TT Artisan 50mm f/1.4 Tilt Lens Review
I got a copy of this full-frame lens in the Nikon Z mount, which I tested on my Nikon Z9. This manual-focus lens is offered in many different camera mounts, such as Sony E, Leica L, Fuji X, Canon RF, and Nikon Z. The main feature here is, of course, that the lens has a tilt and rotation feature.
This TT Artisan has no electronics, so you have to add “non-CPU lens” information to the Z9, to tell the camera about the 50mm focal length and the maximum aperture of 1.4. The ‘exif’ image data will always indicate f/1.4, but you can still get automatic exposure.
The ‘TT Artisan’ lens name stands for “The Thinking Artisan”. You’ll find a very rare real aperture ring on this lens, without any click stops. It has a cinema-like feel to it, especially with both the focus ring and aperture ring having cinema “follow focus” gears on them. The aperture has 12 rounded blades, which will give very round out-of-focus highlights.
To get critical focus with this lens on a Z-mount camera, you will need to either use focus-peaking or else zoom in with the viewfinder to judge the focus via a magnified image. This lens isn’t meant for action shooting, so manual focus shouldn’t be a big issue. The focus ring has roughly 150 degrees of rotation from minimum focus to infinity, which feels about right. The focus and aperture rings are well-damped, without taking a lot of effort to twist.
TT Artisan 50mm f/1.4 Tilt Lens on Nikon Z9
Top view, showing the tilt control and follow-focus gears
Side view. Lens rotated 90 degrees and tilted down 5 degrees
Why a ‘Tilt’ lens?
The main reason to get a ‘tilt’ lens is to adjust the focus plane. Without tilt, the focus plane is of course parallel to your camera sensor.
Strictly speaking, ‘tilt’ means leaning the top of the lens forward and back relative to the camera sensor. For left-right motions (rotation about the vertical axis) it’s called ‘swing’. This lens does both kinds of motions; tilt is forward/backward motion while the lens is at 0 degrees on the ‘rotate’ control. If you use the lens ‘rotate’ control +- 90 degrees combined with the ‘tilt’ control, then you accomplish ‘swing’.
If you try to photograph a subject plane that isn’t parallel to your camera sensor, then some of it will be out of focus. You generally stop the lens aperture down to try to get more of the subject into focus. Landscape photographers fight this problem all the time, trying to get both near and far into focus.
In the photo shown above, the lens has been rotated 90 degrees and then tilted down about 5 degrees. This configuration will tilt the plane of focus for a typical landscape shot to get both near and far subjects into focus.
Lawn grass at f/1.4, no lens tilt. Focus peaking in red.
In the shot above, the camera has focus-peaking active to show what’s in focus. The lens is set to f/1.4 without any tilt or rotation, and only a narrow band of the grass is in focus. Even at f/16, not all of the grass will be sharply focused.
If the top of the lens could be tilted forward, relative to the camera sensor, then the plane of focus can be adjusted to match the plane of the lawn grass. In theory, all of the grass could be brought into sharp focus at even a very wide aperture like f/1.4.
Grass at f/1.4, lens tilted 4 degrees and rotated 90 degrees
Sure enough, the grass is able to get into focus by tilting the lens a mere 4 degrees. To get the correct tilt orientation, the lens also had to be rotated by 90 degrees.
This lens has a full 360 degrees of rotation, with click stops at every 15 degrees. Some other designs for other camera mounts only rotate through 90 degrees.
It works best to set/unset tilt while the rotation is at 0 degrees with the camera in landscape orientation. At 90 degrees rotation, the front part of the lens will free-fall down if you loosen the tilt control and not support the lens.
Lens tilted 4 degrees, with rotation of 0 degrees. f/1.4
In the shot above, tilting the lens about 4 degrees got the entire plane of the wall into focus, even at f/1.4. Notice, however, that either side of the wall is out of focus. This is a slightly disturbing visual effect, in my opinion.
Without any tilt control, only a very narrow band along the wall would have been in focus at this aperture. The shot is still somewhat lacking, however, and can be improved a bit more.
Lens tilted 4 degrees, with rotation of 0 degrees. f/16
In the shot above, I stopped the lens down to f/16. Now, everything is focus. I didn’t notice any corner vignetting, even when the lens is tilted.
This lens has a tilt range of +- 8 degrees. For most photography, only about +- 5 degrees is usually needed. There’s a detent at 0 tilt, so it’s easy to know that you got rid of any tilt.
The ‘miniature model’ effect
You can, of course, abuse the tilt/rotate controls and make crazy focus effects. A very common effect is to tilt in the opposite direction and force a distant shot to look like it’s a miniature model being viewed under a magnifying glass. People generally find this either charming or disturbing.
The Scheimpflug principle to focus on a plane
A French guy called Jules Carpentier filed a British 1901 patent, in which he spelled out the mathematics to get a tilted lens, a camera, and a subject to line up and make a sharp photo. Austrian army Captain Theodor Scheimpflug used this principle for aerial photography and made it famous. In the end, Scheimpflug got the credit, and it’s now called the Scheimpflug principle. Just get the subject, the camera sensor, and the lens tilt to intersect at a common point, as shown above.
Padded neoprene case with belt loop and hook
I quite like the included lens case. It has a locking drawstring and protects the lens very well. I like using this case for my other smallish lenses. It’s much better than the flimsy pouches that Nikon makes.
Metal slip-on lens cap
The lens cap slips on easily, and shows no tendency to accidentally slip off. It fits over the lens 62mm filter threads.
More lens specifications
The metal lens weighs about 450 grams. The metal lens mount doesn’t have any weather sealing.
There are 7 elements in 6 groups, with the rear pair of elements made of high-index glass. The lens image circle is much larger than normal lenses, so that lens tilts still keep the camera sensor fully covered.
12 rounded aperture blades
This lens has 12 rounded aperture blades. The large number of aperture blades, plus the rounding, makes for much better-looking backgrounds and lights that are out of focus.
Those same rounded aperture blades mean that you won’t get extreme diffraction spikes coming off of lights. You can’t have it both ways.
f/1.4 lights out of focus
The out-of-focus lights shown above are fairly smooth, but their edges show some discoloration. Because I shot this photo wide open, you’ll note the “cat’s eye” effect on lights near to the edge of the frame. You can also see some of the effect of internal reflections.
It’s up to you to decide if these effects are beautiful or ugly. I have definitely seen lenses do worse than the performance from this lens.
f/1.4, no tilt
It isn’t always about maximum sharpness. Dreamy background.
Diffraction spikes, f/16
Nothing to write home about. Some people call these sunstars.
Lateral Chromatic Aberration
Yes, you get purple corners. f/5.6
There is some purple in the corners with high-contrast subjects, but it honestly isn’t that bad. Even small branches are sharp edge-to-edge by f/5.6.
I have read very disparaging comments about this lens’ resolution. I did find that f/1.4 and f/2.0 look pretty weak, but f/2.8 and beyond are totally acceptable. Highest resolution is seen at f/5.6, while f/8.0 is probably the best overall performance.
This is, of course, only one lens. I know nothing about quality control at their lens factory.
I noticed that resolution is weaker as you focus nearer. My resolution testing was done at 2 meters, or about 7 feet away from my target. This distance would get roughly head-to-waist portraits in landscape orientation.
MTF50 resolution measurements above roughly 30 lp/mm will be perceived as sharp. The best pro lenses might get some resolution readings in the 70’s.
I provide the peak resolution measured (either meridional or sagittal) at each aperture. I also give the worst corner measurement I got at each aperture (the best of 4 measurements in each corner).
If you didn’t know, “sagittal” measurements are in the same orientation as the spokes of a wheel. The “meridional” measurements are along tangents to a circle, which are then perpendicular to the sagittal orientation.
Resolution measurements are a bit messy. They represent 2-dimensional information, and are also measured in 2 different orientations at each location. Web sites that give you just a single measurement for resolution are crap.
Manufacturers that provide MTF contrast plots are almost always just theoretical; they aren’t made from actual measurements. Also, the theoretical measurements don’t take the camera sensor into account. The MTF contrast plots that I include below are from actual measurements, and they include the effects of the camera sensor, too.
I use the MTFMapper program for the resolution measurements. This is the same software that NASA used to evaluate the lenses that are on the Mars rover Perseverance.
Actual MTF contrast measurements, f/1.4
Lateral chromatic aberration f/1.4, microns
My Nikon Z9 has 4.35 micron pixels, so worst case aberration is about 1.4 pixels. Corners of shots with small tree branches against the sky definitely look purple when you look real close.
Actual MTF contrast measurements, f/5.6
Lateral chromatic aberration f/5.6, microns
Minimum focus distance performance
The shots below were taken at the minimum focus distance, which is 0.5 meters. You definitely need to use the viewfinder magnifier to get critical focus at this distance; at f/1.4 the depth of field is paper thin.
I think that the eye looks reasonably sharp even at f/1.4, but you’d almost never achieve this with a live, moving subject at this distance. It’s a challenge that some photographers thrive on, however. I suppose you could ‘cheat’ and set the camera on high-speed continuous shooting and then throw away the 99% of the out-of-focus shots.
Full frame of the subject at 0.5 meters.
This lens is indeed pretty weak at f/1.4 and f/2.0. It does sharpen up just fine by about f/4. You’ll need f/5.6 to get good corners. For the lens target audience shooting things like landscapes or product shots, they wouldn’t be using tilt features with the aperture wide open. When stopped down, the lens has plenty of sharpness.
My old 50mm f/1.8 Nikkor (F-mount) beats this lens for sharpness, but it can’t do tilts (unless I were to drop it onto concrete).
Sharpness isn’t always the primary criteria. Shots like this look just fine without super high resolution.
Don’t. It has really bad coma.
I waited till the end to mention cost. This lens is really cheap; I didn’t want to influence people into thinking the lens has to perform badly, given how inexpensive it is. This is a physically very solid lens, which should easily tolerate moderate handling abuse (not including rain or dust storms).
If you’re after sharp everywhere, then use the old photojournalist adage of “f/8 and be there”. If you like portraits with some character to them, don’t be afraid of f/1.4 (and pay attention to that background)!
This lens is the opposite of mindless automation. You actually have to think about focus and taking advantage of unique perspectives via the focus plane tilt. The Scheimpflug principle definitely isn’t mindless.
This lens makes me feel more like a photographer when I use it, since I have to be a more active participant. I’m forced to consider shooting subjects at angles with alternative planes of focus and I have to work a bit more at getting critical focus. I have found the experience ‘fun’, as opposed to ‘irritating’; others will invariably disagree with this perspective. The Z9 camera is flexible enough to go from the ultimate in automation to fully manual, and just about anything in-between; it compliments this lens very well.
There are lots of optically superior 50mm f/1.4 lenses out there, especially in the corners. They cost a lot more, too. And they don’t have a tilt feature. This lens produces pictures that have a unique character, which you may or may not like. It’s all about choice.