Mark and I finally commissioned the purchase of Canon's mother almighty tilt shift; the Canon TS-E 17mm f/4L. We have been dying to add this lens to DCAM's arsenal for some time now and in hindsight I believe that hesitation was unwarranted.
I don't want to use the word review. I'm not judging this product, I was sold on it before I bought it. I'm just giving you my hands on experience and learnings from using the lens in both a controlled environment and on location at a live shoot.
Look and Feel
If you're the kind of person who is fascinated by a piece of engineering, you will love this lens without even using it. It is a marvellous testament to human ingenuity. The build quality of the lens is remarkable. Considering it has so many moving parts, it feels sturdy and solid in your arms. It is a relatively heavy lens, but it isn't a burden to carry around.
Visually, it lacks the quintessential aesthetics of an L series prime lens, but its asymmetric, industrial form gives it a sense of purpose.
The most prominent feature on this tilt-shift is its bulbous front element. It is big, huge even and bordering on being disproportionate. A bit like Julia Robert's mouth, its way too big, but when she smiles it makes it all worth while. Likewise, this bulbous element makes sense when you experience how wide this lens really is.
Moves like Jagger
Seriously, that song popped into my mind when I saw this baby move. She's a cross between a contortionist and a precision optical device.
The tilt feature is a joy to use, playing around with the nature of Depth of Field is surreal. The shift feature though is my favourite and possibly the feature on this lens that I will use the most, considering the amount of Architectural Photography that we undertake at DCAM.
An Architectural Photographer's Dream Come True
I took it home for the weekend and played around with it a bit. This was one of the first outputs I got from this lens.
Using the vertical shift, I shot 5 photographs and assembled them in photoshop using auto align layers. There was no stitching software used, I did not do any warping or distorting at all in photoshop. The perspective correction was entirely in camera.
I used to be a post-production junky who believed you could change the world on a computer. But over time I've begun to respect the concept of "getting it right in camera" and this lens makes that journey way more accessible.
The final image is a 47.5 megapixel output. (yup, you're suddenly playing around in a Medium Format space.)
I also got the chance to use the lens on a live Architectural Shoot. I've included a couple of shots from that shoot below. I've got to give Prashanth credit for the behind-the-scenes pictures used throughout this article of the lens in use on location.
I've not done any extensive tests on aberrations and image quality, I was sold on that front from the numerous reviews I read prior to purchasing it. But looking at the final outputs at actual pixels has reassured me that this particular piece has no defects. The image quality is spectacular. I've hardly noticed any fringing in the corners. It is extremely sharp at the center when fully open at f4.
My Learnings in the field
1 - Even though she's a sturdy, well built lens, you've got to take good care of her. With that many moving parts, any impact on the body of the lens could muck up the mechanics of the tilt and shift features.
2 - I heard of people using this lens handheld. I would suggest using it only on a tripod. Controlling it effectively handheld has proven to be quite a challenge to me, it does not appear to be designed for handheld use. You can easily fumble and drop the camera if you try and wrestle around with the knobs. It is a precision lens, it only makes sense to use it on a precision platform.
3 - The bulging front element is an easy target for damage. I would advice you to cap the lens before moving your tripod from one place to another. There is no lens hood or filter thread to fit a protective UV filter on it. However, Mark recently pointed me to an article on Canon Rumors that spoke of a possible filter solution for this lens. That would be awesome, cause I experienced the need to use ND filters and Polarising filters on it in the field.
4 - The sheer surface area of the front element attracts a lot of dust. So you do need to keep a lens pen in handy. But be careful when cleaning the lens.
5 - The bulging front element is susceptible to a lot of flare. I got my assistant Prashanth to cast a shadow on the lens. That seemed to do the trick.
6 - I do not miss the autofocus functionality. But I do find it difficult to judge focus because the image is so wide. I resorted to using the video mode on my DSLR to focus. The zoom-in feature helps a lot. If you're out in the open with a lot glare, I would suggest you use something like the LCDVF or Zacuto's Z-Finder to enable you to do this.
7 - This lens has reduced the need for me to pull out our bulky panoramic head. Setting up a panoramic head is a tedious, time consuming process both on location as well as during post; especially if you're shooting multi-row panoramas. If the building you are shooting requires you to shoot from close quarters, (which is the case with most buildings in India) this lens will definitely replace the need for using a panorama-based workflow at least 4 out of 5 times.
I've still got a lot to learn about this lens. I intend to update this article with more findings in the future. But all in all, the main concern that people have with this lens is the price point. I say that cause we hesitated to purchase it for that same reason.
If you do a lot of Architectural work. Don't think twice about it. It is well worth the expense. I regret us not investing in this lens earlier. It has sped up my workflow and the accuracy of the end product tremendously.
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