Review: Kipon Tilt & Shift Adapter, Nikon to NEX
This blog only rarely dips into gear reviews, but I’m having so much fun with this new piece of kit that I thought I’d do a short write up.
For a long time I photographed with view cameras. When I first left school, the personal projects I was shooting were long form documentary in nature and referenced architectural, street, portrait and landscape traditions. One of these projects, “Between Apprehension and Truth,” was shot with a Toyo 4×5 monorail camera and then later a Chamonix field camera. My earliest commercial projects were architectural interiors, which made extensive use of the perspective control capabilities of my view cameras. When I moved to digital I lost this perspective control. The slower pace of working with the view camera is something else that I miss working with digital.
Enter the Kipon Pro Tilt and Shift Adapter. Available in both NEX and Fuji X flavors (as well as for DSLRs), this adapter allows me to convert my Nikon lenses to NEX while gaining tilt and shift control in a fairly lightweight and compact package. I’ve been using this in the studio photographing jewelry where it has proved hugely useful and expect it to become a go to tool in the field for personal work.
What is Tilt/Shift?
Before we get any further, a little digression on the hows and whys of tilt/shift: Tilt and shift are two kinds of movement. A view camera has two standards: one for the lens and one for the film (or digital sensor). These two standards can be manipulated independently. Shift is the movement of one standard horizontally to the left or to the right while keeping it parallel to the other standard. Rise and fall are the same movement but in the vertical direction. Tilt is the rotation of one of the standards along a horizontal axis, while swing is the rotation of a standard around a vertical axis. These movements can be on the front or rear standards of a view camera. Shift and rise allow us to look left/right and up/down without introducing perspective distortion. Tilt and swing allow us to control the plane of focus. Toyo has a good basic tutorial on movements here. For more technical info, go here.
The adapter allows up to 15mm of shift in either direction and 10deg. of tilt. The adapter can be rotated on the camera to allow shifts and tilts in any direction, though there are intermediary click stops. We can apply rise/fall with swing or shift with tilt, but not vice versa because the tilt direction cannot be rotated independently from the shift.
The Adapter as Object: Fit, Finish and Operation
The adapter is nicely machined, though I would not call the quality jewel like. It is supremely functional. Any misgivings I might have about the physical quality are overtaken by the fact that the adapter works. I’ve only had the adapter for a short time so I cannot comment on how it holds up over time. One note: I am on my second adapter. The first was sent back because it did not properly fit onto the NEX camera. The replacement fits perfectly.
In operation, everything is extremely straightforward. The lens mounts to the adapter and the adapter to the camera exactly as you would expect. Once mounted, light force will allow you to rotate the adapter to adjust the direction of the shift and tilt functions. Tilt is controlled by a small locking knob. Loosen the knob and one can tilt the lens. As the lens is tilted, a scale in degrees becomes visible. In a nice touch, this is readable from behind the camera. If the tilt locking knob is not tightened, even a light lens will cause the adapter to tilt on its own. Remember to tighten it. The shift is released by a silver button on the top of the adapter. This disengages a row of teeth and allows the user to shift the lens left or right (or up and down if you have turned the lens in this direction). Releasing the button locks the lens in place. Again, everything is straightforward and simple.
There is no interference with the grip of the NEX-7. I can rotate the adapter freely and shift to the maximum in all directions. The only interference is with my fingers: the grip area is a little tight when I handhold the camera with this adapter. Since I will most often use this adapter with the camera mounted onto a tripod this is inconsequential.
I bought this adapter for a couple of purposes. The first is for product shots; the second is interiors. Lastly, I’ll use the adapter in my personal projects for those times when tilt/shift are useful.
Shooting Products The small sensor of the NEX-7 allows me to use shorter focal lengths for a given angle of view. This allows for increased depth of field while shooting the small shiny things that people pay me to shoot. However, there are still situations where I need more depth of field. Using tilt gives me additional control over the plane of focus to make sure that focus is achieved over an entire piece of jewelry. An item like a bracelet, unless shot from directly above, has three to four inches of depth. At the magnification ratios we are working at in a tabletop setting, a small aperture alone will not provide enough depth of field. A small amount of tilt will allow for the whole bracelet to be in focus and the use of a smaller aperture to minimize loss of sharpness from diffraction. (As I’ve noted before, the articulated rear screen of the NEX-7 with live view is a boon for studio work.)
Shooting Interiors I do not shoot many interiors but, for those times I do, I have missed having shift available. When using a view camera, my technique was to make sure that the rear standard was parallel to the subject being photographed to prevent any keystoning or other perspective distortion. I would then shift the lens as necessary to get the framing I desired. With my DSLR (for which no T/S lens was available) I had two options: shoot wider than necessary and then crop or correct distortion in post. Both involved a loss of image resolution and quality. With the Kipon T/S adapter on the NEX-7, I’ll be able to work as I used to: align sensor parallel to subject and shift for framing. I’ll keep the full quality available from the sensor (though see downsides below: adapted wide lenses).
None of the lenses that I have tried with the adapter, including budget Ai lenses and zooms, have shown any vignetting. I suspect some superwide lenses that exhibit vignetting on full frame would be likely to when using the full shift available on this adapter. There is no mechanical vignetting introduced by the adapter.
Like any adapter there are a couple of downsides, but in comparison to tilt/shift lenses from other manufacturers, they’re to be expected. First, like most adapters, when the lens is set to f8, the aperture is at f8. Want to view at full aperture for focusing? To do so, one has to open the aperture to focus and then stop back down to shoot. Given that one will likely be working on a tripod and shooting relatively static subjects, this isn’t a huge problem. More pressing is that because of the APS-C size sensor in the NEX cameras our lenses have a much reduced angle of view. My Micro Nikkor 55mm has the angle of view of a +/-80mm lens, which is fantastic for product work. Lenses for my personal work in the 28mm to 35mm range, which will have an angle of view of 42mm-55mm (the normal range), are available and cheap. For interiors, the lens pickings are slim. My 20-35mm zoom is a behemoth on the NEX and that 20mm ends up having the angle of view of a 30mm lens–not very wide. I’m looking for a reasonably priced wide prime lens to get me closer to a 24mm angle of view, which means 17mm or wider. Affordable lenses in this range are not great in terms of vignetting (important because we’ll be making use of the full image circle by shifting), distortion or sharpness (many older lenses don’t perform as well on digital and shifting exacerbates this). More modern lens designs from Nikon are much pricier and lack an aperture ring and so they can’t be used.
Before purchasing this adapter I looked at other options. For my FF Sony DSLR there aren’t many options, and they all involve adapters or mount transplants. Mirex makes a T/S adapter to mount Mamiya 645, Pentax 645 or Hasselblad lenses (the Kipon is essentially a scaled down copy). For product work this would have been great as Mamiya used to make a wonderful 80mm macro lens. On the wide side, there is nothing wider than 35mm, though; not very useful for interiors. The adapter is also pricey at almost $700. A Nikon 28mm shift lens can be adapted by swapping the lens mount, but this is shift only and doesn’t solve my product tilt/shift needs. It is also pricey once the mount conversion is considered. There are rumors/announcements of a 24mm shift lens from Samyang that sounded interesting, but again this option doesn’t provide a tabletop solution and is pricey, untested and as yet unavailable. The other downside to these routes is that my a850 doesn’t have live view; it is difficult to judge tilt in the viewfinder.
The next option was to purchase one of Nikon or Canon’s offerings and a body to mount it on. Cost was the obvious negative factor here. Each T/S lens from Canon and Nikon is $1200 – $1800. As I’d need two, one for interiors and one for product work, plus a body, this was not in the budget. Even the cost of used equipment was prohibitive.
The third option was simply to rent when the need arose. The rental cost would be roughly $100/day for a body and lens (either 24mm or 85mm). Given the tight margins I work off of for tabletop e-commerce shoots, this wasn’t appealing. Three rentals nearly pays for the adapter.
In the end, the Kipon adapter provides a solution that hits all of my needs while keeping the cost to a minimum. Sure I’ll have to buy a wide angle lens for the interiors still, but the total cost will still be less than the cost of the Mirex adapter without any lenses. On the camera end, the live view, focus peaking and tilting screen of the NEX-7 make the use of tilt and shift super easy.
While it isn’t a perfect solution (hello D800 + a suite of T/S lenses), this adapter adds capability to my kit at reasonable upfront cost. If I had a large job come up that required the last word in quality I would rent a technical camera and a digital back. For my day to day e-commerce and interior projects this is well worth it.
I found the adapter from a seller in China on E-Bay. It does not appear to be available from any vendors stateside yet. As many other Kipon adapters are available here, I expect this one will be available soon enough.