Today’s review is of a pair of lenses that you don’t see very often, nor do you read/ hear much about – the Schneider PC-TS 2.8/50 Super-Angulon and PC-TS 4.5/90 Makro-Symmar. There’s a third lens, a 28mm, which has been announced but as of March 2014 is not available. Given that there aren’t too many perspective control options for 35mm DSLRs, and one is always on the lookout for optics that better match the resolving power of cameras like the D800E, it made sense for me to try these two…
Perspective control or tilt shift is pretty much what it says on the box: the entire optical cell plane moves relative to the sensor plane to either correct for converging lines (shift) by forcing a higher or lower virtual perspective, or allows for movement of the depth of field plane of the lens to one that is non-parallel to the sensor plane to either extend or reduce depth of field. Various effects may be produced by combining these two movements together with different axes. Shifts are very useful in architecture to straighten converging verticals if you cannot get to the right height to hold the camera perfectly level, or for product work where you want to shift the camera out of the reflection of the object you’re photographing. Tilts are useful to extend depth of field for landscape or close distance work, or reduce it for portraiture.
With that in mind, and before we examine the Schneider’s incredibly complex mount, this is how the various T/S options stack up:
1) Nikon: tilt and shift axes fixed perpendicular, but the axes can move together through 360 degrees about the lens mount. Axes of the 24mm can be made parallel (far more useful for landscape and architecture) easily by undoing four screws; the 85mm requires a new flex and has to go back to Nikon; I’ve not been able to find confirmation on whether the 45mm is easily modified or not. +/- 11.5mm shift and +/- 8.5 degrees of tilt; 24, 45, and 85mm.
2) Canon: tilt and shift axes independently rotatable through 360 degrees. +/- 12mm of shift and +/- 8.5 degrees of tilt (for version II models; slightly less for version I); 17, 24, 45 and 90mm.
3) Rokinon/Samyang: tilt and shift axes independently rotatable through 360 degrees. +/- 12mm of shift and +/- 8.5 degrees of tilt; 24mm only.
4) Schneider: tilt and shift axes independently rotatable through 360 degrees. 12mm of shift and 8 degrees of tilt; 28, 50 and 90mm.
Clearly, of all of these, the Nikons are the least useful because their tilt and shift axes do not rotate independently.
By far the most clever feature of the Schneiders is the mount barrel. It’s also the most complex, and as we’ll see later, a bit of a mixed blessing. But first, here’s what each of the rings – no less than 8(!) do:
1 – Pull forwards to rotate T and S axes
2 – T axis geared control, 0-8 degrees
3 – Pull forwards to rotate S axis only
4 – S axis geared control, 0-12mm
5 – Tripod collar, removable
6 – Focusing ring
7 – Aperture ring
8 – Stop down ring – it’s important to note that the lenses have no electronic communication with the camera body or electromechanical diaphragm coupling, so you must remember to use the blue knurled ring to stop down before taking the shot.
What we get is very precise control over every single axis and movement. Build quality is unquestionably superb; these are amongst the most solid and precise lenses I’ve used, bar none. The lenses even come packaged in a useful, well-padded silo case with velcro loops for a belt or bag. But, since the lens is so big – for reference, the front threads are a whopping 95mm in diameter, and the 50mm weighs 1.4kg – and the balance is so front-heavy, you really do need to use the built in tripod mount. It also keeps movements about the optical centre of the lens. However, this creates some problems because the rotations are cumulative relative to the camera, and the tilt or shift only happens in one axis – so if you decide you need a negative shift instead of a positive one, you’ve got to rotate the whole thing about the tripod collar and pull the right collar to rotate the mount, then reverse motion on the other T or S axis, too. Changing the angle of the tilt or shift is NOT straightforward; on all of the other options, it’s a case of just moving the unlock lever and rotating the lens – nice and intuitive.
The tradeoff is that with the other options, the geared knobs to control movements are nowhere near as precise as the Schneider; you can easily set fractions of a millimetre or degree. This is difficult to do with the Nikon, Canon or Rokinon lenses as their gearing is simply too fast. It’s less of an issue with the longer focal length, but at 50mm, the lack of precision starts to become felt, and by the time you hit 24 or 17mm, very small movements can make a big difference – especially in the tilt axis. I almost never use more than 2-3 degrees of tilt or 3-4mm of shift with the 24 PCE, but using the full range of the 85 PCE is normal.
The 50mm appears to be a telecentric design with 9 elements in 9 groups; the 90mm is a symmetric double-Gauss variant with 6 elements in 4 groups and a maximum magnification of 1:4 – personally, I find this very low magnification and the distant near limit of 60cm makes the ‘Makro’ naming somewhat misleading; I was initially excited about the possibility of using the 90mm for my watch photography work as increased precision is always good – but at 1:4 and so-so performance with extension tubes, it turned out not to be a viable option.
A very modest maximum aperture – just f4.5 compared to f2.8 for the Nikon and Canon lenses – and simple optical formula for the 90mm raises expectations of optical performance. Resolution across the frame is very good at f4.5, but improves noticeably at f5.6, peaking at around f8. It matches the already excellent 85mm for resolution, but perhaps exceeds it very slightly for clarity and microcontrast. Performance at the extremes of the shift and tilt regimes is slightly better than the 85 PCE, too; there is less longitudinal and lateral chromatic aberration, though some odd flare/ ghosting around high contrast areas occurs at maximum tilt and wide open. All in all, a very solid performance.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the 50mm: whilst the Nikon 45 PCE is one of the best lenses they make, the Schneider 50mm is a disappointment. It is hazy and exhibits lateral chromatic aberration wide open – even without shifting or tilting, and must be stopped down to f5.6 to be acceptable on the D800E. Peak is again at f8-11, and after that diffraction has taken over. For a lens of this size, mass and price, effectively having only 2-3 usable stops of aperture is simply not good enough. Given the surprise of these results, especially from the 50mm, I sought confirmation – unfortunately, obtaining a second sample wasn’t really an option, but fortunately Lloyd Chambers (of Diglloyd) had also tested both lenses and concurred with my findings on the 50mm – the lens is just soft and hazy on the D800E. What I found slightly concerning about both lenses was the odd colour balance. They are a far cry from neutral; in fact, there’s a strong magenta-cyan shift that’s tricky to correct and renders skies with a very odd hue. Vignetting is of course a non-issue for both lenses, given the size of the image circle.
Given the optical results, and general fiddliness of using the lenses, I’d give the 90mm a qualified recommendation – for those doing work that requires incredibly precise control of shift and depth of field, on subjects that aren’t too small, I’d probably pick the 90mm over the Nikon 85 PCE. However, I cannot recommend the 50mm at all – the optics are very disappointing.
The Schneider PC-TS 50mm and 90mm lenses are available in Nikon F, Canon EOS, Pentax K and Sony Alpha mounts here from B&H
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