Nikon Tilt-Shift review Part 1: On Camera Movements, And Trends in Photography

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UPDATE: Part 2 of this review is here.

For decades, Nikon’s line-up of tilt-shift lenses had been sorely lacking, particularly in the wide-angle designs useful to architecture and interior photographers. But in 2008 they stepped it up in a big way with the release of three new designs, the Nikon 24mm f/3.5, Nikon 45mm f/2.8, and Nikon 85mm f/2.8. These lenses all included:

  • The ability to tilt the front of the lens up and down or side-to-side, dramatically altering the angle of the focal plane

  • The ability to shift the entire lens, providing dramatic changes in perspective (such as keeping the lines of a building parallel even if you are looking up at it) and
  • Nano-crystal coating, meant to reduce certain kinds of flare

I have a lot of experience with the 45mm, and thanks to the kindly folks at B&H, I’ve been shooting with all three for long enough to get a really good handle on their performance. This review is aimed at people who might be interested in buying or reading about these expensive, specialized lenses, so if you have no idea what a tilt-shift is, some of it might be over your head. But you can always read this article at Wikipedia and come back. I’ll wait.

OK. Are you ready? Because this review is going to get a little wild. You see, I believe that once you’ve been a serious shooter for years and internalize that “gear is just a tool,” you know 98 percent of what you need to know about a lens from its specs. I’ve never used the new Nikon 50mm f/1.8G, but I know what 50mm is, and I know what f/1.8 is, so I know 98 percent of what I need to know. The biggest other things that matter are build quality, mechanical performance (such as autofocus speed) and how it looks wide-open (almost any lens is good in the middle apertures). So I tend to spend the first part of a review talking about what the lenses can mean for your photography. And on the subject of tilt-shifts, I have a lot to say — so much that I don’t want the actual discussion of the lenses’ mechanics to be buried by my rambling, and I’m breaking this into two parts.

On the plus side, that means that this article has wider applications, such as for Canon’s 45mm t/s.

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New possibilities
First of all, a caveat: I know there is nothing new about being able to move pieces of your camera around for perspective and focal plane control — that predates film. And I know that photographers who have been using large-format for years will be slightly amused by discussions of the things that we can do with tilt-shifts the same way I feel about photographers who are amazed by this great new thing called film cameras. But it’s good to keep our minds open. The above shot was helped along by the high ISO capabilities of the Nikon D3s, and it’s a heck of a pain to stitch a bunch of tilted large-format shots together..

At first, I may seem a strange choice to review tilt-shifts, because I shoot people and moments and revel in chaos, while we have tended to use these lenses for very meticulous photography work such as architecture, product photography, landscapes, etc. But a lens is just a tool, just a product of its various capabilities. One of the things that bothered me about tilt-shifts as a product for a long time is that if you think about them just as a tool to create interesting blur, then are are many cheaper ways to do that, from Lensbabies to freelensing to just faking it in Photoshop. But there are advantages to a careful photographer having a precision tool.

First of all, a good tilt-shift is overdesigned. Its image circle is way bigger than it needs to be just to take a picture, and the elements that move relative to each other have been meticulously planned. This means you tend to have way more control with a tilt-shift then with freelensing, getting exactly what you want in-focus and out-of-focus, and also being able to have a lot more capability to create interesting effects even if your subjects are far away from you. One of the photographers who swayed me toward liking tilt-shifts was Ken Kienow, who noted in a discussion that even if you’re using it “wrong,” tilt-shifts are still about what’s in focus as much as what’s out of focus. For example, here the couple was really interested in the bridge a mile and a half away. With a normal lens, I’d either have to composite two photos or shoot at f/22 and hope for the best. Instead, it was easy:

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Or this couple, where the bride-to-be had a second love affair with her Christian Louboutins:

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(and that was night-time, so good luck with f/22)

But the thing that really started to win me over was a simple realization: Tilt-shifts allow your camera to work the way the eye really sees.

There’s a reason we’re so drawn to fast lenses that create shallow depth-of-field. Something happens when you take a three-dimensional world and cram it into two dimensions. If you’re not careful it looks flat and lifeless. Why? Because the really important sight organ isn’t the eye, it’s the brain. I’ve read a million debates about what focal length “sees like the human eye” — is it 50mm? Is it 24mm? To me, these debates miss the point. When you’re seeing things in the world, your brain focuses your attention. Right now I can see every part of my gigantic 30-inch monitor, and beyond it — I have a huge field of view. But the only thing I’m actually focused on is my tiny cursor, one letter at a time. Sometimes we take in the entire scene, but often nothing else matters. It’s there, we notice it, but it’s just background noise while we see a great sunset, an oncoming car, an enticing glance. And your brain doesn’t care at all about a flat focal plane.

That, to me, is interesting.

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On trendiness:
Now I must admit the other reason it took a while to win me over to tilt-shifts: A lot of other people in my field were getting into them at the same time. When I see a lot of people zigging, my natural inclination is to zag. Some of it is just business sense — if you’re the same as everyone else, the only reason someone would hire you is because you’re cheaper. But some of it is because I constantly remind myself that as a wedding photographer I am creating work that will still actually matter 30 years from now, and I don’t want people to look back at it and say “Oh … that’s so 2011.”

What I try to have it come down to is that if the content of the photo is good and the effect just enhances it (or doesn’t get in the way of it), then the photo has lasting value. But if the photo is only about the effect, then there’s a good chance I’ll come back to it in five years and say “What was I thinking?”

A good analogy, and one that also applies to weddings, is fashion. A good, classic men’s suit is something that you can look back on decades later and not be embarrassed by, because it’s not about the suit — it just does a job, using good lines and tailoring to make you look darned good. But an orange floral-print leisure suit was all about itself, and any pictures of that have probably long since been burned.

Fisheyes were the tilt-shifts of five years ago — a genuinely useful lens that does things other lenses can’t, but also very easy to abuse. I have some old fisheye shots that I still really dig, and some that … not so much … and it all comes down to content. Content is king.

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On to Part 2!

Dennis Pike - I dig the T/S shot like the one you did with the shoes and the couple, there are a lot of others I’ve seen that, well just look like tilt shift for the sake of tilt shift. Not only is content king, but I also believe that intent or purpose is as well. That being said, sometimes it is ok to do thing just because it will look really cool.

Brandyn - Great review Ryan! I feel the same way about trends. Here in Hawaii EVERYONE is so inclined to have backgrounds (Sunsets, ocean, etc) make or break the picture when in reality is the couples themselves that are suppose to be the focal point. I too “zag” when everyone is zigging haha awesome analogy.

Lynn - Great post man. The trendiness debate will always be up in the air but you said it best: “content is king”.

nadine - Thank you so much for this review, Ryan.
I actually have been pretty intimidated by t/s lens. So looking at your photos… basically it makes every thing in one line in focus? whether something in that line is far away or close?

I need to rent this and play with it.

sam hurd - excellent review! i should just stop doing reviews and refer people to your website, haha.

Stefano - As always, great review with great info. Oh and some really nice images ;)

fotografia 360 - Great review i’ve looking for TS lens. Again there will by cost…

Steven Elmer - Dude, this couldn’t come at a better time. I just bought the 45mm PC-E this week, and while I am waiting for the delivery man to get here, I am reading like crazy. I needed some fresh material and a solid review, cheers!

Jon Fitz - I love your example shots. I bought a TS a while back and now I wonder how I made do without it. But, I’m still discovering what I can do with it.

Roland Hale - Fantastic, thanks so much. It’s awesome to A, see these three compared together, and B, to see the lenses reviewed in terms of their use in photojournalism and portraits.