The Hartblei is a beautifully made lens which exudes a sense of precision engineering in all aspects of its operation. As befits such a specialist (and expensive) product, build quality is superb, with all external parts made of metal - there's no hint of plastics anywhere. All of the movements and controls operate with a smoothness and precision that is frequently lacking from modern autofocus lenses, and the focus rings are perfectly damped.
For anyone who's previously only experienced the automated convenience of modern SLR systems, though, operation may come as a something of shock. Focusing is, of course, manual only, and uniquely operates in two stages with separate focus rings; the first covers distances from infinity to 1.2m, the second continues down to 0.75m. Aperture control is also manual only, with no automatic stop-down; the diaphragm simply closes down as you turn the dial. For the kind of user this lens is aimed at, though, this should come as no real inconvenience. We'll cover the perspective control movements a bit further down the page.
With the lens set to its default position (i.e. all movements zeroed) a series of subtle green lines and dots all align down the lens barrel as seen from the top, and the dual focus distance scales read in metres. Rotate the lens 180 degrees and the scales are repeated in feet, so you can work using whichever units you prefer.
On the camera
This isn't a small lens by any means; these images give a sense of scale with it mounted on a medium-sized DSLR (the Nikon D300), although we'd expect it's most likely to be found hanging off the front of larger cameras such as the Nikon D3X and Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III. It's a weighty beast too, at over 2 1/2 lb (or for metric thinkers nearly 1kg), but in operational terms this is essentially irrelevant as its natural habitat is perched on top of a studio tripod.
The 'Superrotator' Design
At the heart of what makes Hartblei's lenses unlike any others is the 'Superrotator' design of the perspective control movements. Unlike conventional PC lenses from the likes of Canon and Nikon, the tilt and shift movements are controlled by two rotary dials positioned around the lens barrel close to the camera body, and this design allows the lens to be adjusted with a remarkably high degree of precision. The tilt and shift planes can also be freely rotated relative both to each other and the camera body, allowing complete flexibility of movements.
The controls take a few minutes of working out and getting used to (the design is perhaps not quite as immediately intuitive as Canon's new TS-Es), but once you've mastered how to operate the lens they work extremely well. About the only serious criticism is that the lever used to unlock the tilt axis rotation is often difficult (and sometimes near-impossible) to access.