A Rolls Royce of Wides – A Review of the Zeiss Milvus 18mm f2.8 lens

By Emil von Maltitz

To be perfectly honest my very first impression when I lifted the Zeiss from it’s box was not entirely positive. Bare in mind that I had instant buyer’s remorse the moment after I put the phone down confirming my order. The Zeiss is expensive – some would say inordinately so – for what it is. After all, this is a purely manual focus, single focal length lens. So, pulling the lens from it’s foam insert I was not filled with a sense of this being the wisest use of my money.

Kirkjufellfoss waterffall in Iceland, photographed with a NiSi landscape polariser and Lee Big Stopper filter

An iPhone grab of the lens and packaging shortly after it arrived at the studio

The lens arrived just in time for a workshop I would be leading in Iceland. It arrived in an enormous box compared to the size of the lens itself, in a blue foam insert and wrapped in plastic. Considering the price I was little surprised that it didn’t include a lens pouch. I gingerly lifted it out, noting the weight and started playing. The review below is based on just over two weeks in Iceland and the UK and a trip up to the Drakensberg to catch some snow. It is by no means exhaustive, but it does reflect my experiences and impressions shooting in various landscape settings, and in particular in wet and cold conditions.

To start though, the Zeiss brand is synonymous with quality…and cost. Their lenses do not come cheap, but do come with the assumption that their optical and build quality should, to all intents and purposes, be unsurpassed. The ‘Otus’ line in particular is meant to be the pinnacle of optical engineering and provide the sharpest images with the greatest micro contrast compared to competitors. Reviewers have split hairs between lenses like the Otus 55mm f1.4 and the Sigma Art 50mm f1.4 which have a US$3000 price differential. Most end up recommending the cheaper lens in the review, but pass the baton to sharpest, or best optical quality to the Zeiss.

The Zeiss is something of an aspirational product, like a Leica. There are photographic products out there that we keep using as benchmarks, even if they shouldn’t necessarily be classified as such. Really Right Stuff, Leica, Broncolour; all have eye-watering price-tags but continue to be equipment that is associated with the very best. Zeiss is one of those brands. Don’t be fooled into thinking that the lens is a silver-bullet lens that will suddenly improve your photography though. It isn’t, and neither are any of the aspirational brands mentioned above. In the same way owning a Rolls-Royce or Ferrari is not going to make you a better driver. It just means you own an expensive car.

The motivation behind getting the lens has a lot to do with my recent purchase of the Nikon D850. My go to ‘money’ lens for years has been the 16-35mm f4 AFS lens. On the D800e that I use I can forgive the Nikkor for some of its faults; to whit, some chromatic aberration (CA henceforth) in the corners, a little bit of vignetting, some barrel distortion and a little bit of smudginess in the corners. The D850, despite only being a  25% jump in resolution from the D800e, makes the small issues somewhat more serious. In particular I was unhappy with the smudginess in the corners and wanted a lens that was more consistently sharp from corner to corner for landscape and architectural imagery.

Realising that there would soon be a price jump on the Milvus 18mm and having Hougaard Malan at landscapegear.co.za egg me into it (damn you Hougaard). I decided to give the lens a go.

Build and Features

Despite what Zeiss pundits and aficionados claim, this is a not a small or light weight lens. Certainly it is smaller than say the Nikon 14-24mm f2.8 or the Tamron 15-30mm F2.8 lenses. However, these are zoom lenses. The Zeiss is a prime. Coming from something like the diminutive Nikkor 20 and 18mm f2.8s or the impossibly lightweight 20mm f1.8, the Zeiss is a positive tank. Yet – and this I find incredible – the Zeiss 18mm is the smallest in a trio of wide angles that include a 15mm and 21mm focal lengths. The other two must be absolute behemoths if other reviewers can claim that the 18mm is small and light (which they do, in fact in one review the 18mm was described as ‘cute’ in comparison). 

The lens mounted to a Nikon D850 after being liberally drenched in rain and water spray from Skogafoss waterfall in Iceland. I have never had a lens that I feel is as water resistant as this one.

No, the Zeiss Milvus 18mm is not cute. It is however a very good looking lens, if this is such a consideration when deciding what lenses to buy. Other lenses have a habit of looking clunky and slightly industrial in their design. Occasionally ergonomics play a role in these lens designs, but often as not it is rather the optical design that influences the overall lens design. The Zeiss on the other hand looks svelte (despite it’s size). It has beautiful curves that gracefully lead into the metal lens hood that looks like it is part of the actual lens. The lens hood itself is a moulded metal petal that looks very different to any other lens hood I’ve ever seen. Hoods usually look like they have been added as an afterthought. This one looks as if it has been sculpted as an art piece. Yet the design is also immensely functional. First, the hood has an inner lining of stiff felt as light-baffle material. Then, despite the design that makes the hood appear as part of the lens itself, the hood can still be mounted in a reversed position so that the packed size of the lens is smaller. It is as if an entire team of engineers were used just for the lens hood! This is how they should be. Zeiss have set the bar for what a lens hood should be.

Apart from waxing lyrical about how the lens looks, the Zeiss Milvus is certainly built tough. It is solid, and heavy, with metal used throughout the construction of the lens. The only plastic I could find is the small locking pin button for the aperture ring (the Nikon version has a traditional aperture ring with a lock pin at the f22 position – the Canon forgoes the ring entirely). The weight of the metal falls to hand nicely and changing lenses quickly can be done smoothly and easily (sometimes the exterior design of a lens can get in the way of quick lens changes, my old Nikkor PC 28mm f3.5 and the older 80-200mm f2.8 AFS come to mind). The build does inspire confidence that the lens can take serious knocks before being damaged.

Quite distinctively,  the Zeiss has foregone the traditional ribbed rubber coating on the aperture and focusing rings, choosing instead a smooth rubber surface on the rings. To start with I had my misgivings when first handling the lens. As a manual focus shooter by choice I am used to the ribbed texture of Nikon lenses falling under my fingers. I was concerned that in wet conditions my fingers would actually slip off the smooth rubber. It seems my misgivings were unfounded though.  Working with the lens in Iceland, I was regularly getting the lens and camera wet from rain and spray (waterfall and sea) and the focus ring worked without any slipping. Then, in the Drakensberg during a snowfall I again had do problems in operating the lens while wearing gloves. The rubber has a nice friction to it so that even with mittens on I could turn the focusing ring easily.

Which brings me to the weatherproofing of the lens. If the marketing material is to be believed this is one of the most water resistant lenses available on the market (obviously not including lenses that are actually waterproof like those for the Nikon AW-1 system). The rear brass mount has the tell tale blue rubber ring that assists with this water-proofing, but there are apparently sets of other gaskets, positioned at every point where there is movement or a connection in the lens assembly. Zeiss marketing material explains that at every point where there is sliding movement of elements and the lens barrel itself there are felt rings that stop dust and moisture. Additionally, the front element does not move at all during focusing, meaning that a usual point for dust and moisture ingress is fully sealed off from the elements. All told it means that this is a lens you can feel comfortable and confident using even in the worst of weather. It will probably handle the wet better than the camera you attach it to will.

There are apparently up to 8 sets of gaskets and felt rings on a Milvus lens to prevent moisture or dirt entering the optical array

The Zeiss Milvus line are all electronically chipped lenses, despite their manual focus design. This means that the lens transmits data to the camera body to be recorded in the EXIF data as well as to assist in exposure metering. It also means that the aperture ring (on the Nikon version) can be locked in the f/22 position via a small plastic detent button and aperture control can be done through the control wheel on the camera. The Canon version of the lens doesn’t have the aperture ring at all so aperture selection will always be via the camera body rather than directly to the lens. There is an advantage for video shooters to using the Nikon version though. The Nikon version has a small rotating switch at the rear of the lens on the mount itself that can be rotated with a small key that is provided with the lens. This ‘de-clicks’ the aperture so that smooth exposure fades can be made in camera for video. De-clicking means the fades do not jump between stops (stepless in other words) and are also inaudible to the camera’s mic. The lens is certainly not designed as a video lens. For a start It has theoretical aperture values rather than the more exact T stops or transmission values. The Milvus line also all have different girths and lengths, meaning that you would have to reconfigure a video cage and its pull focus system if you wanted to change lenses. However, the step-less and click-less aperture control system, the smooth grips that neatly accept gear threads and the long focus throw mean that the lens is a more than capable video lens.

Speaking of the aperture ring; it has the same smooth rubber as the focusing ring and is marked in full aperture stops from f2.8 to f22. What is important though is that on the main body of the barrel are the hyperlocal markings for all the aperture value (with an added dash for f3.5 and the f5.6 value also being a dash rather than marked numerically). The actual distance markings are large and very legible. Far larger than any other lens I have seen. In fact they look almost cartoonish in comparison. You won’t be laughing when using the lens in the dark, instead you will be thankful easily legible markings.

Optics – The proof of the Pudding. 

Unfortunately I don’t have a test bench. If you want that kind of testing then please take a look at Bryan Carnathan’s review on ‘The Digital Picture’ (https://www.the-digital-picture.com/Reviews/Zeiss-18mm-f-2.8-Milvus-Lens.aspx). In particular look at the test results for vignetting, flare and distortion. From my use of the lens I would agree with their test images and see little difference if any to the lens I used.

There is a very small amount of barrel distortion. You actually have to look to find it, and will only see it when you are shooting horizontal or vertical dead-on. Using the distortion correction in Capture One Pro removed this entirely. In terms of distortion, I would recommend this lens for architectural work, and will be happy to use it for this in future. The Image above is a quick grabshot from Derwentwater Dam near Sheffield in the UK. It is a single image capture with automatic lens profile correction in Capture One Pro 11. With the distortion control added, there is no visible distortion. As it is, the distortion that is there is significantly less than my usual go-to lens, the Nikon 16-35mm f4 AFS which has significant barrel distortion at the 16-18mm settings (it cleans up nicely at 24mm however).

Based on previous optical reviews of the lens I was expecting to see some chromatic aberration in the corners of the lens. However, I really had to work hard to find any such CA. When it did present, it was very simple to get rid of it. It is there, but not in any particularly harsh manner. The usual culprits of fine dark lines against white or bright backgrounds do show up with very slight CA towards the edges of frame, but no more so than any of the other lenses that I usually work with and if I am being honest, far less so than my usual lenses. You are more likely to see CA on the horizon line when you are shooting into bright light as the examples below show. 

The good news here is that the distortion correction in both Capture One Pro and Lightroom CC will easily remove the CA. In the examples below I have had to zoom in to 200% and higher just to  be able to see the CA. In both cases the RAW converters managed to remove the edging artefacts easily. Having used the lens I would now say that CA is not an issue for the work that I do.

Of more concern to me and the the biggest issue that I had with the lens was the vignetting. Other reviewers have also pointed out what can generously be described as strong vignetting at the wider apertures. At f/2.8 the extreme corners are about three and a half stops darker than the optical centre of the lens. At f/4 it is still about 2 stops and only really disappears visually at f/11. Shooting in the Drakensberg in a middle of a snowstorm I was able to demonstrate the vignetting quite effectively as I was in conditions that created an almost uniform white atmosphere around me. Even in normal shooting conditions you can see the drastic changes that  result by changing the aperture. As a comparison to the scene below, there is a similar set of images shot moments later using an old Nikkor 24mm f/2.8 lens. Putting sharpness aside for the moment, the vignetting is essentially a non-issue for the Nikon at f/5.6 and beyond.   

Of course it is more than possible to simply use lens corrections to get rid of the vignetting effect, but this potentially introduces noise as you would be lifting shadows digitally. For the bulk of my landscape photography I have more or less decided that this is a non-issue as my landscapes are usually shot at around f/11 anyway for depth of field reasons. As evident in the comparison images, by f/11 the vignetting effect is no longer visually obvious. Ultimately the vignetting is something you would have to learn to live with. For some it might be a deal-breaker.

The vignetting could also potentially affect the performance of the lens in astro-photography. Unfortunately I didn’t get much opportunity to try this out while in Iceland as it was close to daylight throughout the day (the three hour long night didn’t get darker than twilight and the ‘blue hour’). In the end I only had a chance to try out the astro-photography briefly in the Berg.

The 100% views (right click image and select ‘open image in new tab’) of the centre and top right corner show that the lens does have good sharp rendition of the point highlights of the stars. There is a tiny, almost imperceptible ‘bat-wing’ coma on the stars at the very corners of the lens. You have to know what to look for to see it, but it is definitely the sharpest lens I have used for stars. Possibly the Nikkor 14-24mm is a better astro-photography lens, but I think this one does have sharper edge stars to be honest (the 14-24mm has more distortion at the edges and has noticeable batwing-coma on the brightest stars towards the edge of the frame). Then again, the 14-24mm is a 14mm. A closer comparison would be the 16-35mm Nikkor.

In some ways the 16-35mm f/4 is a closer comparison to the Milvus 18mm since the Zeiss’ vignetting means that effectively the light transmission at f/2.8 is actually closer to that of the 16-35mm f4 (hell, at the edges it’s more like f8). Based on my brief use of the Zeiss at night, I  know I will reach for it long before the 16-35mm if I am shooting stars. The very fact that the Zeiss is a manual focus lens makes it easier to shoot at night. Couple that to the sharper rendition of stars throughout the frame and the near coma-less corners – in comparison to both the 14-24mm and the 16-35mm – and the Zeiss is a better astro-photography lens than the Nikkors I am used to.

Of course I have been leaving the best for last. No, the Milvus is not as sharp as the Otus lenses. Several reviewers have pointed out that they were disappointed by the sharpness of this 18mm lens. Of course they were comparing it to 50mm lenses which are optically simpler to manufacture than the ultra wide angle lenses.

The image of the waterfall was shot at f/18 on ISO 64 for an exposure length of 30 seconds. I specifically chose a small aperture as I wanted to get as much depth of field as possible from the plants in the foreground to the water fall (Seljalandsfoss) in the background. Reviewing the image I was dumbfounded by how sharp the lens was at an aperture that to all intents and purposes should have been smudgy due to diffraction limitation. Close down the lens to f/11 or f/8 and the image just gets sharper (albeit with the loss of depth of field). More incredible (I thought) is the uniform sharpness  from edge to edge. This is the first wide angle lens I have ever owned that is this sharp from corner to corner. Yes, I have seen and used sharper lenses in the centre, but not at the edges! This is where the lens really shines. In fact it was sitting in a howling wind on the edge of a hill looking towards the Amphitheatre covered in snow that I finally fell in love with the Zeiss.

To be clear, the Zeiss is still contained by the laws of physics, which means that diffraction limitations hasn’t suddenly disappeared. I found that the sharpest apertures were f/8 and f/5.6 (with f/8 being marginally sharper I think). F/11 is not as sharp, but is still more than acceptably sharp, and has the added benefit of significant depth of field. If you you are prepared to focus stack, a two or three shot stack at f/8 will get you a razor sharp image from centimetres in the foreground to infinity in the background. Otherwise f/8 and f/11 will be more than sufficient to create an image with crisp sharpness across the frame that gives printed images a definite ‘bite’ to their appearance.

An image of the famous wrecked DC# plane near Vik in Iceland. This was photographed at f/10 for a 30 second exposure on ISO 64. The sharpness and detail stretches across the frame and into the distance.

In The Field Use

The focusing ring has a nice wide throw of 144 degrees (the Nikon and canon versions are set up so that they focus in the same direction as the Nikon and Canon equivalents). This is extremely important for critical focusing work like that found in architectural and landscape photography. There is nice damped feel tot he focus which also focuses past infinity (for astrophotography you would need to keep an eye on the infinity mark indicator).

Of course, using the Zeiss Milvus means that zone focusing is actually a ‘thing again’. The focusing ring has generously sized and easily legible distance markings in both feet and metres. Below this, on the body of the lens are the hyperlocal settings for all of the aperture values (f3,5 and f5,6 are indicated with a dash). The focusing itself is unnervingly accurate. I say unnervingly because if you make a mistake with your focus setting, it will show up in the photograph. If you get it right the image is extraordinarily sharp! Like the Laowa 12mm f/2.8 lens that I reviewed earlier in the year, being a manual focus wide angle lens actually makes focusing through the viewfinder quite tricky. Live view focusing and use of the hyper-focal distance scale really do feature quite strongly while working with this lens then.

One issue some photographers might have is with focusing fast with this lens. The long throw on the lens makes video and fine adjustment very simple. However it’s not so easy to use to use the lens as a reportage lens or for fast moving action. Obviously the lens isn’t an autofocus lens, but the 16-35mm that I own will continue to be an easier lens to use for fast focus, even in manual focus mode as it has a very short throw of about 60 degrees. Hair fine accuracy is not always possible with the Nikon, but speed is.

One area where fine manual focus trumps is in night and astrophotography. Focusing on the stars, I don’t even need to look through the viewfinder thanks to the extremely accurate focusing scale on the lens. If the resultant image is slightly out (checked at 100% on the rear LCD) I can be quite aggressive with the focusing ring to get the focus lined up decently. Autofocus lenses are extremely difficult to do this with. For start, I have yet to find a focusing scale that is accurate on a modern autofocus lens (some of the older geared AF lenses were actually still quite accurate); meaning that you manually focus the lens to the infinity mark, but miss actual infinity focus. It is worse with lenses than focus past infinity, or that focus by wire, rather than gearing. I have spent countless hours setting up camera rigs in the dark, attempting to find focus on the stars. The Zeiss is a doddle – shift focus to infinity and shoot.

Filter use was also very easy. Here I have to again applaud Zeiss for the robust construction. This is evident in the filter thread which is made of metal. So many of the newer lenses are resorting to plastic in the filter thread as a cost and weight saving. The 16-35mm lens that I am so familiar with has a quite easily damaged plastic front filter ring (virtually all of the Nikon lenses, excepting the truly exotics, have plastic front filter rings). It is really nice to use a lens where I am not fiddling with screwing the filter assembly onto the front of the lens. Being metal, the adapter ring of both the Lee and Nisi systems screws on far more easily than with the plastic filter threads of my other lenses. It also means that this lens is going to last longer against potential knocks and bangs as well as cross threaded filters.

I tend to shoot a fair amount of stitched panoramic when I am out shooting landscapes. I don’t use a heavy panoramic head though, so a lens with little distortion tends to stitch more easily than one with a lot of distortion. I do use a levelling base, but this is more to speed up workflow than to get any nodal point advantage that would be achieved using a panoramic head. The Zeiss stitches beautifully using Lightroom or Photoshop. Something I noticed with the stitched images is that thanks to the uniform sharpness (as opposed to a lens where it is significantly sharper in the centre compared to the corners) there is less chance of stitching aberrations. It just means that stitched panoramic with the the Zeiss are going to be cleaner than those that I have shot with my Nikkors.   

A three image horizontal stitch with the Zeiss lens and a Nikon D850. Ordinarily I would be loath to shoot a panoramic like this horizontally, opting rather to shoot in a vertical position for a final horizontal composition. The Zeiss is sharp enough across the frame that I can be lazy and shoot horizontally without stitching issues becoming apparent.

Conclusion

As I admitted at the beginning of this review, I almost instantly regretted buying the lens from the moment it was ordered. In fact, I had already decided that after the review I was going to sell the lens on. The new retail price is higher than what I paid for the Milvus, so I thought I would be able to hopefully sell the lens without losing too much money in the deal. I sort of changed my mind though. I strongly suspect that this lens will outlast all the other equipment in my cupboard.   

Kirkjufell mountain in Iceland photographed with a Nisi ‘landscape’ polariser and one stop Hard Lee graduated filter (in a Nisi filter folder).

The two things that set the lens apart for me are: the near indestructible build quality alongside incredible weatherproofing, and the edge to edge sharpness and image quality at the mid apertures. The Milvus 18mm is by no means a unique lens. There are other 18mm lens on the market, and arguably a zoom lens like the Nikon 16-35mm f4 or Canon 16-35mm f2.8 (if you need filter threads) are more versatile. The lens doesn’t replace my 16-35mm as a ‘go-to’ lens. However, if I am shooting landscape or architecture I am now quite happy to leave the Nikon behind. Faced with any shoot where I am expecting adverse weather, or where absolute image quality is more important than versatility, then the Zeiss lens wins a place in the bag over the Nikon.

It was while sitting on a the edge of a hill looking towards the Amphitheatre covered in snow that I finally fell in love with the Zeiss Milvus 18mm. I needed to be shooting something that I have shot countless times before with a range of different lenses to finally see how the Zeiss stands out. Stand out it did. The lens is sharper across the frame than any of my other lens, or lenses that I have used for that matter. Another point that came across strongly is that at least to my eyes, the lens performs better at smaller apertures than other lenses do.

Would I recommend this lens? That’s a tough question. Considering the price tag attached this is a hard lens to recommend when there are cheaper lenses that are almost as good. The Zeiss is an aspirational lens though, and one designed for demanding photographers at that. It is the kind of lens that will outlast and outshoot almost all the other similar lenses available. Can a cheaper lens do what it does? Mostly, probably, maybe (although a cheaper lens definitely won’t survive the kind of environmental abuse that this one will). I was kicking myself for buying it, and now can’t let it go. If I had to climb a mountain to take a photograph this would be the first lens I’d pick.

Pros

Cons

Ultra Wide Angle with very little distortion for vertical and horizontal lines (very manageable).

Very Expensive

Very sharp (to extremely sharp) across the frame and into the corners

Poor vignetting with visible vignette disappearing only at f11

Wide aperture of f2.8 allowing plenty of light in for astrophotography

Manual focus and difficult to nail that focus without Live View – but then you buy this lens for other reasons than autofocus

Extremely well controlled optical aberrations from CA through to coma (it’s anecdotal, but some of the best I have seen)

Despite what some Zeiss fans say, this is a large and heavy lens for what it is (compared to the old Nikkor 18mm f2.8 and 20mm f2.8 it is positively enormous)

Class leading build quality (“virtually indestructible” is the best way to describe the build quality)

Extremely effective weather sealing

Sharp into the smaller apertures where other lenses would show optical deficiencies due to diffraction limitation


Emil is a professional landscape and commercial photographer who spends most of his time photographing industry and agriculture for clients like Tongaat Huletts. You can find his incredible body of work here.

 

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