More on tilt-shift lenses

I have been asked to write more about a special lens I mentioned a little while ago: the tilt-shift lens.

This, as you recall from that prior post, is a manual-focus, prime, special lens that allows you to tilt the lens (change its angle so it does not point straight forward) and shift the lens (so that it points straight forward, but not inline with the camera’s viewpoint). Rather like a view camera. Mine is the Canon TS-E 45:

Shifting with TS-E 45
Tilting with TS-E 45

The question is: but when do you actually use it? Can you show examples?

Sure, here’s a few more examples.

You use this type of lens when you want to introduce “dollhouse”-type distortion:

Or when you want to fix perspectival line convergence or divergence in architectural photos, say, like when pointing the camera UP or DOWN.

My Door
Top of my door, when I point the camera UP
Top of my door, when instead of pointing up, I shift my lens up

Now those effects of a tilt-shift lens can be mimicked in Photoshop (or Lightroom, in the case of the perspective distortion) quite well.

The third is different: focal plane shifting.

Say I shoot my shoes. I am at f/2.8 because I need light. Unfortunately, that also gets me too-narrow depth of field.

Sometimes I want that, but sometimes I want to see the shoes back to front. With a tilt-shift lens that is easy:

  • Rotate the lens so the tilting goes up-down.
  • Tilt down (towards the closest object that needs to be in focus).
  • Try to focus. If you have not achieved focus in the plane you want, repeat the process with different shift angles until you are happy. Remember, you do not always need the ful tilt angle: sometimes a degree or two will do it.

Now you will get what you want:

The same applies to any object close to you:

No Tilt-Shift lens used, focus on back
No Tilt-Shift lens used, focus on front
Tilt-Shift lens used: focus everywhere

Another example:

f/2.8: No Tilt-Shift lens used: Blurred background
f/2.8: Tilt-Shift lens used: Background also in focus

And one more example:

f/2.8; No Tilt-Shift lens used; focus on back
f/2.8; No Tilt-Shift lens used; focus on front
f/2.8; Tilt-Shift lens used; focus shifted

Notes to observe when using a tilt-shift lens:

  • Small changes in angle/position of camera can have huge changes in focus. Make small changes and use a tripod.
  • Use manual exposure: first meter when you are not shifting or tilting, then lock in that setting. Auto exposure does not work reliably when the lens is shifted or tilted.
  • The focus plane is wedge-shaped and rather critical: take your time to achieve perfect focus.

So when would I (do I) use one?

First, whenever I run into any of the above. Typically, product and architectural photography are two areas that come to mind instantly. The 45 is not a wide-angle lens, so it is suited to “natural looking” images.

But also whenever I feel like shooting things at an angle. And in creative portraits. And when the environment is not great so I need other ways to make portraits and other pictures look interesting. Do not discount a tilt-shift lens for portraits, or anything else. Here’s me a moment ago, with 5 degrees down tilt:

See that nice selective focus effect?

I also use a T/S lens when I want extra narrow DOF. This is what a normal f/2.8 gives me:

And this is what f/2.8 with the lens tilted away from the chair gives me:

See? A T/S lens is for much more than just products and buildings. Don’t discount this type of lens by thinking it is just for those disciplines: a wedding photographer or a portrait pro can use one too! In many of these types of photography, manual focus is a mere inconvenience – or maybe not even an inconvenience: it’s kind of cool to do it yourself.

PRO TIP: if you are interested in this type of lens, rent one. Play for a few days, plan some product, some architecture, some landscape, and some portraits, and have a blast for a day or two. Then you will know what this lens does for you and whether it is worth the money. Only you can decide!



Kristof, a friend, showed me his 5D MkIII today.  All good – a 7D with all its advantages including functional focus, plus a lot of 1-series features, like double memory cards and great high ISO performance.

The User Interface was not quite as good as in the 7D – it has been “improved” (i.e. dumbed down) to the point that in some cases, it makes little sense. The nice “small wheel for left/right, large wheel for up/down” navigation is now replaced with multiple menus within each menu, meaning the user base will now find Canon menus as confusing as they do the Nikon menus. Also, some UI features are ridiculous – like the remote flash setting, which is only recognizable by the word “OFF” – until you turn it on, the camera does not mention what exactly it is that is “off”. Who makes these poor design decisions? A committee, I dare say!

But overall the camera is great. Except mainly for things you can change – like some of the default settings, which are, just like on the 7D, wrong. Like default “fix bad photos dynamic range” settings which are ON; focus point setting by joystick which defaults to OFF, and a few others.

In a future article I will give you all the settings you should change from the default to a better setting.

For now, for a starter, find the custom interface settings via the Quick menu and set the default meaning of the joystick while shooting from nothing (OFF) to “Change focus point”. That way you can quickly move the focus point just by using the joystick alone, without first having to press other buttons.

Now I start saving for a 5D3 – it is usable as a pro camera now. It misses some 1-series features, of course, but enough is there to make it a viable contender.

More soon!


A quick flash tip

One of the things you may wish to do this festive season is use off-camera TTL flash.

I.e. holding the camera in your right hand and the flash elsewhere – for instance in your left hand (or your other fight hand if you have two – well spotted, Mike).

In any case: away from the camera – this is key to good pictures.

All brands of camera allow this, and if you have a Nikon, or a Canon 7D or 60D, you do not even need additional hardware: just your flash and your camera, with its popup.

The popup (or on other camera, the on-camera flash) now sends commands to the other flash. So you can light a subject – like the student in Thursday’s Flash class – from one side, in this case with a flash in an umbrella on our right side, with a reflector on our left:

Off-camera flash using TTL

Much better than straight flash!

You can even use several flashes, divided into groups. In the next shot, we have an additional flash on our left, rather than a reflector. That flash has a red gel (one of the Honl Photo gels) on it, to see clearly which light is doing what work:

Off-camera flashes, using TTL

But what you must remember is this:

Disable the on-camera flash.

That is, the pop-up or 580EX/SB900 on your camera still sends its commands to the other flashes, but when the actual photo is beingtaken, it does not flash.

If you forget to disable it, it will fire. And then you get this unfortunate effect:

On-and Off-camera flashes, using TTL

Deer in the headlights. Harshness. Shadows. Brrr: baaad.

So your tip: use off-camera flash, and disable the main flash from firing actual flashes. The camera menu (or the flash on your camera) has functions for this.

If you want to learn this and many other techniques before the holiday, take the advanced flash course in Mono (see next week. Else, take a course with me or at Henry’s early in the year. It is worth learning flash!

What camera should I buy?

I hear this question a lot.

And of course there is no real answer. Like asking “what car should I buy”. Up to you!

But there are part answers that may help you make your own decision. Last time, I talked about “Canon or Nikon versus Olympus, Sony, Pentax, etc”. This time let me talk about “Canon or Nikon”.

Both are great. They are the industry leaders. Most photographers and photojournalsits have eitehr Canon or Nikon (by far). But the most important question is “how recent is your camera”, not “what brand is it”.

Some people say the two brands have different DNA. That is an overstatement – you can use and like either and they do the very same job. That said:

  • I feel that in the low end (Nikon D3000, D5000, etc versus Canon Digital Rebel XS, T1i, T2i, etc) Canon beats Nikon. The inability to auto-focus using a 50mm lens on these Nikon cameras is, in my opinion, a showstopper. A lot of options are unavailable. The Canon cameras feel much “cleaner” here, and more professional.
  • In the mid-range, Nikon D90/D300 vs Canon 50D/60D, it’s a wash, especially if you compare modern with modern.
  • In the upper mid range, Canon wins my vote with the excellent 7D and 5D II.
  • In the high end (1D, 1Ds, 3D, etc) it’s a wash again.
  • Hold the cameras and see what feels and sounds better. This is like doing a car test drive. Essential part of your choice.
  • With video, Canon beats Nikon in all but the most recent cameras. But these are not video cameras, really.
  • If you like customizing, Nikon beats Canon. Canon seems to not like to give photographers customization options, especially in lower end cameras: these are used to drive people to the more expensive cameras.
  • On the other hand, Nikon’s menus are terrible: the user interface with the vertical tabs and scroll bars is hard for beginners to understand. Canon is much cleaner here.
  • Canon still has a better lens range than Nikon.
  • Controls on Nikon turn “the wrong way” – e.g. the exposure adjustment scale goes from plus to zero to minus, exactly the opposite to all other Cartesian coordinate systems we have been taught to use all our lives. And to unscrew a lens you turn clockwise. And so on. I find this extremely irritating, but you may love it.
  • Nikon’s TTL flash system is excellent. On the other hand, NIon’s high-end flashes overheat. So again, a wash.

I am a Canon shooter, with a 1D4, a 1Ds3, and a 7D. Buit I also shoot Nikon. A good photographer can handle any camera.

My recommendation:

  1. Make a list of what you will use the camera for
  2. Make a list of MUST HAVES and LIKE TO HAVES in your camera
  3. Take those lists to a good camera store, like Henry’s, where the staff know photography.
  4. Research the recommendations on and via Google.

And above all, buy now, before the festive season.

And above even that: come get some training. Call or email me, sign up at Henrys or at, or do whatever you can to learn. It is simple, but if you do not take a course you will never live up to your potential.