Tilt-shift lenses were initially created for architectural photographers looking to counter the distortion that occurs when pointing a camera up or down (keystoning/pincushion distortion). You’ll notice in your images where you are pointing your camera up or down that vertical lines/shapes tend to lean in or out. The solution??? Unless you’re shooting with a view camera, the solution is a tilt-shift lens.
TS lenses, however, have creative applications as well. By tilting the plane of focus, the photographer is able to achieve a miniaturized or snow globe effect, manifested in the majority of the image having a blurred, dream-like or soft focus feel while a certain slice of the image remains sharp. It’s cliche, it’s trendy and it’s fun. Most importantly, however, it’s useful and extremely effective if not over utilized and when done correctly.
So–back to the question at hand–when/why tilt-shift???
1. Creative Freedom–it’s different than the typical approach to imagery. It’s fun and it can lend an interesting, artistic and quirky look to your images. It might be the tool that helps you see many of the same old shots in a new way.
2. Visual Impact/Subject Isolation–TS lenses are a fantastic manifestation of the power of selective focus. Many times, I will be shooting wide angle imagery where I’m unable to achieve the very shallow DOF (depth of field) that I’d like to separate the subject from its surroundings. Without the use of a TS lens in images like that of the trail runner above, the subject would be completely lost in the frame. By using the TS effect, I’m able to provide a huge amount of context in the image, and still draw the focus directly to the activity/subject.
3. Editorial/Commercial Spreads–it takes a certain type of editor or art director to actually use TS images, but when it’s right, it’s right. As mentioned above, TS images can make negative space out of filler that would have otherwise been busy and unusable. Words and logos pop off the page when placed on soft backgrounds. (why do you think that “blur” tool exists in PS???) TS images can work well for full bleed editorial spreads where the copy is placed directly on the image.
4. Product Highlighting–and really, highlighting anything else for that matter. It’s a great way to draw attention to specific parts of a product like a logo or any other cool feature, while still including the whole product.
5. Depth of Field without stopping down–this is yet one more fantastic advantage to a TS lens. By tilting you plane of focus correctly, you can achieve greater depth of field without stopping your lens down. Essentially, you’re able to render both FG and BG objects sharp, while some of the middle elements remain somewhat soft. This is especially useful when you need depth of field, but can’t accommodate the longer shutter speeds required when stopping your lens down to those smaller apertures. Example? The above image of wildflowers at Willow Lake. In short–windy evening. I wanted both the flowers in the FG, and aspens in the BG to be sharp. Stopping the lens down in the typical manner of achieving this DOF gave me long multi-second exposures. By tilting my plane of focus with my TS lens, I was able to get this DOF while shooting at f5.6 and keeping that shutter speed in check.
My two biggest rules with TS lenses? ALWAYS check your focus at 10x zoom (if possible) on your live view display. If you don’t have live view, check it on your LCD after clicking the shutter. The margin for error when shooting TS lenses (especially at larger apertures) is very slim. You may think you’ve gotten exactly what you want, only to find that the sharpest part of your image is slight off from what you had hoped for.
Secondly, don’t overdo it. TS should be the exception rather than the rule. It can quickly lose it’s effectiveness when over-utilized. Make it your icing on the cake, instead of the other way around. TS lenses don’t come cheap, but they are tons of fun and extremely effective when used correctly. If you don’t own one, try renting one for a day and see if it’s something that fits in with your creative and technical needs. Have fun!
All of these images were captured with Canon cameras and the 24mm TS-E lens.