Using the 35mm Perspective Control lens

by Matthew Cole
My Equipment The History of Photography

West Front, Ely Cathedral
West Front, Ely Cathedral This is why I bought the lens in the first place, to photograph cathedrals in Britain as I toured around on a motorcyle. This particular shot is the west front of Ely Cathedral out in the fens of East Anglia. As is my practice, I attended Evensong, took some pictures, and went out for dinner. While walking to find a restaurant, my buddy Holmes, whom I had failed to meet a few days before at a pre-arranged spot which it turned out didn't exist (the train station in St. Andrews) came roaring up on his motorcycle, figuring he'd find me here. He was right. England's such a cute country.Nikon FE, 35mm f/2.8PC lens, Kodachrome 64, May 1985
A house on the Drake Neighborhood Association home tour
A House on the Home Tour You don't just have to photograph big buildings. I shot the Drake Neighborhood Association home tour houses for a couple of years. Between the early morning or late evening lighting (depending on the side of the street), the exactly right amount of greenery in the trees and the subtle use of the shifted PC lens, people loved these photos. Nikon FE, 35mm f/2.8PC lens, Fujichrome 100, May 1989

This page is all about the Nikon 35mm f/2.8 Perspective Control lens and includes several examples showing what you can do with it. The demonstrations would be valid also for shift lenses for other manufactuers, and Canon, Minolta and Olympus all made (or still make) shift lenses, but I use Nikon stuff, so don't have any experience with those lenses. The page has quite a few pictures, so you may want to give it a minute or two to load. I hope you'll find it worthwhile.

I owned a Nikkor 35mm f/2.8 Perspective Control lens for about 14 years. I got it new in the spring of 1985 in anticipation of a trip to Britain where I wanted to do a better job photographing the cathedrals I like so much. They are places of great majesty, these buildings, soaring churches which remain impressive now and must have been mind-boggling to the Medieval peasants living at the time of their construction. I stop in at these churches as I travel around Britain and got the lens to do a decent job of taking their pictures. I used it on that trip and on a couple of others, but the lens mostly wasn't used a lot. When I decided in 1999 to buy into the Contax G system, I did so by selling a bunch of my little-used Nikon stuff. This lens was among the things I sold.

After periods of months in which this lens would sit unused in its case in a drawer, the evening before I was to ship it off to the eBay buyer in Pennsylvania I thought, you know, I should shoot some comparison shots with it. Fortunately, we were having a beautiful day and I went out for a couple of hours and took many of the pictures below so someone interested in the shift lenses could see what the difference is between shifted and unshifted pictures.

What is the Perspective Control lens?

Nikon makes two PC lenses, a 28mm and and a 35mm. The 28mm costs a lot more but would often be useful; if the picture of Ely Cathedral looks a little crowded, it might be because I couldn't back up any more. A lot of those English cathedrals are tightly packed into their town centres. The 35mm is cheaper and I decided to go with that one, buying it new in 1985. Here's how it differs from a regular 35mm lens:

Nikon 35mm f/2.8 PC lens, unshifted
35mm f/2.8 PC Lens without hood, unshifted: This is the lens in its unshifted state. You can see the knob sticking out of the side of the lens and the aperture and pre-set rings at the front of the lens. Nikon FE, 55mm f/2.8, Kodachrome 64, May 1999
Nikon 35mm f/2.8 PC lens, shifted
35mm f/2.8 PC Lens with hood, shifted: This is the lens in its shifted state, and it's moved 11mm even though at this particular position 7mm is all that would work before you started getting light falloff. The knob has indications at every millimeter to show how much it's been shifted; you can see all 11 marks in the photo.Nikon FE, 55mm f/2.8, Kodachrome 64, May 1999

So it's a big dull-sounding 35mm f/2.8 with an aperture that's a pain to operate, a rotating lens mount, a knob sticking out of it and it requires stop-down metering and a funny focusing screen. So it slides sideways 11mm. What's the big deal?

Well, the big deal is that you can make your buildings stand up nice and vertical. When you normally take a picture of a building and tilt the camera up to get it all in, the lines of the building converge and the building appears to be falling over backwards. This has to do with the film plane of the tilted camera not being parallel with the front of the photographed building. If this bothers you, you can get around it a couple of ways:

OK, So How Much Difference Does it Make?

When I used the lens in regular service I wasn't in the habit of taking comparison pictures to show the effect of the shifting, so that's what I had to do the night before I shipped it off. The pictures below show the effects of the shifting and, like virtually all the photos on this site, are linked to bigger versions. Take a look.

The Schmidt Brewery, Saint Paul

Schmidt Brewery, unshifted
No Shift: The brewery with the PC lens and no shift at all.
Schmidt Brewery, properly shifted
Proper Shift: From the same spot with 4mm of shift.
Schmidt Brewery, too much shift
Over Shifted: From the same spot with too much shift, 8mm in this case.

PC Lens on Nikon FE
The PC Lens shifted for the Schmidt Brewery pictues: This is the Nikon FE on the tripod with the PC shifted to take the photos of the Schmidt Brewery. Contax G2, 45mm lens, Elite 100, June 1999
Schmidt Brewery with a regular 28mm lens
Schmidt Brewery with a regular 28mm lens. You can get by without the shift lens. The 28mm lens used for this picture fits the brewery in quite well from the same spot, but look out!, it's tipping over backwards! Contax G2, 28mm f/2.8, Elite 100, June 1999

These pictures show the differences between not shifting at all, shifting correctly and overshifting. All the brewery pictures are taken from the same spot on Kodachrome 64 film. The Nikon FE with the PC lens shifted is shown on the left. The amount of shifting was changed from one picture to the next; the leftmost photo is the lens not shifted at all, in which the camera is aimed upwards and which gives the perspective that any 35mm lens would give. The middle photo shows the brewery with the film plane parallel to the walls of the brewery and the lens shifted 4mm. The photo on the right actually has the camera aimed down a bit and the lens shifted 8mm so that the top of the brewery is slightly bigger than the bottom. You can make any building into a leaning Tower of Pisa!
By comparison, the photo on the right is with a 28mm lens from the same spot. While the wider lens allows us to get most of the brewery in, the tipping-over-backwards perspective is even more evident here. I regret now that I didn't take my 20mm along and shoot the brewery from the same spot to show what happens with the really wide angles! Perhaps some nice afternoon I'll go down and take one with the 20mm and fill this in a bit more.


Another Comparison: The Minnesota State Capitol Building, Saint Paul

Minnesota State Capitol Building, unshifted
No Shift: The Minnesota State Capitol Building with 35mm lens, no shift.
Minnesota State Capitol Building, 35mm lens, shifted
Proper Shift: From the same spot with 8mm of shift.

PC Lens on Nikon FE
The PC Lens shifted for the State Capitol pictues: This is the Nikon FE on the tripod with the PC shifted to take the photos of the Schmidt Brewery. Please don't mock me for the lightweight Gitzo ball head; I usually use the short column with a much sturdier Slik ball head. Contax G2, 45mm lens, Elite 100, June 1999
Another view of the Capitol
State Capitol with a regular 28mm lens. This is the setup for the State Capitol shots. Funnily enough, I stepped back to take this picture and in a lot of ways like it better than either the shifted or unshifted 35mm pictures. I always have liked the 28mm length. Contax G2, 28mm f/2.8, Elite 100, June 1999
Remember to stop down!
Remember to stop down! Oops. I was going to fake one of these but didn't have to! If you get out of practice with this lens this will happen a lot. Nikon FE, 35mm at f/2.8 (Oops), Kodachrome 64, June 1999

I drove over to the State Capitol Building, inhabited in those days by Jesse "The Body" Ventura, professional wrestler, soap opera star and sometime governor, and took these comparison pictures. The lens can't shift as much in the horizontal positions as it can vertically (actually, it can always shift up to 11mm and rotate to any position, but light falloff begins sooner in horizontal pictures) so there isn't quite as much room to play with. Still, if you compare the shifted and unshifted photos above you can see that there is a real albeit subtle difference between the two. Funny thing is, I think I like the picture from under the tree with the 28mm lens better than either shifted picture! Oh well. I have, on another page, a somewhat different non-PC view of the Capitol Building.


Sometimes You're Just Screwed: The Sears Tower, Chicago, Illinois
Sometimes You're Just Screwed OK, to be fair, this is with the Contax G2 for which there is no PC lens, but even so, 11mm of shift won't do you much good here. Contax G2, 28mm f/2.8 lens, Ektachrome Elite 100, Chicago, Illinois, April 2000

There are limits to how much shifting you can do and how far you can back up, and it's not just in Medieval cloisters. Remember that your film plane needs to be parallel to the front of your building for the lens to be able to work its magic. In some situations, the 28mm will allow you to work where the 35mm isn't quite wide enough. In other situations, you're just screwed. This is one of them. If you're faced with a really tall subject and not enough room to back up, you can always move the camera up. A ladder can work, or a pole, or, if you seriously need a corrected picture of the Sears Tower and someone's paying you, a helicopter.

I saw a photo of the World Trade Center when it was brand new and before any tenants had moved in. The photographer got the rising sun behind the buildings and you could see how little internal structure there was, the towers were basically see-through except for the central column. It was a great photo, it worked really well in terms of the article about the structural collapse of the buildings after the airplane hits on September 11th, and the guy used a helicopter. I don't command those kind of resources, so for the Sears Tower, I just aimed up and clicked!

Composite Panoramas

One use of the PC lens is to take a panorama, sort of. If the camera is horizontal, you shift the lens the maximum 8mm and rotate it all the way left and take a picture, then rotate it all the way right and take a picture. There is a substantial amount of overlap in the photos, but they are in precisely the same plane and so when the photos are put together there is no apparent "joint". In the History of Photography: 1994 I have a panorama done this way without a PC lens, using a Mamiya 6, three photos and a rotary trimmer. While the effect in person is not bad, it doesn't come off very well in the scan where there is a very apparent joint between each image and, more critically, a sudden bend in the road where the pictures abut. Now, noting that not once during the operational life of my PC lens did I ever do this until the evening before I shipped it off, here is an example of the PC panorama in action. Also, please note that I did not do a professional job of stitching the photos together; I just slapped them together in Paint Shop Pro. Anyway, take a look at this:

Loring Park pond and Minneapolis skyline, 8mm left shift
8mm to the Left: The Minneapolis skyline over Loring Park pond with 8mm left shift.Nikon FE, 35mm f/2.8 PC, June 1999
Loring Park pond and the Minneapolis skyline, 8mm right shift.
8mm to the Right: The Minneapolis skyline over Loring Park pond with 8mm right shift.Nikon FE, 35mm f/2.8 PC, June 1999

The camera was on a tripod, still filled with Kodachrome 64. Now, let's stick 'em together:

Minneapolis Skyline over Loring Park Pond as a panorama

There. The joint is just to the left of the dark IDS center left of center in the picture. According to Nikon's manual for this lens, the picture angle of the horizontally-joined frames is 78 degrees; the 35mm lens unshifted is good for 53 degrees, the 28 for 64 degrees, a 24mm for 74 degrees and a 20mm for 83.5 degrees, so you'd need a 24mm to get the same width of view. I don't have a 24mm, but what if I just took a picture with the trusty 28mm? It would look like this:

Minneapolis Skyline over Loring Park Pond with a 28mm
Boring old 28mm: It's the same view with a 28mm. Contax G2, 28mm f/2.8, Elite 100 June 1999

Well, the field of view is close, but there's a lot of needless sky above and water below. Suppose we trimmed some of that and then made the whole thing bigger? It would look like this:
Panorama from 28mm image
Make a Panorama out of it Contax G2, 28mm f/2.8, Elite 100, June 1999

This is basically what those cameras with Panorama settings do; it's the same as making an 8X10 of the whole negative, then trimming off the top and bottom. I don't think the photo processing plants have dumpsters full of 8X10 trimmings, but the effect is the same; they just take a section out of the middle of the negative, so instead of a 24 X 36mm original it's more like 16 X 36mm. The spliced PC picture is like taking two pictures, having two 8X10s done, and trimming them until they just abut. It's a lot more image area and a better retention of detail, etc. Nikon stresses in the lens manual that you need to not move the camera at all to avoid any obvious "joint" and that the enlarger needs to be very carefully handled so that the prints to be joined are exactly the same size and brightness.
(One day I got an e-mail which directed me to another website where the PC lens is discussed in terms of doing panoramas. The site is by a guy named Bruce Dale who, unlike me, is a widely-accomplished professional photographer. His site has a link marked "Panorama Tutorial". This is interesting because he discusses the nodal point for a panorama sequence, something you don't usually read much about, and also because he uses the PC lens to shift the horizon up or down. I hadn't thought of this application; I have a nodal-point corrected Panorama Head for my Rolleicord (clever chaps, those Germans) but you have to level the thing and the horizon ends up dead-center in the frame. This can be a bit dreary in some cases, loads of foreground lawn, etc. His idea to shift the horizon in the frame with a lens shift is pretty clever. He also has some panorama images posted and they are stunning; I can't link to his interior pages but if you click on the "Print Gallery" item on his menu you'll get there. It's worth the visit.)
Still, it's a bit of a hassle, isn't it, compared to picking up a diposable panorama camera for twenty bucks or just using the panorama switch on your point'n'shoot, either way, you waste a lot of original image compared to the spliced PC images above, but the effect isn't bad as long as you're not too discerning. Of course, the real key to pleasing composition demonstrated here is to have a radio controlled duck to run by in the foreground!

Other Uses

Stained Glass, East Wall, Saint Mary's Episcopal Church, Saint Paul
Stained Glass, East Wall of Saint Mary's Episcopal Church, Saint Paul This church is a pretty one. The choir sings quite often from the east transcept, right under this window. Before I was even thinking of selling the lens I went around and photographed most of the stained glass in the church. Nikon FE, 35mm f/2.8PC lens, March 1999

I did use the lens from time to time, and late in my ownership shot all the Saint Mary's stained glass, except for the one with the flourescent tubes behind it and the one in front of the tea kitchen. It was a good opportunity to use the lens shifted in the diagonal since the stupid pews got in the way of my tripod. I'd get it in a spot and find that it was aimed precisely between the windows, so shift it up and to the left and try to discern, in a church with all the lights off, if the image was aligned correctly. It was close enough. Then I'd shoot, take the Lord's name in vain, stop the lens down and shoot again.

Another use which I didn't demonstrate is taking pictures of mirrors without your camera appearing in the reflection. You can set the camera to one side, aim at the mirror, shift the lens over, and get a photo apparently taken from directly in front but with no reflection of the photographer. Maybe your socks are rolling up and down about this more than mine are, but I never, in more than thirty years of playing around with cameras, have had any desire to take pictures of mirrors. (Having said that, a year after I first posted this page I've had several hits from people searching for "photographing mirrors" and things like that. Sorry to be such a disappointment!)

Apparently you can do the same thing to photograph around objects but the pictures in Nikon's manual are so tedious I never bothered with this either and generally didn't seem to run into immovable obstacles at the same time I happened to have the PC lens in my camera bag.


In summary, the 35 PC lens is a neat lens if you have a desire to do something like I demonstrated above. My experience in the Drake Neighborhood Association house tour photos, where hundreds of people saw my photos and many commented on the lovely photos without knowing quite why they liked them so much, showed that its effects are noticeable even by the Great Unwashed. However, unlike the 55 f/2.8 Micro Nikkor which makes a useful everyday substitute for a 50 f/1.8 normal lens, this is not a substitute for a regular 35mm lens in general use. The pre-set aperture is the biggest obstacle, my perception of more fragility another concern, though I must also say it is by no means a delicate-feeling lens. I'm sure that next time I'm out front of some cathedral looking to take a snap I'll regret not having this unit along and writing this page has given me a few pangs of regret. Oh well. I hope you enjoy the page, and let me know what you think.

In mid-2003 a gentleman wrote asking if I knew where to get a manual for the 28mm f/3.5 PC lens. I didn't, but he rooted around some more and found a source and e-mailed me back to let me know. He found it at Photo Books Online where they have manuals for many cameras, lenses and other things as well as out-of-print photo books. I haven't bought from these guys myself, but it looks like a handy resource.

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