Xootr Swift Folding Bike

Concept: 5 out of 5
Execution: 5 out of 5
Yeah, but: Forget that it folds.

The Long Version: I've been riding the Xootr Swift bike for ten days. I usually like to have more experience with something before I review it, but with summer ending, I'm hurrying this one along.

Some Background:

The Swift is the second vehicle that I've bought from Xootr, with the first being the Mg scooter that I reivewed in two parts - one and two. But Xootr isn't as well known on the bike forums that I was sifting for recommendations, so even after I decided to supplement their excellent scooter with a small-wheeled bike, I spent a lot of time looking at other brands. To make a long story short, I was actually trying to buy a Bike Friday Pocket Expedition, but couldn't get an answer from their local dealer when I e-mailed - twice - to ask how much it would cost. The frustration led me to look elsewhere, so I started researching the Swift.

I was surprised by what I learned. The Swift isn't a Xootr original, but rather was designed and built by an independent maker in New York city. (Swiftfoldersdotcom has more background.) Remarkably, it's still available from a variety of sources, of which Xootr LLC is only one. So if you want a custom steel frame with an exotic mix of components, it's available from its original designer. If you want a mostly-stock aluminum one that will ship the same day that you order it, you can do that too.

Getting the Swift on the Road:

The Swift arrived in a remarkably small - 9"x25"x35" - and light box. The bike has 20"/406 wheels, which are the same size that BMX bikes and most folders use, and they really cut down on the size of the package. The frame is reminiscent of Gary Turner's designs, with the seatstays crossing the seat tube and being joined to the top tube. But this join isn't a weld, it's a hinge: the seat tube is two pieces, held together by the seat post, making the bike into a remarkably light and strong folder. This also makes the shipping charge reasonable, although I do need to warn my fellow Canadians that the default shipping method is UPS Standard with its wicked hidden fees. I contacted Xootr ahead of time, and we compromised on a UPS Saver service that cut the costs down considerably. UPS outdid themselves and managed to deliver it to the right address on only their third attempt, but I digress.

The only tools needed to assemble the Xootr is a hex wrench, which they include, and a pedal wrench, which they do not. I have one, but a pair of needle-nose pliers or vice-grips should also work to give the pedals one last twist. A #1 philips screwdriver is also handy to tweak the brakes. I'm used to doing my own basic bike maintenance, and had it assembled and ready to go in about twenty minutes. That's longer than the ten minutes that I've read about elsewhere, but my time includes the full unboxing-to-ridable process. The bike arrives really, really, really well packaged. The frame is bubble-wrapped, zip-tied, and sheathed in heavy paper to prevent scratches. It took at least ten minutes just to get it unpacked. I recorded the whole thing on video, but I've cut the unwrapping and some of the instruction-reading to manage its length. Even on fast-forward, it's not the most fascinating, so I offer it only for those who have a serious interest in buying the bike. Casual readers are welcome - nay, encouraged - to skip it.

As you can see, putting together the front quick-release skewer stumped me for a while. I've also cut out some of the twiddling: the pedals and stem took more cranking than what you're seeing here. One other thing that you might notice is that I didn't need a pump. The tires come fully inflated and ready to ride.


When I ordered the Swift I added the Thudbuster suspension seatpost, Crossrack, and fenders. The thudbuster is a clever design that works well, and the one that Xootr includes - for the same price that the manufacturer sells it at - has a post that's the correct diameter. The method used for rigid bikes is to use a narrow seat post and a shim to make it into a one-sku-fits-all system, but since the seat post is integral to the strength of the Swift's frame, DO NOT DO THIS. Get it through Xootr. You could order the correct size through Cane Creek, but that's more work.

The Crossrack attaches to the seat-post and holds a standard pannier. I like this system because I want to carry a camera, and this position both protects it in a crash and suspends it from the shocks of resting on top of a regular bike rack. All told it's a great design. The only catch is that it attaches to the seat-post, and stops it from dropping down and locking the frame in its folded position. If you're looking to use the quick-fold ability of the Swift, it's not the greatest addition. The counterpoint is that the Swift is probably the largest-folded folding bike on the market, so it's probably not a big loss for anyone who would consider buying it.

Xootr also sells a bag for the crossrack. The reflective stripe that goes all the way around the Xootr bag is useful - not many panniers are styled for being carried sideways. I would have bought it as well if I hadn't found a convertible bag that is both a pannier and a daypack from MEC. It also has reflectors on three sides, and adds two water-bottle pockets. The Swift doesn't have any braze-ons to attach a water bottle cage, and since the combination of the crossrack and thudbuster precludes using the bottle cages that attach to the back of the seat, this is something worth considering.

(Updated September 2009: I've since spotted two little bolts on the steering riser, and Xootr's website confirms that these are spaced for a bottle cage. Handy.)

The fenders were also bought with the bike from Xootr. They're made by Planet Bike, and are sized to fit the frame and small wheels. I looked for local options, to keep the customs value down, but 20" fenders aren't that common. They're basic and functional, not terribly expensive, and have already saved me a couple of times. Like lights and a bell, they're essential for urban riding.

And Speaking of Riding:

I've never ridden another folding bike, even for a test-ride, and I haven't had 20" wheels since I got tall enough to trade my BMX for a ten-speed. My only recent point of comparison is a wickedly fast road bike with a stiff aluminum frame cushioned by the best suspension seatpost ever designed. The Swift feels just as solid and quick as that old road bike. The little wheels needed a little familiarization, since they really are more nimble than their bigger cousins, and it feels like I could do a wheelie every time the lights turn green. It's a fun bike to ride. I may not be able to keep up with the peloton any more, but I never really could, and it's probably not the Swift's fault.

The Swift is a very sprightly little bike. I'll admit that I wasn't instantly taken by its styling, but now that I see it in person, it makes a lot of sense to me. Performance bikes designed for triathlons have smaller wheels than normal road bikes, and the Swift looks like it was taken to the logical extension of that practice. It just looks like a sporty bike, in ways that curved-frame bikes like the Brompton and Dahons don't. Its relatively high top tube makes it look more like some fancy mountain bikes than a bike that aspires to be luggage. The lack of a cut-in-the-middle hinge has left some people surprised that it can fold.

Born in New York City, this bike is a natural urban commuter. They come equipped with the 65psi version of the Kenda Kwest tire, which have a great reputation, and haven't let me down so far. And while the bike is new, so there's no accumulation of grease and oil on the wheel rim and brake pads, it's worth noting that the brakes are almost frighteningly good even in the rain. During one recent storm I accidentally locked up the rear wheel while sympathy-braking for a cyclist immediately ahead of me who was cut off by a taxi. They're not particularly high-end V-brakes, but they work.

The drive-train consists of a large single front chain-ring and an eight-speed 11-28 cassette on the back, with horizontal rear dropouts that will accommodate an internally geared hub or a single-speed setup. The stock gear range is plenty for this essentially flat city; I spend most of my time in gears 3-6, and the only time I've used the lowest gear was to climb some reasonably steep trails. One of those is the gravel access road to a nearby ravine that was extremely loose after several days of sporadic rain. Naturally, I had the Xootrcam rolling for my first off-road excursion.

Slick tires do very well as long as the surface is solid. Pavement is great, wet or dry, and hard-packed dirt is easy. Soft surfaces: not so much. The hill at the mid-point of the video above is loose sand that's had gravel sprinkled over it, and going down it on a new bike with small wheels was recklessly stupid. Climbing it on the way back was merely dumb. I debiked when the rear tire went sideways as I tried to turn in soft sand; proper technique, lower tire pressure, and/or knobby tires probably would have gotten me through okay. The good news is that the low stand-over height of the Swift means that it was a relatively graceful recovery, and I never stopped moving forward. I just walked the rest of the way to the top, and kept up about the same speed.

Off-road riding was never going to be a big part of what I do, but it is nice to have a bike that can handle the park trails within the city.

The Swift is an easy and fun bike to ride. The small wheels give it a different character and define much of its personality, but there's little compromise in weight or rigidity in exchange for its folding ability. Think of it as a rigid bike that's easier to get through doors. When winter comes, it will take up less space, but ride-ability has clearly been a bigger priority than fold-ability. Folding for the original Swift was considered more of an anti-theft bring-it-inside feature than a crowded-train-commuting necessity, so make sure you're buying the right bike for your needs.

Speaking of anti-theft, locking a bicycle is always a poor alternative to having it somewhere secure inside. But when the seat post of the Swift is removed, the bike is free to fold. Locking it in a folded configuration is bound to confuse people, but also shows off the value of the bike. Instead, I'll just lock the Swift normally and bring the seat post (with its attached crossrack and bag) with me when I need to run in to a store. I suspect that trying to ride the bike without the seatpost to hold it together would end badly and quickly.

But why...?

As an enthusiastic Xootr Mg kick-scooter rider, why did I buy a bike? The scooter is also fun and efficient, and for short distances its slower speed is compensated for by how easy it is to deal with when not riding it. It's easier to get through doors, and there's no need to lock it up and/or leave it somewhere else. For my little 2km-ish commute, it's probably the better choice. But I'm on my feet most of the time at work: a bike lets me sit down, and pedaling is easier than kicking. But the big reason to add a bike is for the recreational exercise and the ability to get to places that I wouldn't otherwise go. I've said it already, but this bike is great fun to ride, and it's practical too. It has a longer range than the scooter, and mixes better with traffic. There may not really be a need for both, but there's certainly room for them.

The One-Month Update:

I've now had another twenty days on the Swift, and have liked it more with every ride. It's quick, agile, and still stable enough for me to ride without hands - something I've never done before. Granted, I can't do it for very long, but once again that's my fault and not the bike's. While my longest ride has yet to break 20km, the bike is comfortable, reliable, and lets me play in traffic with the best of them. I'm capable of rolling along at a pace that lets joggers pass me and then jumping up to a speed that lets me merge with the cabbies when something blocks my lane. I can't think of a better bike for my urban riding, and see no reason why I'd ever want big wheels ever again.

I've adjusted the seat to a flatter and more comfortable angle, and lowered the crossrack a touch to make it easier to get the pannier on and off of the bike. I can't quite find a way to fit the lock - a Kryptonite Evolution Mini - onto the seat-post without bumping into it with my leg. If I shift it back far enough that I can barely get it out past the pannier, then I almost don't bump into it, and it's good enough to get by. I'm also going to move the left brake lever over a bit, since it's sized for a grip that has the bulk of a shifter next to it, but the front-dérailleur-less Swift didn't take that into account when it was being put together at the factory.

Next spring I may start switching out some components. The stock pedals aren't bad; they're grippy and light, but they're also cheap and aren't the aesthetic highlight of the bike. The stock Kwest tires are very good, but I'd like to get a 2" Big Apple tire on the front of this New York design, and a faster 100-psi 1.5" slick on the back. I think that'll give a great mix of comfort and speed on my thudbuster-equipped ride. New brakes and levers might also be in order, but that's getting to the point of changing things just for the sake of changing things. What can I say? I love to tinker and accessorize.

I realize that there's no such thing as a 'best' or 'perfect' bike, because everyone will have different needs and desires. There's no best camera, car, or shoes, either. But no matter how hard I try, I can't find anything to complain about on the Swift. Sure, it would be great if it was outfitted with top-tier components and was given out for free, but the bike is rock solid, shifting is snappy, and it's quite reasonably priced. After ten days of riding, I'd given this bike twin scores of 4/5, which is nearly perfect. With a few more kilometers under the tires, I've had to bring it up to a perfect 2x 5/5. This is only the third time in I've given that score in over a hundred reviews, and I don't do it lightly now. I just can't find any reason for it not to get the top possible marks.

Updated 27 July 2011: my two-year report on the Xootr Swift can be found here. But in a nutshell, I still like it.


Godiva Chocoiste

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: How can I rate something I can't pronounce?

The Long Version: I've liked orange chocolate since my father would bring home Terry's from his trips to England. Dark chocolate is a more recently acquired taste, and not one that everyone shares, but I prefer it because I find I can eat less of it and still be quite happy. So when Penny found these, she naturally thought of me, and brought home a little tin of these chocolates.

The dark chocolate is quite mild, and the orange is really nicely balanced. They're very good; I managed to make the little 43 gram tin last over a week. The small tin actually isn't much more expensive than a 230g bag of dark chocolate M&M's, so while they're definitely indulgent, they don't need to wait for an annual occasion.

I did spend a bit of time trying to find out what, exactly, chocoiste means. The closest I came to finding an answer was that she's a flight attendant who loves to travel, work out, and can sit for hours watching movies. Godiva's website is here.


Filzer Dynamo Front 3 LED Cycling Light

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: A disposable price that doesn't need disposable batteries.

The Long Version: I have a thing for lights, and a thing for bike accessories. I also have a thing against buying batteries - small, recurring costs bug me. So when I found this little hand-cranked dynamo bike light, I knew I was going to give it a try.

I haven't been using it long enough to have a good sense of the durability of the Filzer Dynamo, but it seems well-built and has a nice and slightly grippy surface. The light itself is modest with a blue tint, which is good for making the bike visible at night, but isn't going to light the cyclist's way. Personally, I like my lights bright enough that they help my visibility during the day. Canadian cars and trucks have their lights on all the time, and if it helps a six-fool-wide multi-ton vehicle get noticed, I don't see how it can hurt skinny little me.

Mountain Equipment Co-Op sells this light for $8.75. It's hard to beat that price, especially since it has a built-in rechargeable battery. So the fact that it isn't the brightest bulb isn't really unexpected. It's far, far, far better than nothing, which is exactly what it's likely to replace for most bikes. If the batteries run down they can be fixed faster than a flat tire. For more serious lighting needs - getting my arse hit by a car is an ongoing concern of mine - I'd suggest getting a brighter battery light to use in combination with this one. When I have the second light I can foresee adding a diffuser material to the Dynamo to increase its visibility from the sides.

One of the interesting things about the three LED dynamo light is that it feels really nice to hold. It has an oval profile, and the crank handle folds back into the body when it's not in use. Frankly, it makes a pretty decent flashlight for general use, and it's so cheap that there's no reason not to have one around. Ah, if only it was that easy.

The Dynamo light comes with a really big caveat: the batteries self-discharge, and if they're allowed to stay discharged, then they won't hold power any more. If that happens, then this eco-friendly fossil-fuel-free-transportation-enabler is heading for the local landfill. That's got to be the height of counter-productive irony. It also means that this can't just be put in a glove compartment or emergency kit until it's needed. You'll also need to take it off the bike and occasionally crank it while the bike's in storage over the winter. No problem, of course - as I mentioned before, it does double duty as a flashlight... except that the streamlined shape that's so comfortable to hold makes it too bulky to put in anything less than a coat pocket.

The Filzer 3-LED dynamo is a good light: not the brightest, but not the most expensive either. Every bike should definitely have a light, and if the care and feeding of the dynamo sounds acceptable, then there's no reason why it shouldn't be this one. Riding an unlit bike is inexcusably stupid when there's such a cheap and serviceable light on the market.

The Two-Week Update: Some additional use has shown me one more trait of this light. I still consider it to be a decent-if-modest light, but I've noticed that it rattles. Not much, and not loudly, but it bugs me. I may be over-sensitive, but now when I know that I'm not going to be riding during or after dusk, I'll leave it at home or carry it in my bike bag.


B+W 110 ND filter

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: Ten stops is a lot of light.

The Long Version: The 110ND is a ten-stop neutral density filter, which means it lets in only 0.1% of the light that hits it. That's dark. Really, really dark. In fact, it's so dark that it's not really neutral any more. Images taken with it have a reddish hue that doesn't quite go away, even with some custom white balance trickery.

Having a ten-stop cut filter means doing things like a fifteen-second exposure in full sun at noon at a mere f/16. For extra fun, adding a polarizer will cut another stop-and-a-bit, which more than doubles the exposure time again. To play with this kind of time takes a very solid tripod and probably some sort of way to lock the shutter for "bulb" exposure. Even then, I feel like a lot of my images aren't as sharp as they should be. It's impossible to tell if that's from the filter directly, or from the effects of city vibration transmitted up the tripod. Given B+W's reputation, I'll give them the benefit of the doubt, but it doesn't seem possible to abuse light this much and not have some consequences.

I've seen some really good photos taken using this extreme ND filter, but none of them have come from my camera. I've taken a few smooth-water shots in my time, and while this filter's great at them, they've never really excited me. Generally I'd say that this filter falls into the same category as a Lensbaby: an expensive novelty item that makes photography into a difficult low-fi exercise, but with a genuine-if-narrow band of real value that some people will benefit from. Like the lensbaby, the effect can be approximated in post-production, in this case by stacking multiple short exposures, but the effect never really rises above being a mimicry and misses the chance for the unexpected to happen. I'm glad to have this filter, and occasionally bring it out to play, but if it broke I wouldn't buy another one.


B&H Summer 2009 Catalog

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: It's free p0rn - who says no to that?

The Long Version: B&H Photo puts out its catalog twice a year, and it's 450+ pages of optics, electronics, and other goodies. It spans a huge range of products, from home theater A/V gear to lame iPod knock-offs called the "Zune". While I certainly like looking through the camera gear, it's actually the pro audio and video section that I really enjoy. Some of that stuff is so expensive that it makes my still cameras and lenses seem quite reasonable.

The catalog has other bright spots, as well. Its cover earned a place on the Photoshop Disasters website, but there are also some gems inside. The description of the Nikon F100 boasts about its "balanced bill-blash," and the photo for the Olympus FE-3010 looks suspiciously like the Nikon P90. But it hardly matters; the FE3010 has already dropped by about $25 from its listed price, and it's on the cusp of being discontinued and out of stock. I can certainly appreciate the difficulty and futility of writing and proofing the blather for the hundreds of interchangeable products that won't last longer than it will take the paper to biodegrade - but it's still funny.

The printed catalog is the exact opposite of a website. It's hard to find specific things, it's outdated almost immediately, and it costs a lot to distribute. But it's also easy to flip through. A website provides a specific answer if you already know the question; a catalog might be archaic, but it's the best way to find randomly interesting things. I wouldn't pay to buy one, but it's entertaining, educational, and I usually wear out the old copy by the time the next one arrives.


Buying A Bike Online

Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: Who needs a test ride?

The Long Version: I hate shopping, but I like buying, and enjoy doing research. Going into a store and being lost and uncertain bothers me - it makes me feel lost and uncertain. But in this brave electronic internet world, there's lots of information and options available, and I feel right at home with it.

Buying a bike is always an interesting experience. My first bike (as an adult capable of making purchasing decisions) was picked out of a lineup at a manufacturers warehouse sale. I knew nothing about it, but it turned out pretty well. It was a mountain bike, pre-suspension era, and it was blue. After some time, I decided to get more serious, and bought an exotic road bike. I lusted after it for months before I bought it, and although I flirted with a couple of others and went on some test-rides, my original this-is-better obsession held firm. It was a great bike, too. It was heavier than comparably priced road bikes, but had full suspension, and riding it felt more like flying. The only place where you'd be likely to see one is at a triathlon, and even there they were serious machines. They're even more exotic now, since the company now only makes bike racks, so so much for that.

It's been many years since I've actually ridden a bike, and a year since I finally sold my old racer. Cycling had stopped being fun; the skinny road bike needed the fancy shoes and wardrobe, which turned transportation into a special event, and the mountain bike somehow never took back its primary role. I was obsessed with being Serious and somehow, even when I realized that the mountain bike was just more fun, it wasn't enough. And getting bikes in and out of the house / up the stairs / on and off an elevator was just a hassle, and then where do I store the thing?

Now I've had several changes that put me into a better frame of mind. I've stopped taking myself seriously, and learned to slow down and be less competitive overall. (Riding a scooter is good for that.) I'm happier and spend less time working, have tremendous support at home, and live in a much more bike-friendly area. And with the BMI steadily trending upward, it was time to get back into the only physical activity that I actually like. It was time to have a bike again.

Shopping for a bike took weeks of varying levels of intensity. Sometimes I was just idly thinking about it, other times I was staying up late to read just a few more reviews. What I was looking for was a bike with small wheels, making it easier to use the elevators and navigate halls and doors. Folding is an asset - and practically assured with the 20" wheels - but I just want one that can be folded for winter storage, not necessarily the ability to hop on and off crowded trains or take it into stores on errand runs. Fenders and a rack are a hassle for small wheels, so having them included with the bike is a bonus. Suspension makes life more pleasant, and I want decent tires that can take a pothole or two. Riding my Xootr scooter needs constant vigilance to avoid pebbles, twigs, and cracks in the sidewalk, so I really want a bike that doesn't have racer-skinny sneakers. There are also some hard-packed dirt trails nearby, so some off-road versatility is also on my list.

Research on the internet is a funny thing. Manufacturers sites are great for specifications and publicity photos, but they're low on real-world perspective. Consumer aggregate sites, with their pro-con lists and star ratings, encourage short-form reaction but there's not enough room to develop a narrative. The source I found most useful are the blogs where people write about their own stuff. That's actually a little scary, because I know someone who writes one of those, and it just shows me that anyone can be an authority. So as with everything, it's reader beware, and just because Google ranks it on the first page doesn't mean it's been peer-reviewed. But with that in mind, there's a lot of good stuff out there, and I've enjoyed being the reader for a change.

At various points I had decided for certain on four different bikes. I've liberated their publicity photos to create the nightmare of a mashup that forms the illustration for this review. There's a Dahon, which contributes the front wheel, fork, and fender; a Bike Friday, which provides the seat, seatpost, handlebars, and steeting column; a Xootr, which is the main frame; and an Airnimal for the rear triangle, drivetrain, and suspension. These bikes are all folding designs with 20" wheels, three of them have (or offer) some sort of suspension, and three of them are essentially internet-only in Canada. The Dahon is the cheapest of the four by a good margin, is available locally, and there's lots of them on the streets. Naturally, it's not the one I chose.

Eventually it came down to two bikes. They're pretty comparable: neither is exactly perfect, but I could flip a coin and be happy with either one. The deciding factor turned out to be customer service. One would have to be ordered through my local bike store, and they must be too busy to have been able to answer either of the price/availability e-mails that I sent them over the past ten days. The other brand was orderable straight from the manufacturer, and after a very quick e-mail exchange to sort out the shipping options and a small amount of customization, it was done. My shipping notification from the carrier was sent less than five hours after I placed the order.

I'm not actually going to say which one I picked, because that's not really the point. It will be reviewed here sooner or later, along with a host of other cycling-related stuff. The purpose of this article is really to consider the process. This is the second bike that I bought after extensive internet research, and the second bike that I've bought without any test-rides, but it's the first time I've done both of those together and bought one that I've never even seen in person. Obviously, if I was a Serious Cyclist I wouldn't be doing this, just like if I was a Serious Audiophile I wouldn't have bought my speakers (An SVS subwoofer and pair of Kef XQ1's) off of the Internet without ever hearing them. I'm not looking for custom or cutting-edge, but I'm also not willing to walk into the store and take what the salesperson wants to sell me. Finding information from a wide variety of sources has never been easier, and with some good insight the inconsistencies can usually be sorted out. I haven't been burned so far, and shopping on the internet is almost a hobby in itself.

In a week or two, I'll be able to say whether I'd do it this way again.


Nikon 85mm f/2.8 PC-E Micro-Nikkor

Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: This one goes beyond 'exotic'.

The Long Version: The 85mm f/2.8 pc-e micro-nikkor is the only reason why I bought a Nikon D700. I'm a fan of exotic lenses, with the Olympus 7-14 and 35-100 being two of my favourites, but even by my standards the D700+85/2.8 is some mighty heavy iron. Make no mistake, there is almost no reason for anyone to own this lens. The very few who will be able to use - and expense - it will already know the deal, and don't need me to tell them about it. But even with so little pressure, this is still one of the most intimidating reviews I've written. After two months of frequent use, and hundreds of photos, I still don't know nearly enough about how to use this lens. Another couple of years should do it.

PC-E stands for Perspective Control - Electronic, and it's what makes this 85mm lens special. It has a diaphragm that's electronically controlled, which is a first for Nikon, and means that the lens doesn't need to have its aperture set manually. Perspective Control means that the lens is split in the middle, and can slide 11.5mm off-axis. This essentially lets the camera shoot at an angle instead of only directly ahead. It's usually used to raise the front of the lens to correct for perspective distortion, but it can shift in any direction. The photo above is shot behind glass, and shifting the lens sideways let me avoid capturing my own reflection. When the front of the lens is lower than the camera, it lets products be shot with a normal perspective from an overhead point of view. Yes, you can fix convergence in photoshop, but this is faster and better, two very important qualities. Besides, if you start pushing pixels around, how do you know when it should end?

TANSTAAFL still applies. The maximum shift will cause vignetting, but how visible it is will also depend on the subject. I've emphasized the contrast in my photo of the Cole Haan logo on orange, so this is something of a worst-case scenario. Because the falloff only affects one side of the photo, it can't be corrected with the semi-automated tools in Lightroom, Photoshop, or their competitors. Lens movements also affect the metering, so working in one of the semi-auto modes will require some exposure compensation adjustments. It's not always easy to predict, so bracket and/or chimp as the spirit moves you.

But shifting isn't all that the 85mm PC-E can do. New to this version is the swing function, which means that the plane of focus can be changed. The photo of the DMT sharpener - the setup shot is the first photo for this review - was taken with the plane of focus placed along an angle, bringing the entire sharpener into focus but leaving its case blurred. This effect would be impossible with a single photo from a normal lens. The magnification factor would probably have needed multiple shots processed through a focus stacking application, and then the case would either need to be blurred in post, or have another layer with it out-of-focus blended in. If I wanted to work that hard crunching numbers, I would have become an accountant.

Naturally, the 85/2.8 swings both ways. Instead of carefully aligning the plane of focus to place it along the subject, it can also be used to shorten the depth of field. Some might think that this is unnatural, but my opinion is that if the tool can be used for the job then it should be left to an individual's creative freedom. There are lots of (usually bad) fakes of this kind of photo on the internet, taken by people trying to make the world look like a toy train set, but it has its real uses as well. The photo above was shot in the underpass at a train station. I liked the light, and naturally I wanted the sign to be the focal point, but that would have also put the garbage can into focus. A little swing was enough to fix that, and I like the result. Simple moves like this are easy enough to see in the viewfinder, but if placing the plane of focus at several points is important, nothing beats a tripod and a magnified live view.

And let's not forget that this is a Micro-Nikkor, or what the rest of the world would call a Macro lens. While it's not a true macro, as it only focuses to 1:2 for half-life-sized, that's ample for most photography. I'll combine it with a Sigma 1.4 Teleconverter - Nikons' own TCs aren't compatible, even though they're listed as working with f/2.8 lenses - and/or some Kenko extension tubes for the times that I really need to get closer. Carpenter ants can be pretty big, so the one above was taken with the unenhanced lens, and it's easy to see how the plane of focus falls across the frame at an angle. This wouldn't be possible with a standard macro lens, and Canon's 90mm tilt-shift only focuses to one-third life size. It may not sound like much, but it's the reason why I'm not shooting with a 5DmkII.

Given its macro design and advantage in magnification over the Canon 90 TS-E, I would say that there's no better lens for product photography. The Hartblei 120 Macro would be another strong contender for that title because it's a super-rotator design - the direction of the shift can be adjusted independently from the direction of the swing. (Canon's new 24mm and 17mm tilt-shifts can also do this, so perhaps their 90mm will be redesigned as well.) There are only two real problems with the Hartblei. Despite being called a macro lens, it has a 1:4 maximum magnification. That's not insurmountable, but it's also half-again more in Euros than the Nikon 85/2.8 costs in Canadian dollars. I'd love one, but I'd also love a technical camera or even a Horseman LD with its similar movements. But reality does enter the picture for me sometimes, and the extra cost and complexity of these systems makes the 85 PC-E a more reasonable choice for the quality that I need.

Some people have criticized the lenses lack of the super-rotator design, which apparently can cause a serious RTFM error. But the compromise for the cheaper-than-Canon fixed design is that it comes with the tilt and shift at opposing angles. In the shot of the 50/1.8, I've used both lens movements, so you can see the perspective shift as well as the greater amount in-focus on the left hand side of the nifty fifty. It might be nice to have tilt and shift set to the same direction, which any friendly neighbourhood service centre can do for a fee, but I doubt that I'll have the alteration made. Shifting and swinging it in the same direction can only compound the asymmetrical falloff.

When I bought this lens, I did expect too much. The photo above is shot at f/22 with maximum swing, and it's still not quite keeping the pearls within its depth of field. Forget about getting low-level shots with most of the item in focus. The lens is capable of stopping down to f/32, or f/45 at its closest focusing distance, and I've been impressed at how little quality is lost to diffraction with the D700. The Sigma 1.4 EX teleconverter will effectively let the aperture close down another full stop, but I still keep around f/18-22 and have no problems with the image quality. In fact, my biggest complaint about the combination (and the Kenko extension tubes) is that the lens release buttons are right around the same location as the tilt/shift rotation release lever. They even feel a little bit similar. I once hit the wrong one by mistake, which is an expensive but convenient way to get that thrill-ride stomach feeling.

Here's another shot at f/22, this time with the front dropped, which means that there's no swing to realign the depth of field. Sharpness is excellent, but there's no way to get around the need for focus stacking with this kind of shot. The stones are prong-set and quite raised from the band, which doesn't help, but there's got to be at least a millimeter between the sapphire and the diamonds. I'm actually pleased that I got them all in focusish. It's also worth noting that to get this much magnification I combined my 1.4TC with a bunch of extension tubes, and it resulted in significant mechanical (hard, unrecoverable) vignetting. To remove it I've cropped the image down to about 9 megapickles. Otherwise this photo is pretty much untouched, with just the Lightroom adjustments that I could make while I was standing up.

There's a rumour on the internet that the 85/2.8 hangs up on the flash housing of the D700, and I'm pleased to say that it's not true. It started because the D700's housing is larger than the one on the D300, and the 85mm PC-E is similar to the 24mm PC-E. It's a k'rock. And even if it were true, the lens rotates through 180 degrees, so if the shift knob (closest to the camera body) does hang up on the flash, you can still turn it the other way. But that would be an annoyance, so do check it on the body you'd be using if you're considering this lens. You'll also want to make sure that the electronic aperture control works, or that you're okay with setting it manually. Non-electronic cameras, and other brands with adapters, will not be able to set the aperture at all despite the presence of an aperture ring. The only solution is to set the aperture on a Nikon camera and then switch it to the other body. That puts a bit of a crimp in my plan to use an F-to-4/3 adapter to let me mount this one on my Olympus bodies. It's also the only lens I own with slower autofocus than the Sigma 150/2.8 in 4/3 mount, but I don't hold that against it.

So overall, there's not a lot to complain about with this lens. It has some limitations, and it's not a replacement for a technical camera, but it's vastly more capable than a straight lens. It has changed how I shoot and what I am capable of doing more than anything since I switched from a Canon Elph to an SLR. After two months and almost 1500 exposures, I feel like I'm just beginning to get familiar with it. I've used it for far more than I expected to, because its specialty - controlling the world - happens to be one that I love. It has replaced the Olympus 35-100 as my most jaw-dropping performer. It's not a trivial investment, so as tempting as other tilt-shift lenses are, I doubt that I'll be adding any others without a strong business case. All I can really hope is that Nikon comes out with a match for the Canon 17mm TS-E a few months before I get an exceptional architectural contract.

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