Your Guide to Free Lensing & Tilt Shift Focus

Have you ever seen a tilt shift photo?

It's a little something like this:

Tilt-shift focus is literally that: tilting your focus so that a particular plane is in focus, while the rest is out of focus. It can really add a nice effect to a photo, while also manipulating certain scenes to appear "miniature."

I took that photo in Spain and wrote "something LIKE this" up there because I wasn't actually using a tilt shift lens which is usually used for tilt-shift photos. I would love to own one someday, but for now I have a 35mm lens I'm saving up for (and... clearly in my dreams the 5D mark II :).

Then I came across the technique called free lensing. Thrilling? Exciting? Risky?! Makes me think of free falling -- like we're about to do something edgy. Not quite. But it IS risky!

Again, the name gives it away: You DETACH your lens from your body (so it's free Willy!) and slightly tilt it to the side and take a photo.

From the wise words of Photojojo:

It’s a simple enough idea: just hold your lens close to the body, and then hinge it ever-so-slightly to the side like it’s Nearly-Headless Nick from Harry Potter. Peer through the viewfinder and you’ll see what’s going on: if you tilt to the right, the left side of the frame retains the most focus, and the same for tilting left, right, or down.

The risks? Possible dust entering your camera (or God forbid DROPPING THE LENS!). So don't be dumb and try it at a park and keep your camera strapped to your neck. Wait to detach your lens when you're about to take the picture. Don't use heavy lenses because it will be very difficult to hold with one hand and try to focus. Stick with a 50mm or non-zoom lens.

When I read about this technique I HAD to try it. It was VERY difficult because I had to hold my camera body with one hand, the 35mm lens with the other hand, and MANUALLY focus with the middle finger from the hand that was holding the lens.

First, the lens wasn't tilted to the side enough:

A little more tilt:

TOO much tilt:

Then I started focusing on picking spots (left and right):


Like my jeans? Got them at Ross! Holla Dolla! First time I've ever been able to find jeans at Ross and they happen to be Billabong ;)

Totally worth the risks. The trick is to SLIGHTLY tilt it. Every time I got excited and tilted it too much, I would lose so much focus. I should note that I was using the 35mm 1.4 lens (that I rented for a photoshoot) with the aperture dropped to 1.6 --meaning I had a VERY shallow depth of field to begin with anyway. The lower your aperture number (which actually means it opens up wider), the more blur/bokeh you will have in the background.

I imagine using this for a wedding and getting artsy detail shots like the rings, or guest book, or even a lacy garter belt. FUN! You WOULDN'T want to try it when you're getting group shots of people -- it wouldn't make sense. Or maybe it does to you. Your call. I suggest your subject be inanimate or really patient while you play. And remember to embrace the imperfections!! :)

So was I stupid with that Spain photo? Heck no! Not to say I wouldn't have tried free lensing then, but I didn't know about the technique when I was in Spain. Unfortunately you really can't control much of the focus when you're free lensing (unless you have big hands), BUT there is a tilt-shift-focus technique on Photoshop (holla dolla!) that you can try with your photos :). It took some practicing to understand it (though quite easy!), and I made a few changes to make it as realistic as possible. Try it for yourself!

Thoughts or questions?!