Over the last year or so I have been wanting to upgrade my ultrawide lens, the 16-35mm 2.8L II. This was a difficult task, as the 16-35L II has been a real dependable workhorse for me. It has netted me many good photos. There was a lot to like about it, but its age was beginning to show. More than that, as a prime lens shooter, I felt that the zoom was making me lazy with composition. For the most part, I used the lens at 16mm where it has maximum effect. I also use the excellent 24mm and 35mm 1.4 Sigma Art lenses and sometimes I’d be lazy and use the zoom at those focal lengths. The 16-35L II really does not excel wide open at 35mm so I was missing out. Apart from inviting laziness, the 16-35L II also has weak corners and a bit of distortion at wider focal lengths. Really, I can’t complain too much, its been a great lens, and I have got a lot of great images from it. I feel like nowadays with the 16-35mm f4L IS lens, everybody has a 16-35 and that just doesn’t appeal to me. I like to be a little different.
So, the search for a good alternative started long ago. I was hoping to find a great prime lens 18-21mm. Like all photographers in the internet age, I looked up sample images on the various photography sites. Zeiss of course is famous for its manual focus prime lenses which really excel for landscape and architecture. And while browsing the many internet galleries, you occasionally see Zeiss images which possess that special ‘Zeiss’ character. I started to wonder if a manual Zeiss lens could really work for my style of photography? In the end I had four good possibilities:
Always go shopping with a list of focal lengths! I needed a lens 18-21mm. Zeiss offers two good lenses here. I thought the 21mm might be too close to my existing 24mm 1.4 Art, which I use a lot. The Milvus 21mm 2.8 lens also uses the older 2008 launch 21mm 2.8 Distagon optical design, just wrapped up in a new lens body. While a potent formula, the brand new Milvus 18mm 2.8 was more appealing, also in regards to the focal length. The Sigma 20mm 1.4 Art was a top contender, and the image quality is great. But I wanted to use conventional screw-in filters and you can’t with the 20mm Art. It also has a bit too much distortion at 2.5%, but its f1.4 and represents excellent value. The new version of the 16-35mm 2.8L was also an amazing option, which offers so much compared to a manual focus Zeiss lens…
In absolute terms, the 16-35mm 2.8L III offers so much more than the Milvus 18mm 2.8, so why the hell did I choose the Zeiss? Both lenses are tack sharp corner to corner. Its amazing that the Canon is so good. Its sharper than most prime lenses. The build quality and general use in the field are also top notch. Both lenses are weather sealed, and if a filter is fitted you have a rig that can be used in all conditions. Both choices have excellent colour and contrast. It was really a difficult decision.
The simple answer is that I wanted to try something different, and it boils down to personal choice. I have wanted to try a Zeiss lens for a while. I get satisfaction using well crafted instruments, and the Milvus 18mm lens is a pleasure to use. I also love primes, there is something very satisfying about nailing a good image with a prime lens, rather than merely zooming in on something. The popularity of the Canon ultrawide zooms today is also a bit off putting to me. The Zeiss lens is lighter, smaller and simpler than the Canon lens, and it gives a certain exclusivity as only a handful of people use it. The Zeiss has better colour and less distortion than the Canon. It also focuses closer at 18mm than the Canon. Sure it has its down sides. Its manual focus for one thing, by far the biggest problem. But I have the 24mm 1.4 Art and will have the 14mm 1.8 Art lenses to back up the Milvus.
So what is it like? Well, its very well made, its compact and feels very nice to use. Its tack sharp corner to corner from 2.8 to f16 and even f22 looks good. The files are punchy and the colour is typical Zeiss. There is a lot of vignetting at 2.8, but that does not bother me. Regarding the manual focus (people leaning forward), its really easy to get sharp focus. Unlike other lenses I have used manually, the Zeiss appears to have a ‘flat spot’ of sharp focus, rather than a difficult to hit peak. I use the AF confirm light, and get good results. I have also tried liveview, but don’t see added sharpness compared to using the AF confirm light.
Its is early days, but the image quality is far better than the old 16-35mm 2.8L II. The colour and micro contract is very nice. As is typical with Carl Zeiss, the lens renders blues and blacks in a very unique and rich way. Most of the images I have taken have been in very harsh light, as the weather has been awesome in the alps lately. I look forward to also using this lens in softer light, but haven’t had the chance yet. The manual focus thing does not seem to be a problem, especially at this focal length. I really could not have asked for a better ultrawide for landscape and architecture. It is complemented in my case, by the 24mm 1.4 Art and in the future I will add a 14mm lens as well.