Shooting Winter Landscapes with Two ZEISS Milvus Lenses: the 2.8/15 and the 2.8/18
As a travel photographer I take photographs on almost 200 days a year. I spend most of my time capturing landscapes. For me this kind of photography is all about seeing more widely and making a strong impact with heavy foreground. And this is only possible with wide-angle lenses. For a long time my main lens was the AF-S Nikkor 14-24 f/2.8. It is a good lens but when you work in a genre that requires outstanding image quality you always have to be on the lookout for a better tool. So I decided to give the new ZEISS Milvus lenses a try. During my photography workshop at Lake Baikal (southeastern Siberia) in March 2017, I decided to swap my 14–24 mm zoom for the ZEISS Milvus 2.8/15 and 2.8/18 lenses.
To be honest this was quite a hard decision. I was not afraid of using manual primes – after all, landscape is a kind of photography where you can take your time switching between lenses and adjusting the focus manually. I was afraid that 15 mm in comparison to 14 would be too narrow. Technically the difference is only 4 degrees but if you try to go as wide as possible this tiny difference becomes significant. So any single millimeter in this wide-angle territory is very important. The other thing was the weight. The Milvus 2.8/15 and 2.8/18 lenses weigh more than 1.5 kilos (3.3 lbs). Adding another Milvus 2.8/21 to the set increases the weight you have to carry way up the mountains to 2.2 kilos (4.8 lbs). Compared to my 14–24 mm zoom that weighs in at 1 kg (2.2 lbs), ZEISS seems to be losing points with the travel photographer. However, I decided to face all my fears, packed the 2.8/15 and 2.8/18 lenses and set off for Baikal. And I was very surprised by how comfortable and cool it was to work with these two Milvuses.
Thinking about the Equipment First
Before I go on a shoot I carefully plan my equipment. By doing so I realized that using prime lenses offers more possibilities for my creative process. I do not want this article to sound like a bunch of marketing messages. This was my actual process: Using prime lenses I started to compose more accurately, more carefully, preferring to walk toward the subject rather than zooming in on it. While I was working with 14–24 mm zoom I based my work on the principle “the wider the better.” But now I started to clearly see scenes at 15 mm and 18 mm. I think adding another 21 mm prime lens would even perfect this approach. And my main fear of 15 mm not being wide enough never came true. Even in the most difficult situations, the 15 mm prime was always enough.
Extreme Weather Conditions? No Problem!
The first few days of working with the Milvus lenses revealed the only negative aspect of the lens family – the rubber surface of the focus ring. If you’re using the lenses in a studio setup I believe it will be fine. But I was using them outside in –25 C° (–13 F°). So I had to wear my gloves. The ring turns so smoothly (that is definitely a positive aspect) that with your gloves on you cannot figure out if you are turning the ring or if you are trying to turn the barrel itself. But there is another positive aspect: Did you note the temperature of –25 C°? In these harsh conditions the lenses work great. Even a heavy blizzard is no problem. Based on these experiences, I will never again doubt my equipment in extreme weather conditions. I know it works and I can always capture beautiful images.
Let’s talk about technical finesse: I always knew ZEISS is like the Bentley in the world of lenses. But only by working with them yourself will you understand how good they really are. The first thing I noticed while testing the Milvus 2.8/15 in the shop was minimal to zero distortion. All straight lines are nicely straight. Not even slightly bent – they are perfect! Maybe that’s not the most important thing in nature landscapes, but cityscape and architecture photographers would appreciate it for sure.
Nine Aperture Blades that Make All the Difference
I noticed that the Milvus lenses greatly boost the image quality and micro contrast over the entire frame. But I was impressed to see consistent quality on the apertures f/16 and lower. And you would definitely use this aperture when you see this perfect “star” appearing around the sun when stopped down to f/22. I did. Having this star effect on the sun is a good addition to my pictures as I prefer to shoot landscapes facing the sun. This kind of shooting is technically harder than shooting opposite the sun. But those two primes have made my life much easier. The main enemy of this kind of pictures is sun flare. I normally use the so-called finger technique while shooting toward the sun. After you take a normal picture with the flare you lock autoexposure and cover the sun with your finger for the flare to disappear. Then, during post-processing, you merge these two frames into one without your finger or flares. With the Milvus lenses I really tried to catch the flares. With little success. This made shooting and post-processing faster.
Another high-level technique in shooting landscapes with heavy foreground is focus stacking. Even when stopped down to f/22, the depth of field is still too shallow to cover all the scenery from objects 25 cm close to the landscape in the background. So you have to focus on the closest object, take a picture, then focus further and take another picture and thus cover the whole scene with a series of 6 to 10 frames. But as you use this technique, you soon notice that as you change the focus, the focal length also changes. This effect is called focus breathing. This results in further pictures being a bit smaller than those taken for the foreground. So you have to keep this in mind and add some space you can cut out when stitching the final image. About 200 pixels per side. Not much, but still annoying. On the Milvus lenses focus breathing is minimal so I could compose the image just the way I wanted it to look after post-processing.
To top it all off, there’s another great bonus for most landscapists. You can attach and use simple filters without paying a fortune for special holders designed for wide angles with their unremovable blends. Personally I don’t use graduated filters as I prefer to do all the blending during post-processing. But attaching my 10-stage neutral density filter to the 18 mm Milvus was beneficial for my work. Still, If you have 15, 18 and 21 primes you have to carry 95, 77 and 82 mm filters, which is not ideal if you’re traveling. It would be better to at least match the filter sizes of 18 and 21 primes even if this would mean large 82 mm filters.
To sum up, I was surprised by both the technical quality and the shift in my shooting philosophy, which I find far more important.
About the Author
Anton Agarkov, travel and landscape photographer and journalist with more than ten years of experience. I spend more than 200 days in a year in expeditions and photography workshops which I personally organize. I work with Nikon, Fujifilm, Gitzo, Manfrotto and other brands. Winner and finalist of multiple russian and worldwide photography competitions such as Global Arctic Awards.