I Purchased an Exotic, Expensive Lens: Here Is What I Learned

I Purchased an Exotic, Expensive Lens: Here Is What I Learned

If you have ever seen my camera bag, you will know it is full of relics from yesteryear. Recently, I purchased a ZEISS Milvus 100mm f/2M ZE Macro Lens, and it changed everything.

Until this point, I had been very utilitarian about my gear. If I could get the job done by spending very little, then that was the kit I needed. Why spend more than you need to? And this motto has seen me through the first ten years of my career as a professional food photographer. But after shooting with a Phase One system for a couple of years on my bigger jobs, I started to want something a bit more for my day-to-day kit. My Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro USM Lens  was the weakest lens in my lineup at the time. I had options with Sigma and a Canon L lens, but I wanted to try something that no one else I knew was shooting with. I remembered having hired a Zeiss 100mm lens with a Canon 5Ds some years back and how impressed I had been with the image quality. So, I started a Google search and saw that they had brought out a new, sleeker, and sexier version of the lens. Without a second thought, the purchase was complete.

My camera lens arrived the following day in a beautiful box, the metal lens hood felt incredibly premium, and the lens itself made my Canon and Sigma lenses look like toys. This lens felt like it meant business. I quickly took the obligatory wide open shot of my keyboard, packed it up, and headed to my studio to play.

Marketing is a powerful tool, and knowing the heritage of Carl Zeiss optics made me feel like I was almost shooting with medium format quality gear. I haven’t ever done a side-by-side comparison of the two 100mm lenses that I own (mostly for fear of buyer's remorse, but I may well do this for a YouTube video in the future), but this lens felt like it really was a step above the rest. Here is what I learned from the purchase

It Gives You Kudos on Instagram

If I post a BTS image with this lens, it gets more likes. When I show it in my stories, I get more DMs. People like rare things, and in comparison to the Canon versions, it is rare. It really shouldn’t matter, but it clearly does. Now, if this mattering matters is a completely different conversation.

It Won't Make Your Photographs Better

You still have to make a nice photograph. Having a better lens will rarely make you a better photographer, unless it is literally opening doors to things that you couldn’t do before. Once the initial excitement had worn off, I was very aware that this lens had to pay for itself to merit for me what was an extravagant and not entirely (not at all) needed purchase. No one had ever complained about my budget 100mm macro lens, so if I had a complaint about an image now, it was only down to me.

It Will Make Your Images Better

I know, contradicting headings. Even if you take the same drab shot, it will look a little better with this lens. Sure, it won't make a donkey a racehorse, but a bit of extra glass never hurt anyone. It certainly won't make you a worst photographer. I also found that I felt a bit of pressure having purchased what was (for me) a rather expensive lens. Each time I got it out, I thought I had better take a good image or I would be laughed at as Mr. “all the gear, no idea.”

Good Glass Is Expensive

As with all good things in life, there is a price tag that goes with it. My first “exotic” lens was at the very beginning end of the price scale, but it was $1,000 more than the lens I owned before it, and it did away with things like autofocus and image stabilization. However, the images I can create with it are beautiful and are exactly what I am looking for with a lens like this. I don’t want the same rendering that the majority out there have; I want something that is just a little bit different, which is why I will also be upgrading my 50mm lens to something off the beaten track.

I think the take-home is that fancy lenses are not really required at all, but they are nice to have and offer marginal gains in performance and massive increases in price, but they make you feel like more of a professional.

I now find myself eyeing up the Otus range for my next 50 (55mm) lens upgrade, but I know I won't make any more money, nor will I get any better at photography by doing so.

One man's trash is another man's treasure, and this certainly rings true with camera lenses. I remember being handed someone else's throwaway gear when I was starting out and finding it to be completely amazing. And I also now know that some photographers wouldn't dream of using my gear to shoot with, as it is far too inferior in quality for what they feel that they need.

What is the most extravagant lens purchase that you have ever made?

Scott Choucino's picture

Food Photographer from the UK. Not at all tech savvy and knows very little about gear news and rumours.

Log in or register to post comments

The Zeiss glass is ridiculously good and I am glad I purchased the 50/1.4 Planar for Sony for a once in a lifetime trip to visit aging family members I might not see again. I always thought these lenses were all hype but they deliver incredible images of even ordinary things. The 50/1.4 blows away every other Sony lens I have and I want to get the a7riv to see how far I can push this lens. Worth every penny.

what don't you like? I was thinking of renting one to see if I 'need' it.

Batis 40mm never leaves my bag, it’s such a great lens. I feel it was a great investment, worthy of what I paid for it, especially with the introductory discount I got.

Disagree completely - Batis 40 is a fantastic lens. Great colors & contrast.

It may not necessarily be the lens, part of the problem may be the image sensor. However poor MTF, Distortion, Field Curvature, Lens coatings for spectral range and transmission cause issues.

I work in the military, medical, and industrial digital imaging markets. Lenses must take a beating, day in, day out. There is no chance for error. Most of the lenses I use have BK7 glass. Real expensive, but absolutely worth the cost. The polycarbonates and cheaper glasses are not good enough.

Consider the image sensor when buying your next lens. A lens well matched to your sensor is worth the extra time to evaluate.

More info is at www.emva.org, www.spie.org, & www.visiononline.org

I'd add one small caveat to the statement that it certainly won't make you a worse photographer. If you are used to always using autofocus and move to an exotic manual focus lens like a Zeiss then you likely will be a worse photographer for a while until you can become good at autofocusing quickly, accurately, and with minimal drain on your mental focus.

Also, small side note, a lot of the exotic glassmakers have been great for a LONG time. You don't need to break the bank on the latest generation of Zeiss magic to enjoy the Zeiss quality. By being vigilant on Ebay you can find amazing glass at a vastly reduced price. For example, the Zeiss 35mm F2 Distagon can be had for under $1000 on eBay and is one of the best lenses Zeiss has ever made.

EXCEPT, being forced to use manual focus will improve your focusing skills and will make you more deliberate in choosing your exact focus rather than letting the camera’s computer figure it out for you. Similarly getting a totally manual camera and a hand held light meter might make some bad photos in the short term, it will quickly build your skills and make you a better photographer in the long run.

To be fair, with most of my AF lenses I let the "camera's computer figure it out" for me after I select the focus point.
With my vintage Contax and Nikon lenses I use on Sony ML cameras I like to use the MF focus peaking or magnification to confirm focus. I think most of today's focussing screens are not really designed to be used for critical focus as was in the pre-AF days. I am amazed at how "not sharp, but close enough" film I have in my archives.
With most advanced digital cameras, it is possible to set it to manual settings, then use a meter and see the exact results immediately which is a good way to learn.

This is only true for photographers using AI focusing and auto metering modes. You can easily be deliberate with AF by using a single point AF. Running a camera in manual mode instead of some sort of automated auto exposure mode works fine for taking control of your exposure. You don't need an all manual camera and a light meter for that.

Side note: being forced to manual focus to improve your focusing skills isn't really relevant. If you never use manual focus lenses you don't need focusing skills. Thus improving focusing skills is only relevant if you have manual lenses. Being better at manual focusing doesn't make you a better photographer when wielding an AF lens.

Manual focus lenses don't make you a better photographer, but they do make you better at using manual focus lenses. ;)

used a Zeiss 135mm f2 Sonnar for Nikon and really wanted to buy one as a head and shoulder portrait lens. For a long while I couldn’t figure out if the headshots taken with the Zeiss really looked better or was my prejudice for the expensive glass coloring my perception. Next trip to B&H Photo with a friend I brought my D800e and tried the display models of the Nikon DC 135mm, the Zeiss 135 Milivus and the Sigma Art 135. I shot my friend at the same distance under the storms available light. I showed the images to several friends without identifying each lens, technical lab performance benchmarks aside, all agreed the Zeiss 135, just rendered a more beautiful pleasing image. So I bought the Zeiss. I also have an old Leica R 35mm f2 Summilux adapted for Nikon. Without the chip it is a little trickier to use on a DSLR but I really love the way the Leica glass renders images. It is a “je ne sais quoi” effect. Hard to nail down in quantifiable measures but there its a subtle but distinct pleasing quality in the finished image that I greatly prefer to Nikon, Canon and Sigma glass. I do agree that regardless of how much prettier a certain spatchula may spread the frosting, if you do not know how to bake a cake the fancy tool will not make it taste any better.

A nice thing about the practice of food photography is that it cannot be supplanted by stock images. Lots of new restaurants with impressive displays calling out for superb new images.

Why is the top image of a Zeiss Otus when the article is about a Zeiss Milvus.

I assumed the photo was taken using a Zeiss Milvus.

Because it’s the next Zeiss lens the author plans to buy. It’s in the blog post.

also, imho, the Milvus 85mm outshines the Otus.... as far as I am concerned , by far.

When I shot Nikon, I was blown away by the images I saw from the Otus 55 on line. The clarity and sharpness were amazing, so I bought it and the images it made and the size it allowed me to print were truly amazing. Since them I have dumped my Nikon kit and gone completely to Fuji, both the X and GFX. It is not just the lens but the sensor and the processor as a total integrated package. Did Fuji make me a better photographer? No. Did the GFX cameras and lenses make my images better? Absolutely.

I use a Nikon D850 and been using the Zeiss 21mm Distagon for my landscapes photos, it just renders like 3D pop so to speak and is very easy to focus with a very short throw, but my most treasured lens is the Zeiss 135 apo Sonnar. It has a rather long focus throw but once you get used to manual focusing this lens is magical. Yes Zeiss lenses are pricey but they are built very well and with no auto focus motor should last a lifetime.

I am assuming mine will last a life time due to the lack of AF, is there anything else (bar dropping it) that can go wrong?

Sticky blades etc are just a quick service once a decade.

I’d love to see a side by side with the Canon 100mm L... having used that lens a few times I would like to see it bested...

Funny you should mention that haha, We are just working on one for my youtube channel.

Did more or less the same, I only purchased the older version which was sold new for slightly more than half the price (last one of the shop), and I sold my old trusty Canon macro lens (the one without IS).

I no longer have 1:1 (ok, could use extension rings, but I prefer to use my second hand 180 macro by Canon for such stuff), no AF, but an absolute increase in image quality (for pixel peepers, of course; you won't see that much difference on your smartphone).

Anyway, the most expensive lens I ever bought was the Canon TS-E 17mm/f4 tiltshift lens, but I don't regret it.

Yeah I think the only difference between the older and newer version is a lens coating.

That 17mm TSE is a beast of a lens!

... and adding kind of weather resistance to the 100mm macro planar. The optical design is the same as far as I know.

The way the Zeiss glass handles highlights is something special, I have a lot of their glass and it's always the highlights which make the most obvious distinction between other glass, to my eye at least.

Yeah this is what I noticed when testing it. Amazing!

Not necessarily true. If your lens allows you to create images that are slightly more pleasant to look at, even if the viewer lacks the expertise to know why they will still instinctively be drawn towards the image which gives you a tiny competitive advantage. (Whether the advantage is sufficient to be worth the investment is a whole other discussion though)

Id agree with Ryan on this. Some of my clients know the difference, others really don't. Most importantly though, I know the difference and what it allows me to do on the day with highlight rendering and micro contrast. With the client not seeing a side by side comparison, its unlikely that most will ever realise, but that isn't always their job.

I'm not sure that is a problem to begin with, as long as you know what the difference is and it's worth it to you that's enough.

So what's your objection then? having a lens that will render images more pleasing is not worth it just because every client does not know the difference?

I do not use expensive lenses or other gear based on whether my clients care or not. I very much doubt OP does either.

Much of my work is on location automotive work so the sharper the better.
Recently I have been doing more people and lifestyle work where sharpness may or may not be the ultimate goal. Using the Sony Zeiss as well as some vintage Contax Zeiss lenses I was reminded of how brutal that glass can be when shooting people, I was looking for the Softar I used to use when I shot medium format film LoL. Luckily there are tools in software to take the edge off ...

haha, yea the 100mm Zeiss on a 5ds with a person in front of the camera is often not a pretty site.

Id love to have a play with the Otus range considering how much a of a jump in quality this was for me. Maybe paying the extra would be worth it as I am already pretty far in ££££

I find the exotic lenses are the ones I use the most, they give a point of view that is often lacking with more regular focal lengths or the ease at which you can compose a shot with a zoom lens. Notably my Canon 100mm Macro was the second lens I ever bought and is always in my kit bag, amazing for macro obviousy but great for portraits. Then like you my most extravigant purchase was the Zeiss 15mm f2.8 Distagon. I tried a bunch of super wides (and there are updated versions out now), but it's still the sharpest most colourful lens I own and always travels with me to get everything in the shot without any distortion!

I think the super wides are where you really see the difference. I used the 15mm Zeiss on hire once and I couldn't believe the difference!

I love my Zeiss 15mm, the colours, sharpness etc are spot on but I find it doesn't handle flare as well as the Tamron 15-30 g2. If you shoot straight into the sun there's a massive circular halo flare which none of my other lenses produce. Depending on the hike I tend to either carry the 15-30 or nikon 20mm 1.8 as a backup for these situations. Despite this, still one of my favourite lenses.

Measurebatory doesn't get invoices made or the bills paid at the end of the month.
If the customer doesn't tell the difference and the tool doesn't help me do the tool any easier, it's not a good business decision to buy very expensive stuff, it's the desire to have.

That pesky magic pixie dust. I hope it's not in the lens.

Yeah absolutely. The level you shoot at, the price your charge, and your profit margins dictate if you need them. I only purchased this off the back of a month where I shot 6 world wide ad campaigns. Before that I used the cheapest Canon version.

However, if I was a hobbies and I had the money, I would 100% blow my beans on this, more so than as a professional with a business model.

My son still has his 24-70 f2.8 and 70-200 f2.8 for the 'moving' parts of his weddings and events. However, for his still stuff, he has a 50, 85, and 135 Zeiss, although, I'm not sure about the models. They are really nice in how they render a subject.

Even the old Zeiss glass is beautiful. I know a lot of videographers use them and Leica R mount over the Canon glass.

Most extravagant lens i have purchased is the Leica Noctilux .95 50mm. The lens is an investment as so few are made and they are sought after. It was a six month wait for Leica to build the lens but worth it. The lens has amazing bokeh for portraits and great for low light shooting.

When I shot Nikon I used the ZF lenses pretty much exclusively, great lenses! Zeiss was also a big reason for me to go over to Sony due to the ZA lenses.

The ZF 100 was a nice lens, but it was actually bested by the Voigtländer 125mm/2.5 APO Lanthar which I had for both my Nikon and Sony. Still, have it and it still holds it's own against the run of the mill macro from Canon, Nikon and Sony

So I guess the Voigtländer should be considered semi extravagant consider it's rare and its second-hand price around 4x times the price during active production.

But my most extravagant lenses apart from my daily Zeiss primes are the Schneider Kreuznach 50mm and 90mm Tilt-shift lenses.

Its like my wife borrowing my D4 to take some photos of showjumping while I was away for work. Her words "all the gear no idea". She got some ok shots, but it was shoot and hope.


I have the older Zeiss 50 mm ZE for Canon and the 100 mm macro and 21 mm. They are the best lenses I have. The plane of focus is incredibly small for the first two, but they are just incredible lenses. They aren't really made for everyday people portraits as there is just too much sharpness. I love them so much when I bought the a73 I bought the 25 mm and the 85 Batis for their AF abilities. And they are very very sharp lenses, but there is a certain magic the AF lenses lack. Understand that at f11 everything is in focus, something which my Canon L lenses have never been able to do. The Zeiss Ze 21 mm is also the same. Just so much sharpness.I wish to find a used 35 mm Loxia for the Sony. My main lens is the 50 mm ZE adapted to the Sony body... it is phenomenal. What makes it so great is the small plane of focus and the resulting out-of-focus area and what it looks like. The only thing I can say that's bad about the Zeiss lenses are when they're sold, there isn't usually a large demand so the price goes quite South.

In life you typically get what you pay for. Not all the time but certainly most of the time. So many rave about Chinese-made knockoff's and/or Chinese crap. Quality is almost never cheap. Given the fact that China has zero respect for our copyright laws and trademark laws I vote to give them nothing. Very, very little comes out of China that you could say is pure quality. If anything perhaps.

That blurred background from the coffee shot seem to be non other but Zeiss....I could be wrong as my Sigma art 1.4 doesn't give that type blur. Was it taken with the Melvus or Otus that coffee shot?

' Each time I got it out, I thought I had better take a good image or I would be laughed at as Mr. “all the gear, no idea.”'. I feel the same with my new Sigma 14mm f/1.8 - for me a very expensive, and to be honest, limited use lens.
But that's all good it pushes me to try and get a shot worthy of the lens.

Between Zeiss and Leica M lenses: I like Bokeh of Leica better, Zeiss bokeh looks a bit busy. But in sharpness I like Zeiss better.

More comments