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Choosing a Tilt-Shift Lens

By Justin Black
There is a good chance that the gear question I hear more than any other is, “If I were to buy just one tilt-shift lens, which one should I get?” Unfortunately, the question begs another: “What do you want to do with it?”  There is no “best” tilt-shift lens, and no dominant favorite among pros or regular users, but if you can define why you need one,  that should suggest which one will best serve your needs.

The Offering, Dead Vlei, Namibia – 85mm PC-E Nikkor, Nikon D800E

In my experience, most people find that the longer focal lengths, like Nikon’s 85mm PC-E lens, are easiest to learn to use. The more limited telephoto depth of field makes the effect of tilting the focal plane more pronounced, so it’s easier to see clearly where the focal plane is falling sharply in the scene, and where things are out of focus. The 85mm is particularly useful for photographing compressed landscapes, isolated graphic details, and semi-macro compositions.

Kokerboom tree forest. 24mm PC-E Nikkor, Nikon D800E

Kokerboom tree forest, Namibia – 24mm PC-E Nikkor, Nikon D800E

For classic wide-angle “near-far” type landscapes, the 24mm is the way to go. Most folks find at first that it’s a little harder to accurately set the tilt of the focal plane with the 24mm due to the greater inherent depth of field of the lens, but it is also a little more forgiving for the same reason. Still, one of the beauties of tilt-shift lenses is that you can control sharpness throughout a scene without stopping down excessively, so it’s best to learn to position the focal plane accurately.

Nocturne, Kolmanskop, Namibia – 45mm PC-E, Nikon D800E

Nocturne, Kolmanskop, Namibia – 45mm PC-E, Nikon D800E

The 45mm is an excellent lens with a normal perspective, and I know several photographers who consider it their favorite of the three. I love it when I need it, but my image archive reveals that of all the images I’ve made with the three PC-E lenses, I’ve only used it 22% of the time. In comparison, I’ve used the 24mm 31% of the time, and the 85mm 47%.  All three lenses are optically superb and focus very close. They all are capable of tilts and swings for focal plane control, and shift, rises, and falls to control perspective, such as avoiding the converging vertical lines that you get when tilting a camera to look up at tree trucks in a forest.

I think is important to point out the primary reason that PC-E lenses allowed me to justify parting company with the 4×5 view camera system that I used to create the bulk of my work before I went fully digital in 2010. While I use the tilt features to optimize the plane of focus for nearly every composition, it’s the shift feature that facilitates most of my landscape work. By making overlapping exposures, shifting left-to-right or up-and-down, I can create a super-high-resolution file that compares favorably with the 4×5 film I used to use. In fact, with a D800e, this approach clearly exceeds the resolution (and vastly exceeds the dynamic range) of a 600MB 16-bit drum scan from 4×5 Fuji Velvia transparency film.

For a horizontal composition, I set the camera vertically and shift the lens left to right, shooting three to five overlapping frames that get merged later in Photoshop to create a single image that equates to roughly 72 mega-pixels resolution. The long dimension of the camera sensor becomes the short dimension of the final image. Because only the lens moves and the orientation of the camera’s sensor doesn’t change between exposures, this technique avoids the perspective distortion of rotating panoramic photography and makes merging the constituent image files in Photoshop dead easy.  Shift-stitching also has the effect of making the lenses’ field of view wider, so I use the 24mm like a 16mm ultra-wide, the 45mm like a 30mm wide-angle, and the 85mm like a 50mm normal lens. All three of the images that illustrate this article were made using this shift-stitch technique, so the field of view represented by each of them is wider than a normal single frame would be (basically, about the same as two vertical frames side-by-side), and the image proportions are roughly 3:4 (which I tend to prefer), rather than the 2:3 proportions of a standard DSLR sensor.

Tilt-shift lenses are immensely powerful tools that offer a wide range of capabilities that are otherwise impossible or difficult to reproduce. They aren’t for everyone, however, so if you’re curious but aren’t sure which tilt-shift lens is for you, I recommend renting one for a few days when you have time to really put it through it’s paces. Be careful though, you might find that you need all three.

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