Now largely a German venture Hartblei has gone to Zeiss to make the optics for its ingenious 360-degree rotating tilt/shift lenses for 35mm SLR/D-SLR systems.
A few years ago when Phase One was considering the best way into the camera business needed to compliment its digital back business (just as Imacon had done), it came across the quirky medium format lenses of a Kiev-based company called Hartblei. Soviet-era cameras may have had a dubious reputation, but the Russians could make reasonable optics, partly due to the input of German expertise after WWII.
Phase One ended up marketing – albeit in very limited numbers and in selected countries – Hartblei’s 45mm f3.5 ‘Superrotator’ tilt-shift lens. Subsequently, Phase One acquired a controlling interest in Mamiya and is now using Japanese lenses, but the genius of the ‘Superrotator’ concept, convinced a German professional photographer to order a prototype using the innards of a Zeiss 80mm Planar lens. It worked so well that a complete restructuring took place and a new Hartblei venture was started with Carl Zeiss AG contracted to provide the optical assemblies (including the brass helicoid drives). Hartblei supplies the aluminium barrel tubes (also made in Germany), mechanical diaphragms and steel lens mounts with final assembly undertaken at a new technical facility in Kiev. The result is a new generation of ‘Hartblei – Optics by Carl Zeiss’ Superrotator tilt/shift lenses – an 80mm f2.8, a 120mm f4.0 macro and a 40mm f4.0. For the record, the old Hartblei Superrotators which used Russian glass are now out of production following the demise of Arsenal (which used the Kiev brand name on its cameras).
While these focal lengths all look like classic 6x6cm format primes, the new Superrotators are offered in a choice of 35mm SLR system mounts, seven in all. However, the lenses are still medium format designs with a correspondingly large image circle which, of course, allows for considerable scope for displacement on a 35mm format film frame or image sensor.
In fact, the imaging circle of 85 mm is virtually twice that of a typical 35mm lens so the Superrotators allow up to ten millimetres of shift and eight degrees of tilt with a full 360 degrees of directional adjustment available for both, and independently (so the tilts become swings, and the shifts become a rise or fall). This provides the sort of levels of technical correction – for perspective control and sharpness distribution or depth-of-field control – normally only available on a view camera using the flexibility of bellows. The Hartblei Superrotators do it mechanically which represents a considerable engineering challenge and, consequently, contributes to a fairly substantial price tag.
The choice of mounts is for Canon EF, Contax/Yashica, Leica R, Nikon F, Pentax K, Sony Alpha (i.e. Minolta A type) and the M42 screwthread fitting… presumably to appease the few eastern Europeans still wedded to their early Prakticas and Zenits. However, all these mounts are the physical couplings only so there are no mechanical linkages let alone any electronic contacts. So this means no automatic aperture control and certainly no autofocusing. Even the latest D-SLR is taken back to the days of stopped-down metering and an ever darkening viewfinder image as the smaller apertures are selected. This also means no lens-related information will be stored in the Exif data. Is any of this especially problematic? Not really, but it does add to the workload and requires the Superrotators be approached in a completely different way to any other modern lens that’s likely to be in a photographer’s D-SLR kit.
Under the skin, the Hartblei 40mm f4.0 is the same lens optically as the much-acclaimed 40mm f4.0 Distagon IF CFE that Carl Zeiss originally designed and built for the Hasselblad 500-series cameras, albeit without the built-in leaf shutter, but with upgraded anti-reflection measures for digital capture. Given the Superrotator’s extra mechanicals, it’s a much bigger lens than the Hasselblad unit and 635 grams heavier, but then it’s also a whole lot more capable.
The basic optical construction comprises 12 elements arranged in nine groups with internal focusing and a 12-bladed diaphragm which is designed to give very smooth out-of-focus effects (important on a lens which allows for such precise control of sharpness distribution). As with the Zeiss lens, the internal focusing arrangement and automatic optimisation of correction over the full focusing range are designed to optimise the image quality at the close-up distances, and the Hartblei 40mm has a minimum focusing distance of 50 cm. At first encounter the lens looks big, heavy and scary. The first two impressions don’t go away – at 1.55 kilograms it is heavy – but the mass of knobs, control rings and markings do start to make sense over time.
To be frank, it isn’t an easy lens to use, but it’s still a lot less complicated than a view camera’s front standard. The aperture ring and focusing collar are obviously familiar as is the depth-of-field scale which has close to a full set of f-stop markings. The shift and tilt adjustments are applied by a pair of control rings positioned closest to the mount. Each has a pair of knurled knobs set at 180-degree intervals to assist with adjusting, but these can be removed if they’re considered a hindrance rather than a help. The rings are appropriately marked ‘TILT’ and ‘SHIFT’ with the former marked from zero to eight in degrees, the latter from zero to ten in two-millimetre increments, but actually has click-stops at 0.5 mm intervals.