By Michael Erlewine
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.
By Michael Erlewine
The Printing Nikkors for Close-Up Work
Since the term apochromatic has no standard definition, various ideas of what is apochromatic exist. Finding apochromatic (APO) lenses that are really outstanding is difficult. By now, most of us know that the three new Zeiss APO lenses (135mm, 55mm, 85mm) are corrected apochromatically to a high standard, but finding lenses of similar quality (as to APO) is difficult without delving into the various industrial lenses, lenses designed for enlarger work or for various film-scanning operations.
One good set of APO lenses are what are called the “Printing Nikkors,” a series of four Nikon industrial lenses designed for or use in film transfer (copy) machines, making accurate copies of 35mm cinema films and the like. These machines cost upward of $100,000, and the lenses individually cost (I am told) some $12,000 each. They are very highly corrected. To achieve this, chromatic aberration is corrected not only for the red, green, and blue range of the visible spectrum, but for the entire wavelength range (400 ~ 800nm).
These four Printing Nikkors were each designed for a particular usable magnification range. Of the four Printing Nikkors (75mm, 95mm, 105mm, and 150mm), I have managed to find three of them, being the 95mm, 105mm, and 150mm. Here is a list along with what reproduction range they were designed for, and the general range suggested for use.
75mm = 1/4x (usable 1/6X ~ 1/3X)
95mm = 1/5x (usable 1/3X ~ 1/1/5X)
105mm = 1x (usable 1/1.5X ~ 1.5X)
150mm = 1x (usable 1/4X ~4X)
I don’t use the Printing Nikkors for macro or higher magnifications, but primarily for close-up photography. This particular Printing Nikkor, the 150mm is of no use to me mounted directly on my Nikon D810 camera. Rather, it needs a bellows, and I generally use the Nikkor PB-4 for that. Since I mostly use this particular lens for focus stacking, the bellows works well for the close-up range.
As a quick sidebar, to take advantage of the available focus-stacking software (I use Zerene Stacker), there are three main ways to stack focus and they produce different results, so it is important to use the most efficient method if you can. I give them here, starting with the best solution on down to the least efficient. The ranking is in terms of avoiding unwanted artifacts in your resulting stacked images:
(1) The best way to stack is on a bellows, by fixing (locking) the lens to the front standard (so it does not move), and then focus with the rear standard on which sits the camera body (and sensor). So, we fix the lens, and only move the camera to focus.
(2) The second best way to stack photos (and easiest) is by turning the focus barrel of the lens itself. This is why it can be important to purchase a lens with the longest focus throw you can get. For example, the famous Coastal Optics 60mm APO f/4 forensic lens (which is highly corrected) only has a focus throw of about 210-degrees, way too small (IMO) for stacking photos. You really have to use it mounted on a camera, mounted on a focus rail, and that is not good. On the other hand, the legendary Voigtlander 125mm f/2.5 APO-Lanthar Macro lens has a focus through of some 610-degrees. What a difference!
(3) And lastly (and worst-ly) is to mount the camera-body and lens on a focus rail and move the whole combination to focus. This is not recommended, but I still have to often revert to it.
(4) And there is the concern that spherical objects are the hardest to stack because you must take even smaller incremental layers with spheres, since there is no flat surface. To capture a sphere without artifacts takes some very fine increment-steps to stack properly.
The above choices (themselves) each involve problems of their own, of course. Not all lenses will work well on a bellows, not all lenses have a decent focus throw, and the third option of using a focus rail should be avoided, if possible. These three options were first explained to me by Rik Littlefield, the author of Zerene Stacker, the focus-stacking software that I find to be the best for my work.
I must say that my choice of flowers here is not ideal. In my experience the color yellow (and red, for that matter) are not as easy to capture correctly compared to the greens and blues. But this is what I have in the studio, so I am using it.
Here are three different images, the first two images are stacked images shot with the Printing Nikkor 150mm wide open (f/2.8), and one at its narrowest aperture (f/11). The third image is a non-stacked traditional one-shot photo at f/11. My thoughts?
My first thought is that I have to learn to better master the color yellow. Second, I feel this lens is very unforgiving, perhaps even a little aggressive or “forensic,” as in: what you see is what you get. And thirdly, I continue to wrestle with the question of to-stack-or-not-to-stack at all.
The traditional one-shot photo is not bad. Why bother to stack, when stacking means artifacts of one kind or another (visible or not to the average viewer) will be present?
It seems to me that the three new Zeiss APOs are not, well, so “forensic,” and have a softer feel to them. The bottom line is that I have to learn to better use the Printing Nikkors or….. just stick with the Zeiss APOs.
Now, the industrial enlarger-lens, the El Nikkor APO 105mm, does not seem to have a “forensic” look. This is not to mention that maneuvering a large lens like the Printing Nikkor 150mm, mounted on a bellows, mounted on a quick-release clamp, in the field is no easy trick.
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By Greg Drawbaugh
I had some nice cloudy bright sky after a light rain fall, so I decided I might attempt to get some flower photos using the in camera, focus stacking ability of the latest Olympus cameras. Red always gives me problems, so I decided I would tackle it first. This are all five-shot, hand-held focus stacks with some work in Lightroom, F5.0 at 1:50 sec
By Michael Erlewine
I can read the various MTF and other lens-testing charts, but they are only as meaningful in my work as I can implement them in the studio or field. In other words, I am not much of a lens tester myself, except though actually using the lens for my own work. I am certain that any given lens reaches greatest resolution at a certain f/stop, just as the experts tell us. No doubt. However, what I really want to know is about what kind of curve the particular lens creates from its widest to its narrowest aperture and how does that curve affect my particular work. That’s the curve I actually use. In other words, is it “sharp” wide-open or does that sharpness start a couple of stops later, and how long is that sharpness maintained? What kind of curve do we have, sharp or gentle?
As someone who stacks focus, I don’t stack focus at the same aperture that I use for taking a traditional single-shot photo. With a one-shot photo I tend to, of course, push the aperture higher (narrower) to get as much depth-of-field as I feel I need for a particular shot, which often is as much as I can get without degradation of the image through diffraction. Yet when I stack focus, I don’t worry about using a narrower aperture to get my depth of field, but rather I use focus stacking to create the apparent depth of field.
So, for focus stacking I want a single aperture on the lens-curve that marks the point of greatest resolution for that lens. In summary, I don’t try to stack with narrow apertures, but almost always with a single aperture for the lens that is considered its peak-resolution, what commonly is called “sharpness,” although that is a rather nebulous term. That way every increment of the stacked layers has maximum resolution and therefore the resulting stacked images shares that too.
Not to be confusing, but sometimes I stack not at the point (aperture) of greatest resolution, but just a little higher (narrower) if I am trying to create a little additional faux micro-contrast for that image. I take advantage of the greater depth-of-field obtained at a narrower aperture and record the additional depth-of-field as if it were greater acutance – micro-contrast. I am still undecided whether this actually helps, but it is a concept I am playing with. Normally I stack at the aperture that the testers (or my eyes) tell me has the most resolution for that lens and leave it go at that. The point here is that I come up with my own idea of what aperture curve will work for the job at hand, i.e. what I can get away with.
All photographs IMO are impressions, our own mental and psychological impressions of what we see out in the world, given the caveat that much of what we see, our impressions, come not from the outside, but from our own mind and approach. Because focus stacking is a form of lossy sampling, a stacked photo is almost an impression of an impression, so to speak. I don’t easily fall into believing that what I am photographing out there in the world has a reality greater than my own impressions and approach. Let’s take the recent Zeiss 135mm APO as an example, and the following are just my thoughts on how I use this lens for close-up photography.
The Zeiss 135mm is sharp wide-open, so I don’t have to add a couple of f/stops to achieve better resolution. With this lens wide-open, I get a depth-of-field (DOF) that is razor sharp. With that ultra-thin slice of DOF, I can literally paint focus, layer by layer, until I create what we could call a block of focus that represents what I want in that image to be sharp and in-focus. Because the lens is fast and wide open, whatever I don’t layer-paint is automatically blurred or part of the bokeh of the image. Note that this is the opposite of much traditional advice for focus stackers, i.e. that we push the lens as high as we can without suffering too much diffraction and then stack. I am going against tradition here because I like the results better. Now, back to the Zeiss APO 135mm lens.
With traditional one-shot photos, when I am not stacking, I find that from the Zeiss 135 APO I can get usable resolution and acutance all the way to up to something like f/13, which is a long way. Yes, by then I am recording diffraction that bothers me (and way before that), but I often can get by with it. If I don’t need peak sharpness for the particular subject, I can shoot at f/16 and inject some little bit of needed clarity or contrast in post. Beyond f/16 I am getting too much diffraction and image-degradation to venture there.
Since I am primarily a close-up photographer (rather than a macro photographer), much less a micro-photographer, the lack of extreme detail at f/16 with the Zeiss 135mm APO is often acceptable, diffraction and all. In fact, I have an ongoing battle going on within me whether to do a lot less stacking and a lot more taking single-shot traditional photos.
I am also experimenting with what I call “short-stacks,” where I take two or three shots that capture the particular areas in a photo I want to be in high-focus and stack that. I find that with these new Zeiss APO lenses do actually work much better than I would have guessed for short stacks. Years ago, when I was first starting out with focus-stacking, I did short stacks because I was lazy, and the results were that I had way too many artifacts in the final images.
But with, as I have mentioned in many articles now, these three new Zeiss APO lenses (135mm, 55mm, 85mm), this short-stack technique seems to work out very well indeed. And I don’t even stack them in the ordinary way. Yes, I use Zerene Stacker with short stacks, but when retouching I have a different approach. Ordinarily, I retouch artifacts only, but with the short-stack approach I tend to just paint in from each of the layers just the main part that layer has in perfect focus, kind of in a whole-cloth sort of way. Most of us used to this in Photoshop. I do have to pay attention to where these layers overlap, but I have been surprised how successful that has been.
Here is a little tableau I have put together. I will have to show a larger view at another time, but I am focusing on the two-dollar bill, but have included some burlap (pleated) so that it rises up and we can see how much depth-of-field is available at the higher apertures. Perhaps some of you reading this will have suggestions for what kinds of objects I could additionally include.
These shots are not about color, but about resolution, diffraction, and depth-of-field. I notice that I can get away with f/11 (see the copper tacks), but with f/16 it is more iffy (but often still usable) for close-up, but not for macro. Lately my internal mantra seems to be “I always seem to go for high resolution,” but am interested more in acuity (micro-contrast) in post. And I only do all of this with APO lenses, for the most part.
Your thoughts? Are these kind of images useful to anyone by myself?