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Creative Macro Photography – A Guide to Freelensing

Freelensing is one of the strongest and most underutilized tricks in the macro photographer’s toolkit. It can add diversity to a portfolio, and—when used carefully—generates some truly stunning effects. In this article, I will cover the basics of freelensing and discuss how it can be used to enhance your macro photographs.

freelensing macro photography bokeh

What is freelensing?

Freelensing is a technique that can be used with any camera that accepts interchangeable lenses. You detach the lens from the camera and focus by tilting the lens in different directions, as well as by moving the lens closer and farther away from the camera body.

How does this change the resultant image? The plane that is in focus is no longer parallel to the sensor. The overall effect is to get both near and far objects selectively in focus, as shown in the photographs below.

freelensing macro bokeh autumn leaves
By tilting my 50mm lens, I was able to selectively focus on these colorful leaves.

How to do freelensing?

First, equipment: I’ve found that macro freelensing works best with lenses in the 50mm range. Lenses much longer than that are going to be hard to focus accurately with, and lenses that are much shorter give a field of view and depth of field that is a bit too broad for macro purposes.

Note: because freelensing involves holding the lens detached from the camera, there is always the risk that you might drop something. Therefore, I like to use lenses that are on the cheaper side; the Canon 50mm f/1.8 is my go-to lens in these situations.

The camera model isn’t important, but I tend to use my backup body, as detaching the lens from the camera does increase the risk of dust and other debris getting inside and onto the sensor.

freelensing flowers macro photography

The freelensing process

Begin by putting the lens on the camera as you normally would. Turn on the camera and set it to Manual Mode. Choose whatever aperture you like; when the lens is taken off the camera, the aperture setting will be rendered irrelevant (it will be wide opened). Focus the lens on a distant object.

NOTE: With some camera makes and models, if you hold down the Depth of Field preview button while removing the lens it will lock the aperture closed to your desired setting. Test and see if your camera has this ability.

Make sure that your camera is not using Live View (as this would increase the exposure of the sensor to the outside world). Then, turn off the camera. Detach the lens, and carefully hold it in front of the camera body, just in front of the sensor. Turn the camera back on.

camera freelensing detach lens
Example freelensing technique with a 50mm lens. The lens is pulled (slightly) away from the camera body.

At this point, the fun begins! There are a few things to consider:

First, the farther you move the lens away from your camera, the greater the magnification.

Second, tilting the lens left, right, up, and down alters the parts of the scene that are in and out of focus. It takes a bit of experimentation to get the hang of this, so don’t be afraid to take many images while honing your freelensing skills.

freelensing nature macro photography

Third, any gaps between the lens and the camera allow for light leaks. This can result in very interesting effects (but be careful not to overdo it!). To minimize light leaks, cup your hand around the lens so as to block out the light.

A note on exposure

When it comes to freelensing, your camera’s metering system is going to be nearly useless. The proper exposure depends on the size of the gap between the camera and the lens, so you will always need to drastically underexpose if you use your camera’s meter. I often take a few experimental shots, incrementally increasing the shutter speed (and checking the image on the LCD), until I reach an exposure that I like.

Freelensing for macro photographers

I’ve given a basic overview of the freelensing process above. But how can freelensing be used by macro photographers?

1. Use freelensing to create spectacular backgrounds

One of my favorite things about freelensing is that it can generate stunning backgrounds. The shifted plane of focus causes greater subject/background separation, so the bokeh can be truly impressive.

Try shooting into the light (with the subject backlit).

freelensing macro photography bokeh backlit
The setting sun (just to the right of the flower) offered some great opportunities for freelensing.

You can also work with a shaded subject and a background lit by direct sunlight.

freelensing poppy flower macro photography
The poppy was shaded, but the background was lit by the setting sun.

2. Find a point of focus

Freelensing can be an exhilarating experience, as subjects that you’ve shot a hundred times will seem brand new. However, it’s important not to get too caught up in the uniqueness of freelensing, and focus on how the effect can be best used to create strong images.

To this end, find a focal point. This might be a flower, an insect, or some leaves. Use this point of focus to anchor your shot. Ensure that you’re tilting the lens so as to render that point of focus sharp, and the rest of the scene out of focus.

freelensing daisy macro photography

3. Use freelensing to isolate a subject from clutter

Adding onto tip number two, one of the advantages of freelensing is that you can order an apparently cluttered scene with a tilt of the lens. Look for the sort of image that would have previously felt too chaotic, then tilt the lens so that only a small part is rendered in focus.

autumn leaves freelensed macro

4. Use light leaks for artistic effects

I mentioned light leaks above, and I want to emphasize their potential. When used right, light leaks can be beautiful.

I like to create small light leaks along the sides of the image by shooting backlit subjects, and by allowing a significant gap between the camera and the lens.

freelensing daisy macro photography
The effect here was created entirely through light leaks; by pulling the lens away from my camera, I was able to give this daisy image a more ethereal feeling.

5. Use freelensing for macro-level magnification

As mentioned, pulling the lens away from the camera increases your magnification. This can allow for detail-oriented macro shots without a macro lens. So experiment by increasing the distance between the camera and lens.

freelensing sunflower macro photography

In conclusion

Freelensing, while unconventional, can be an excellent addition to your toolkit. By detaching the lens from the camera body, you can create unique backgrounds and artistic light leaks while emphasizing the main subject.

With spring flowers just around the corner (hopefully!), now would be an excellent time to start practicing!

freelensing coneflower macro photography
Creative Macro Photography - A Guide to Freelensing

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Jaymes Dempsey
Jaymes Dempsey

is the Managing Editor of Digital Photography School, as well as a macro and nature photographer from Ann Arbor, Michigan. To learn how to take stunning nature photos, check out his free eBook, Mastering Nature Photography: 7 Secrets For Incredible Nature Photos! And to see more of Jaymes’s work check out his website and his blog.

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