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?
Zeiss lenses draw beautifully, no doubt. I have owned the 3 Otus, the 135mm f2.0 and the 100mm 2.0 macro before that and some V glass too.
But I feel that Nikon has progressed a lot these past years, and I have replaced the Otus 85mm f1.4 by the Nikon 105mm f1.4 that is nearly as good but with nicer bokeh, and both the Zeiss 135mm f2.0 and the Zeiss 100mm f2.0 by the Voigtlander 125mm f2.5 APO. And recently the Otus 55m f1.4 by the 50mm f1.8 S. Smaller, lighter, much cheaper and 95% as good with AF and weather sealing.
I believe that the Canon R glass is also in Zeiss territory and so is the Fuji pro line and GFX, the best Sigma Art glass,... and they all offer AF.
So Zeiss has been great at defining for the world what a great 35mm lens can be, and they still make lovely glass, but the price premium is less and less justified compared to native glass and much cheaper Sigma lenses.
Kind of funny that we now think of the act of focusing as a burden, and that somehow, if you choose manual focus, you're doing something tantamount to churning your own butter.
The two fanciest lenses I own are the M.Zuiko 40-150mm f2.8 Pro and the Canon 180mm f3.5L Macro. I absolutely love the M.Zuiko Pro lens but I am still trying to figure out if I like the Canon. The canon feels like it is fall down drunk when trying to use the auto focus in anything but absolutely ideal conditions. It is built well and I do get some great pictures with it but I just don't find it inspiring at the moment I guess. Both are worth the money if they are what you need. I would recommend the M.Zuiko Pro lenses to anyone on the M43 system without hesitation they are amazing.