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.


  1. Interesting review. Thanks for posting this.

    A suggestion: You could use/add the "follow" option in blogspot, some users find it easier to subscribe than RSS feeds or mail.

  2. Fantastic... Review...
    Magic eyes...
    Good Post... Excelent...

  3. Thanks for the effort and detail: I'm trying to understand tilt/shift and other 'similar' lenses, and this has cleared up a lot of information overload.

  4. Yeah nice review and thanks. I might get one some day!

  5. The Nikon 24mm is perfect for architecture. If you need the 17, you don't understand architecture. Then you're more like an effect junkie. 28mm is the widest I prefer to go, and only if I really need to the 20 comes along. The 24 PCE covers more than a 20mm normal lens and is more than wide enough.


Thewsreviews only permits comments from its associate authors. If that's you, awesome and thanks. If not, you can find the main email address on this page, or talk to us on Twitter.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

contact me...

You can click here for Matthew's e-mail address.