Zeiss 85mm Lenses Compared

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Viktor Pavlovic has released an excellent comparison of the the Zeiss Otus, Milvus, and Planar 85mm lenses.  What we found most interesting was the conclusion that:

Stopped down to f/2.8 and smaller it [Planar] comes actually very close to Otus and Milvus, and most professional photographers won’t shot portraits at wide open aperture anyway.

So whether or not the Otus or Milvus is worth it to you depends on how much you really need to shoot at F1.4 and how much you are willing to deal with the extra cost and physical size and weight of the Milvus and Otus.  Don’t get us wrong, we want both an Otus and Milvus, but we have no doubts that a Planar in the hands of a competent photographer can produce excellent results.

These are of course manual focus lenses and trying to focus them on a Nikon or a Canon body is a pain.  You require a tripod and a loupe and the camera to be in live-view mode to really focus properly.  Mirrorless cameras like the Sony A7 series do better with manual focus lenses but the Otus and the Milvus are huge on the Sony bodies and do not balance well.  So there is no perfect solution to focusing these lenses presently, just compromises on either side of the fence.

Nikon AF-S 85MM F1.8 G

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Left: Nikon 85mm 1.8G Right: Nikon 85mm 1.8D

For roughly $480 we are very impressed with the Nikon AF-S 85MM F1.8 G.  On the Nikon D810, Nikon’s highest megapixel body, we prefer it to the much more expensive 1.4 G model (because of lateral chromatic aberration issues with the 1.4G).  We also found the 1.8G to be slightly sharper than the 1.4 G model.

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As always remember that the person behind the camera is far more important than the camera. A good photographer can produce outstanding results with cheap equipment, even more so in the last few years as the sensors used in digital cameras have gotten quite good all around.

1st Place

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Many people praised the Zeiss Otus 85mm for being one of the best lenses, if not the best lens, available for full frame digital cameras.  And for $4,500 you would expect it to be quite good.  I rented it but did not like it for portrait and fashion photography.  There was just too much contrast.  It’s an amazing lens for many other purposes.

The Zeiss Milvus 85mm is $1,800, available in Canon and Nikon mounts (can be adapted to Sony) and is manual focus like the Otus lens.  For portrait and fashion shots this has become my favorite lens.  It has a special quality to its rendering that I’m addicted to.  The contrast is just right and the bokeh is supreme.  It’s big, heavy, and hard to focus on Canon and Nikon cameras.  But if you’re pushing the limits this is the lens you want.  Otherwise go for something with auto-focus.  It’s like they took the Otus but modified it into a portrait lens.  Great for the studio where you have time and lots of control.

2nd Place

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The Sony A7R II is expensive and has many shortcomings despite being much improved over the first A7R.  For many types of photography it wouldn’t be my first choice.  But for most fashion and portraiture shoots it’s more than adequate.  It’s small, has amazing image quality (42-megapixels) and has some great lenses available for it (like the expensive but wonderful Zeiss Batis 85mm).  Especially with travel restrictions getting smaller and lighter it’s much easier to carry this camera and a few lenses than the equivalent Nikon D810 or Canon 5DSR.

As an added bonus this camera shoots 4K video and lets you adapt older and unique lenses for use.

3rd Place

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The Nikon D5500 can currently be had for $700.  It’s an excellent camera with great image quality, dynamic range, features, and a small size for its class.  It’s not full frame but its images keep up pretty well with full frame.  I use this camera when I need to go small and light and as a back-up but many would be well served with it as their main camera.

We like to see affordable cameras that can produce great images and the D5500 meets that criteria.  Lenses are a better investment than cameras so we recommend buying a cheap as camera as makes sense.  When you’re getting paid for your photographs then you can worry about having the best of the best.

Grab a 35mm and a 50mm to go with this camera and you have two decent portrait lenses to shoot with.