I see craft as the packaging for the concept. Ideally, the specifics of a particular craft are presented to advance an idea: Think how the perfectly aligned corners of a mid-century piece of furniture advance the notion of elegant simplicity or how the rough edges of a refurbished farm wood table make rustic allusions. All this is to say that my goal in the way I make stuff is to communicate ideas, regardless of whether the medium is wood or the moving image. I’m neither a purist, nor technical. So when I was asked to review the new Zeiss Milvus lens kit, I wanted to make sure that submitting a visceral review was as acceptable as speaking to the relationship the glass has to the chip in my camera.
This may signal to you that the most important aspects of what these phenomenal lenses have to offer is already lost on this reviewer, and you may be right. But if you’re looking for how this kit syncs up with a run-and-gun operation, by all means, read on.
My relationship with the camera lives in two pretty separate spheres. I’m an artist (sculpture, collage and video), as well as a commercial director. When I’m directing, I do like to operate sometimes, but in the camera realm I’m dealing with, there’s a whole separate stratosphere than the manner in which I interfaced with this Milvus set.
The art and independent project side of my existence results in mainly self-initiated projects that often include making video. In this world, I exclusively camera-op, and I’m holding not an ARRI AMIRA, but my Canon EOS 5D Mark III. And when I say run-and-gun, I actually mean skate-and-gun. A fair amount of my shooting is done while skateboarding.
Another aspect of this world is stop-motion animation, so what the SLR world offers me is the ability to adjust on the fly and the ability to make film through stills.
Recently, we donated a dozen skateboards to an afterschool program for learning-disabled high-school kids in Brooklyn (my wife and I make and donate skateboards up-cycled from construction waste and buckets). Over a period of three weeks, we visited the program and video-documented the process as the kids created the artwork on their boards, attached the trucks and wheels, and finally went outside and skated.
This project offered a great range of lighting and mood of subject matter: We started inside in mixed-source lighting with shy kids concentrating on minute designs and ended up outside in the bright sun with long shadows and fast-paced action.
There’s the framework for my time with the Milvus set, so now on to the lenses. If I had to describe the whole set in two words it would be “sharp” and “heavy.” The former I would discover upon shooting, and the latter, discovered upon receiving the lenses in the mail.
As a set, they’re a bit heavy, but what that heaviness is about is all that handsome glass, and the weight of my camera bag became way less of a factor once I started looking through these lenses. Here’s the kit that Zeiss was kind enough to send my way: 21mm ƒ/2.8, 35mm ƒ/2.0, 50mm ƒ/1.4, 50mm ƒ/2 Macro, 85mm ƒ/1.4 and 100mm ƒ/2.0 Macro.
As for some of the qualities that the complete Milvus lenses share, again, as a set, they were a bit heavy. The lenses have a slick appearance with smooth curves and matte black encasements. Though I prefer the exterior appearance of older, more traditional lenses, they do feel nice to the touch, and it’s what’s on the inside that counts.
The Milvus lenses were easy to mount, largely due to the easy-to-find protruding blue dot that lines up with the top of the camera mount. Sounds like a silly or even an amateur aspect to praise, but when you’re changing lenses on a skateboard, that’s the kind of thing that really helps.
The focus-pull resistance is perfect: not too loose or too rigid, very fluid, and no glide or slip. The distance from minimum focus to infinity is mostly consistent, with one weird exception, the 85mm (more on that in the individual lens recaps).
What these lenses are all about is the glass, and it doesn’t disappoint. I shoot pretty much everything wide open, and the whole set ranges from ƒ/1.4 to ƒ/2.8 at the top range of wide open. These things are razor-sharp, which goes really well with what most of the SLR world brings to the table in terms of chip size. The end effect is a super-sharp plane of focus—but with enough elegance in the focal fall-off so your images don’t end up with that alienating over-high-def feeling.
I bump the contrast and saturation all the way before shooting, which is imperative with these lenses. Even at a fully neutral setting, the image comes in with more contrast and saturation than any Canon lens I’ve used, but also with more information. This isn’t really a problem, though, because the depth and variance of tone is impressive, and there’s a ton to work with once you get to post.
The whole set tends to cast a slight camera vignette. Personally, I love it, and I try to light that way when I can, so perhaps I was seeing what I wanted to, but if that’s a style that you like to avoid, you should keep this tendency in mind. List Price: Begins at $1,199.
Here’s a breakdown of the characteristics of each individual lens.
I didn’t think I was going to like this one, as most wide lenses have disappointed me, but this lens is an absolute gem. The bend at the edges is really minimal in locked-off scenarios, but actually accentuates a lot in moving shots. When I was shooting outside and tracking kids on a skateboard, my shutter speed was through the roof (I like the frenetic feel it gives tracking shots). As I skated around kids, the bend on the edge felt less like it was distorting the image and more like it was heightening the circular trajectory of my camera path. The motion of the shot comes through in a way that feels accentuated, not goofy.
A solid lens, a great standard go-to. I’ve always relied on the 50mm as my default when on SLRs, so I found myself using this one less often than other lenses.
This one is a beauty. If I had to pick a single lens to go with, the 50mm ƒ/1.4 would be the one. It offers everything a nifty-fifty should: perfect rectilinear feel, and superfast and beautiful contrast. It’s a bit bigger than its competitors, though.
50mm ƒ/2.0 Macro
Unlike other macros on the market, this lens holds its own on wider shots, as well. Other than the fact that it’s a stop slower than the 50mm ƒ/1.4, there’s no immediate difference between these two lenses, which is amazing for a macro. On the macro scale, it has a fantastic minimum focus.
I didn’t like this lens, but I suspect that’s because it’s designed for purposes quite different than the way I shoot. This is a portrait lens for a still shoot. It’s a beast, by far, the biggest and heaviest of the lot, and the focus pull from minimum to infinity is easily twice that of any other lens in the set. I can see how a still shooter would love this one, but for me, it ended up being extra weight in my bag.
100mm ƒ/2.0 Macro
A stunner. This was the lightest of the set, about the same weight as the 35mm. The focus-pull length was totally manageable for on-the-fly shooting, and the image is crisp and sharp as a tack with lovely fall-off. It’s a killer portrait lens.