In this article, I explore the ins and outs of tilt-shift lenses. I explain:
- What tilt-shift lenses are and how they work
- The benefits of using tilt-shift optics in your photography
- The difference between the tilt and the shift effect
- Much more!
So whether you’re looking to understand the tilt-shift lens basics or you want to level up your own tilt-shift photography, then keep reading!
What is a tilt-shift lens?
A tilt-shift lens is a special optic designed to do two things:
In particular, tilt-shift glass is frequently handled by landscape and especially architectural shooters, though other photographers (e.g., wedding, portrait, and even macro shooters) do use them to produce interesting creative effects.
Note that tilt-shift lenses work like any other interchangeable lens – but with a few additional features. In other words, you can mount a TS lens to your DSLR or mirrorless camera and use it immediately; as long as you don’t mess with the tilt and shift mechanisms, you’ll need zero additional knowledge or training. Of course, there are major advantages to utilizing a TS lens’s unique abilities, which I discuss in the next section:
Tilt vs shift: What does a tilt-shift lens do?
As mentioned above, tilt-shift lenses are designed to eliminate perspective distortion and offer powerful control over image depth of field. But how does this work?
Because the tilt effect and the shift effect are essentially unrelated, we can tackle them independently:
The tilt effect
Normal lenses are perfectly aligned with (i.e., parallel to) the image sensor, which means that the plane of focus is also aligned with the sensor. If you point a normal lens at a flat brick wall and focus it carefully, you’ll capture a photo with each and every brick in focus. Any objects sitting far enough in front of the brick wall, however, will appear out of focus, as will any objects positioned far enough behind the brick wall.
(I say “far enough” because every image contains a depth of field. Think of this as a sharpness buffer around the plane of focus. If you capture an image with a shallow depth of field, you’ll have very little sharpness beyond the plane of focus and the background will turn out blurry. If you capture an image with a deep depth of field, you’ll have lots of sharpness beyond the plane of focus, and the background will turn out sharp. Make sense?)
Tilt-shift lenses, however, give you the ability to tilt the lens’s plane of focus so it’s not perfectly parallel to the image sensor. The resulting image can have all sorts of interesting effects: the left side of the scene can be in focus while the right side of the scene is blurred; a subject in the right foreground area and the left background area can be in focus while the opposite areas (the left foreground and the right background) can be out of focus.
This next image features an extreme tilt effect where the plane of focus appears almost perpendicular to the image sensor:
So why is the tilt effect useful?
Two reasons. First, you can use a tilt effect to give your images an eye-catching look. By keeping parts of the scene in focus but letting other areas go soft, you can emphasize certain subjects, blur out other subjects, and even create a cool “miniature city” effect, where buildings and cars seem tiny and cute.
Second, you can use a tilt effect to keep your entire scene sharp – even with a limited depth of field.
You see, if you’re photographing a deep landscape scene – with a rock in the near foreground and a mountain in the distant background, say – you’ll generally want to keep the entire shot in focus. The standard approach is to narrow your lens’s aperture until you have a depth of field so deep that both the foreground rock and the background mountain are sharp. But while this method often works, you can run into two issues:
- If the scene is too deep, your lens may not offer a sufficiently small aperture to achieve the depth of field effect that you need. (Plus, once you get past f/13 or so, you’ll see a noticeable loss in sharpness due to diffraction.)
- If you need a fast shutter speed and you’re working in low light, you may not have the option to shoot at a narrow aperture.
A tilt-shift lens, however, can ensure an entire shot is sharp even with a shallow depth of field. You simply tilt the lens down so the plane of focus is more closely aligned with the ground. That way, the depth of field keeps all landscape elements sharp from the foreground to infinity!
The shift effect
All photos feature perspective. You’re familiar with the concept, even if you don’t realize it: When you photograph a scene, the objects closest to the lens look bigger than the objects off in the distance.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with perspective. In fact, it’s what makes photos look natural! But in certain scenarios, perspective can lead to unnatural effects – that is, perspective distortions. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in architectural photography.
Let me explain:
If you point your camera directly at a building – so that the camera sensor is parallel to the building facade – every inch of the building is effectively equidistant from the sensor plane. Take a photo, and the building will turn out perfectly straight.
However, what if you want to lean back to capture a tall skyscraper? When you tilt your camera upward, the sensor plane will no longer run parallel to the building facade. Instead, the bottom of the building will be much closer to the sensor plane, while the top of the building will be much farther away. And remember what I said about perspective? The closer the object, the bigger it appears.
So the bottom of the building will look big, the top of the building will look small, vertical lines will converge, and the building as a whole will appear to be falling backward:
The result is pretty off-putting, and while you can correct this perspective distortion in post-processing, you’ll lose a lot of pixels along the way. That’s where the shift effect comes in.
You see, a tilt-shift lens is capable of shifting the glass – that is, moving it physically in relation to the image sensor – so that you can keep the camera pointed straight ahead even while capturing tall subjects. And since you don’t need to tilt the camera, your images will be free of perspective distortion:
Note that the shift effect can also be useful when capturing panoramas. A normal panorama photographer rotates the camera about a fixed point, which can introduce parallax error. But with a tilt-shift lens, you can point your camera straight ahead, then shift the lens to capture a series of perfectly aligned (and distortion-free!) images.
When is a tilt-shift lens useful?
Tilt-shift lenses are plenty powerful. If you own (or plan to own) TS glass, then I encourage you to try it out in a few specific scenarios:
When photographing architecture
A tilt-shift lens will help you keep your architectural photos looking natural. You can use it to prevent converging vertical lines (caused when you tilt your camera upward or downward), and if you’re used to shooting buildings with a non-TS lens, it’ll be an absolute game-changer.
You can also prevent converging horizontal lines, which are caused when you tilt your camera to the left or the right. The effect can be strange, however, so use it with caution!
When photographing landscapes
Tilt-shift lenses have a few major landscape photography uses.
For one, you can use the shift effect to prevent distortion caused by panoramas. When you shift your lens instead of rotating it, the result will look more natural (and will therefore require less work in Photoshop!).
You can also use the shift effect to prevent converging verticals. While irregular landscape subjects make this type of perspective distortion far less obvious compared to the straight lines of buildings, if you photograph trees, the TS lens will prevent them from leaning toward the center of the frame.
Finally, you can use the tilt effect to keep your entire scene in focus (even with a shallow depth of field!).
When photographing portraits or events
While tilt-shift lenses aren’t generally used by wedding and portrait photographers to handle distortion, they are used to capture creative images.
I encourage you to experiment with different tilt effects! Use your tilt-shift lens to enhance background blur when photographing wedding rings, or to keep the subject’s eyes in focus while letting their body slide out of focus.
When photographing nature
As with portrait and event photography, nature scenes don’t really benefit from the corrective effects offered by tilt-shift lenses, though you can certainly take advantage of the TS lens’s creative potential! For instance, when photographing flowers, you can get in close with your tilt-shift lens and keep certain petals in focus thanks to careful tilting.
You can also have plenty of fun capturing beautiful forest scenes:
When photographing cities
Cities and street scenes offer the opportunity to create an interesting miniaturization effect. By tilting the lens, you can make an expansive scene look like a tiny model:
To create this effect, you need to be elevated by at least 10 feet (though I’d recommend getting higher if possible!). I’d also urge you to use a wide focal length, if possible – that way, you can create a better sense of place.
The best tilt-shift lenses you can buy
If you’re a Canon photographer, you have a few solid tilt-shift lens choices (though they are on the expensive side!). The 17mm f/4L is great for ultra-wide landscape and architectural photography, while the 90mm f/2.8L is a good telephoto option for portrait, event, and nature scenes.
Nikon photographers should look into the 45mm f/2.8D ED, which can handle portraits, tighter architecture scenes, and close-up nature shots. I’d also encourage you to check out third-party options, such as the Rokinon 24mm f/3.5; non-native glass is generally far cheaper than native options, yet the quality is often outstanding.
Finally, if you want to produce a creative tilt effect but can’t afford a tilt-shift lens, you can always try freelensing, which gives a similar (but less controllable) result.
Tilt-shift lenses: final words
Tilt-shift lenses are useful – if specialized – products. They can help you capture sharp landscapes, distortion-free architectural shots, creative city scenes, and more.
So consider purchasing a tilt-shift lens!
Now over to you:
Which tilt-shift lens will you buy? What will you use it for? Share your thoughts in the comments below!