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Zeiss Lenses for Nikon and Canon— My Top Picks and Field Usage Thoughts

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Below is my list of top picks for Zeiss DSLR lenses with a discussion.

I’ve separated the lenses into two groups: those I carry frequently and those that I also like, but generally do not carry because of size/weight and/or focal length spacing for the way I work.

I find that when I shoot in the field, my best results come when I take at most 3 lenses, like 18mm + 25mm + 35mm where there is a clear difference in effect. It helps me focus on the types of images I am going to make; fewer and well spaced choices reduce hesitation in which lens to use.

That selection and spacing is the same reason I find a zoom lens damaging to my results: it just starts raising questions (and there are no zooms that I deem outstanding against my Zeiss primes). I recommend against zooms in general for those reasons. The best photographers throughout history did not use zooms, and they did not suffer for it. Zooms have their place for many types of shooting of course, but not in my bag for what I like to shoot. Better to work a scene harder with a prime, than get lazy with a zoom. That said, I would make an exception for a really good 11-15mm or similar.

Carrying more than 3 lenses is almost always is a waste of pack space because I just end up not using the extra focal lengths much. The argument that being able to cover a range is needed has merit, but in practice it has to be discounted against personal focus on image making—less is more and a few primes brings mental focus by narrowing the choices. Plus the extra weight and bulk slows down hiking.

Lloyd’s 'carry' list

See my in-depth diglloyd Zeiss DSLR Lenses.

For field work, I take the 18mm + 25mm + 35mm combination as a starting point. These are more a less a given, being my all time favorite lens trio. If forced to it, I might take only one of the 3, lately that first choice being the 25/1.4, which like the 35/1.4 is essentially an Otus in most all respects.

In generally I do not carry or shoot the Otus 28/1.4: it is just too large and heavy for field work, and I deem the 25/1.4 no less good even wide open, though at close distance the Otus 28 may have a performance edge. I also prefer the behavioral characteristics of the Milvus 25/1.4 and I deem it the best-ever Zeiss wide angle, all things taken into account.

I prefer the Milvus 18/2.8 over the Milvus 15/2.8 for size and weight reasons plus the 18/2.8 has less field curvature. Otherwise, both have similar peak performance. 18mm spaces much better against 25mm in my view; 15mm leaves too large a gap.

For similar reasons (size/weight/spacing), I prefer the new Milvus 18/2.8 over the Milvus 21/2.8. While the MTF charts show them both to be very similar performers, the 18/2.8 seems to be a slightly better lens than the 21/2.8 and so given the focal length spacing of 18/21/35, the choice is clear. Also, the 21/2.8 is just slightly more awkward in size/shape then the 18/2.8, the 18/2.8 being a perfect form factor and needing 77mm filters, not 82mm.

I add the Otus 55/1.4 and Milvus 135/2 if the extra weight is acceptable that day. Occassionally I might substitute the Otus 55/1.4 for the Milvus 35/1.4, but lately I have been doing that less and less, finding that 35mm is necessary to have along with 25mm.

The only non-Zeiss lens that I’d throw in here is the Sigma 14mm f/1.8 DG HSM Art, for two reasons along with top notch performance: (1) a 14mm angle of view is substantially wider than 18mm, a good complement, and (2) autofocus for automated D850 focus stepping for focus stacking.

Nikon mount shown, click through for Canon mount alternative.

Other excellent choices I sometimes carry

The Milvus 50/1.4 and 50/2M are outstanding optics, but since the Otus 55/1.4 is better than the Milvus, I rarely take the Milvus 55/1.4.

Similarly, the 100/2M is close to the 135/2 in focal length so usually the 135/2 goes along, plus it is better corrected for secondary color, being an APO lens. However, the 100/2M is significantly smaller and lighter, and sometimes I like to space 100mm against 55mm.

Lately I tend not to carry an 85mm; the Otus 85/1.4 is very large and heavy (and I don’t own it, at least not yet). The Milvus 85/1.4 is excellent and I do own it, but it tends to be one lens too many.

The 21/2.8 is excellent, but 18mm + 25mm + 35mm works best as a combination; 21mm is a nice plus to tighten up the spacing, but it’s almost always one lens too many, confusing rather than helping (vs 18mm) and making the load heavier.

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