As a native New Yorker who fell in love with photographing the vast and varied architecture of my hometown, I never thought for a second that I would fall so completely in love with the verdant forests and surging waterfalls of the Pacific Northwest US. However, because I allowed myself to be open to it and teach myself what it means to photograph natural landscapes instead of manmade ones, I found real growth. In the same vein, I had always been a born and bred zoom lens shooter. Nine times out of ten, you would see my camera have a 16-35mm ultra-wide zoom lens on and furthermore, I would almost always have it locked at its widest focal length. Despite living almost exclusively at the same ultra-wide focal length, I always took the safe road with the zoom capabilities and it is not something I questioned until several years ago when I upgraded my camera to the beastly Sony a7R II with its 42 megapixel sensor.
Understanding the impact of a powerful sensor
It is funny how lathered we photographers can get when we parse the nitty gritty details of our cameras, right? I have at my disposal a full frame camera sensor capable of creating an uncompressed 42 megapixel image and I know exactly how far I can push it in terms of dynamic range and low light/high ISO performance, but how much thought do you think I put into what it really means to have such a beefy sensor?
Initially, not much to be honest. I just used the same Sony 16-35mm lens that had served my purposes well enough. But, when I really thought about it, was I doing everything possible to ensure that I was taking full advantage of that gigantic sensor? Think about how critical of a role your lens plays in the creation of your photo. I don’t necessarily mean the focal length or even the aperture size. I am talking about the quality of the glass elements and barrel that sits directly in front of your sensor. Does light pass through all glass in the same way? At a very high level, the answer is no, and yet it is in the way light passes through the lens and hits the sensor that will determine the quality of the image (not the composition). So, if I had gone to the lengths and expense of buying myself a camera with such a capable sensor, should I not also make equal strides to ensure that I’m putting the best glass on top of it?
That is when I decided to move exclusively to using ZEISS prime lenses. From the first exposure I took with my ZEISS lens (the Batis 2.8/18), I immediately saw the benefits. From the exceptional build quality to the svelte size/weight, and—most importantly— to the corner-to-corner sharpness of each frame, I knew that prime lenses made the most sense to take full advantage of my camera’s massive sensor.
Ever since making the move to prime lenses, I learned to embrace the opportunities that a fixed focal length brought. While there is an unmistakable convenience with being able to zoom in with your lens, there is also an undeniable appreciation for picking my camera up, moving to a closer position, and fine-tuning the composition using my feet. This level of concentration has proven very beneficial as it has forced me to be more intentional with my composition. I find myself analyzing everything within my frame and everything intersecting its walls in such a way that when I press the shutter button, I know that I have captured exactly what I wanted and exactly the way I intended to.
I have had the distinct pleasure of shooting with ZEISS prime lenses for the past several years. My camera bag is always packed with an assortment of Batis and Loxia lenses, both native to the Sony a7/a9 system. Recently, I had an opportunity to use the ZEISS Milvus 2.8/15 with my Sony a7R II (using a Sigma EF to FE adapter) on several waterfall shoots in the Oregon and Washington areas and I may not be able to send it back.
Finely-tuned Focus Control
The first thing that I immediately noticed when I set up for my initial exposure was the focus ring. Or rather, it was the precision that I had when dialing in my focal point. Because I’ve been a long-time ZEISS Loxia shooter, I am very comfortable with using Manual Focus. In fact, I manually focus my lens even when it has Autofocus functionality, like the ZEISS Batis. So, when I turned the focus ring, I was astonished at the level of control I had. While this in and of itself is worth mentioning, it is even more helpful if you do a lot of focus stacking like I do.
Often times, I shoot at a larger aperture in order to achieve a particular shutter speed, especially if I fill my foreground with a dominant element. While this allows me to get the desired effect in my composition, it also results in a shallow plane of focus. To help mitigate that, I often take several photos of the exact same composition, varying the focal points from the foreground through to the farthest point in the background. Later during post-processing, I use Adobe Photoshop to align and blend the layers, resulting in the exact composition I envisioned and retaining complete sharpness throughout the frame. Having the level of control over my focus point that the ZEISS Milvus 2.8/15 provides makes this process exceptionally easy and reliable.
In the example below, my goal was to focus on the leaf in the foreground while capturing the movement in the water and while keeping the entire scene sharp. I could not achieve this with a single exposure, as illustrated in the upper callout frame. You can clearly see that the background was soft. However, because I had such precise focus control with the Milvus 2.8/15, I was able to get the necessary frames with the background in focus—as illustrated in the lower callout frame—and stitch them together.
With the focus stacked image created, I was able to apply further editing treatments to come up with a photo that I’m very excited to share.
Iterative Improvements That Matter
As you can probably tell, filters play a very important role with my photography. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that next to the camera and lens, having solid filters is critical. With the previous version of the 15mm prime lens, you had a fixed tulip lens shade which was a great help to minimize stray light spills but it removed the possibility of using any filters. As a landscape photographer, the inability to pair filters to a lens makes my photographic opportunities much more difficult to find given the nature of what I’m photographing (pun intended).
Thankfully, the ZEISS Milvus 2.8/15 has a removable lens shade and provides an admittedly large 95mm filter diameter. At this diameter, specific solutions like Lee’s SW150 rings, holders, and filters are recommended. Fortunately, Lee provides a variety of varying neutral density filter options along with an absolutely critical circular polarizer.
As you can see with the following example, the first photo was taken without a circular polarizer and the second one was taken with the Lee circular polarizer affixed to the ZEISS Milvus 2.8/15. Not only did the circular polarizer eliminate the surface reflection of the flowing water, it also brought out the warm tones of the lichen throughout the scene.
Built for the Elements
I miss the days when I shot commercial real estate photography. 98% of my work was done indoors and under controlled environments. If my lens got wet, that would mean that the building’s sprinkler system was going off and I’d have much greater things to worry about. These days, you’ll typically find my camera hovering just over a rapid creek, at the base of a waterfall, or in a forest in the rain. So, you could imagine that the most important factor I look for in my lenses is build quality. Everything from the way the lens is coated to how it is constructed determines whether I will be able to work in these inclement environments. Fortunately, the Milvus 2.8/15 has proven to be quite the tank.
Often times, I’m photographing in bright conditions with lots of dappled light. As such, I pay close attention to how the lens is constructed and what sort of coatings are applied, especially to its front element. Thankfully, ZEISS has improved the anti-reflective coating of the the Milvus 2.8/15, which had already proven quite valuable during a recent shoot when the blanket of overcast skies broke apart, allowing harsh sunlight to bust through the tree canopy.
Taking it a step further, ZEISS made the great move to weather seal the barrel of the Milvus 2.8/15, which is pretty much a requirement for each of my lenses these days. After spending the better part of the day getting coated with waterfall spray and pelted with droplets from rushing currents, I can happily report that the lens performed perfectly. I never once worried about any sort of issues due to the elements.
I hope my experiences give you a better idea of why I prefer using my ZEISS prime lenses over any other and why I don’t think I will be returning the Milvus 2.8/15 loaner back to them. At an ultra-wide 15mm focal length with a fast f/2.8 aperture, you have an ideal lens for landscape photography. And because it is built so well, you can rest assured knowing that it will keep right up with you out in the elements.
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