Tilt-Shift Lenses for Portrait Photography

2012-08-31 by . 0 comments

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Introduction

Here at the Photography Community Blog we already have a great resource for those just starting out with tilt-shift photography, so be sure to check out Tilt-Shift Basics With the Canon TS-E 17mm F/4.

I will say that even after reading the basics post above, I was still very confused when I first picked up a tilt-shift lens. I’ve always used autofocus lenses on my DSLR, and a Canon tilt-shift lens is full of additional switches and levers that can challenge even an experienced photographer.  I will try to simplify it as much as possible for new users.

Canon TS-E 24 f/3.5 L II

I rented the Canon TS-E 24mm f/3.5 L II for a few weeks thanks to the Photography Stack Exchange Rental Program, and that is what you will find outlined in this post. The two main important dials are the tilt and shift dials. Each motion also has a secondary dial to prevent free movement, or at least constrain it. This helps once you have found the amount of tilt or shift that you want in an image, because it prevents further movement. Near the tilt secondary dial, also you will find a locking switch, which I only used during transport. Further, you will find latches that allow you to rotate either the front elements or the entire lens on the camera body. This allows you to rotate your adjustment of tilt or shift independently of the camera and each other. This is confusing at first but will make sense once you start to play with each movement.

Movements of the TS-E 24mm f/3.5 L II:

  • Tilt
  • Tilt Lock
  • Shift
  • Shift Lock
  • Lens Rotation Switch
  • TS Rotation Switch

If you are keeping count, that is 6 pieces that are either switches or dials, and that isn’t even counting the focus ring. It becomes easy to understand why a tripod is highly recommended. If you have to manual focus and alter potentially 6 different pieces on the lens to get the shot, then it will take some time and careful coordination. Specifically if you are trying to do portrait photography, this becomes even more of a burden, which I will detail below more.

My Tilt-Shift Experience

I rented the Canon TS-E 24mm f/3.5 L II with the intention of testing it out for portrait photography. I am on an APS-C (1.6x) sensor, so the effective focal length of 38mm is a bit wide for portraits, but I still felt this would be acceptable for my tests.  I also wanted this lens because, optically speaking it is considered to be one of the highest quality wide angle lenses that Canon has ever produced.

The lens is heavy at 27oz, and has an 82mm filter thread, but the build quality is very impressive overall. I have used other “L” series lenses, but very few can match the TS-E 24mm II in the quality of materials used or the fit and finish. It is hard to describe exactly the great feel, but “solid” best summarizes this lens. The focus ring is  especially nice, and seems to be manufactured to exacting standards in a way that no other focus ring I have used has been. This is very important when you are using a manual focus only lens.

Being that this was my first experience with a manual focus only lens, I typically don’t pay much attention to focus throw or the exact precision in adjustment that the focus ring allows.  This lens was a dream to use in manual focus, allowing me to fine tune to my desire.  I never felt limited by the manual focus, especially when I was using Live View mode at 10x magnification. The actual movement of the focus more smooth and heavy then any other lens I have used. It was smooth to operate, but once I found the position I wanted it always settled perfectly.

I rented the lens for three weeks, which is about the minimum amount of experience I would recommend for anyone to be somewhat comfortable behind one of these specialty lenses.  I certainly did not exhaust the possibilities with the lens, but I also am comfortable enough now that I can pick it up and achieve the expected results.

Tilt Shift Example

Tilt-Shift For Portraits

I have seen an increasing trend in the amount of portrait photographers that are using tilt-shift lenses for weddings, senior portraits, and general portraiture.  One such great example that I looked to for inspiration is Jeff Newsom.  I looked around for general information on how to achieve this best and other peoples experiences but could not find much at all. I think for the most part this is still a developing trend that many people are not fully comfortable discussing because they aren’t quite sure what works either.

Tilt-Shift Portrait Example

When I viewed images created with tilt-shift lenses for portraits, the part of the technique that I liked was the ability to tilt the focus plane. Being able to more selectively and creatively position the out of focus areas of an image allows the photographer to draw attention to specific areas of the image that isn’t always possible by modifying the aperture, focal length, or composition.

The first thing to recognize, as pointed out in this answer by Stan Rogers, is that using a tilt-shift lens to minimize the plane of focus is really not the reason that tilt-shift lenses are designed. They are instead made to maximize it and to correct distortion issues. So technically speaking, the way that I am trying to use a tilt-shift lens for portraits  can be considered out of the typical range of use, but it is photography and it is art, so anything is fair game as far as I am concerned. I will say that I brought that using a tilt-shift lens in this way is atypical in the Photography Stack Exchange Chat room and at least one other person believes that tilt-shift lenses today are used broadly for creative focus. At least in my own research, I found it difficult to find others that used TS lenses for portraiture and also shared how to do so. I also found that Canon and other technical documents on tilt-shift lenses only really spoke to how to use them to correct for distortion and gain a greater depth of field. So regardless of what exact purpose the tool is designed for, I think it is safe to say that tilt-shift lenses are used in a wide range of photography.

Tilt-Shift Portrait Example

The technique that I actually use to take tilt-shift portraits is actually very simple, considering the amount of controls found on a tilt-shift lens. I tilt my lens to the maximum tilt of either +/-8.5° and stop down to my maximum aperture of f/3.5. Depending on my subjects, I also may alter the orientation of the tilt portion of the lens from the standard to perpendicular. I find that for groups the perpendicular orientation works best and for one or two close up subjects the standard vertical orientation works best. If your lens has the option, something between the 90° and 0° rotation might even be better, if your subject is better suited to that focus plane.

 

Note that I do not make any adjustments to the shift portion of the lens for portrait photography. The shift portion of the lens is used for perspective control and does not alter the depth of field or focus plane creatively as I desire.

Focusing can be done initially so I at least can see the subject through the lens, but  after tilting and orientation changes, I also make any final focusing adjustments right before capturing the image. Beyond focusing through the viewfinder, another option is to use live view on modern DSLR cameras. I opted for live view focusing the majority of the time, but also discovered an issue with doing so. Typically when I wanted to achieve sharp focus with live view, I would use full live view zooming to aid in focusing. This only focused on the center of the image. But with a focal plane that isn’t necessarily perpendicular across the frame at a single distance, focusing and recomposing becomes very difficult or impossible. Due to this, many times I would have to focus using the viewfinder and even then, was guessing if I had the correct focus. Again, this is where you would benefit a great deal from using a tripod, but that does not always make sense when shooting portraits.

Conclusions

Overall, shooting portraits on a tilt-shift lens can be rewarding due to the amount of creativity and depth of field control. It is very challenging especially when you have moving subjects(human), many controls to modify on the lens, and are required to shoot without a tripod. The TS-E 24mm f/3.5 L II is a dream to work with, it is a precise instrument, always performing exactly how I anticipated and with excellent image quality. 24mm is somewhat tight even on an APS-C sensor for portrait work, but I wouldn’t think twice about using this focal length and lens again for such purposes.

Dog Portrait Tilted with Tilt Shift Lens

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