagree, and that’s fine.
Use of video
I’m not (yet!) a professional cinematographer, but I finally started getting my feet wet this year and I loved this new challenge. Using the Zeiss Milvus 50mm f/1.4 lens for video was enjoyable thanks to the long focusing distance and beautiful cinematic look. There is no dedicated aperture ring on the Canon ZE version, but luckily the Nikon ZF version has one. I didn’t find focus breathing to be a big distraction when shooting, and it’s worth noting that Zeiss sells optional lens gears for the Milvus line in case it’s necessary to use a tracking focus.
I remember back in 2015 when the Milvus line first came out, Zeiss marketed the new collection of lenses as ideal tools for photography and cinematography. The market for dedicated cinema lenses has grown tremendously over the past few years, but based on my limited experience, I still think Milvus lenses are worth a look.
- beautiful bokeh
- Zeiss T* anti-reflective coating
- Built to a very high standard
- Ideal for photo and video
- The Milvus line is color matched on all focal lengths
- Can be easily adapted to any mirrorless or cinema camera
- Reasonable price
- Manual focus only
- Some chromatic aberrations in difficult backlight situations
- Only available in Canon EF or Nikon F mount (but can be easily adapted to mirrorless)
- I would have preferred an all-metal lens instead of the rubber focus ring
- Felt sun visor is boring to clean
There’s certainly no shortage of fast 50mm options these days, and at first glance it would be easy to dismiss the Zeiss Milvus 50mm f/1.4 for either its lack of autofocus or its low mount. increasingly obsolete DSLR lens This will never be a bread-and-butter lens for when you absolutely need to nail the shot fast and the moment can’t be easily repeated. I recently tried to photograph a six-month-old baby and his parents with the Milvus 50mm, and within two minutes I was rightly back on one of my autofocus lenses. But if you’re not in a rush, the lens is very rewarding both in use and in the results it produces.