Conclusion - Pros
- Very sharp once stopped down to F8
- No visible lateral chromatic aberration
- Essentially no distortion
- Extremely flexible perspective control movements
- Superb construction
Conclusion - Cons
- Slightly soft towards the periphery of the image circle wide open
- Tilt movement rotation lock button difficult to access
- No scales indicating rotation position of tilt and shift axes
- No communication with camera body (focal length/aperture data not recorded in EXIF)
- Very expensive (twice the price of 80mm - 90mm PC lenses)
The Hartblei Superrotator 120mm F4 Macro TS is a lens which occupies a small, specialized niche in the market. It's the longest focal length perspective control optic currently available, offering a distinctly different option to the shorter telephoto designs more commonly available (e.g. Canon's TS-E 90mm F2.8, Nikon's 85mm F2.8D PC-E Nikkor, and Hartblei's own 80mm F2.8 TS). The longer focal length gives an increased working distance for the same subject size, allowing easier lighting of close-up shots, and arguably a more flattering perspective for anyone thinking of using such a lens for portraits.
Optically, this lens doesn't disappoint - that Carl Zeiss badge of approval clearly doesn't count for nothing. It shows a balance of characteristics which makes it extremely well-suited to its intended role - it's very sharp once stopped down a bit, and shows no measurable (or perceptible) distortion or lateral chromatic aberration. It's not so sharp at maximum aperture, but in practice this rarely has a significant negative impact on the final result; the visual impact of large aperture, shallow depth of field images actually comes not so much from the absolute sharpness of the in-focus regions, as the contrast in sharpness between those areas and the immediately adjacent defocused regions. With a perspective control lens, the skilled photographer can manipulate this to maximum effect.
Mechanically, the Hartblei is also impressive. The uncompromising all-metal construction and precision engineering really stand out in a world of plastic-skinned cameras and zooms - you pay a lot of money for this lens, but the build quality at least won't leave you feeling short-changed. The Superrotator design works really well; the twin rotary-dial mechanism that controls the tilt and shift movements takes a little familiarisation, but offers a finer degree of control than the more conventional systems used by the likes of Canon and Nikon.
Of course nothing is perfect, and there are a few problems and irritations. The rotation lock button for the tilt movement is awkward at best, and sometimes near-impossible to press (especially on bodies with a large prism overhang). Now to be fair this is a direct consequence of Hartblei's approach of designing the lens such that it can mount and operate on a wide variety of camera bodies, but it's impossible not to think that there must be a better solution. There's also no scale on either the tilt or shift rotation axes to indicate the angle each is pointing, and as things stand it's just a little too easy to set the lens one click-stop off from where you really want it. This is much more of a issue with the cylindrical Superrotator barrel design than with the square-bodied Canon and Nikon lenses, and the addition of marks perhaps every 45 degrees would help. Finally it might be nice if the lens could communicate focal length and aperture information to the camera body to write to EXIF. However these are minor quibbles with what is overall an excellent design.
In some regards it's impossible to give this lens a rating on normal terms - it's such a specialized tool that you'll either need it or you won't, and if you do need it there's no other directly comparable alternative. Equally if you buy it, you're unlikely to be disappointed. The only problem is, though, is the price tag; it is much more expensive than the shorter telephoto perspective control lenses available from Canon, Nikon and indeed Hartblei, and ultimately these will do much the same job in many situations (Canon and Nikon's lenses also offer a greater degree of automation and convenience). So for buyers who need a telephoto perspective control lens for studio work, any of these is likely a more sensible, and economically viable choice. Because of this, the Hartblei Superrotator 120mm F4 TS doesn't, despite its optical excellence, quite get our top award.
Rating (out of 10)
|Ergonomics & handling||8.5|
There are 21 images in the samples gallery. Please do not reproduce any of these images on a website or any newsletter / magazine without prior permission (see our copyright page). We make the originals available for private users to download to their own machines for personal examination or printing (in conjunction with this review), we do so in good faith, please don't abuse it.
Unless otherwise noted images taken with no particular settings at full resolution. This gallery contains shots take both with the lens centered (to give an idea of its underlying image quality), and using tilt and shift movements for technical and creative effect. To provide the fairest impression of the lens itself, images are shot in RAW and converted using Adobe Camera Raw at default settings (to bypass the test camera's automatic JPEG chromatic aberration correction). A reduced size image (within 1024 x 1024 bounds) is provided to be more easily viewed in your browser. As always the original untouched image is available by clicking on this reduced image.