Zeiss Milvus 85mm f/1.4 Review

John Riley reviews the Zeiss Milvus 85mm f/1.4 lens, the perfect portrait lens? Find out in our review.

| Zeiss Milvus 85mm f/1.4 Planar T* in Interchangeable Lenses
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Handling and Features
Zeiss Milvus 85mm f/1.4 Review: Zeiss Milvus 85mm F1,4 Front Oblique View

The wide aperture 85mm lens is something of a classic, having been accepted as the ideal portrait lens for many decades. It is also usually the length that offers the pinnacle of any manufacturer's lens making skills, so we can expect a very high standard as the norm. It will be very interesting to see how this new and complex variation on the Planar design performs and whether or not the lack of AF is a serious drawback.

Zeiss Milvus 85mm f/1.4 Handling and Features

Zeiss Milvus 85mm f/1.4 Review: Zeiss Milvus 85mm F1,4 Without Lenshood On Nikon D600

The Milvus 85mm f/1.4 is a Planar-based design, the Planar being a symmetrical lens of large aperture designed in 1896 and basically unsurpassed even today. It has 11 elements in 9 groups, eight 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 85mm as “The Champion of Bokeh”, a laudable sentiment for a lens in this classic focal length, extensively used for portraiture.  85mm lenses have traditionally also been the focal length that surpasses in terms of quality of results. The Nikon D600 was used in this review and the Milvus balanced perfectly, making an ergonomic, if fairly heavy, combination.

The lens is weather sealed, manual focus only, has a 9 blade diaphragm and a 77mm filter thread. It weighs 1210g in Nikon version and 1280g in Canon. Focusing is down to 0.8m (2.62 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 85mm f/1.4 Review: Zeiss Milvus 85mm F1,4 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 very long throw, 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. The limited depth of field at open aperture makes for very easy focusing precision. 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.

Zeiss prevents any chance of flare with the beautifully engineered metal lens hood provided. 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. Its use also helps to prevent any impact damage to the lens itself.

Zeiss Milvus 85mm f/1.4 Review: Zeiss Milvus 85mm F1,4 Rear Oblique View

Zeiss Milvus 85mm f/1.4 Performance

85mm lenses, often used for portraits, have in the past been designed with fairly weak open aperture performance, crisping up when stopped down perhaps 2 or 3 stops. More recently, the tendency has been to make the lenses razor sharp right from wide open, perhaps using soft focus filters if needed to make the results a little kinder to the subject, the classic being the Zeiss “Softar” range.

Zeiss have definitely opted for the razor sharp approach with the Milvus, and the lens is simply excellent, centre and edge, all the way through the aperture range. There may be variation in the bald figures, but they all fall comfortably into the “excellent” category and visually it makes no difference to sharpness whatever aperture is chosen. The aperture effectively just controls the depth of field.


Zeiss Milvus 85mm f/1.4 Review: 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.


Chromatic aberration (CA) results from a lens not focusing the different colours of light at the same point. In the case of the Milvus 85mm, CA is impressively close to zero at all apertures. Flare is also entirely absent, a combination of the effects of good design, multi-coating and an effective lens hood.


Zeiss Milvus 85mm f/1.4 Review: 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.


Distortion is also very low, actually measuring at just -0.0471% barrel. With such a low distortion figure straight lines should remain as straight lines. This will be a useful feature with architectural photography in particular.

Bokeh, the rendition of the out of focus areas in an image, is a major consideration for many photographers. The Milvus 85mm renders such areas very well, with smooth rendition of even quite busy detail. Although there are other lenses just as good in this respect, the Milvus acquits itself very well indeed.

In summary, the lens is a pleasure to use, with beautiful rendition of a variety of subject matter. Results are impressive.

Zeiss Milvus 85mm f/1.4 Planar T* Sample Photos

Value For Money

There is a wide choice of 85mm lenses available, perhaps unsurprisingly as this is the classic focal length for portraits. The Zeiss Milvus 85mm f/1.4 costs £1379, at the high end of the options, but equalled in cost by the Canon EF 85mm f/1.2 L II USM (£1499) and the Nikon 85mm f/2.8 D PC-E Micro-Nikkor (£1299). The Nikon is also a perspective control lens, adding yet another dimension of possibilities. Zeiss also offer the 85mm f/1.4 Planar (£989) and the Otus 85mm f/1.4 (£3299). The Zeiss lenses are all manual focus only.

Alternative lenses from Nikon are the 85mm f/1.8 G AF-S (£399) and the 85mm f/1.4 G AF-S (£1199). Canon also has the EF 85mm f/1.8 at £237, or the EF 85mm f/1.2 L II USM (£1499), as previously mentioned.

Sigma offer the 85mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM (£619). Manual focus options come from Samyang and Lomo. The Samyang 85mm f/1.4 IF MC costs £249 and the Lomo 85mm f/2.2 Petzval Art Lens Brass is £459, or the black version is £549. There is also the new Tamron SP 85mm f/1.8 Di VC USD at £749.


Zeiss Milvus 85mm f/1.4 Verdict

The Milvus 85mm f/1.4 is without doubt a superb lens. It is fairly bulky, quite heavy, but well balanced. It is a gorgeous example of fine engineering. But above all the fast 85mm is a very exciting lens to use, offering a very pleasant perspective on the world, whether for portraits, landscapes, street photography, close range sports or any other short telephoto applications. The wide aperture offers the ability to continue shooting as the light fails. The price may be high and there's no AF, but the other qualities shine out and certainly justify giving it very serious consideration.

If the price can be afforded and the lack of AF is acceptable then the Zeiss Milvus is one of the very best 85mm lenses available.

Zeiss Milvus 85mm f/1.4 Pros

Razor sharp throughout
Virtually zero CA
Low distortion
Very easy manual focusing
Weather sealing

Zeiss Milvus 85mm f/1.4 Cons

High cost


Zeiss Milvus 85mm f/1.4 Review:

The Zeiss Milvus 85mm f/1.4 is a superb lens that is beautiful to use.


Zeiss Milvus 85mm f/1.4 Planar T* Specifications

Lens Mounts
  • Nikon F
  • Canon EF
Focal Length85mm
Angle of View29
Max Aperturef/1.4
Min Aperturef/16
Filter Size77mm
StabilisedNo Data
35mm equivalentNo Data
Internal focusingNo Data
Maximum magnificationNo Data
Min Focus80cm
Box Contents
Box ContentsNo Data

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