Some brands come with certain expectations attached to them, Zeiss being a good example. The German optics expert is ranked up alongside Leica when it comes to image quality and mechanical engineering, and I was looking forward to seeing what the Zeiss Milvus Distagon T* 25mm f/1.4 could do attached to my trusty Nikon D800.
On a full-frame DSLR, I’ve always considered 24mm to be
the most wide-angle focal length available before we start describing things as ‘ultra-wide angle’. This Zeiss is just a little longer than that, at 25mm. It’s the kind of lens that has uses right across photography, from landscape photography to reportage, architecture, interiors and more. Most of us have 24mm (or its equivalent) on our standard zooms, which might lead you to wonder why you’d need a fixed prime lens of (approximately) the same focal length? The answer, of course, is image quality.
Handling and design
Just picking up the Zeiss Milvus Distagon T* 25mm f/1.4 for the first time gives you an indication of how well-built this lens is. It’s heavy at 1171g, which is due largely to the 15 glass elements (in 13 groups) inside but also because of its all-metal weather-sealed construction. It’s a physically long lens too at 114mm, especially when compared with many fast-aperture zoom lenses or compact wide-angle primes. It’s clear that portability was a secondary consideration for Zeiss’s designers here, who were far more interested in optical performance.
There are two aspherical elements in the Distagon’s design and seven elements that are made from partial dispersion glass. Zeiss’s famous T* coating is also used, which is said help with contrast and protect against flare.
On my Nikon D800 the lens felt balanced. The manual focus ring was easy to find with the thumb and forefinger of my left hand, and turned with just the right amount of force. It’s a silky smooth action, and the long throw of the focus ring means you can fine tune the exact point of focus precisely – although it also takes a half turn to go from infinity to the minimum focus of 25cm.
Manual focusing is so important on the Zeiss Milvus Distagon T* 25mm f/1.4 because the lens doesn’t have autofocus capabilities. This is unusual for any DSLR lens launched on the market today, but not for lenses in the Zeiss range. It does take some time to get used to shooting without AF, and you’ll probably shoot a few out-of-focus frames to begin with purely because your forgot to focus and the image looks almost sharp though your DSLR’s viewfinder.
The focusing screens in DSLRs are optimised for brightness rather than for manual focusing (in older film SLRs that use manual-focus lenses, this is not the case), so I found myself using the D800’s green-circle focus-confirmation light lots. This indicator is coupled to the camera’s AF system, so I found I had to perform some microadjustment calibration to get perfectly sharp results when shooting wide open. Live view is a good tactic when the camera is on a tripod; I could zoom in on the display and use small movements of the focus ring to get critical sharpness in the right place.
Interestingly, on the Nikon version of the lens, there is a traditional aperture ring, which enables use on older cameras. I found this a little hard to reach on the D800, which is not really designed for such things, but setting the minimum f/16 value (which locks, and is unlocked via a thumb-pressed button) ) allows apertures to be controlled from the camera body as normal.
Those shooting video may be interested to know that this aperture ring can be de-clicked by turning a small screw on the lens mount.
As the old saying goes: the proof of the pudding is in the eating, so how did the Zeiss Milvus Distagon T* 25mm f/1.4 perform when it comes to image quality? Incredibly well, is the answer. Exceptional sharpness is apparent even when inspecting an image at 100 per cent on the back of the camera, and back at home on my Eizo ColorEdge display the results straight from the camera looked superb. Edge sharpness is pretty much the same as you’ll see at the centre of the image, with loads of detail.
It’s a high-contrast lens too: colours and bold and punchy, which gives landscapes plenty of depth. I found it very hard to get the Milvus Distagon T* 25mm f/1.4 to display any kind of coloured fringing, even in high-contrast conditions. Distortion is also very well controlled.
Used wide open at f/1.4 there is significant fall-off towards the edges of the frame, but that’s to be expected in a fast-aperture prime lens like this. Actually, I rather like the way this can look with the right subject, and it’s easily reduced in post-production using Adobe Camera Raw. By f/2.8 it’s virtually gone.
After carrying around the D800 and Milvus Distagon T* 25mm f/1.4 for a little while, one really starts to feel the weight of this bruiser of a wide-angle lens, but it’s performance is superb and photographers shooting professional landscape or architectural photography are likely to overlook any heft in favour of the image quality they can achieve. The lens’s manual focusing design also favours these kinds of subjects over faster-paced genres, like wedding or documentary photographers.
In short, this is a superb lens for photographers who value image quality over everything else, and who have the time and knowledge to master shooting with them.
Zeiss press release on the launch of Milvus 25mm f/1.4.
Official Zeiss website.
• More images coming soon.