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.

Is brand important?

A student asks me this via email:

Hi Michael, hope you are well. I wanted to send this email as I enjoyed the class you taught and enjoy reading your blogs!

As an amateur photographer the very first camera I started out with was a 35mm Minolta. Hence the reason I purchased my digital Sony, as my lenses were compatible.  I’ve have been building my equipment around “Sony” but have come to so many roadblocks.

I’m not sure if you remember me but I had to borrow your camera in class because I did not have a Nikon or Canon which was compatible to your remote flash. I would love to attend your workshops but I have no knowledge of Nikon or Canon. There has also been some part time job opportunities that I could not apply for because they preferred Nikon or Canon.

So therefore my question is…should I trade in all the Sony equipment and begin with Nikon or Canon? If so, which brand and model would you recommend?

Currently I have the Sony A700 model with 3 lenses (16-105, 50, 70-200macro).

Any recommendations would be greatly appreciated!  (Can’t wait to attend one of workshops, need more help with lighting theory).

Great question, and one that occurs regularly.

And a tough question, too. And it is one to which the answer, as so often in life, is “it depends”.

Let’s go through the various aspects to this choice.

  1. Technology. The A700 is a great camera. In general, though, there is little difference in quality between brands. Sure, Canon and Nikon, as market leaders, have larger R&D budgets, but in the end, all cameras end up with the same features. Differences are minimal. Do not discount Sony, they want to be number two soon, and who knows. If Canon has benefits (very extensive lens selection) and Nikon has advantages (low ISO), Sony also has advantages (available Zeiss lenses). Where Canon has drawbacks, so does Nikon and so does Sony (ask me if I like the Sony proprietary flash socket, or if I like Sony’s menu navigation). All cameras have aperture, shutter and ISO settings, so in the end, technology is not the decisive factor – either way. More important than “what brand is this camera” is “how modern is this camera”. They all get better every year.
  2. Backward Compatibility. Clearly a big one: if you have many thousands of dollars in one equipment maker’s hardware (say, Minolta lenses, which work on Sony cameras, since Sony bought Minolta) that is a factor to be taken into account.
  3. Market. Now we come to a biggie. The market leaders, Canon and Nikon, have a huge advantage over others, since the pro photography pretty much is Nikon and Canon. You have seen it yourself: if you cannot operate Nikon or Canon, many people do not want to know you. This is unjustified – but “it is what it is”.
  4. Peripherals. From available third-party lenses to Pocketwizards, all peripherals are available for Canon and Nikon. So that too can be, for pro shooters, a benefit of switching.
  5. Knowledge, Support, Expertise. An offshoot of the previous point. Books. Courses. Technical support. “Hey guys, my flash just died: anyone have one I can use?”. “Guys, who knows how I turn on this custom feature on my camera?” – Availability of used gear on Craigslist. Reviews on the magazines and online (like my blog). All these are easy if you use Nikon or Canon.

So what would I advise you?

If you are considering a switch for technical reasons, I would say “wait”. I have shot with Olympus, Panasonic, Asahi Pentax: Nikon, Canon, and I teach all others: all cameras are great. The camera is not the important thing, the lens is – and the photographer.

But since you want to be a pro shooter who has already run into roadblocks, I would seriously consider the switch.

To what? Canon or Nikon is a personal choice. What feels better?

Then you choose the level: for you I would say

  • Starter level (Rebel, or 3000/5000) – avoid. These cameras need more pro features
  • Mid-level: 60D or D90, say: great options.
  • Basic pro: 5D, 7D, D300s, etc: great options.
  • Pro: 1D, 1Ds or D3 etc: overkill, I would say, at this point, and in general, overkill for most users (but that said: I use a 1D as well as a 1Ds).

My advice: Check out When you have a particular camera in mind, ask me about that one. Ask your friends and ask other photographers.

I hope that helps.

7D or 60D?

My friend and student Ed asked (and this is the abbreviated version, his question was more nuanced): “should I buy a Canon 60D or a 7D to replace my Digital Rebel”?

Because this type of question comes up often – one camera versus another one, and use the difference for lenses – like “a D90 plus a lens versus a D300 without one” – I thought I would share my answer here. It may give you some ideas as to the factors that affect a difficult choice like this.

These are both great cameras. They both have the same sensor and the same video.

The 7D does not have the cool articulating mirror, true, but it has other advantages that made me buy one:

  • The 7D has a titanium body (60D is plastic)
  • Weatherproofing.
  • A much better, entirely new focusing system.
  • Better controls (e.g. a switch for video/live view selection; more controls accessible via a switch rather than a menu).
  • More customization options
  • Better viewfinder (100%)
  • More settings in video (e.g. the option to use Av mode)
  • Faster: Two processors rather than the 60D’s one means that you get 8 frames per second when shooting sport. That’s FAST!

Clearly, there is no good or bad – both good. But

  • If you want a sturdier, weatherproofed camera with the latest focus system (more points is good: you will only use one, but you have more to choose from for that one, in a bigger area), and if you shoot sports, then the 7D for sure.
  • But since lenses are more important than cameras for the image quality, if quality is important and the other factors are less so, then go for a cheaper camera and better lenses.

As said: either is good.  But I hope this brief discussion shows there is no clear winner in these things, since the factors that go into your decision are multifaceted and complicated.

Dragging the shutter

A quick note for you today (and this is the kind of thing my students learn at length in my advanced courses, like the one tomorrow in Mono – there’s still some space).

Every had your camera react unpredictably when using flash? Yeah, I thought so. You flash and then the shutter stays open for a second and it’s all a blur. Or you flash and the background is dark black.


When you shoot indoors, say, and use your flash, your camera behaves differently in different modes – and this behaviour varies per camera.

Aperture mode (A/Av):

  • Canon: the shutter will be as slow as needed to expose the background too (caution: this may lead to very long shutter speeds if ambient light is low).
  • Nikon: the shutter is restricted to 1/60th of a second or faster (this can be set).  But… if you also engage “SLOW” mode, the shutter will be as slow as needed to expose the background too (caution: this may lead to very long shutter speeds if ambient light is low).

Program mode (P):

  • Canon: the shutter is restricted to 1/60th of a second or faster.
  • Nikon: the shutter is restricted to 1/60th of a second or faster (this can be set).  But… if you also engage “SLOW” mode, the shutter will be as slow as needed to expose the background too (caution: this may lead to very long shutter speeds if ambient light is low). .


  • Canon is simple: Av = long shutter speeds, P = 1/60th or faster.
  • On Nikon cameras, both modes are restricted to 1/60 or faster normally, but either mode can be freed from this by using the “SLOW” setting.

So what is the best mode when using flash indoors?

Ah, that would be Manual. That way the camera does exactly what you want. But we will get to this again another day.

TIP: if you want to try Manual indoors flash, start at 400 ISO, 1/30th second, f/4. And bounce your flash off the ceiling/wall behind you.

What is in my bag?

I am often asked “what is in that Domke bag of yours”?

Here. Too much, many would say…:

Photo Bag by Michael Willems

Photo Bag by Michael Willems

The bag is a Domke bag, and it contains:

  • Two lenses (Which ones? That varies per shoot).
  • A speedlight (Canon 580-EX II).
  • My off-camera flash cable.
  • My point-and-shoot camera (a Panasonic Lumix GF-1 Micro Four Thirds camera).
  • The indispensable Hoodman Hood Loupe (Get one. Now.)
  • Memory cards… always carry spares.
  • Fong Lightsphere – for safe shooting when I need safety rather than creativity.
  • Honl Photo reflectors/gobos.
  • A Honl gel set in a Honl roll.
  • My iPad .. plus, just in case, its charger.
  • Spare batteries for every camera and for flash. Never travel without spare batteries.
  • Lens caps for the lenses that are on the camera. I do not use them on the cameras I am using.
  • Cloths, plastic bags, headache and stomach acid pills.
  • Note pad, pens, comb, small brush, business cards.

And an important note: no camera. That is (or more accurately, those are!) over my shoulder.

Dodo Lenses?

A student from the other day asks:

My son & I really enjoyed the course with you last night.  I do find myself a bit puzzled though about one particular matter when it comes to future investment.  I’m thinking about updating my 10D and then purchase another lens, yet you’re not the first person to praise their “Micro Four Thirds” camera – especially given the quality and additional lens options.  I’m wondering if this is going to be like the cherry-wood entertainment center I purchased years ago when wide screen tv’s were just on the way… but this entertainment center was not built for it.  Today, it’s still a beautiful piece of furniture, but it’s admittedly been sidelined since it’s unable to accommodate modern TV shapes.

What do you think? If this is the way of the future… perhaps my EF lenses may go the way of the dinosaur?

Good question: and yes, I d love the Panasonic Lumix I recently bought, and yes, it can produce work as good as the SLRs. So are we dumping those and going to Micro Four Thirds?

No – not at the expense of SLRs. SLR cameras will always be here. Why? Why lug about a heavy camera when a small camera can be as good? For reasons like these:

  • The availability of a much wider range of lenses.
  • The ability to shoot more quickly (ten frames a second on my 1D, 8 on the 7D).
  • Waterproofing
  • Focusing systems that do not rely on the sensor
  • The ability to use a viewfinder that shows “the real thing”
  • More buttons – yes, that is a good thing. Few menus needed. To change exposure, ISO, metering mode, white balance, and a host of other things, on my SLR I can press one button. On smaller cameras I often need to enter menu systems, which can be convoluted.
  • Micro Four Thirds is so special because it uses a biiig sensor: but it’s still not quite as big as a crop SLR’s sensor (and not nearly as big as a full size sensor). And sensor size matters greatly: lower noise, and more restricted depth-of-field possibilities.

Those reasons show why SLRs will be at the forefont of camera development for many more years.

Now, one thing you may want to do is use EF rather than EF-S lenses. More cameras are being released as full-sized snesors, and an EF lens can fit on any Canon camera, while an EF-S lens can only fit o the crop sensor camera.

EF lenses, then, provide great future proofing. You can go ahead and buy and not fear that five or ten years down the road, your lens will be worthless and (worse), useless..