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?

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60 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.

Yavor Kapitanov's picture

Except Batis, I got Batis 40mm and feel like I've been ripped off, not worth the money at all.

Brandon Mount's picture

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

Yavor Kapitanov's picture

I can't exactly say what I don't like, of course it's not a bad lens, but it doesn't blow my mind having in mind the price. If I knew that the new Sony 35mm was coming out soon I would have never got this Batis 40mm. I was just stupid enough to buy it because it says Zeiss on it.

One last thing, it's soo wide for f2 aperture, I don't get that, feels like a chips bag... lol

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.

vegatecgroup's picture

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

Ryan Cooper's picture

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.

Jon Winkleman's picture

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.

Ryan Cooper's picture

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. ;)

Jon Winkleman's picture

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.

JetCity Ninja's picture

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.

Paul Sokal's picture

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.

Scott Choucino's picture

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.

michael andrew's picture

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...

Scott Choucino's picture

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

Richard Kralicek's picture

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.

Scott Choucino's picture

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!

Richard Kralicek's picture

... 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.

Scott Choucino's picture

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

Yavor Kapitanov's picture

I think the problem is that only you yourself will know that your lens is exotic. Nobody else will care except another lens geek, if you tell them that the image has been captured with an exotic lens.

Ryan Cooper's picture

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)

Scott Choucino's picture

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.

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