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Zeiss Milvus 21mm f/2.8 Lens Review

John Riley reviews the ultra wide-angle 21mm f/2.8 manual focus lens for Nikon and Canon DSLRs.

| Zeiss Milvus 21mm f/2.8 Distagon T* in Interchangeable Lenses
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Handling and Features

Zeiss Milvus 21mm f/2.8 Lens Review: Zeiss Milvus 21mm F2,8 Front Oblique

The Milvus range from Zeiss is offered as having a high level of corrections and performance, but not with the bulk or cost of the no-compromise Otus lenses. It will be very interesting to see just how good the Milvus lenses are and whether or not they offer almost the same quality level at a more affordable price point.

Zeiss Milvus 21mm f/2.8 Handling and Features

Zeiss Milvus 21mm f/2.8 Lens Review: Zeiss Milvus 21mm F2,8 On Nikon D600

The Milvus 21mm f/2.8 is a Distagon-based design. It has 16 elements in 13 groups, four of which are Anomalous Partial Dispersion glass. The elements are a floating design, meaning that they move relative to each other as we focus, thus maintaining performance at all distances. The Zeiss website bills the 21mm as “Master of Horizons”, which suggests to me that this ultra-wide is aimed at landscape photographers in particular, with sweeping vistas firmly in mind. Obviously there is also considerable potential as an architectural and as a street lens.

The lens is weather sealed, manual focus only, has a 9 blade diaphragm and an 82mm filter thread. It weighs 735g in Nikon version and 851g in Canon. Focusing is down to 1.22m (0.72 feet) which is about what we would expect from a lens of this focal length.

The diaphragm can be controlled via the aperture ring, which is click stopped. The Nikon version has a small screw on the back of the lens that can be turned to de-click the ring for video applications. The lens can control the aperture in the traditional way, or if set on f/22 this control can be passed to the camera body.

Zeiss Milvus 21mm f/2.8 Lens Review: Zeiss Milvus 21mm F2,8 With Lenshood On Nikon D600

Both aperture ring and focusing ring turn in the correct direction for Nikon cameras, a useful point if the lens is to be used alongside any Nikon manual focus optics. The Canon version operates correctly in the reverse direction. The focusing is ultra smooth, with a fairly long throw of 124 degrees, which aids accuracy. On the Nikon D600 used for this review manual focus was very easy, not always the case with modern AF focusing screens. 21mm is definitely ultra-wide and as a result there is quite a bit of depth of field. The depth of field scale on the lens is a very useful aid, at one time to be found on virtually all lenses. Also marked is the infra-red correction mark, used to compensate for the focus shift in the infra-red region of the spectrum.

Flare could always be a potential issue with ultra-wide lenses and Zeiss provide a beautifully made bayonet lens hood, always an excellent idea to be used all the time. Not only will this reduce the risk of stray light hitting the lens, but it also forms a useful defence against impact. This clicks into place with the usual Zeiss precision and is another reflection of the high quality of workmanship that clearly has gone into the manufacture of this lens.

Zeiss Milvus 21mm f/2.8 Lens Review: Zeiss Milvus 21mm F2,8 Rear Oblique

Zeiss Milvus 21mm f/2.8 Performance

It is clear from the start that we have here a high performing lens. Although it is possible to induce flare, for example, it needs very extreme circumstances to do so. For most realistic purposes though the lens is flare free. Likewise chromatic aberration, which is as close to zero as we could hope for. Colour fringing will not be a problem even in the most demanding situations.

Sharpness is also of a very high order. At the centre, the image sharpness is excellent from the outset. It only drops to a level that could be described at very good when we reach the minimum aperture of f/22. Central performance peaks at f/5.6, but the variation is very small indeed.

The edges do lag behind slightly, with open aperture being good, reaching a very good level at f/4 and peaking at excellent levels between f/5.6 and f/11. Edge sharpness is still very good through to f/22.

This really is uniformly excellent and very welcome in a lens that will likely be used at smaller apertures for landscapes where we might want to maximise depth of field.


Zeiss Milvus 21mm f/2.8 Lens Review: Zeiss Milvus 21mm F2 8 MTF Chart
MTF Chart

How to read our charts

The blue column represents readings from the centre of the picture frame at the various apertures and the green is from the edges. 

The scale on the left side is an indication of actual image resolution as LW/PH and is described in detail above. The taller the column, the better the lens performance. 

For this review, the lens was tested on a Nikon D600 using Imatest.

Distortion measures the ability of a lens to render straight lines accurately. With lenses as wide as 21mm this is often allowed to drift a little, but the Milvus only shows a very modest -0.954% of barrel distortion. This is unlikely to be much of an issue, but for the most critical applications it can also be tackled in software. We see 24mm lenses with much higher distortion figures than this.


Zeiss Milvus 21mm f/2.8 Lens Review: Zeiss Milvus 21mm F2 8 CA Chart
CA Chart

How to read our charts

Chromatic aberration is the lens' inability to focus on the sensor or film all colours of visible light at the same point. Severe chromatic aberration gives a noticeable fringing or a halo effect around sharp edges within the picture. It can be cured in software.

Apochromatic lenses have special lens elements (aspheric, extra-low dispersion etc) to minimize the problem, hence they usually cost more.

For this review, the lens was tested on a Nikon D600 using Imatest.

Bokeh, the rendition of the out of focus areas in an image, is a major consideration for many photographers. The Milvus 21mm renders such areas very well, with smooth rendition of even quite busy detail. There is a smoothness, a fluidity, and the end result is pictorially very satisfactory.

Zeiss Milvus 21mm f/2.8 Distagon T* Sample Photos

Value For Money

The Zeiss Milvus 21mm f/2.8 lens is priced at £1299, not a small amount but much more realistic than the high end Otus lenses. Zeiss themselves offer an alternative in the 21mm f/2.8 T* Distagon at £1449.

Nikon has the 20mm f/1.8 G AF-S at £579. Canon's offering is the EF 20mm f/2.8 USM, priced at £385. The Sigma alternative is the 20mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art lens at £629.

The alternatives are AF lenses, but the Zeiss are MF only, so can the much higher price be justified? This is a particularly personal choice that needs to be made, but if we accept there is value in high end performance, quality of manufacture and the simple joy of using finely made items, then the normal concepts of value for money may not hold. I would suggest that for what it offers, the Zeiss Milvus 21mm f/2.8 is good value.

For more options have a look at the Top 15 Wide-angle Lenses.

Zeiss Milvus 21mm f/2.8 Verdict

The Zeiss Milvus 21mm f/2.8 lens is a very fine example of quality lens manufacturing. Its main drawback may be the lack of AF, but if that can be accepted then its optical quality is impeccable and it would be difficult to find a more pleasing lens to use. Yes, the price is high, but I would expect it to be a very long term investment and spread over many years hard use that price may well be acceptable.

In the introduction I speculated how the Milvus lens might compare to the Otus range, which is marketed as lenses with no compromises. The Milvus compromise, if such it is, seems to mean slower maximum aperture, but against that a wider lens than the Otus 28mm f/1.4 and probably smoother bokeh as well. At one third of the price and a much reduced burden of weight and bulk then the Milvus looks a very powerful proposition.

Zeiss Milvus 21mm f/2.8 Pros

Gorgeous image quality
Very high manufacturing quality
Virtually no CA
Very flare resistant
Very low distortion for such a wide lens
Easy to manually focus

Zeiss Milvus 21mm f/2.8 Cons

High price


Zeiss Milvus 21mm f/2.8 Lens Review:

The Zeiss Milvus 21mm f/2.8 is a gorgeous lens with impeccable image quality that's a pleasure to use.



Zeiss Milvus 21mm f/2.8 Distagon T* Specifications

Lens Mounts
  • Nikon F
  • Canon EF
Focal Length21mm
Angle of View90°
Max Aperturef/2.8
Min Aperturef/22
Filter Size82mm
35mm equivalentNo Data
Internal focusingNo Data
Maximum magnificationNo Data
Min Focus22cm
BladesNo Data
Box Contents
Box ContentsNo Data

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