If you’re struggling to understand what a tilt-shift lens is and how you can use it, then you’ve come to the right place.
Because in this article, I’m going to tell you all about tilt-shift lenses:
What they are.
Why they matter.
And how they can enhance your photos.
By the time you finish, you’ll be a tilt-shift lens expert!
Let’s get started.
What Actually Is a Tilt-Shift Lens?
To understand tilt-shift lenses, you first have to understand the optics of a standard lens.
With most lenses, light moves through elements inside the lens–and is then focused by the glass to create a sharp image on the sensor.
So the glass inside the lens is parallel to the image sensor.
Why does this matter?
Well, the parallel glass is designed to create a parallel plane of focus.
In other words, the part of the image that is sharp appears like a rectangular cut-out.
But with a tilt-shift lens, you have the option of tilting the lens.
This ensures that the lens glass is not parallel with the sensor.
And it re-orients the plane of focus in the image.
The practical result is that parts of the scene that are near to you are in focus…
…as are parts of the scene that are farther away.
And other parts of the scene will be out-of-focus, even if they’re located right next to parts of the scene that are in focus.
Now, technically speaking, this focusing feature is the tilt aspect of tilt-shift lenses.
But tilt-shift lenses offer another feature, too:
The shift feature.
The ‘Shift’ in Tilt-Shift Lenses
If you photograph the top of a building from down on the ground, you’ll end up with an interesting result:
The sides of the building will appear to converge as they go higher and higher into the sky.
This is referred to as perspective distortion, and it’s the reason why buildings appear to be falling backward when they’re shot from below.
But a tilt-shift lens does away with all the standard perspective distortion rules.
You see, you can actually shift a tilt-shift lens, so that you don’t get the normal perspective distortion at all.
Instead, when you photograph a building from below (while using the shift function) it’s as if you shifted the lens upward, so that your camera is levitating toward the middle of the building.
But why is this actually important? How can tilt-shift lenses help your photography?
A Tilt-Shift Lens Maximizes Depth of Field
Landscape photographers love tilt-shift lenses.
Because a tilt-shift lens allows you to maximize your depth of field–and keep the whole image sharp, from front to back.
For instance, imagine you’re shooting a sweeping landscape scene.
There are flowers in the foreground and mountains in the background.
Now, you want a standard landscape shot:
But if you were shooting with a standard lens, one that offered a standard plane of focus (that sits parallel to the image sensor), this would be really hard to do.
You’d need an incredibly deep depth of field–that stretched all the way from the flowers in the foreground to the mountains in the background.
To achieve such an effect, you’d need to dial in an aperture of at least f/16. But at such narrow apertures, you’re bound to get a significant loss of sharpness due to diffraction.
And even f/16 might not cut it. Instead, you may have to rely on another technique, such as focus stacking, which is very cumbersome and doesn’t really work if you have anything moving in the frame.
On the other hand, if you had a tilt-shift lens instead…
You wouldn’t have to use a narrow aperture at all. Instead, you could have a very shallow depth of field–but you could tilt the plane of focus, so that it covers the flowers in the foreground and the mountains in the background with ease.
That’s what makes tilt-shift lenses so powerful for landscape photography.
They allow you to keep everything in focus, even when your scene is extremely deep.
By the way, there is one drawback to tilt-shift lenses:
They’re manual focus only. You can’t autofocus with a tilt-shift lens.
But this often isn’t a problem, because tilt-shift photography is a pretty deliberate, careful art to begin with.
A Tilt-Shift Lens Offers Creative Effects
In the previous section, I explained how you can use a tilt-shift lens to tilt the plane of focus to keep everything sharp.
But did you know that you can also tilt the plane of focus to make nearly everything blurry?
This can give you some very cool results, such as a “miniature” effect, where it seems like you photographed toy models.
It can also allow you to carefully focus on one part of your image, while blurring out the rest.
In fact, you could take a photo of two people standing side-by-side, but only render one of them sharp.
Or you could take a headshot where only the eyes are sharp.
The opportunities are endless!
One last note:
If you like the artistic tilt-shift effect, but you can’t afford to purchase an actual tilt-shift lens, that’s okay.
Because you can actually recreate the same effect, using a technique called freelensing.
Basically, you detach your camera lens, and manually tilt it around while taking photos. That way, you’re able to get the in-focus, out-of-focus look, but without paying for extra equipment.
Be careful, though; removing your lens can expose the camera sensor to dust and dirt. Plus, it’s very easy to drop either your camera or your lens!
A Tilt-Shift Lens Avoids Perspective Distortion
Tilt-shift lenses are great for architectural photography, as well.
Because in architectural photography, you’re often shooting up.
You point your lens up at building exteriors, up at houses, up at building interiors…
And you end up with lots of perspective distortion.
Now, perspective distortion isn’t always bad. Some photographers like to use it for artistic effect.
But oftentimes, it’s best to avoid perspective distortion.
Especially if you’re looking to get the most accurate image possible.
(That is, if you want to portray architecture the way you might see it in real life.)
That’s where tilt-shift lenses come in handy. You can set up your camera at the base of the building, then shift the lens so that the image appears to be shot from high above!
And, just like that, all of your perspective distortion problems will disappear.
A Tilt-Shift Lens Allows for High-Quality Panoramas
Generally speaking, panoramas involve capturing several photos of a scene from different angles.
Then you stitch them together in a program such as Photoshop.
But here’s the problem:
When you rotate your camera to photograph each panorama image…
…you end up with something called parallax.
In other words, the scene looks slightly different from one angle compared to the next.
So when post-processing software goes to stitch your images together for a stunning panorama, it’s confronted by images that don’t line up completely.
Now, stitching software is pretty good, and can deal with parallax errors pretty well.
But even the best software isn’t perfect.
That’s where a tilt-shift lens comes in.
You see, by shifting the lens, you can take several panorama images that align perfectly–thus preventing parallax errors.
What Is a Tilt-Shift Lens? Conclusion
Now that you’ve finished this article, you know all about tilt-shift lenses–and how you can use them for amazing effects in your photography.
Because a tilt-shift lens allows you to do all sorts of cool things.
You can keep everything in the frame sharp.
You can create artistic effects.
You can avoid perspective distortion.
And you can capture gorgeous panoramas.
That’s the power of a tilt-shift lens!
A tilt-shift lens is a specially-designed piece of optics, one that allows you to tilt the plane of focus. Instead of a standard plane of focus that’s parallel to your camera sensor, you get a plane of focus that’s tilted–allowing you to capture cool artistic effects, or to keep objects both near and far in focus. Tilt-shift lenses also allow you to shift the optics, creating the appearance of shooting from a different perspective entirely.
Tilt-shift lenses are pretty specialized, which means that you’re only going to find them used by a few types of photographers. First, landscape photographers sometimes use tilt-shift lenses to keep everything in their images in focus at shallower depth of fields. Architectural photographers also like tilt-shift lenses, because of their ability to minimize or prevent perspective distortion. Some other photographers–those after creative effects–also use tilt-shift lenses, but they’re even less common.
No, you don’t need a tilt-shift lens for landscape photography. It can be pretty useful, though, especially if you find yourself taking deep images that require a lot of focus stacking. After all, while focus stacking is a cool technique, it’s not reliable 100% of the time, plus it can be very inconvenient.
No, you don’t need a tilt-shift lens for architectural photography. Some architectural photographers prefer the standard lens effect, with all the perspective distortion it provides; this can lend a more breathless effect to your images. But a large number of architectural photographers do like to use tilt-shift lenses, because perspective distortion makes images appear less realistic.
Tilt-shift lenses can avoid perspective distortion, but only if you use them right. By shifting the lens, you can create an image that appears to have been taken from high above. You can also shift a tilt-shift lens down, right, or left.
Tilt-shift lenses offer the same tilt effect as freelensing can achieve, though in a much more careful, controlled, safe manner. If you’re after a repeatable effect, then a tilt-shift lens is a must; freelensing is much more unpredictable. Also, freelensing doesn’t allow you to achieve a shifted effect, where you avoid perspective distortion–that’s something that only a tilt-shift lens can do.
Jaymes Dempsey is a professional macro and nature photographer from Ann Arbor, Michigan; his work is published across the web, from Digital Photography School to PetaPixel.