16 Things I Learned While Using Tilt-shift Lenses
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Tilt shift lenses are often favoured by architectural photographers, since one of their primary uses is to correct for converging verticals. However, since these lenses offer longer focal lengths than those traditionally employed by architecture shooters, they have a different target audience. Announced towards the end of 2017, these lenses are particularly aimed at food, product, and portrait photographers.
I have used a lot of cameras and a lot of lenses over the past ten years that I’ve been working in the photographic industry, but my experience with tilt-shift lenses was relatively limited up until a few weeks ago. I had used Nikon’s 45mm PC-E Micro-Nikkor f/2.8D ED lens briefly, but I was excited to get the chance to learn more about the intricacies of these complicated lenses by reviewing Canon’s new offerings.
At the end of my time with them, I have some images which are different from those I’d usually shoot, that I’m pleased with. I won’t claim to be a complete expert in using them, but I thought I’d share a few things I learned during the process - let us know if you’ve got any tips for shooting with tilt-shift lenses in the comments box below!
1. You need a lot of patience
If you spend most of your photographic life working with autofocus lenses, suddenly stepping back into manual focus is quite the shock to the system. Add manual focus to the fact that there are a few dozen combinations of tilt, shift and rotate that can affect your overall image - you’re going to need some serious time getting to know a tilt shift lens. Once you’ve put in that hard work, the rewards are huge, but it’s a bit of an uphill slog to get there.
2. It forces you to slow down
With manual focus, and all that lovely tilting and shifting action to consider, these are not lenses for quick, off the cuff shots. Instead, it forces you to stop and think about your photography in a more considered way than you might ordinarily. And that’s no bad thing, spending a little extra time thinking about composition, what you do and don’t want in focus and how to achieve that can lead to more interesting results.
3. People will be very interested in what you’re using
If you’re out and about with a tilt shift lens, be prepared for the odd unusual look or stare - while fellow photographers who might normally just give you a knowing glance will likely come over for a long chat.
4. You need a tripod
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a big fan of tripods. They’re cumbersome, awkward and stop me from moving around as much as I want to. But with a tilt shift lens you just have to accept that they’re pretty much a necessity - and they certainly help with point 2 as well. If you do want to forego the tripod (such as when shooting portraits), be prepared to take a few additional shots for safety. Which leads me to my next point…
5. They’re fantastic for portraits
Most people will think of tilt shift lenses for architectural scenes, or for landscapes, but they’re actually great for portraits. Especially so with these three focal lengths, some of my favourite pictures that I took with the lenses were during a portrait session. It wasn’t easy, and the results were sometimes unexpected, but they’re certainly very different from most of the other portraits I’ve ever taken.
6. Portrait sitters aren’t sure you’re actually photographing them
During my portrait session with Eric (pictured), he commented that he thought I was photographing something almost in the complete opposite direction to where he was standing. It changed the way he stood, which way he looked and how he held himself.
7. It also elevates your food photography
These lenses are aimed at food and product photographers, but it was only when I came to use them for some food shoots that I fully realised their value. I’d read plenty of articles about tilt shift lenses were ideal for this genre, but I’d always been pretty happy with what my standard macro lens could achieve. With the tilt shifts, I love the way you can alter the plane of focus, for example using it to get two desserts in focus while throwing either side out of focus. If I was a professional food photographer, I’d probably be tempted to add all three of these lenses to my kit bag.
8. Live View is your new best friend
When I’m using a DSLR, it’s pretty rare that I’ll engage Live View. Generally it’s a lot slower than shooting through the viewfinder, plus I tend to prefer composing in this way. However, when you’re shooting manual focus and trying to see how the various tilt, shift and rotate combinations will affect your photo, Live View is what you need to use. Zooming in 5x or 10x to achieve critical pin sharp focus is a necessity when using the lenses for food and product photography.
9. Unpredictability (or inexperience) is part of the charm
As already mentioned, it takes a long time to learn precisely how to use these lenses to get exactly the look you want. That said though, while you’re learning, you might find you accidentally stumble on some absolute winners - just try your best to remember that combination for the next time you want to recreate it.
10. It’s about so much more than miniature scenes for landscapes
Although these lenses have longer focal lengths than the average landscape photographer is looking to use, they can come in handy for the odd scene (especially the 50mm f/2.8L). But it’s about so much more than creating the cliche miniature scene - sure that’s fun for about five minutes - but once you get that out of your system, you begin to see what else you can do with them. Maximising depth of field, keeping something sharp from front to back, while still using a relatively wide aperture - all something which can produce excellent landscape shots.
11. They’re not just for architectural photographers
You usually hear “tilt shift lenses” in the same sentence with “architectural photographers”, but photographers who shoot all sorts of different genres should seriously give them a thought. They’re also great for landscape photographers, portrait photographers, wedding photographers, product photographers and possibly even more.
12. You can use them as normal lenses if you want to
Lugging about lots of different lenses can literally be a pain in the neck. But you can also use each of these lenses as standard prime lenses too (albeit manual focus only). This saves you space in your bag if, for example, you only have room for one 135mm lens, or even, if you only have room for one high-end 50mm lens.
13. Yes they’re expensive, but they’re not a rip-off
Many people hear the £2500 price tag per lens and assume that these lenses are overpriced. Nobody’s denying that they’re expensive, but when you consider not only the optical quality of these lenses, but also the surprising versatility, then it starts to look a little more like value for money. Still, I don’t think I’ll be shelling out the £7500 to add all three to my kit bag just yet…
14. They’re addictive
Once you start to get the hang of using a tilt-shift lens, you’ll probably find you want to use it for every subject! Food, portraits, landscapes, still lifes, dogs… all things I used the tilt shift for, and all things I thought looked great while using them. After a while I started to wonder if I really needed any of the other lenses I would normally use…
15. It would be the perfect lens to rent
As I’ve already mentioned, these lenses are by no means cheap. Investing in all three is beyond my means, and probably many others too. That’s where rental services come in - get hold of one (or all three) of these for a few days for a specific shoot, then return them - it’d also be a good way to stop yourself from overusing them for every shot…
16. I want one
The biggest thing I learned after spending a few weeks with these beauties is that, actually, I really want one. I’d never really given them much thought before, assuming they were niche products that I couldn’t really afford and didn’t have much use for. It’s still true that they're out of my price range for now, but I now see that I could use them for so many different shoots. Food and portraits are two of my favourite subjects, and I could see me getting a lot of use out of, in particular the 50mm or the 90mm lens. I better start saving now…