Today we’re talking about one of the weirdest lenses Nikon ever produced. That’s a lofty statement, considering that Nikon has been an optical powerhouse for more than a century. There exist some 400 lenses proudly bearing the name of Nikkor, and even the lenses which Nikon opted not to christen with the family name can be impressively capable lenses. So how did the Nikon PC-Nikkor 35mm f/2.8 earn its place in my book as one of the quirkiest and most interesting Nikon lenses? Let’s take a closer look.
But before we dive in, here’s a quick story about a work of art that lead me to seek out and buy this lens.
On the morning of July 3, 1973, a 25-year-old Stephen Shore got in his car and set off on a journey across the United States with his 8×10 view camera. The work made all over the continental United States over the next seven years culminated in a book – Uncommon Places. Originally published by Aperture in 1982, Shore’s Uncommon Places is one of the landmark photography books of the 20th century, standing with Walker Evans’ American Photographs, Robert Frank’s The Americans, and Joel Sternfeld’s American Prospects as documents of American life and the American vernacular landscape.
Every single photograph in Shore’s Uncommon Places is pure ocular pleasure. Few other photographers have shared Shore’s uncanny ability to translate the three-dimensional world into a two-dimensional surface so beautifully and with such exacting precision. The precise language of Shore’s work has a lot to do with the tool he chose: the 8×10 view camera with which Shore made all of the photographs in Uncommon Places gave him the precise control his work practically demanded.
View Cameras and the Tilt Shift Lens
View cameras connect the lens to the camera body using a flexible bellows. This mechanism gives view cameras perspective and focus control that ordinary cameras don’t offer. We talked more about these movements and how they influence the final photo in our beginner’s guide to large format photography, which you can read here. The short version – by tilting the lens it’s possible to create focal planes that are not parallel to the image. And by shifting the lens, the photographer can correct for perspective distortions that come with tilting the camera up or down (and it’s this shift function that the Nikon PC-Nikkor allows).
The physical apparatuses required to allow these lens movements are naturally bulky and cumbersome, and making the most of them requires real skill. Thus, as camera makers pursued ever smaller and easier-to-use cameras these movements were largely abandoned. Cameras with these capabilities are now almost exclusively found in the world of large-format film photography, a niche within a niche.
However, camera makers did produce various lenses for 35mm cameras that gave them the tilt and shift controls of larger cameras. Introduced in 1961, the Nikon PC-Nikkor 35mm f/3.5 is actually the very first lens for 35mm cameras that offered lens movement independent of the camera body (“PC” stands for perspective control). While these older PC-Nikkors did not have any tilting mechanisms, they do allow us to shift 8 to 11 millimeters in all directions. This gives us the ability to correct the type of converging lines that we see when we shoot, for example, a tall building from the ground with a normal lens. Without perspective control, when we tilt the camera to capture the entire building, it looks in the final image as though the building is falling backwards into the background (the top of the building appears much smaller than the bottom). With a shift mechanism it’s possible to shift the lens, correcting these converging lines and making the building appear straight and tall in the final image. The Nikon PC-Nikkor 35mm f/2.8 doesn’t shift to the extent that a large format camera lens will, so the effect is a bit muted. But it does the trick in less extreme situations.
The Nikon PC-Nikkor 35mm F/2.8 – Build Quality and Use
There are three versions of the 35mm PC-Nikkor lens. The first one introduced in 1961 had a maximum aperture of f/3.5, and the second and third versions released in 1968 and 1980 respectively both had a faster maximum aperture of f/2.8. The oldest version of this lens had the shifting mechanism built extremely close to the body. Consequently, it is incompatible with later Nikon bodies with prisms that protrude further out the front. Both versions of the f/2.8 lens, on the other hand, are compatible with every Nikon SLR ever made.
These PC-Nikkors are unlike any Nikon lens, their quirky appearance only matched by their uncommon purpose. But not all things are unfamiliar. Like other Nikkor family members, they are incredibly well made. In fact, the PC-Nikkor 35mm f/2.8 lens might be the most impressively built Nikon lens I’ve ever used. It is no surprise that Nikon, one of the best lens makers in the world, is the first in history to take on the daunting task of fitting these complicated moving parts onto such a small lens. The additional complications of the rotating and shifting mechanism doesn’t hinder the build quality of the lens in the slightest. On the contrary, it showcases Nikon’s engineering prowess. If you enjoy well crafted things, you will certainly fall in love with this lens.
At the very front of the lens is an aperture preset ring immediately followed by the actual aperture ring that controls the diaphragm. Behind those two rings is the focus ring. The three rings are distinguished by different knurl patterns with the focus ring wrapped in a pleasant hard rubber. These are the little things that a lesser manufacturer might have missed; when composing with your face behind the camera, these unique tactile registers allow you to distinguish the different controls with perfect ease. Nikon has a good track record of getting these little things right, and on a lens as complex as this, the brand’s attention to detail is especially impressive and much appreciated.
The focus and the aperture rings aren’t too exciting. However, behind those common controls is where the fun begins. Following the focus ring is a protruding knob that, when turned counter-clockwise, shifts the entire front half of the lens away from the knob. The shifting motion reveals beautifully etched millimeter markings on the shaft of the knob. At the very base of the lens is a rotating mechanism that allows the lens to shift in any direction. The rotating mechanism locks in at 30° increments with confidence-inducing detents. The detents are only there for added precision: the lens can be used at any angle in between.
Our examination of the barrel of the lens concludes with the lens mount. Here, the Nikon PC-Nikkor 35mm f/2.8 differs from other lenses once again: there aren’t any shafts and contacts that connect the lens to the camera body. This engineering marvel of a lens stands on its own as a sort of self-contained machine: no communication or camera control here. A bare metal mount links the lens firmly to any Nikon body, from the original Nikon SLR, the Nikon F, to the more modern N90, to the latest Nikon DSLRs like the D850. Simple. Perfect.
Making a PC-Nikkor, or any tilt-shift lens, for that matter, is an optical challenge. The lens needs to have a much bigger image circle to accommodate shifting in all directions. The 1980 version, sometimes referred to as the black knob version, comes with both optical and cosmetic updates which are very welcomed. The 35mm PC-Nikkor is optically quite impressive. While the lens is noticeably a bit soft wide open, the image sharpens up nicely at f/5.6. Around f/8 and f/16, the lens has plenty of resolution to boot.
Corner sharpness depends on how much the lens is shifted: at its zero position, the image is sharp corner to corner. I have not put this lens up against other 35mm lenses Nikon produces, but I suspect that this lens benefits from its much larger image circle when it comes to corner sharpness since the photo’s corners rarely near the edge of the image circle. That said, the lens is a solid performer even when shifting to extremes. Pushing into 8 to 11 millimeters of shift, you can see some softness and vignetting beginning on the edges of the frame, but the effect is barely noticeable and perfectly correctable after the photo.
One caveat here is that while the lens can technically shift to 11mm in every direction, the lens actually has number markings on the rotating mechanism that tells you the recommended maximum shift in any given direction. There are certain positions in which Nikon does not recommend shifting more than 8 millimeters, for example. It is absolutely true that the lens performs better when it’s not shifted to the extremes, but I have actually never heeded Nikon’s recommendations. Shifting to 11 millimeters where the lens tells you not to doesn’t noticeably degrade the image perceptibly in real-world use.
The Nikon PC-Nikkor 35mm f/2.8 has a last trick up its sleeve, and that is its minimum aperture of f/32, which in and of itself is an impressive accomplishment for such a small and compact lens. At the 35mm focal length, the lens already has quite a nice, deep depth of field at f/22, but at f/32, the lens will render in sharp focus everything from just over two feet away to infinity. This is perfect for narrative works that call for an evenly descriptive surface with every detail in focus.
Measure the use of this lens against any normal 35mm lens and the PC Nikkor is certainly more cumbersome. Due to the shifting mechanism, the lens does not have an automatic diaphragm that closes down to the chosen aperture at the moment of exposure. Instead, the user must slow down and work meticulously.
First, we must level our camera on a tripod, meter the scene, and set the proper aperture. Next we use the shifting mechanism to precisely compose, apply the aperture setting on the lens, and take the picture. Slow and methodical, but not overly so.
It is precisely this considered approach to picture-making that gives works like Shore’s Uncommon Places its signature exactness, and once we become familiar with the process of setting up the Nikon PC-Nikkor 35mm f/2.8, shooting it becomes quite zen-like. Take a deep breath, slow down, and think about how you really want the picture to look.
Final Thoughts on the Nikon PC-Nikkor 35mm f/2.8
I understand why the 35mm PC-Nikkor is a lens shrouded in obscurity. It needs a tripod and it’s inconvenient to shoot compared to other 35s. It’s specialized for very specific applications, and its unique creative controls are not particularly well-understood. Moreover, 35mm film doesn’t have the resolution of large format, so its precision can feel a bit wasted by the time the light reaches the emulsion.
However, digital cameras might breathe new life into these old, obscure PC-Nikkors. Full-frame digital sensors now have plenty of resolution for any architecture or landscape applications. Photographing in live view obviates some of the constraints of metering and dim viewfinders. The electronic levels and touch screens of modern digital cameras are finally doing PC-Nikkors justice when it comes to precision composition, focusing, and exposure. Modern tilt-shift lenses cost thousands of dollars when plenty of good old PC-Nikkors are just waiting to be purchased and used for a tiny fraction of the price. For all of these many reasons, the Nikon PC-Nikkor 35mm f/2.8 is the type of lens that I love: pleasurable to use and capable of delivering incredible results. It’s historically interesting and technically proficient.
I think that everyone should shoot a tilt-shift or perspective control lens at some point, the added controls are a breath of fresh air. Get a PC-Nikkor, bring a tripod, slow down. Things are quite pleasurable that way.
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