How to do Tilt-Shift Portraits

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Photography gives you an awesome opportunity to present to the world your vision of it rather than its absolute reality. At their best, photos can evoke the feel of a moment without being an exact representation of it. Think of the last time you fell in love. Most likely, your memories aren’t clear, linear progressions, but rather a series of moments, blurred together by a high-dose cocktail of dopamine and romance. Life can be a blur and feel so good. For me, that’s where tilt-shift portraits come in.

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Tilt-shift lenses are most commonly used for architectural purposes, meant to fix converging verticals when shooting tall buildings in order to reduce distortion in the final photo. You’ve also probably seen the miniaturized versions of city streets shot from above where even a city as grand as New York can seem positively dainty. Tilt-shift portraiture however, involves carefully selecting focus and letting anything that isn’t the subject of your photo fade into obscurity. This allows the viewer to be swept into your alternative realty. In my view, it’s a portrait that can be a truer representation to how a moment actually felt.

Tilt-shift portraiture however, involves carefully selecting focus and letting anything that isn’t the subject of your photo fade into obscurity. This allows the viewer to be swept into your alternative realty. In my view, it’s a portrait that can be a truer representation to how a moment actually felt.

Tilt-shift portraits = high risk, high reward

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Most of my tilt-shift portraits are taken wide-open (using the largest aperture setting) with the lenses shifted as far as possible. This means that my focus point is tiny and the chances of me missing it are huge. This means that if I want the eyes in focus, I have to slow down, concentrate, play with my focus ring and maybe take a few shots just in case.

When the focus is even just a little bit off, you lose the ability to the guide the viewer. That said, when you do nail the focus, the subject jumps out of the frame surrounded by bokeh.

Note: if you do not own a tilt-shift lens, look into renting one from a local camera store.

Wait, what’s a tilt-shift lens?

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The tilt-shift is a specialty lens that allows the photographer to bend and distort light by tilting and/or shifting the lens itself.

Shifting implies that the lens actually shifts its position (and the view through it) either up or down, left or right. This can minimize distortion especially with wider focal lengths. Tilting is when the front lens elements literally tilt (again, up or down, left or right) to get selective focus in a given plane.

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So how do you use this lens to take an interesting portrait? Here is a step by step guide:

Step #1 – Visualize it

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Because of the precision and manual focus, you need to visualize your shot before you take it. You need to know exactly what story you want to tell. Do you want the viewer to zoom in to the subject’s eyes or perhaps your shot is about the flow of her dress or how he’s placed his hand. Most of the time, with tilt-shift, you gotta pick one thing to tell your story. What do you want that to be?

Step #2 – Shift it

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Tilt-shift lenses can become rather mundane without a shift. Sure, you can use your tilt-shift to take shots straight on with neither tilt, nor shift, but where’s the fun in that? I recommend shifting your lenses before framing your shot as your sweet spot on your lens will help determine your framing. With that, I should mention…

Step #3 – Know your lens’s sweet spot

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Every tilt-shift has parts of the lens that it captures better when tilted or shifted. Know where to place the subject in your frame to get it in focus.

Step #4 – Manual focus

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If you’re used to relying on autofocus, switching to manual focus can feel like jumping into the driver’s seat of a stick shift car after years of only using automatic. You’ll be a rusty at first and are sure to stall out once or twice, but soon enough, you’ll get the hang of it.

On most dSLRs you have two options to view your focus. The first is right through the viewfinder, just make sure that the dial (the diopter) next to the viewfinder is set to match whatever your eye needs or you will have a hard time getting focus pinned down. The second is through Live View Mode on the back of your LCD.

At times, Live View is a better option as it provides a larger screen but also it allows you to zoom in to your precise focus point and make sure you’re right on.

Step #5 – Take a deep breath

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Tilt-shifts are not quick and easy lenses to use. You need to spend time to set up your shot. Relish in its slowness. Just before taking the shot, take a deep breath. Not only will it help steady your shot, but you’ll feel darn good after clicking that shutter.

Step #6 – There’s more to life than just faces

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Portrait artists can get overly fixated on eyes. Yes, eyes are incredibly satisfying and captivating things to focus on, but so are fabrics, texture, movement, etc. In life, all of these things at times can be the sole focus of our attention and that story needs to be told too.

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Conclusion

Tilt-shift lenses make it so we can’t get anxious about precision but rather let the feel of photograph take center stage. They can open up a whole new way of viewing not only the world but your photographic style. Now go forth and play!

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Laura Sullivan

splits her time between the Pacific Northwest, Chicago, and the open road. She shoots with her husband, Tim Sullivan, and their company Sullivan and Sullivan Photography. Together, they shutterbug around the globe and run retreats for creatives in the most beautiful places they find. Keep up with their travels at sullivanandsullivan.photography, on Instagram, or on Facebook.

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