Sigma 135 f/1.8 Art vs. Zeiss 135 f/2 Milvus

Sigma 135 f/1.8 Art vs. Zeiss 135 f/2 Milvus

It's been a good while since I've bothered reviewing any gear, so when presented with a bevy of manufacturer booths at a conference I was speaking at in St. Louis recently, I decided it was time to once again test some equipment and babble about it a little. In this case, I pitted the brand new Sigma 135 f/1.8 Art against the year-old Zeiss 135 f/2 Milvus, because why not. 

So let's get right down to the obvious. The Sigma Art series of prime lenses have all been phenomenal so far, and Zeiss is, well, Zeiss. So I knew this was going to be a comparison of two extremely good pieces of glass, right from the start. Biggest initial difference? The Sigma is auto focus, and the Zeiss is, in fact, manual focus. So let's see how this plays out.

Zeiss 135 f/2 Milvus

As I have stated in the past, anything from the Big Z is usually going to be stellar, no matter what. It's no secret that Zeiss makes glass that is buttery smooth, apocalyptically sharp, and built like little cylindrical exotic cars. The good news is, the 135 f/2 Milvus is all of those things. And thus ends this review, thank you, good night. 

Ok, that's not exactly true, as much more needs to be said.

The glorious Zeiss 135 f/2 Milvus. Pretty sure the hood is made of metal. I like things that are made of metal.

The "bad" news, depending on how you choose to approach it anyway, is that on a Canon EF mount, the 135 Milvus is a manual focus lens. Asking the Zeiss reps why no AF option was offered, they threw up their hands in a dismissive, politically neutral manner and simply said "Licensing." Okeedoke. I opted not to inquire further, and ran off to see if my father's photography influence when I was child would come to save my ass in the world of manual focusing (it had been a while).

So out came my trusty, beat-to-hell, road worn Canon 6D, and the testing began. I attached the Milvus - scratch that - I attached the 6D to the Milvus (it isn't a dainty piece of glass, folks) and strode right up to my scheduled model, confidently saying it was time to get started. True to my usual "horror and panic" approach to testing gear, I hadn't snapped a single frame with the Milvus before I started with the model on location (I reason that if a lens takes more than a few seconds to understand, then I probably don't want it anyway, so I just go for it).

And because duh, I immediately chose f/2 on my camera. If this lens was going to have any failings, let's find them right up front, no?

After 2 throwaway frames to get my exposure decently close, this is the first shot I captured with the Zeiss 135 f/2 Milvus - manually focused I might add. I was trying to channel my dad's guidance from back in the day and not hide from MF. So far, so good.

Note: The shot above, and all shots on this review, are entirely unedited. No exposure or color correction, sharpening, etc, was done after the raw files were imported into Capture One Pro 10. They were then exported as JPEG files from Capture One and added to this review.

Confidently, and as if on call, I framed my first test shot, and immediately noticed my back button focus wasn't on. Oh wait, no, turns out I'm an idiot and instantly forgot I was on a MF lens. This gaff led to my first discovery about the Zeiss 135 f/2 Milvus: it at least has manual focus assist. Said another way, when I hold down the back button focus button, the camera will beep when I've focused (allegedly) correctly. I kept firing off shot after shot, noodling with the silky smooth focus ring and listening to the cacophony of beeps my 6D was screaming at me, self-assured that I was nailing focus left and right.

I know what you're thinking; I'm leading up to my laments about how horribly out of focus my shots ended up, right? Happy to say, that is not the case. Even with my out of practice self, I managed to make the Milvus work for me even with manual focus. The model on set knew I was testing lenses, but I wasn't going to waste her time explaining to her that I needed extra time and patience to fiddle with manual focus because it'd been a long time since I had used MF glass - so I just went for it.

My battered 6D looked out of place with a pristine Zeiss on it, but it felt like perfection while shooting. Zero complaints regarding the feel of this lens.

This lens is such a joy to work with if tactile performance is a big thing for you. The focus ring, as I mentioned, is so incredibly well made, stable, smooth, and solid, that it makes manual focusing actually fun, easy and even pleasurable (ok that last part might be a stretch). It feels incredibly balanced on my camera, and never made me feel like it was difficult to manage in hand. The hood is, I think, made of metal, and for reasons I can't quite put into words, I really like that. "What about the build quality overall, Nino?" is what you're asking now, I am sure. It's built like a Zeiss - any other questions?

Sharpness, when I nailed focus anyway, was outstanding. Even wide open at f/2, I had no complaints or concerns about this lens being sharp, edge to edge. Any out of focus shots I had were generally wildly out of focus, and stemmed from my own error. No, I didn't test these lens at tighter apertures and in any other comparison tests.

Moving on, the Zeiss is not a particularly inexpensive lens, currently running USD$2,199 on B&H. And this price point is worsened when you realize, once again, this lens does not have auto focus. Most Canon-slinging portrait shooters I know sing the praises of the classic Canon 135 f/2.0L, a lens I owned for a year a little while back, and for good reason: it is a phenomenal lens that runs all of USD$999 brand new, with fantastically good auto focusing for portrait work. That isn't a little bit less than the Zeiss, it's outrageously less. The Zeiss is better glass than the Canon, make no mistake, but in my opinion it's a tough sell to say that it is more than 2x the price better.

And sure, stabilization would have been nice at this focal length, but then that's something we've all wanted on 135mm primes for ages anyway.

Zeiss: The Hits

  • Looks sexy as hell.
  • Built like a high-end exotic Italian car.
  • Focus ring is as creamy smooth as it gets.
  • Color rendering is outrageously accurate and appealing.
  • Sharpness is unsurprisingly superb.
  • Bokeh is outrageously good, but honestly most 135's have great bokeh.
  • Weighty, and feels solid in hand but not too heavy.
  • Manual focus assist is pretty helpful.
  • That metal hood though.

Zeiss: The Misses

  • Manual focus.
  • USD$2,199 for a manual focus, 135mm portrait prime is a bit steep for most of us.

Zeiss: Consensus

If the price point isn't a deterrent for you (it is for most), and you want a killer 135mm portrait prime (and you're ok with manual focus), buy this lens. Don't sell a kidney or add to your mountain of debt to do so, but if you can add the Zeiss 135 f/2 Milvus to your arsenal, you won't be wanting for breathtakingly well rendered portraits.

    Sigma 135 f/1.8 Art

    Let's not mince words here: the Sigma Art series of primes has kicked considerable ass since they first hit the market, plain and simple. Their 50 f/1.4 Art made believers out of Sigma doubters everywhere, and the 85 f/1.4 Art was one of the most anticipated pieces of kit in the last year or so. Sigma nailed it with this series, as evidenced by the pile of backordered units at each launch.

    The Sigma 135 f/1.8 Art in all its tank-like glory. This isn't a cutesy, delicate piece of glass, folks.

    One of my closest friends, photographer Euan Torrie, has, and continues to be, an early adopter of the Sigma Art primes, having ordered the 50 Art when it was new, and being on the preorder list for the 85 Art and 135 Art since sales began (he currently owns all three). I tested Torrie's 50 Art in Chicago some years ago, and was immediately blown away. A few snaps with his 85 Art here in town didn't disappoint, and he took delivery of his 135 Art while I was in St. Louis testing the same lens that Sigma provided for me. 

    Upon holding the Sigma 135 f/1.8 Art for the first time, it occurred to me how robust this thing was. It's not a small prime lens, to be clear.

    I'd like to say I have "average sized" hands, so this gives you an idea of the size of the Sigma 135 Art. Which makes sense considering it's a 1.8 lens, though.

    Mind you, I am not one to shy away from a solidly built, hefty lens. In fact, I enjoy the stability a heavy prime affords me when I shoot, as I never utilize tripods, ever. I'm also a bit old school and get great satisfaction from a fat piece of glass, as it just looks cool. Usually, but not always, a heavy lens tends to be well made and performs well. I could argue that the Sigma is a teensy bit heavier than the Zeiss, but not by much, and I didn't weigh them or ask how much they weighed anyway.

    The large focus ring and function buttons all felt solidly built, and I feel confident they'd last many many years before failing. The overall build quality doesn't have the "exotic car" refinement of the Zeiss, but is still incredible. Properly engineered and manufactured, I didn't have a single issue with the physical characteristics of this lens while I indecently groped it with my paws that day.

    Camera set to f/1.8 because reasons; let's do this.

    Sharp sharp sharp, no doubt. The Sigma 135 f/1.8 Art is sharp, even wide open at 1.8, and the color rendering is fairly saturated without becoming distasteful.

    So, the Sigma 135 f/1.8 Art has auto focus and Zeiss 135 f/2 Milvus does not. But it is any good? I'm happy to report that, yes, the AF is sublime for portrait work. No focus hunting to speak of in backlit situations, and instantly locked in with what I would estimate to be an 85% success rate. I didn't try any sort of action or movement tracking with it, but that's not what I use a 135mm prime for anyway.

    Bokeh was great, blah blah blah, but once again that's a telephoto prime for you. I love creamy lens blur as much as any portrait shooter, but I don't tend to obsess on micro-details of bokeh unless something is egregiously wrong or unappealing about it. And I didn't see any discernable difference between the bokeh of the Zeiss at f/2 and the Sigma at f/1.8, which is not surprising of course. And yes, I am well aware that the Sony-Zeiss Sonnar 135 f/1.8 ZA exists, but that won't work on my camera system, of course.

    I was intentionally impatient and careless with the auto focus on the Sigma, snapping away frame after frame in hurried succession, to see if such wanton sloppiness would net horrible results. The Sigma AF nailed it, shot after shot, even in my haste.

    The best news, however, is that the Sigma is damn sharp at f/1.8, and consistently so. Pushing the aperture just a touch wider, perhaps for bragging rights, was a bold move by Sigma, and could have been a catastrophe if things were even a little bit off, engineering wise. But as Sigma is trying to compete in earnest with the likes of Zeiss and other top tier glass makers, they went all in. Thankfully, they succeeded in making a lens I feel I could trust wide open.

    Sigma: The Hits

    • Auto focus, for one thing, and it's consistent, fast and accurate.
    • Fantastic bokeh, which is expected.
    • Built like a tank; this thing will last a very long time.
    • USD$1,399 for a "step up" 135 from, say, the Canon EF 135 2.0L, is arguably very reasonable.

    Sigma: The Misses

    • Not built like an exotic car; it's sort of utility looking.
    • Color rendering feels a bit saturated out of camera, and I find myself reducing saturation a lot in color correction.

    Sigma: Consensus

    This is the better buy of the two lenses in this review, plain and simple. The somewhat esoteric benefits of the Zeiss are nice, but not enough to convince me to shell out $800 more and lose auto focus capabilities of the Sigma.

    Clearly, the only solution here is to buy them both.

    In the end, I would be hard-pressed to tell you should absolutely buy the Zeiss over Sigma, despite the Zeiss being a phenomenal piece of glass. I believe Zeiss veterans will pick their champion without hesitation, mostly because the Big Z fanbase is quite the fanatic, devoted bunch and are attuned to the micro-details that make Zeiss lenses, well, Zeiss lenses. But anyone who simply wants a step up from the Canon 135 2.0L (or even the nifty, defocus control Nikkor 135 f/2 DC) should almost certainly go with the Sigma. 

    See my final retouched images shot with the Sigma 135 f/1.8 Art and Zeiss 135 f/2 Milvus in St. Louis on my Facebook page and Instagram very soon. But which one will I be buying? You'll just have to wait and see.

    More Unedited Sample Images: Sigma 135 f/1.8 Art

    More Unedited Sample Images: Zeiss 135 f/2 Milvus

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    Previous comments
    filmkennedy's picture

    Great comparison!

    I dislike Zeiss in general (Master Primes, Milvus, Otis, CP2/3's, etc.) since they have more contrast to the look. I feel that's why Zeiss appears sharp. So it's more on the look they produce and less it's performance

    Spy Black's picture

    Zeiss lenses, confirming P.T. Barnum's old adage, one lens at a time.

    Jonathan Brady's picture

    I was surprised at the repeated mentioning of "unedited" images that were run through C1. For those who have never used C1, it applies a LOT of processing when opening a RAW file. The results are definitely NOT the same as an unedited image from LR/PS/ACR. I'm mentioning this in case there are Adobe users who think the lenses themselves provide that kind of color in RAW files, which is absolutely NOT the case.

    Nino Batista's picture

    You def make an interesting point, but allow me to clarify / expand on it. It is a common misconception, but you assumed that Adobe / Lr / ACR is some kind of formal baseline of what an "unprocessed" raw file should absolutely look like. The raw processing engines in ACR and C1 are simply different. While both apps can be set up to change files as they come in, when no presets or recipes are being applied automatically, yes the files look different between C1 and ACR. And they look different because of how C1 interprets and processes the raw data from the file, not because it is adding anything to it or modifying it further than "actual" raw, which again you were assuming was ACR - which to be clear - it isn't. It's all the same data, interpreted differently. Also, ARW files (Sony Alpha series) come into C1 looking like cadaver death without any processing (flat as hell, no color, no contrast). However, ARW files have far more DR to give and can be transformed into amazingness with C1 easily. Canon CR2 files tend to come in warmer toned and fairly rich into C1 right out of camera, and NEF files somewhere between ARW and CR2, in terms of color - again because of how C1 processes the data, not "adding" anything "on top" of the alleged ACR standard.

    You could argue that ACR is a *de facto* standard, and there I would agree with you. So your point makes people aware that they are different (C1 and ACR) and that's valid - but I wanted to clarify that it is not because presets or recipes are applied on import in C1 (unless you choose to do so).

    Naturally, if I am mistaken in this assertion, then I am open to discuss. But in my working with the app, my discussions with many Phase / C1 reps at events and training sessions, etc, C1 doesn't "sweeten" images beyond the fact that the raw processing it does tends to flatter some raw formats pretty darn well (I'm looking at you, Canon).

    dred lew's picture

    Generally agree with your explanation, just wanted to provide even further background on it:

    "You could argue that ACR is a *de facto* standard", only by measure of number of users, maybe. LR is probably the most used Raw processor among photographers but it's not a standard for processing, as you pointed out.

    It's what Adobe would have liked to have with their DNG format that was supposed to be the common denominator for all camera manufacturers to use. Software makers wouldn't have to wait so long for a custom profile of a specific camera model to come out in order to process it. So Adobe leveled the Raw interpretation to something algorithmic that is very flat and basic which any camera could produce, saved in the DNG format, as opposed to NEF, CR2, etc. One Raw format to rule them all, but alas, that didn't happen. Camera manufacturers love their proprietary formats, for reasons of control and world domination of course.

    C1 actually does "sweeten" the images but in a good way. PhaseOne tests/measures every camera & lens combination and creates custom profiles for each one to give it a closest-to-reality rendering, as a starting point. Much like the original camera manufacturer does with its own software it provides. PhaseOne puts a lot of work into that customization and it's that superior rendering quality that C1 is known for.

    If your ARWs look like cadaver death (lol) in C1, it's probably because PhaseOne hasn't gotten around to create custom profiles yet but wanted to support the camera nonetheless. At least you can import your stuff, yet it may render with that generic and drab ACR "look". They may put out a new profile sometime down the road that makes ARW look better from the beginning. You sometimes see a "v2" of a profile for a certain camera, that is why. - In the meantime, you could also create your own ICC profile for your camera and import this in C1 for better rendering out of the box. There are YouTube videos on how to do this.

    dred lew's picture

    Great review, thanks! Unlike others, this one is actually focusing on portraits, the main purpose this lens is designed for. The sample images also show reasonable framing of the subject, with both full-body and 3/4-length shots to get a good idea of the bokeh. There is no reason to show closeup with this lens, bokeh could be achieved with any kind of lens if focused close enough. And I completely agree with your assessment of both the lenses. The Sigma is going to be the one for me.

    Good read. Although a few things to point out:

    - When you said Zeiss doesn't make af for Canon EF mount, you suggest it does on F mount. It doesnt. The entire range of Milvus and Otus is manual focus.
    - Manual Focus assist shouldn't be a surprise, its more a feature of the camera than the lens. The lens just needs the af confirmation chip. Just switch any af lens to mf and you'll get the assist beep.
    - I dispute that a lens can give you an image thats "too saturated". Even glass absorbs light and the more glass sits in front of the sensor, the less colour rendition and contrast.

    Hussain Hijazi's picture

    Great write up and images Nino :) I have the Nikon 105 1.4 and thinking of adding the Sigma to my line up. Sigma have literally shaken up the lens market with their incredible offerings; to deny that is simply delusional.

    For those who don't mind manual focus and are on a budget, I highly recommend the Samyang 135/2.

    I'd take the Sigma....even if they were priced the same.

    I hate how everyone loves how the zeiss is "built like a tank". I've owned a LOT of lens over the past 10 years or so. Guess which ones showed wear the easiest.....the zeiss. The paint on the metal is easy to scratch. If you have one with a knurled focus will show wear. The metal hood...easy to get bent or show wear. Hell...even the felt inside the lens hood is something I was concerned with. It attracts lent like crazy. For me to shoot zeiss, I feel like I need to be in a quarantine tent or something.

    I've broken two lens ever. One was a Nikon 70-200, but it just needed some autofocus or VR repair. The second was a Zeiss 100mm macro. One little bump against a door frame while walking though and it was considered beyond repair by Zeiss. I traded it in towards the Milvus version but, I ended up trading it in for a Sigma macro, and a couple more lenses to boot. And I even think the Sigma out performs it anyway.

    Manual focus also sucks. The end.

    marklouvier's picture

    You know Nino, after reading this article, I agree that Sigma has released some really impressive Art series lenses of late. (I know I bought a few of them the past 3 years) I guess me and Euan have one more thing in common.

    But yeah, this Sigma 135mm 1.8A I may actually have to take for a test drive and compare it to what I already have. I have both DC lenses from Nikon (105mm F2/ 135MM F2) that I have been using for many years with very good results. But the Sigma Art series is some serious glass compared to the over engineered plastic Nikon and Canon has been pushing lately.

    Old glass is better made in my opinion. The D series Nikkor and older lenses are more solid and durable although heavier and mostly metal, but the optics was superior to most aftermarket lenses and Nikon's focus at the time was more on using less internal lenses/filters and commitment to higher build quality was just expected from them in the 80's and 90's. This Sigma lens reminds me of the older D series quality that Nikon's like the 85mm 1.4D were know to have.

    That was just an awesome lens example. I regret selling it to upgrade to the 85mm 1.4G. So yes, this Sigma 135mm will definitely be a lot quieter than the slotted drive screw used in the camera as the focus motor for the 135mm Nikkor. But will it be better? So I am going to have to look at the numbers and bench test it against the Sigma soon. I do like Zeiss Glass and am not scared of manual lenses but you just can't beat that price for the Sigma.

    Ok, I just did some research on the DC Nikkor 135mm F2 and it was a little hard to find any recent data on it. This lens has been in production for over 20 years and there is very little comparison data to use except what I just found from Feb 2007 and it was also tested on a D200...

    So how about testing it with a Nikon D810 or a Nikon D5 for an accurate up to date comparison to the Sigma 135mm 1.8 Art? There are still alot of Nikon shooters that would like a fair comparison. I do have a mint condition Nikkor DC 135mm F2 I can lend if needed when I get back to Texas next month.

    On that note I guess I sounded like a Nikon Fan boy, but for now I am still on board with Nikon until the D850 is released. If I am not happy with it I will grudgingly jump ship to Fuji or Phase one if I can afford to live with just one Kidney...



    Peter Guyton's picture

    I too sold the 85 1.4 D and regret it. I bought an 85 1.8g though, which is a great lens by all accounts but the 1.4D was special. I also have the 135 F2 DC and while I love it, it can suffer from purple fringing a bit more than I'd like in bright light. As you said, a current comparison to the 135 Sigma would be great if someone would do it. I won't make the 85 1.4 mistake with the 135 DC until a replacement is tested thoroughly.

    Really nice sample pictures and great model.
    But I would not share your conclusion. For me the Zeiss is the winner!
    I own the Zeiss, not the newer Milvus, but the older Sonnar, but there should be no bid difference. And I also bought the Sigma, mainly because of the critics and the autofocus.
    Last week I did my first wedding pictures wth my brand new Nikon D850 and the Sigma. I had to shoot mainly under low-light conditions (candles and dim electric bulbs - no flash af course!)
    The auto-focus was completely useless, so I changed to manual mode and got good results. Later I put on the Sonnar and the difference was evident! I shot with ISO 3200 and f2 out of free hand. The old Sonnar was evidently brighter and the colors were warmer and more intensive. I could not see a difference in sharpness. But for my use under low-light conditions the Sigma can't match with the Zeiss. Maybe the fantastic Nikon D850 reveals the difference more brutal than your Canon ;-)

    I'm about to plunk down my hard earned money for a the Zeiss 135/2 and the 18/2.8. I'm coming from the view camera world so manually focusing a lens isn't an issue.

    Michael Laing's picture

    As a Nikon shooter, the Zeiss 135mm f/2 may be my favourite lens but I can't justify owning the lens (I have the Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 Milvus and Nikkor 105mm f/1.4e).

    As a practical work lens, the Sigma would be better but their is something elusive about the Zeiss 135mm, which just makes it stand out in the pantheon of portrait lenses.

    Unfortunately, I can't see me ever owning the lens. I recently bought the Fujiflm 90mm f/2, which is welded to my X-H1 and have pretty much stopped using my Nikkor gear out doors, so with a tear in my eye, I wave my dreams of owning the Zeiss 135mm f/2 good bye.