Tilt Shift Basics for Beginners

Tilt-Shift Lenses for Beginners

Photographers can use special perspective-control tools to achieve the most lifelike imagery of buildings and other open spaces. Here we will cover tilt-shift lenses for beginners, starting with shifting basics and then moving on to tilting basics.

Tilt-Shift Lenses for Beginners: Why Use a Tilt-Shift Lens?

Anyone who’s ever shot a building or any other structure from the bottom looking up knows that the bottom-up perspective makes it look like the vertical lines of the building are all converging towards the top. This problem is exaggerated with wide angle lenses, making many of these lenses unsuitable for certain types of architectural photography where not having those distortions is key.

Overhead shot of 3 Canon Tilt Shift lensesWhile Photoshop does include an “Adaptive Wide Angle” filter to help correct these distortions, a lot of photographers prefer to get things right in-camera, leading to less image manipulation in post. For that reason, both Canon and Nikon, as well as third-party manufacturers like Schneider-Kreuznach and Rokinon, have come out with a range of lenses that address that specific problem.

Shift Function Example

Take a look at the image below. Here, I’m using a 17mm TS-E lens from Canon without any adjustments. The back of the camera is perfectly parallel to the walls of the structure I’m shooting.

First shot, with back of camera perfectly parallel to the walls of the structure

First shot, with back of camera perfectly parallel to the walls of the structure

For this image, which I shot specifically for this article, I’m shooting from across the road to get almost all of the building into the frame. As you can see, I’m getting a fair amount of the road, which I don’t really want, and I’m cutting off the top of the building somewhat. With a normal wide angle lens, you’d just tilt the camera upwards, cropping out the road. That’s what I did in the next image, below.

Second image, with camera tilted up to crop out the road.

Second image, with camera tilted up to crop out the road.

Now I’ve cut the road out and I’ve managed to ensure that I have more headroom (perhaps too much), but there’s is some clear distortion happening here. The vertical lines of the structure are converging towards the top. What should be rectangles are now rhomboid in shape. The curves are also a bit distorted. To get the image I’m looking for, I shift the front plane of the lens upwards, using the shift knob outlined in red in the image below.

The Shift knob on a Canon 17mm TS-E lens.

The Shift knob on a Canon 17mm TS-E lens.

This results in the image below.

Final image with the front plane of the lens shifted up.

Final image with the front plane of the lens shifted up.

As you can see, I’ve cropped out the road, given myself lots of headroom, and done it all without distortion or converging lines.

Tilt-Shift for Multiple Image Stitching

Tilt-shift lenses are incredibly versatile. Besides being used to fix perspective and focal plane issues (we’ll cover the use of tilt-shift lenses for focal plane adjustments in Part 2), they can also be used to do some pretty interesting stuff, like creating a stitched image for making large, high-res prints. As a preview, take a look at the screenshot below.

Stitch of approximately 7 images forming a 34MP photo.

Stitch of approximately 7 images forming a 34MP photo.

Here, I’ve used Canon’s 24mm f/3.5L II tilt-shift lens to take multiple images of this structure, starting at the center, then sliding up and down, then left and right, then at 45º increments to get enough images for this stitch. After it’s been completed and cropped, I’ll end up with a roughly 34.2MP image – I started with a 22MP image from a Canon 5D Mark II. I was able to do this all without having my camera at all.

How to Use the Tilt Function in Tilt-Shift Lenses

We’ve all seen photos where the subjects (usually views from high-up of cars, buildings, people, etc.) appear to be miniaturized versions of reality. This is perhaps the most the most often-seen result from using tilt-capable lenses like the Nikon 85mm PC-E. Here is how this effect is achieved with tilt-shift lenses. Below, the camera is pointing downwards at the railroad tracks, with the tilt element swung upwards.


Example of “miniaturization” using the tilt function.

The reason this scene looks like a miniature is because the plane of focus is so narrow and both the foreground and the background are out of focus. That’s not something the human eye is used to seeing and we interpret images like this differently. This is known as the “diorama effect“.

Tilting Up

In order to get that effect, you have to swing the front part of your tilt-shift lens up so that it is either as perpendicular as possible to your subject, or is at an obtuse angle to your subject, as shown below.

Front element of PC-E lens swung up showing tilt function

Front element of PC-E lens swung up.

Doing so “minimizes” the depth of field in your image, resulting in a very narrow slice of the subject actually being in focus. Swinging the lens away from your subject, in other words, “miniaturizes” it.

Note, however, that tilting the front element doesn’t actually increase/decrease your depth of field (DoF). It changes the angle of your DoF. You effectively gain the benefits of an increased DoF but only for the plane that your subject is on. The technique takes some practice to get right. I’ve found that it’s easier if you try and shoot from a pretty high place and eliminate as much of the sky from your shot as possible.

Tilting Down

Perspective control lenses swing the other way, too (no pun intended). Landscape photographers (and some product shooters) may already be familiar with this technique and it’s extremely handy to “maximize” your DoF. To do this, swing the lens so that it’s at a more acute angle to your subject’s plane, as shown below.

Front element of PC-E swung down showing tilt function

Front element of PC-E swung down.

Practical Example of Tilt Function and Depth of Field

What you’re looking at below is a device called a LensAlign Pro. It’s used to test autofocus accuracy for cameras and lenses. We use these to test our lenses between rentals.

LensAlign Pro, shot at f/2.8 - demonstrating tilt benefits

LensAlign Pro, shot at f/2.8.

In this shot, the LensAlign Pro is shot at f/2.8 with a Nikon D800 and an 85mm PC-E lens. The lens is not tilted, as shown below.

Nikon D800, lens not tilted

Nikon D800, lens not tilted.

If you look back at the LensAlign, you’ll notice there’s a sort-of ruler on the right that I’ve laid back at a pretty steep angle to demonstrate the effect of tilting the lens on DoF. Here’s a 100% crop from that shot:

LensAlign Pro ruler at f/2.8, no tilt.

LensAlign Pro ruler at f/2.8, no tilt.

Only the ‘0’ and part of the ‘8’ above and below the ‘0’ are in sharp focus. That’s to be expected at f/2.8 – the wider your aperture, the narrower your DoF.

Now, let’s tilt the lens down:

Nikon D800 with tilt function on lens

Nikon D800, lens tilted.

Let’s take a look at the LenAlign’s ruler. Remember, we’ve not changed the aperture, which is the way most lenses control DoF.

LensAlign Pro ruler at f/2.8 with tilt fuction

LensAlign Pro ruler at f/2.8, lens tilted forward.

The change is pretty drastic. We’ve gained a lot of depth of field without changing aperture.

Use the Tilt Function to Increase Your Depth of Field Options

This technique of using the tilt mechanism is often ignored, which is why I spent some time on it. The first question people ask when I explain this function is, “Why don’t you just make your aperture smaller?” Indeed, making your aperture smaller is a valid way to increase depth of field, but there are also many reasons why you would not want to do that.

Let’s say you’re shooting a field of wildflowers and want a pretty deep depth of field. You stop down to f/8 or f/11, which is where many lenses perform best. You could go all the way to f/22, but beyond f/16, other factors come into play that can hurt your image such as lens diffraction. Basically what that means is, beyond a certain point, your image actually begins to lose detail as you make the aperture smaller. Exposure is another reason why making your aperture smaller may not work. The smaller your aperture, the slower your shutter speed and/or the higher your ISO needs to be to compensate, both of which bring their own pitfalls. If you’re shooting handheld, slow shutter speeds would result in motion blur, whereas kicking your ISO up to compensate would increase noise.

While it is true that in many cases there are ways to gain that depth of field through other means, knowing about these features of PC-E lenses is one more thing you can add to your arsenal!

Sohail Mamdani is a writer, filmmaker, and photographer based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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