I’ve always wanted to use a tilt-shift lens. It’s one of those video/photography tools that has always intrigued me (like a drone…which I also really want to play with). The issue I’ve always had when it comes to tilt-shift lenses is I have no actual use for one. This isn’t a matter of using a wedding as an excuse to rent one for a weekend, because I would have no use for a tilt shit at a wedding. You can also forget about buying one just for fun as they are prohibitively expensive. I could never come up with any practical reason or excuse to use a tilt-shift.
That’s not to say you have to have a practical use for everything. I have a couple of Lensbaby’s, and while they are fun to play around with they don’t serve any real purpose. After all, tools that help you be creative are never a bad thing. Still, for whatever reason, even the idea of renting a tilt-shift for a weekend never seemed like a responsible decision.
Then one day I decided to not be responsible!
I’m not sure what it was that finally pushed me over the edge. Maybe I finally came to the conclusion of, “why not?” Or maybe I just wanted to photograph something completely different for a weekend in the middle of my busy wedding season. Whatever the reason, I finally rented one, and let me tell you…it was awesome! Before I continue though, I should probably answer the question of, “What is a tilt-shift?”
So what is a tilt-shift? Well the short answer is that it’s a lens that both “tilts” and “shifts.” Yes, I know, that is most unhelpful, but it is nonetheless a true statement. The lens in the picture to the left is the one I rented for the weekend. To be exact, it’s the Canon TS-E 24mm f/3.5L II tilt-shift. The first thing you should notice looking at that picture is that the lens has knobs on it. As you may have already guessed, these are the knobs that allow you to physically tilt and shift portions of the lens.
The natural question that arises from this is why? What does moving parts of the lens around do? Let’s start with the shift aspect as it’s a bit easier to explain. Shifting the lens will physically “slide” the lens within the lens mount. You can shift (or slide if that helps you envision it better) up or down. The lens actually rotates 90 degrees as well, so you can spin it while attached to your camera which allows you to shift it left or right if you prefer (the lens actually rotates in two different spots, so you can rotate the shift and tilt aspects independently of each other).
Shifting the lens changes your field of view without you actually having to move the camera. We’ll get to why you would want to do this later, but basically if you put your camera on a tripod, looked through the viewfinder, and started shifting the lens up, it would be as if you were raising the camera straight up on the tripod.
Tilting the lens will physically move the top portion of the lens up and down (or left and right) a total of 8.5 degrees either direction. What you accomplish by doing this is changing the focal plane of the lens. What am I talking about you may be asking? Well, allow me to butcher this explanation!
When you point a camera lens at someone or something, think of the lens as projecting a giant rectangle in front of it perpendicular to the direction the camera is facing. You can quite literally think of this like a movie projector. You point the projector at a screen, turn it on, and it projects a giant image in front of it on the screen. Well with a camera lens, instead of it projecting an image, you are creating a plane where objects fall into focus. Anything that happens to be in front or behind this rectangular plane will be out of focus.
With a tilt-shift, you are no longer bound by this rule of the focal plane being perpendicular to the direction of the camera. If you put a camera on a tripod and put a tilt-shift on it, you can point the camera at an object, then tilt the lens in a direction (once again without physically moving the camera). The result is a focal plane that isn’t perpendicular to the camera. The area at which things will be in focus is now at an angle to the camera. This allows you to create images that have a “selective focus” if you will. The result, as you might imagine, is you can create some very cool (or sometimes very weird) effects! Throw in the shifting portion of the lens as well and you can really do some remarkable stuff!
At this point you are either hopelessly confused by my explanations, tired of reading about all of this stuff, or you just want to look at some pictures (or possibly all three). Before I move on, if you are interested in understanding more about this lens, head here and here to see and read explanations that are infinitely better than what I just gave you.
On the first day of my tilt-shift adventure, I took the lens out to Great Falls National Park. I chose this location for two reasons. For starters, it’s simply a very nice park with some gorgeous views. The main reason though was for it’s high vantage points.
You have undoubtedly seen the results of a tilt-shift lens before. One of the most recognizable (and quite frankly coolest) results of using a tilt-shift is creating the “miniature effect.” If you do a Google image search of tilt-shift photography, this is the main thing you are going to see. Basically the miniature effect is an image of a real life place or environment that looks likes a model someone built. The best I came to replicating this effect was in the very top image of this post. You can get some very striking images when photographing groups of people or cars or cities in general (seriously, Google it, you won’t hurt my feelings).
Creating this miniature effect is actually very easy. The one caveat is you have to be some distance above your subject so you can point your camera down. This is where those high vantage points come into play. I knew there would probably be kayakers at Great Falls, and I also knew I could get to points where I could look down on my subjects. I personally think the results, even of just the falls in general, came out pretty cool.
Another wonderful trick you can pull off with a tilt-shift is easily creating panoramic’s. Remember the whole shifting thing? Well this one of the practical applications. Normally to create a panoramic, you would put your camera on a tripod, and then you would spin the camera in increments, taking a picture at certain stops, and then when you got home you’d stitch the images together to create one long image (or just tell Photoshop to do it for you because I’m pretty sure that program is coded with magic).
The downside to this is you will always get some kind of distortion to the images. Rotating the lens, even around a central point, is going to skew some portions of each image. Now Photoshop will automatically correct for this (because, once again, magic), and the results will look really good, but ideally you would want the camera to move along a perfectly straight line, taking pictures along the way, that you would then stitch together.
Well with a tilt-shift, you can basically do just that! The panoramic you see above was captured without me ever moving my camera. I set the camera up on a tripod, and then proceeded to shift the lens left to right. I took one image with the lens shifted all the way to left, one image with it centered, and one to the right. I then ran the images through Photoshop and bam, a great panoramic!
After spending a few hours out in Great Falls, I packed everything up and headed home in preparation for tomorrows excursion.
There are two notable things about Day 2 that have absolutely nothing to do with the tilt-shift lens. For starters I was not alone! I brought my friend/occasional assistant to take part in the adventure. We would pass the lens back and forth as we each thought of different things to try (effectively depriving each other of more time with the tilt-shift). The second thing was the weather. It was brutally (and I mean brutally) hot. This probably played more of a role in depriving us of time spent with the lens, as neither one of us particularly wanted to get heat stroke.
Anyway, we went into the city to capture some of the unique architecture D.C. has to offer. D.C., if you have never been, is not a tall city, so creating the miniature effect (outside of finding a building with a balcony that you could have access too) was all but out of the question. What I played with mostly was creating narrow fields of focus in pictures. In doing so, I discovered two things about this lens. The first thing was that the lower the f-stop you shot at (that is, the wider the lens opens up and shallower the depth of field is), the more dramatic this selective focus seemed to be. Shooting at a higher f-stop seemed to produce minimal results, but shooting at a low f-stop? Well that’s how I created the shot in the little gallery above with the flags in front of the Washington Monument. The downside to this though was you had little to no error when it came to focusing the lens. You see, this lens has no autofocus. Despite how sharp the lens was (and it was very sharp), if you miss the focus, there isn’t much you can do about it.
Another opportunity afforded to us by the city was to take advantage of the other practical use of shifting the lens. If you’ve ever taken a picture of a tall building, chances are you stood in front of it with some kind of wide angle, and tilted the camera up until you could get as much of the building as possible into the frame and took the picture. What you probably notice in pictures like this is that there is some amount of distortion going on with the picture. The building probably seems like it’s leaning back or stretching up towards a point. This is the result of you rotating the camera up.
Well with a tilt-shift, you once again don’t have to physically move the camera! I unfortunately don’t have a great shot of this, but if you place the camera on a tripod level with the building you are trying to focus, and shift the lens up, you can then get the whole building in frame without any distortion. It’s actually quite useful if you are into the whole architectural photography. It isn’t all that dramatic, but the picture of the Washington Monument in the distance in the gallery above was captured using this technique. I didn’t tilt the camera upwards at all to get all of the sky in the picture, I simply shifted it up.
Wide angle lenses in general are not great portrait lenses, and unfortunately the tilt-shift isn’t much different. Unless you are centering your subject and shooting wide to get the surrounding area in your portrait, you are much better served shooting at 50mm or more. That said it was very interesting to play with this whole selective focus thing in terms of a portrait. The shot on the right was one of the better ones I was able to get, and you can see that really only the center of the image (from her head to just below where the branches start on the tree) is in focus.
The resulting effect, especially when it comes to the tree, makes for an interesting portrait. However I was very much put off by the focal length, and if you tilt and shift the thing too much you run the risk of distorting your subject. Overall I felt like I was better off using a Lensbaby to create some of these effects in portraits as opposed to a tilt-shift (which is really unfortunate since now I really can’t justify buying one).
After this we tapped out and decided to avoid getting heat stroke and headed home.
My final day with the lens wasn’t a trip or all that extensive. I just wanted one last hoorah with this fascinating lens, so I took it out in my backyard to play around with it some more.
Over the course of the weekend, I developed two regrets in regards to this lens. The first was that I didn’t get to spend nearly enough time with it. Due to scheduling conflicts and unforeseen events coming up, the time I thought I had to devote to this lens over the course of a weekend was cut short. Still, even with the time I had with the lens, it was enough to lead me to the second (and bigger) regret:
I should have never rented this lens.
I’m sure that statement is probably pretty shocking to you based on everything else I’ve written in this post. The fact of the matter is after spending the two days with this tilt-shift, all I can think about now is how much I really want to buy a tilt-shift! This lens is so cool and so out there and so different that it struck this photography nerve in my soul! My regret is that I gave myself enough of a taste of this lens, a lens that I have zero practical use for, that I now am actively trying to figure out how to justify spending 1800.00 to buy one. The only way I could ever justify it is if I expanded my interior design photography (which you best believe I’m considering). Still, in an industry that often causes envy over the latest and greatest technology, the last thing I needed was another object to lust over.
In all honesty though I’m glad I finally pulled the trigger and rented a tilt-shift. Whether I ever buy one or not, I am glad to have had the experience.
A freelance photographer serving the Northern Virginia, DC, and Maryland area, I specialize in weddings, portraits, and event firstname.lastname@example.org