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Reader Question: Zeiss DSLR Lenses, Particularly the Classic Designs

See my Zeiss DSLR lenses wishlist and Zeiss lens top deals at B&H Photo.

Reader David P writes:

You were very helpful with regard to questions I had regarding the Zeiss 25 ZEs; thank you again. I don't want to be intrusive but I was hoping you would help me with one last question.

I am retiring soon and I am hoping the I will be able to spend more time with photography. I have rewarded myself by picking up a number of the Zeiss Classics ZEs. I have purchased them for their character rather then technical concerns. I also admit that they appeal to me for their classicism in design.

Zeiss Milvus 18mm f/2.8

My question: I have a preference for buying lenses new. I have found a new Classic 21, 18, and 15. I know that the 15 and 21 have been replaced by the Milvus and that the Milvus 18 is an all-new lens. Are these lens worth buying in the context of sensor development?

I don't care about that when it comes to the 50 1.4. You shoot that classic because you like the rendering not because it's a state-of-the-art 50. The wides though are more about landscape perfection.

Maybe a dumb question but do you think they will hold up over time or are they somehow already outdated? I adapt these lenses to a Sony A7R3 with a Metabones 4. I know the Zeiss Loxia lenses are very good lenses but I like the idea that I can shoot the ZEs on both systems.

DIGLLOYD: the Zeiss ZE 15mm f/2.8 Distagon and Zeiss ZE 21mm f/2.8 Distagon in Milvus garb have improved lens coatings that help with arc-type flare when the sun is in the picture and certain violet ghosting flares under extreme lighting (see image below). And weather sealing.

The original Zeiss design is better in one way: better grip; the lens barrel is too smooth for good grip with the new/current Milvus line. I’m pretty sure I will drop an Otus at some point just because of that (Otus and Milvus are both too slick-surfaced IMO).

My take is that 3 lenses that closely spaced is just too many to carry, the 18/2.8 is the best of the 3, and that you're better off just taking the 18/2.8 Milvus given the fairly tight spacing. However, 15mm is certainly wider than 18mm and has its uses. Still, the Canon EF 11-24mm f/4L is amazingly useful when going wider than 18mm, so I’d trend to that myself just out of sheer flexibility and usefulness.

As for being outdated, they are already high performers and that doesn’t change on mirrorless. However, we are entering the golden age of lenses and new offerings from Sigma in particular have been stunning in some cases, such as all of the fast Sigma DG HSM Art lenses released in the past two years. Mirrorless cameras reduce design constraints and so new native designs for mirrorless have been stunning e.g., the Canon RF 50mm f/1.2L and Canon RF 28-70mm f/2L.

Consulting: I respond to all emails, giving preference to subscribers in terms of details and guidance—my time is limited and I must earn my living. For a thorough one-on-one such as choosing a camera system or a lens lineup, I ask that readers engage me in consulting, where (on the phone) I can ask questions and drill down on what really matters. This has more than once saved someone from buying a camera system that wasn’t the best choice for their particular needs; ditto for lenses. Brands concern me not, the most appropriate solution for the shooting concerns is what I focus on.

Beaver Pond, Lundy Canyon
f11 @ 1/320 sec, ISO 100; 2015-11-03 15:46:52
Canon EOS 5DS R + Zeiss ZF.2 15mm f/2.8 Distagon

[low-res image for bot]
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