Product photography is mostly done on the cheap these days but, to capture the weight and depth of your subject for high-end applications, you’ll need to use tilt and shift. David Kilpatrick looks at six of the best lens options.
Classic product photography avoids creative use of very close viewpoints, steep perspectives and the accompanying exaggeration of shape. The aim is to show an item as neutrally as possible, with its sides straight and a good visual sense of weight and depth. A fairly long lens with a shift mount, or used on a camera body with movements, will give a neutral perspective to box-like shapes while allowing the camera to be positioned higher than the top of the product. However, cylindrical or round objects may seem to lack depth, and a shorter focal length may render them more realistically.
To cover these options, DSLR makers offer tilt-shift lenses in longer focal lengths than would ever be needed for architecture, industrial or landscape work. Canon's 45mm and 90mm f/2.8 TS-E lenses, and Nikon's 45mm and 85mm PC-E Micro Nikkor f/2.8D, both make a good working pair with either full-frame or cropped format DSLRs for a wide range of subjects. But 85mm or 90mm is not long enough to give the best drawing for catalogue shots on full frame.
Schneider's introduction of a 120mm f/5.6 APO-Digitar HM Aspheric provides a much-needed option. In September it announced this for the Mamiya 645/Phase
One medium-format bodies, alongside more conventional 50mm f/2.8 Super-Angulon HM and 90mm f/4 Makro-Symmar HM focal lengths for most 35mm-format DSLRs. So far the 120mm hasn't been released for 35mm-type DSLRs. However, an adapter to mount such medium-format tilt-shift lenses on DSLRs doesn't cost much in relative terms - Novoflex's top-grade engineering may cost around £400, but the 120mm Schneider is 10 times that.
The alternative is to mount your DSLR body on to a monorail and use relatively simple, lower-cost digital lenses from Rodenstock or Schneider. The Horseman LD, Cambo X2-Pro, or Arca Swiss M-2 all have back adapters for Nikon and Canon,
with the option to have custom plates made for other mounts. This option has become more practical with the introduction of live view from the imaging sensor, often with focus magnification.
While the highest cost of such a body may match that of a lens such as the Schneider 120mm, you gain access to a wider range of new "digital" or well-tried older lenses originally made for 5×4. The minimum practical focal length to allow shift movements is likely to be around 60mm even with bag bellows, as the DSLR body adds about 42mm to the lens-to-sensor difference.
The tilt function available in nearly all setups or specialist lenses allows control of depth-of-field without affecting the geometric drawing of the image. It's rarely essential with single products and narrow angles of view but, when using shorter technical lenses (such as the 24mm tilt-shift Canon and Nikon designs or the extreme example of Canon's 17mm TS-E) for large product groups, it can improve sharpness significantly.
The largest modern imaging sensors are a fraction smaller than the 645 film format. It's rarely necessary to use the 300mm lenses once used for still life on 6×7/6x9cm rollfilm backs or 5×4-inch sheet film on studio monorail cameras, but it's also difficult to combine movements with the wider angles possible on these larger formats.
The shortest focal length remains Rodenstock's 35mm originally designed for the Hasselblad V-system Flexbody and Arcbody. Most current medium-format digital systems don't offer anything shorter than 45mm with movements.
Canon 90mm f/2.8 TS-E
Canon called this the first "telephoto" for 35mm format with movements - in fact, it's a Gaussian design, as telephoto construction does not go well with tilt/shift. Nor is the first, as 90mm Angulon lenses were available mounted this way for 35mm SLRs more than 40 years ago. Canon means long focus, and the optic is more like a standard lens for rollfilm than a 90mm portrait lens for 35mm.
The TSE-E design places the tilt direction at 90° to the shift (both rotatable together), and this is not how the two movements are typically used in combination. With 8° of tilt and 11mm of shift, this lens is not intended for extreme effects (the new short focal length 17mm and 24mm Canon TS-E designs cover almost 10mm more image circle, and are). Its close focus of 50cm can be extended using tubes, and Canon can service-modify the lens to change the tilt and shift to be aligned as normally required for studio product shots. It can only be turned through 90° overall, in one direction. Despite an RRP of more than £1700, the elderly Canon design commonly sells for under £900, which is a bargain for a daily working tool of this quality. The heavy discount may indicate that Canon is due to redesign its 45mm and 90mm TS-E lenses to match the features and larger image circle of the 17mm and 24mm.
Nikon 85mm PC-E Micro Nikkor f/2.8D
One of the latest such designs, introduced in 2008, the Nano Crystal-Coated Nikon lens is still fairly conservative with 8.5° of tilt and 11.5mm of shift. It is classed as a Micro Nikkor because it focuses right down to 39cm and has an image scale of 0.5×, half life size. Like the Canon TS-E models, it is delivered with the tilt and shift axes at 90° to each other.
Due to the electronic aperture mechanism, which ensures the lens can be used with full aperture metering on current professional DSLRs, the swapover is a service modification offered by Nikon but not impossible to do yourself following instructions easily found online. When done, it places the shift and tilt controls together, which does not improve ergonomics. The size of the PC-E mount, and various compatibility issues, make Nikon's lens less backward-compatible and less suitable for use on consumer bodies. As studio work with perspective control lenses is often accompanied by a need to crop further, the natural companion for this lens is the 24-megapixel D3x. Where most metering modules have problems with lenses positioned off-axis or tilted, Nikon's is reasonably accurate.
Arax and Hartblei 80mm f/2.8 Tilt-Shift
The Ukrainian manual-only Arax lens is based on the 80mm f/2.8 Arsat lens, a six-element Gaussian standard for Kiev rollfilm SLRs similar to a Zeiss Planar. A modified lens unit is permanently mounted on a tilt-shift mechanism similar to Canon's, with 8° tilt and 11mm shift on opposed axes. There is no provision for changing the setup to align the movements. The mount can be specified for Leica R, Sony/Minolta Alpha, Pentax, Four Thirds, Nikon, Contax, Canon and more. Focus is down to 60cm which is a little lacking in close-up ability.
The cost from Araxfoto.com is only $429, making this the most affordable solution. Optically, the multicoated lens is much better than you would expect. Mechanically it's functional. Optical engineers Hartblei designed the better engineered Super-Rotator, originally said to use German optics and with fully independent rotation of both functions, including a 120mm f/2.8 that we saw briefly as an option for Phase One/Mamiya. These lenses disappeared from availability at www.hartblei.com last year. A new web address - www.hartblei.kiev.ua - now offers the 80mm for around £1000. But, one wonders, is the lens unit now locally made and not German?
Schneider-Kreuznach PC-TS Makro-Symmar f/4 90mm HM
Unlike the Canon or Nikon lenses, and more like the Arax or Hartblei designs in spirit, Schneider's 90mm offers independent alignment of the tilt-and-shift directions and full rotation. The optical and engineering quality is on a level far above the small-workshop Ukrainian/German collaborations, and the price much higher (over £2000), but it's still a plain manual lens as far as aperture control goes.
Key benefits of the Schneider mount include a narrow, control-free rear area, which means they will fit any camera body - even an old Nikon F Photomic - without the rotated lens fouling the prism, grip or any other part. The controls of the lens have been completely rethought to avoid knobs or large square-mount sections, and the shift function is placed at the front with tilt behind.
They also come in a range of mounts including Sony Alpha (ideal for the full-frame 24-megapixel A900 and 850) and Pentax. Tilt is a modest 8°, but shift a generous 12mm thanks to the design. A tripod mount on the lens makes multi-shot stitched images (using maximum shift) work correctly. The only criticism of the 90mm lens is that despite being based on a Makro-Symmar (optimised for 1:3 image scale) it only focuses to 60cm, a 1:6 scale, and not adequate for many small subjects.
Rodenstock 120mm f/5.6 Apo-Macro-Sironar Digital
For those with access to a monorail or technical body accepting either DSLRs or a digital back, the 120mm focal length remains a prime choice for studio work, and Rodenstock's lens - normally supplied in a Copal leaf shutter mount for well under £1000 - has its optimum performance in the scale range of 2:1 to 1:5. This is ideal for jewellery, perfumes, cosmetics and small products or packs. It is fully usable at longer distances and will perform well even on landscape subjects, with resolution to match full-frame sensors at 21-24-megapixel density.
The benefits of a lens like this used on a monorail such as the Arca Swiss M-Line 2 are seen in its relatively huge image circle - figures like 12mm or even 18mm shift mean nothing to it (it will cover a 150mm image circle wide open) and the compact symmetrical construction is the best lens design for tilting, again well in excess of the usual 8° to 10° of custom lenses. It would be possible to use a 25° tilt at infinity with an APS-C sensor, and with larger formats for close subjects. The modest cost and versatility of lenses like this justifies the investment of £2000 or so in the monorail to carry them and your DSLR body, or any future medium-format back.
Hasselblad HTS 1.5 Tilt-Shift Adaptor
For the Hasselblad H system - fully integrated with the digital lens corrections of the latest models - the studio lens solution for this medium-format system is not a separate lens, but a format converter that works with lenses from 28mm to 80mm. Combined with the 80mm, the result is a 120mm f/4.5 giving a field that is 50 percent larger than the digital sensor, allowing a generous 18mm shift in any one direction, along with an equally impressive 10° tilt.
The adapter includes sensors that combine with the chip information provided by the HC and HCD lenses to correct the final image with allowance for image shading due to off-axis rays, for optical distortion and for focus shifts. This makes it possible to focus with the lens on axis at full aperture, then use the full extent of shift, without refocusing to allow for curvature of field and aperture-related focus shift. Although the addition of the 1.5× conversion factor is a negative point when using lenses like the 28mm ultra-wide, it is a bonus for still-life work with the 80mm. At a cost of around £4000 it is arguably more versatile than any single focal length tilt-shift, and provides Hasselblad with an answer to any criticisms of the "closed" nature of the H system.
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