How A Shift Lens Can Help Your Stitched Images

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Shift lenses allow the skewing of perspective as the camera sees it and are often accompanied with a tilt feature, as seen in the popular tilt-sift lenses. Shift helps with how lines converge or diverge in a scene by moving the lens elements to one side of camera body opening (as most shift lenses can rotate 180 degrees, this shift can be up, down, left, right and several areas in between). Shift lenses are helpful in architectural photography because they allow lines to be kept straight when they tend to want to converge or diverge with distance or the angle of the camera to the subject.

Another use for a shift lens is an aid to stitched or panoramic photos. Shifting a lens in this sense will help reduce the amount of curve normally seen in stitched images taken at wide angle. While a computer can adjust for this curve, I want to show the advantage of not having to ‘fix things in post’, even though it can be done quite well by some.

Let me show you an example of a building in downtown Bellevue, Washington. The first two images are taken with a Canon 7D and a Canon TS-E 24mm F3.5 L II (courtesy of BorrowLenses.com) and are each composed of five images stitched together with PhotoMerge in Photoshop CS5. I am including the full image initially so you may see the difference in coverage area. The name of the building has been smudged at request of the property owner (as well as license plates), otherwise the photo is unedited. Click on the photos for a full sized download if you like (Warning: they are 11MB).

Images shot with no shift.

Image shot with a shift up.

Now to take things a bit further and show how shifting perspective in the computer affects the image. The next two images have been cropped to show the same area in the center of the frame and then, using the Perspective adjustment in Photoshop CS5, adjusted so the building lines are straight.

The image with no shift.

And the cropped image shifted up.

Glancing at the smaller 600 pixel high images, can you spot a difference? Let me give you a zoom on the Jeep to the right. (Click on image for an 1800 pixel wide version, not so large)

The Jeep in the non-shifted image.

And the Jeep in the shifted version.

In the version without the shift moved up to help correct perspective, the result is a squishing of objects near the bottom of the frame while compensating for the top in post production. This can be adjusted also with the Transform tool by skewing the image down, thus elongating the image, bringing the cars back to normal size. Yet all of this transforming, while possible, moves further and further away from the original content of the image (in the matter of quality). You may also notice a slight warp to the pillars in the non-shifted version due to perspective change.

The upside of using a shift lens for this type of work is there will be less work later in the computer. Certainly a Photoshop expert can take my photos and manipulate them to near perfection, but that is beside the point. As with most things in life, the best way to proceed to is to get it right the first time if at all possible. Using a shift lens helps remove computer work later on.

The downside to using a tilt-shift lens for this type of work? The price tag. The Canon TS-E 24mm F3.5 L II I used is regularly $2100USD on Amazon.com although, as previously noted, renting such a lens from the likes of BorrowLenses.com (here is that lens listed on their site), or another rental company, can save a bundle if you have a single project or two to complete in a short time frame.

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Peter West Carey

leads photo tours and workshops in Nepal, Bhutan, Costa Rica, Panama, Alaska, Seattle and Los Angeles. He is also the creator of 31 Days to Better Photography & 31 Days of Photography Experiments, web-based tutorials taking curious photographers on a fun ride through the basics of learning photography.

  • John Ayo

    A question: geometrically, is it better to shift the lens, leaving the body/sensor in place, or to shift the body/sensor, leaving the lens in place? I imagine the former is probably a whole lot easier, but the latter would be a more accurate extension of the captured image.

  • Yeah I agree a shift lens would really help. Especially when I do car photography for my site http://CustomPinoyRides.com, and I have buildings or other structures with straight lines as backgrounds for my shoots.

    Unfortunately I don’t have one, and spot on, as you said, because of the price tag. Hence, I rely on my photoshop skills to make things straight. But you’re right, it involves a lot of work…

  • Great, informative article, cheers for the info 🙂 I also have the same question as john ayo – which is better, shifting the body or the lens? I’ve been using a 5×4 film camera recently that has tilt and shift movements, and have been leaving the body parallel to the building and shifting the lens to correct the geometry. Are there any other methods for this?

  • Nice story indeed, I made my own tilt-shift lens out of an ol niccor 50mm lens I had for just 20$ My shot is here:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/gipukan/5350298114/

    Made mine with an inner tube and a t2 ring for my canon’s. Also using it for my macro shots when putting it in reverse on my 28-135.

  • Jon

    Thanks for the excellent article!

    Like most I would love to own a shift lens to shoot more city skylines and panorama. If one does not have the shift lens, what software program would you recommend with a full feature tool package (for making these adjustments) without the “high” cost. At this time I use 2006 MS Digital Suite, which has limitations.

  • Dave Rhuberg

    Moving the shifting lens gives as much parallax as moving a regular camera. If there is no foreground, not a big deal. With foreground you will not have registration.
    Keep the lens as stationary as possible while moving the camera body, with a DSLR or Large Format Camera.
    I have had a Hartblei 65mm and a Nikon 35mm, and used both with a macro rail for lateral displacement and a set of spacers on the tripod extension for vertical. Two spacers (11mm for 11mm of shift, 22mm total) gave me a 3 shot range of perspective correct stitching. Think of the lens as projecting one big image, you are moving the sensor to cover as much of it as possible without moving the lens.

  • Good article, but? You seem to be looking at stitching with photoshop and photoshop is not very good for stitching. How would this apply with a dedicated stitching program i.e. ptgui or autopano?

  • Roberto

    Or… you might try using DxO software to automagically correct for the keystoning, providing a near perfect transform, given your camera/lens combination:
    http://www.dxo.com/intl/photo/dxo_optics_pro/optics_geometry_corrections/keystoning

    Works for other distortions as well:
    http://www.dxo.com/intl/photo/dxo_optics_pro/optics_geometry_corrections

    Just saying…

Some Older Comments

  • Roberto June 3, 2011 03:34 pm

    Or... you might try using DxO software to automagically correct for the keystoning, providing a near perfect transform, given your camera/lens combination:
    http://www.dxo.com/intl/photo/dxo_optics_pro/optics_geometry_corrections/keystoning

    Works for other distortions as well:
    http://www.dxo.com/intl/photo/dxo_optics_pro/optics_geometry_corrections

    Just saying...

  • Peter June 3, 2011 05:44 am

    Good article, but? You seem to be looking at stitching with photoshop and photoshop is not very good for stitching. How would this apply with a dedicated stitching program i.e. ptgui or autopano?

  • Dave Rhuberg June 3, 2011 04:58 am

    Moving the shifting lens gives as much parallax as moving a regular camera. If there is no foreground, not a big deal. With foreground you will not have registration.
    Keep the lens as stationary as possible while moving the camera body, with a DSLR or Large Format Camera.
    I have had a Hartblei 65mm and a Nikon 35mm, and used both with a macro rail for lateral displacement and a set of spacers on the tripod extension for vertical. Two spacers (11mm for 11mm of shift, 22mm total) gave me a 3 shot range of perspective correct stitching. Think of the lens as projecting one big image, you are moving the sensor to cover as much of it as possible without moving the lens.

  • Jon June 3, 2011 04:16 am

    Thanks for the excellent article!

    Like most I would love to own a shift lens to shoot more city skylines and panorama. If one does not have the shift lens, what software program would you recommend with a full feature tool package (for making these adjustments) without the "high" cost. At this time I use 2006 MS Digital Suite, which has limitations.

  • Gipukan June 2, 2011 04:04 am

    Nice story indeed, I made my own tilt-shift lens out of an ol niccor 50mm lens I had for just 20$ My shot is here:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/gipukan/5350298114/

    Made mine with an inner tube and a t2 ring for my canon's. Also using it for my macro shots when putting it in reverse on my 28-135.

  • danfoy June 1, 2011 04:34 am

    Great, informative article, cheers for the info :-) I also have the same question as john ayo - which is better, shifting the body or the lens? I've been using a 5x4 film camera recently that has tilt and shift movements, and have been leaving the body parallel to the building and shifting the lens to correct the geometry. Are there any other methods for this?

  • THE aSTIG @ CustomPinoyRides.com May 31, 2011 05:33 am

    Yeah I agree a shift lens would really help. Especially when I do car photography for my site http://CustomPinoyRides.com, and I have buildings or other structures with straight lines as backgrounds for my shoots.

    Unfortunately I don't have one, and spot on, as you said, because of the price tag. Hence, I rely on my photoshop skills to make things straight. But you're right, it involves a lot of work...

  • John Ayo May 31, 2011 04:18 am

    A question: geometrically, is it better to shift the lens, leaving the body/sensor in place, or to shift the body/sensor, leaving the lens in place? I imagine the former is probably a whole lot easier, but the latter would be a more accurate extension of the captured image.

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