In a continuing effort to create new and different images I picked up the 85mm f/2.8 PC-E Micro Nikkor earlier this year for shooting landscapes, action and portraits. While this type of lens is definitely not new to Nikon’s lineup, I hadn’t tried them out before and I was very impressed by the images that ex-New York Times photographer Vincent LaForet has been able to capture using Perspective Control lenses (a.k.a. PC or tilt-shift lenses). Normally these lenses are used for landscape or studio photography, and in those settings they are used to gain depth of field when using large apertures, which is what they are designed for. But by using them to limit depth of field, as shown in the images below, you can create a miniaturization effect and really drive the viewer’s eye directly to the part of the image you want them to see. Of course this is a very specialized lens, and it gives a very unique look. As with any specialty type lens (like a fisheye lens for example) they need to be used in moderation, but there are moments when a tilt-shift lens can make an image really sing.
Since purchasing the 85mm f/2.8 PC-E Micro Nikkor I have also used the 45mm and the 24mm versions and I have to say these are three of the sharpest lenses Nikon has ever made. I’ll just say up front that this is going to be a glowing review. There is absolutely nothing to nit-pic about these lenses, except maybe the price. But as the saying goes, “You get what you pay for.” I have used some of the most expensive lenses Nikon makes, like the 600mm f/4 (a fantastic lens if you need it), and I can say hands down that all three of these PC-E lenses are to my mind some of the most well-built Nikkors ever. All you have to do is pick one up and turn the focusing ring and you’ll understand this sentiment. The focus mechanism is buttery smooth. It feels like you are holding a Leica lens, and that is about the highest compliment I can give any lens. The indentations on the aperture ring are sure and definite. And the all metal construction of the lens gives it a feel that is lacking in many other Nikkors. These are the real deal.
And on the sharpness front, they are all ridiculously sharp, that is if you focus correctly. These are manual focus lenses. As such, they feel a little bit ‘old school’ but once you start using them it is obvious why they are not auto-focus lenses. This makes them tricky to use for sports photography but with a little preparation and careful planning you can still get some phenomenal results.
For architecture, one would use the tilt and shift adjustments (see below for examples of how the lenses achieve these adjustments) to straighten out the receding lines of a building. For landscapes the lenses allow one to use a larger aperture (like f/5.6 or f/8 instead of f/22) and still retain sharpness throughout the image from the immediate foreground all the way out to the horizon. To get the shallow depth of field (as in the images in this blog post) I shift the axis of the lens to one side or the other and then place my subject in a very narrow plane of focus. The direction and placement of this plane of focus is dictated by the orientation of the lens. To that end, the lenses have a built-in rotating collar so that you can change the orientation of the lens, and thereby switch the plane of focus as needed for both vertical and horizontal compositions. One other note, using the shift capabilities of these lenses can also allow you to create panoramas very easily. To do this first mount the camera on a tripod, then orient the lens with the horizon and take two photos, one with the lens shifted all the way to one side and the other with the lens shifted all the way to the opposite side. These images can easily be stitched together in Photoshop and the perspectives should align perfectly.
In use, a perspective control lens takes some time to master. These lenses require the user to do a lot of thinking beforehand about how the image will be composed, the exposure and what aperture specifically needs to be used. Because of the manner in which the lens is bent or shifted, the lens requires that you establish the exposure before tilting or shifting the lens. Once the exposure is established, and this is usually done wide open at f/2.8, a little math is required to stop the lens down to the desired aperture. For instance, if I want to shoot at f/8 and I gauge the shutter speed to be 1/1000th second with the lens wide open at f/2.8 then by realizing that f/8 is three stops less light than f/2.8 I need to adjust the shutter speed accordingly to 1/125th second to get the correct exposure with an aperture of f/8. I know this is a bit confusing but with practice it becomes second nature. The good news is that most of us are shooting with digital cameras these days so no matter how we set the exposure we can check it by looking at the histogram on the back of the camera. Normally I’ll set the exposure, take a test shot and then fine tune the exposure using the histogram. With this method I know 100% the exposure is dead on.
The other consideration with a Perspective Control lens is that once you stop the lens aperture down it can be quite difficult to focus the lens. And this is where the ‘E’ on the end of the ‘PC-E’ moniker comes in handy. Holding down the button that controls the electromagnetic diaphragm, which is located on the top of the lens just next to the knob that tilts the lens, allows you to see the image with the aperture fully open so you can focus the lens more easily. Push the button again and the aperture is set back to the chosen aperture. If you are using the lens as I do, to create a very narrow plane of focus, it can be very difficult to nail the focus. When I am shooting sports, I have found the best technique is to use the in camera focus indicator and to shoot a lot of images – adjusting the focus ever so slightly after every five or more images. I have also noticed that with the 24mm and 45mm lenses, the wider depth of field inherent in those focal lengths really comes in handy when it comes to creating that narrow strip of focus. With the 85mm cranked all the way over you really do have a very thin slice of the image in focus – and because of this it can be difficult to get the exact object or part of an object in focus. To overcome this factor I try not to tilt the 85mm lens (or any of these really) all the way over as far as it will go. In general, I tend to tilt the lens over to the fifth or sixth line on the tilt indicator (their are eight total.) Doing so gives me a little more breathing room with the focusing. Of course, it also helps a lot if you have your camera mounted on a tripod. Using the Live View mode and zooming into the image preview on the LCD also works extremely well. Since I am usually shooting action handheld with this lens, you’ll understand my focusing issues and the reason I shoot a lot of images to make sure I get a few that are tack sharp exactly where I want them to be.
One other note that I forgot to mention is that these lenses work best with Nikon’s full frame (FX) cameras like the D3, D3x and D700. The lenses will work with the D300 as well but the tilt or shift mechanisms may be limited to some degree by the prism finder. Also, the Auto-aperture control and the electromagnetic diaphragm only work with the four cameras mentioned above. But at $2,000 a pop, if you are buying one of these lenses then the odds are good you own one of the top of the line Nikon camera bodies.
Aside from the tricky nature of using these lenses, once you get comfortable with them they are a blast to work with. It is quite hard to set them down actually and it is very refreshing to have to manually focus the lens. Of course they don’t have the total control of a large format view camera but they are also a lot easier to use than a view camera – and quite a bit more portable. I have a lot of big ideas for images that I hope to create using these lenses and of course you’ll be seeing the results of those experiments right here in the Newsletter. If you have the means to acquire one of these already ‘legendary’ lenses then I highly recommend doing so. You won’t regret it and your images will no doubt reflect their use. My favorite of the bunch is the 45mm f/2.8. If you’d like to get more information on these phenomenal lenses visit the Nikon website at www.nikon.com.