Nikon Tilt-Shift Part 2: Comparing the 24mm, 45mm, and 85mm

I had a lot to say about the philosophical underpinnings of using tilt-shift and selective focus in Part 1 of this review, but now let’s get down to brass tacks: Are these lenses any good, and if so, which ones are worth buying for which photographers?

These are very specialized and fairly expensive lenses, so the answers are going to depend a lot on your intended usage. I wrote a lot about the merits and pitfalls of using these lenses for selective focus partially because it’s what is more applicable to my field, but mostly because if you are primarily interested in the shifting capability of these lenses to combat perspective distortion, then the decision is pretty much a no-brainer — unless you’re looking at buying grey-market Russian lenses or some of the old Nikon PC lenses, this is the only game in town. And, since the widest of these older lenses that I know about is 35mm, if you shoot architecture in tight spaces or particularly shoot a lot of interiors, real-estate photography, etc. I apologize to your wallet but the Nikon 24mm is going to be invaluable.

Here is a sample of the 24mm doing its job inside a church. Generally shooting from such a low angle you would get perspective distortion, especially with the sides of the pews. If you just want to make these sorts of corrections occasionally programs such as Lightroom 3 can approximate it in post, but you need to shoot really loose compositions as you will lose the edges of the frame after correction.

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The shifting function has a far more dramatic effect on the wider focal lengths, since telephoto lenses don’t deal too much with perspective distortion in the first place. But the longer lenses like the 85mm see more dramatic effects from focal plane tilting, due to their shallower depth-of-field. So which ones are right for you?

These lenses were designed concurrently and released close to one another, so other than the focal lengths they are very similar in form and function. It makes sense, then, to discuss the three together first before talking of the relative strengths of each:

Nikon tilt-shifts: The good, the bad, and the missed opportunity

Good:

Optical performance: Overall, these lenses have stellar image quality. In addition to the latest Nikon enhancements like ED glass and nano-crystal coating, all of these lenses are overdesigned for the 35mm format — the image circle that they cast is much larger than is needed for any given photo, which allows you to perform a lot of camera movement without severe vignetting. You still get vignetting when you shoot wide-open with these lenses at their most extreme settings, but much, much less than you do when freelensing with a normal Nikon lens, for example. This also means that wide-open shooting when not tilted or shifted will have virtually no vignetting. They are extremely sharp right from their widest apertures (though, of course, these apertures are not nearly as fast as the non-tilt-shift prime lenses of similar focal lengths). Like most recent Nikon professional lenses, these also have excellent color transmission and flare resistance, as this shot with the 85mm shows:

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If you’re doing precision work and trying to squeeze resolution out of a megapixel monster like the D3X, these lenses can be really useful even shot normally.

Macro capability: One nice touch these lenses have that most tilt-shifts don’t is that they all function as 1:2 Macro lenses. For really tiny macro work like reading the inscriptions on the inside of a ring I still prefer a 1:1 macro like the Nikon 60mm AF-S, but for most purposes they can supplant the need for a macro in your bag, which helps justify their cost. You can get especially interesting compositions from a 24mm macro, though the extremely close working distance means you need to be careful not to get in your own light:

110423 224345 24mm f3 5

Macro with the 85mm:

110402 115505 85mm f4 2

In fact, this is where these lenses functions have a nice synchronicity — in macro work, you constantly struggle to get enough depth-of-field, so having the ability to put the focal plane where you want it is invaluable. In this shot with the 45mm, I didn’t want to have to stop down to f/22 to get the words in focus, and thanks to the tilt I didn’t have to:

101003 141807 45mm f4 5

Build quality: All three of these have a generally solid feel, with good locking mechanisms for each of their tilt and shift functions. If you’re new to these lenses, the layout of all the knobs and switches has a much higher learning curve than any other lens, but I never ran into problems with things sliding out of place for general use.

Electronic controls: Although these lenses are necessarily manual focus, they are designed to be fully recognized by Nikon DSLRs. They have a large, precise aperture ring, but they can also be used in Program and Shutter-priority modes. I admit I never had any reason to use them in those modes, but it’s nice to know that they’re there.

The bad:

Tilt and shift are not independent of each other. One of the nice things about this lens is that you can rotate the entire thing on your camera, so that you can tilt or shift left and right or up and down. But the problem is that the relation to each other is locked in. By default the mechanisms are perpendicular — so if you’re shifting up and down you can only tilt left and right. You can send them to the Nikon service center to make them run parallel, but that’s not a great option in the field. So if you’re doing a lot of specialized usage in the field that uses tilting and shifting willy-nilly, you might be better served in the Canon world, where both the 24mm TS-E II and the 17mm TS-E have independent operation (though not macro focusing).

Which lens is right for me?

The only major difference between these lenses is the focal length. But given the price point, most of you are only going to buy one, if any, so it’s important to consider which one you want to be saddled with.

Traditionally, the wideness of the 24mm lends itself best to architecture and interior photography. Its shifting creates really dramatic proportion effects, but it’s too wide to create much of a “miniature effect” or dramatic selective focus with its tilting. For my sort of work, I found this lens to be the least useful, although I did get some images I liked from it:

110402 184318 24mm f3 5

The 45mm splits the difference, and seems to be the lens of choice for wedding photographers looking to dabble in the tilt-shift world. And for good reason — if you’re just going to have one, this is wide enough to get a bit of context for things like dress shots or photojournalism, but long enough to use for environmental portraiture and to get dramatic tilting effects. For these sorts of users the 45mm will probably be the most versatile lens:

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In fact, I was expecting the 45mm to be a slam-dunk for my usage, so I was surprised at how much I liked the 85mm. The longer focal length makes it more suitable for close portraiture, and the tilt effect can be as dramatic or subtle as you want it to be. With the focal plane control paired with the macro functionality, this lens is also a great choice for product or food photographers who don’t want to use medium-format systems.

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