As a focus stacker, I especially like the tilt in tilt/shift lenses and the reason is that by using tilt I can compress the area that needs to be stacked enormously and thus get more in focus using less layers.
I had all three of the main Nikon PC lenses (24mm, 45mm, 85mm) early on, but lost interest in them because the quality of the lens was not corrected enough for my taste and they were physically too limiting at times. I liked the 45mm PC the best.
I even have one of those small macro-tilt adapters for nikon that provides 8-degrees of tilt only, but rotates 360-degrees. It actually works and is the least expensive way to get tilt on a Nikon that I know of. But mostly my interest in tilt has been in view cameras.
I have had a number of view cameras, ranging from big 14 pounders to little miniature view cameras that still had all the movements, but were too frail for real work with a DSLR. And I still have the Novoflex BALPRO system, which is poorly designed IMO, but offers some movements. And of course there is the view camera system I use the most, the Cambo Actus Mini, of which I have a streamlined version. What a great system for my work!
And I have taken a number of these view cameras into the field, but have found them pretty awkward, yet have done it just the same. However, I have not done it THAT often because they can be a pain.
What if I told you there was a robust, small, view camera that I would not hesitate to take outside and into the field. You might ask: why do that when the wind (in the flat-state I live in -- Michigan) is almost always present and this would prevent any large focus stacks. I hear you, but that’s not the point here.
With a small view camera, if it was really small and compact, I could us the tilt feature to compress what needs to be stacked in a single shot. Or, I could create what I call “short stacks,” taking a few close-focus images at key points in the image and stacking just those, perhaps three or four layers. But there is something more useful than that, which is the reason I am writing this piece.
When the Hartblei Superrotator Macro 120mm F4 TS came along, I could see that at heart this lens is a tiny view camera all wrapped in a lens and one with a very small vertical component (no more than just mounting a lens), making it relatively easy to carry around and still have some of the main movements that I like in view cameras plus some unique features of its own.
Perhaps the Hartblei Macro 120mm is not purposely designed for stacking in the field, but why not? I don’t find that this discourages me. What it does offer is the ability (through Tilt and Shift) to add depth-of-field to a shot, if need be, in a one-off photo. I may not have time (or the wind prevents) to make large stacks, but I can independently rotate to tilt and/or shift the lens to maximize the depth-of-field in a single shot or a short-stack in just a few seconds. The result is I get more depth-of-field by the tilt and shift than I otherwise would. In my work, every little angle counts.
And it is this capability that makes this rather complex lens system worthwhile in the field as well as the studio. It shines in the studio! It is a heavy lens, but not as heavy and cumbersome as any of the view-camera systems I have otherwise used with equal features.
The Hartblei 120mm Superrotator uses a sturdy collar that mounts directly to the tripod via an Arca-Swiss plate so that the Nikon D850 hangs off the back of the collar mount and the heavy lens hangs from the collar and does not hang on the camera flange. This is very important for a 2 lb. lens. The lens kit also comes with a side-focus wheel which provides 2:1 fine-focusing, much like the focus-pullers I am familiar with in video work.
And the lens is called a “superrotator” has three rotations:
(1) Rotation Collar (horizontal/vertical)
(2) 360-degree Rotation Shift Movements
(3) 360-degree Rotation Tilt Movements
These rotations are each 360-degrees by increments (all the way around) and the shift and tilt rings can be used independently of one another in any combination. This feature, which is very desirable, is unlike any lens I have ever gotten my hands on and it is no kludge, but very well made and it works smoothly.
As for the lens itself, this is the same 120mm Zeiss macro lens that Hasselblad has successfully used for many years, the “Zeiss Macro Planar 120mm CFI/CFE” of the Hasselblad last build. It has been thoroughly vetted and reviewed, so it is a known entity.
And the lens itself has two separate focusing helicoids, a ring to get from infinity to 1.2m (170-degrees focus throw) and a second ring for close focus 1.2m to 75cm (160-degrees focus throw). In addition, there is a side focus which allows 2:1 fine-focusing. As a focus stacker, this is right up my alley. And I am told that this Zeiss lens has the best coating on the market; the blue channel is about 15-20% denser than other lenses.
However, it’s true that the Zeiss lens used in the Hartblei implementation is not as well corrected as some of my exotic APO lenses, but most of those APO lenses have no infinity, are VERY restricted in their range, have very old coatings, odd-ball mounts, and so on. The Hartblei 120mm looks to be an all-around general purpose lens and not just a specialized lens, although it is special indeed.
This particular Zeiss 120mm Macro Lens is well known and has been a feature of the Hasselblad system for many years, so we know what it is and isn’t. And while the optics may be slightly old fashioned, it is certainly fine enough, especially as Hartblei has configured it. Given its very low vertical profile, the sturdy tripod collar, and the refinement of the side-focus wheel, what you have here is a miniature view camera built into a lens, ready and able to work well in the field where I find it can be difficult to cart a larger view-camera system.
This lens may have to be used stopped down more than I would like, but it’s portable and for stacking some photos, I can also take a shot wide open to get whatever bokeh I can and feather that in with the main stacked image shot at higher f-stops, if needs be.
What is at least a psycho-social barrier is the price of the lens, which is over $5k. Ouch! For me, I am kind of used to high prices and I just have to sell a few more of the lenses I don’t use much. LOL. The Zeiss Otus lenses cost a lot and many of the lenses I most use do also, I guess that’s the price of admission.
With the Hartblei Superrotator 120mm, what you do get is a lens of known quality (the famous Zeiss Macro Planar 120mm CFi/CFe), a strong tripod color, a very helpful side focus system, plus the (and let’s use their word) three “Superrotators.” As mentioned earlier, I have had all three Nikon PC lenses (24mm, 45mm, 85mm) and their physical restrictions and too much chromatic aberration make them pretty-much unusable for my work.
There is a learning curve with the Superrotator 120mm lens. There is a lot of functionality packed into a small package, in particular getting used to the three rotations. It’s a lot like the old test of patting your head and rubbing your tummy at the same time. And the little release buttons for the rotations are not totally easy to hold down and do the rotation at the same time. For my work, I probably will use the same (or a similar) setup each time, so this may not be a big problem. Also, I have to learn to recognize where the tilt is, since unlike most PC lenses, where the lens tilts, in the 120mm Superrotator it is the camera body that tilts.
After all, the lens packs almost a complete view camera, with all of the main movements that I need, into a tiny (albeit a somewhat heavy) package.
And while I may not use this lens all that much in the studio because I have so many temperamental exotic APO lenses on hand, I will take the Hartblei Superrotator 120mm f/4 lens into the field where it is just a single lens, albeit a heavy one, and get many of the movements I like and find in the standard view camera.
I would like to hear from other owners of this particular lens.
Here are a couple of photos, one with the camera setup and a first image with the Nikon D850 with the Hartblei Superrotator. This shot focuses on the leaves and the flower is not stacked.