The Canon TS-E 90mm f/2.8 ($1,399 direct) is one of those lenses that photographers often think about adding to their arsenal, but are reluctant to do so as it isn’t an everyday optic. The lens allows for tilt and shift movements that were commonplace in large format film cameras of old, which often had a bellows system between the film holder and lens. This allowed photographers to carefully adjust the angle at which light captured by the lens hit the negative. But you needed a sturdy tripod—and film had to be loaded sheet-by-sheet into holders in total darkness. The move to small, portable cameras largely eliminated this movement capability, instead keeping the lens strictly parallel to the film plane. Specialized lenses with tilt and shift capability like the TS-E 90mm f/2.8 bring that ability back to a camera that you can carry in one hand—though you’ll want probably still want to use a tripod.
Shifting the lens up or down has practical applications in architectural photography, and doesn’t affect the plane of focus. It is useful for those times when you are photographing a tall object and can’t get quite enough lift from your tripod to shoot it dead on—angling the head up results in keystone distortion, the same type you experience when craning your neck up to peer to the top of a tall building.
Tilting the lens changes the angle at which light hits the image sensor. This makes it possible to focus on a subject that lies on a diagonal plane, while still maintaining a fairly shallow depth of field, or to focus on only one object in a straight focal plane, blurring others that would normally also be in sharp focus. It’s the same principle that creates the diorama-like miniature effect when shooting distant subjects—you can blur the background and foreground, leaving the middle of an image in sharp focus. This mimics the look of a macro lens shooting a miniature world, and is now often built into cameras as a specialized art filter.
If this is a capability that you feel that is missing from your camera bag, the Canon TS-E 90mm f/2.8 is a good way to get started. It has a relatively long focal length—Canon makes similar lenses in 17mm, 24mm, and 45mm focal lengths if they are better suited for your photography. The 90mm lens measures 3.5 by 2.9 inches (HD), weighs in at a hefty 1.2 pounds, and uses 58mm filters—the front element does not rotate as you manually focus the lens, so using a polarizing filter is possible.
Imatest showed the lens to be incredibly sharp when mounted to the Canon EOS 6D. At f/2.8 it recorded 2,486 lines per picture height—a score that is much better than the 1,800 lines required for a sharp image. It’s sharp across the frame, as the lens projects a much larger image circle than is required to cover a full-frame sensor in order to account for the tilt and shift movements. It peaks in resolution at f/5.6, where it records 2,770 lines. Distortion is a non-issue—our tests showed less than 0.2 percent pincushion distortion. Shifting the lens to its extreme does soften it a bit, but not terribly. At full shift the lens manages 2,262 lines at f/2.8, 2,424 lines at f/4, and 2,636 lines at f/5.6.
If you feel that you can justify the cost of the Canon TS-E 90mm f/2.8 lens, the quality of images it captures will not disappoint you. The shift function is likely to appeal to architectural and landscape photographers who will use it to eliminate the keystone effect from their photos, and the tilt effect can be used for technical and artistic reasons alike.
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