Photographers are always looking for new and interesting ways to create images. But even as a hobby, photography can be a very expensive venture. Camera bodies, memory cards, bags, tripods, lenses, it can all add up to one seriously prohibitive price tag. But all is not lost! We photographers are a clever bunch, good at developing DIY tricks to minimize costs. One of these is a handy little trick I discovered for budget tilt-shift photography. While it’s not perfect, the technique does work pretty well in simulating a tilt-shift lens without the price of an actual tilt-shift lens.
Tilt-shift photography is used to control the part of an image that appears sharp. By adjusting the knobs on the barrel of tilt-shift lens upward/downward (tilt) and side to side (shift) you can be extremely select about the area of focus, allowing for only a very small portion of the photograph to be sharp. By changing the angle of the lens relative to the camera body, you also have greater control in changing the perspective in an image too.
Tilt-shift lenses are often used in architectural photography. For example, if you take a photograph of a building from below, the lines of the building will appear to converge, and it will look as if it is leaning away from the viewer. A tilt-shift lens realigns convergence by moving the lens parallel to the sensor, without having to physically move the camera much further back.
So what is freelensing?
Freelensing is a technique of letting your lens run free of the camera body! Tilting an unattached lens in front of the camera’s docking point simulates the selective focus of a tilt-shift lens. But first things first.
As the proud owner of a camera baby, you may be thinking to yourself, “Is it actually safe to remove the lens from a camera for extended periods?” The answer is yes… and no. While the camera will function fine without a lens attached, there is a greater chance of dust entering the body and ending up on your sensor. That’s why I strongly recommend trying this project out on a spare or old camera you may not use anymore. Sensor cleaning is expensive so proceed at your own risk.
The method for tilt-shifting with a detached lens is fairly straight forward but takes a little preparation. I recommend using a prime lens, because it’s lighter and simpler, with less moving parts. Before detaching your lens, line up the shot and set the camera to manual mode. You may want to use a tripod to reduce camera shake. Meter and adjust your exposure settings and switch the lens to manual focus. Now, detach the lens and hold it about a centimeter (1/2 inch) from the lens cradle.
Have a look through the viewfinder. At first, you may only see blurry versions of the subject, that’s normal! Keeping the lens close to the camera body, and slowly begin tilting the angle of the lens from side to side. Tilting the lens to the right means that the left side of the image retains the most focus, and vice versa.
Take advantage of the light peeking into the gap between the camera and the lens. Achieving atmospheric bokeh and soft light effects are another great reason to try out freelensing. Try taking photographs at different times of the day and under different lighting conditions.
One of the downsides of this method is that achieving perfect focus is almost impossible, but with a bit of adjusting, you can come pretty close. Even the slightest of movements can affect the outcome of the image dramatically, but you will get a feel for it sooner than you might think.
Conclusion and give it a try
Freelensing is a fun and simple way of experimenting with tilt-shift photography. Once you have a handle on the technique, head out into the world!
Aim to photograph scenes that have a variety of depth. Tilt-shift photography isn’t as effective when used to photograph a scene that is consistently the same distance from the camera. Try looking for subjects that trail off into the distance. Good examples are densely wooded forests, long, straight streets populated with people, fields of flowers or a line-up of dominoes.
Give it a try and share your images in the comments below. I look forward to seeing them. Happy freelensing!