Seeing Stars through a Stellar Lens: My Three Weeks with the Milvus 2.8/18
The Milvus flies to South Tyrol
It has been a while since ZEISS presented the Milvus 2.8/18, which is a completely new designed lens in the Milvus lineup. Its 2/3 stop advantage over the Classic 3.5/18 and the globally improved design tempted me to try this lens, although I could not find a lot of pictures on the web that fully render its potential. So I contacted the ZEISS team and they were kind enough to send me the lens for testing it in my favorite photography genre: night landscapes.
Living in South Tyrol, a northeastern mountainous region of Italy, I have always enjoyed spending time outdoors. My passion for landscape photography led me to hunt the best light conditions to frame the Dolomites, which are a unique mountain chain declared UNESCO World Heritage in 2009.
South Tyrol has a variety of extraordinarily beautiful places in nature but I wanted to choose wisely where I could get the most out of the Milvus. As my widest lens at the moment is a 28mm, I had to keep in mind the huge difference in the field of view and decide accordingly. Some of the pictures posted here are from very famous places which are visited by many international photographers. I bet you will identify the frozen lake with those beautiful sharp peaks: that is Carezza Lake (or Karersee in German). I chose that spot because now I finally had the opportunity to capture everything, from the lake to the stars, in one single frame. Again, the little church shot was taken in Villnöß, a picturesque valley famous for its evocative mountains: the Odle. However, most of these pictures are from hidden places I detected on my “treasure hunts” trying to find something new to portray: luckily, I have the home court advantage.
You can hardly see anyone wandering about these natural sights at sunset. Being accompanied by a friend or two is not only a safer way to explore unpredictable nature, but also the best weapon against boredom, as tends to go by surprisingly slowly when you have to wait for dusk and darkness. The cold temperatures are another factor you must not underestimate: preparing a well equipped backpack is essential. Once you make peace with the fact that you are going to spend some hours in a cold, dark environment – and the darker the better – then you will appreciate that time spent away from the daily problems and noise.
Even if I dream to get more photography-related opportunities one day, I actually shoot just for myself: the final picture is only one of the elements I seek. Having fun during the whole process – from choosing the location to post processing – is primarily important and this finally brings me to talk about the Milvus 2.8/18 and how good it is, not only regarding optical results. The first thing you discover when using a ZEISS lens is its absolute mechanical precision. This means real hard stop infinity when focusing, which is 90% of the work when photographing stars: the lens is calibrated to end the focus throw at the infinity mark. With an autofocus lens it is very difficult to focus properly during nighttime, not only because the focus sensor can not see in the dark, but mostly because the focus ring of these lenses has a very short and imprecise throw. The best method I found to focus the night landscape is to set the camera on a sturdy tripod, using Live View to find a bright and sharp point, such as a star, then get the focus through slow movement of the focus ring. Focusing the Milvus 2.8/18 is very easy and pleasant too, because thanks to the rubber ring and the fluid but consistent movement the lens allows perfect manual control.
Speaking about focus, I want to spend some words about field curvature, which is an annoying issue some wide anglelenses present when shooting at wide apertures. Shortly, field curvature occurs when lenses focus correctly in the center but get out of focus at the corners or vice-versa – depending on the focus point chosen – because the focus plane is not straight but curved. This is a characteristic I did not encounter in this 18mm, proving that ZEISS made a very suitable lens for night landscape photography or, if you prefer, large field astrophotography.
After all this lens proved to be immune to most of the flaws that are typical of wide angle lenses. I am not qualified enough to talk about optics, but being a photographer, I learned to recognize the presence of coma (the Number One Enemy of astrophotos: google it at your own risk) and other optical aberrations when I look at my pictures. ZEISS did a great job with this lens, but since perfection is not from this world, I noticed a not negligible amount of vignetting at f/2.8 which decreases almost completely after f/5.6. I did not have a conversation with a ZEISS engineer but if I have to guess, this light falloff is caused by the relatively small front element and the 77mm filter thread, which is for me personally, a very useful diameter. If I had to choose between a lens with no light falloff and one which can take filters, I would choose the second one without hesitation.
In astrophotography you might prefer the brightest lens you can get, but if you are an all around landscape photographer like me chances are that you will need some filters to get the shot you exactly want.
I want to share with you my wonder when, after the regular post processing steps, I noticed how the denoise plug-in (Dfine 2 from Nik Collection in my case) kept the stars completely untouched from the high ISO noise of my Nikon D800 sensor. This lens is so sharp and defined that the software had no difficulties to distinguish the stars from the noise pattern, which is the only area of the picture where the denoise is applied. I normally get a global washed out result with my other wide angle lens, forcing me to spend more time in front of my monitor tweaking masks and curves. Less time on post processing means more time to spend outdoors – or in the bed, and you will definitely appreciate bedtime so much after a whole night without a roof over your head.
Let me now talk about the decision to try the Milvus 2.8/18 over the other great option in the ZEISS lineup: the Milvus 2.8/15. The first reason, as previously mentioned, was because the 18mm has a completely new optical design. The second and main reason was that I don’t like how the vertical lines collapse when an ultra wide lens is tilted up or down, which happens most of the times since I tend to avoid the horizon in the middle of the frame. In the past I shot with a 15mm and with a 14mm too, but these ultra wide focal lengths do not fit my perception of the scene: perhaps this is because my widest lens at the moment is a 28mm. Although the jump from 28 to 18 millimeters was not short, I found the 18mm very versatile and without the stretched corners you can normally see in lenses lower than 16mm. I probably think it is a matter of taste and personal preferences.
So I was totally fine with the lens, but I had some concerns about the weather. Having three weeks to use and test the 2.8/18 may seem a lot of time, but in reality the occasions to capture a perfectly clear sky were not many and – just my luck – in the last week we were approaching full moon. As waiting for the perfect conditions was not an option, I decided to capture the night landscape anyway. Sometimes a group of clouds can give a dynamic touch to an otherwise flat sky and sometimes the full moon can spread a day-like light on the landscape: those hard shadows and the presence of stars in the sky created an interesting contrast in the final image, which has a different look compared to the other shots captured during a completely dark night.
This was my very first time with a ZEISS product. Although I had high expectations I was surprised to get such results from this lens. Beyond the mere final image, I enjoyed these days with the 2.8/18 because of the solid and precise built as well as the wide focal length, which gave me new opportunities and inspiration. Besides this, the best part of the experience was to be granted trust by a company of the caliber of ZEISS: in the shipment package I did not only receive a lens, but also their appreciation for my work as photographer which is the thing I value the most.