About two months ago I was thinking about my upcoming wedding season that starts this weekend and lasts till June. Shooting a wedding every weekend can really challenge your creativity. So I decided I would add a 90mm tilt-shift lens to my bag to give my creative side a boost of adrenaline. I didn't realize how refreshing it would be to use this lens. In just a few months it's become my new favorite. Read on to learn why and see some photos taken with it.
I should start by saying just because this happens to be my new favorite lens doesn't mean you will enjoy it just as much. It is not one of those lenses that everyone throws on their camera and loves immediately. (Yes I am looking at you 70-200mm!) But if you are looking for something other than what everyone else has this might be the lens for you. Here are some of the reasons I love the Canon TS-E (Tilt Shift) 90mm f/2.8.
First just a quick introduction into Tilt-Shift lenses. For those not familiar with them, a T/S lens has a few different dials on the front to Shift, Tilt and Rotate the lens axis angle relative to the focal plane. For years I had seen tilt-shift lenses being mainly used in architecture work. By shifting the lens the photographers were able to get buildings that looked like they were falling backwards in photos stand up straight and by tilting the lens they were able to get the entire building in focus because the lens axis matched the angle of the building. But soon these lenses gravitated into the portrait, commercial and even wedding industry. One wedding photographer who uses the tilt-shift lens a lot and creates absolutely stunning work doing it is Clayton Austin. Many of you have probably seen timelapses using tilt-shift lenses that make the scene look like a miniature world. They do that by shifting the lens in reverse of how it would normally be used and create a very selective area of the picture in focus. Canon makes 4 different tilt-shift lenses, 17mm, 24mm, 45mm, and the 90mm. The most popular is the 24mm, but I decided instead that for my bag I would get the 90mm. I chose the 90mm because I knew I would be using it for portrait work as well as detail shots.
Tilting is useful when you want to achieve a pan-focus effect with a shallow aperture setting and a fast shutter speed, or, if you reverse the tilt so it does not match the plane of focus you can drastically reduce the area of the picture that remains in focus. So for example if I were shooting a couple up close and I wanted nothing but their faces in focus I could tilt the lens to blur everything in the picture but their faces creating a unique effect. By doing this you are drawing attention to certain areas of your pictures using this selective focus technique.
One thing to keep in mind when using a Tilt-Shift lens is that you must manually focus your shots. For those of you who have never had to do that, it can be a bit frustrating. I on the other hand loved it. It reminded me of the days shooting film with my Canon AE-1. For those doing this for the first time, there are different focusing screens that can be purchased for your DSLR that can make this process easier. A grid screen, for example, can be used to facilitate accurate alignment of horizontal and vertical lines in the scene. Using manual focus really causes you to slow down just a bit and really think through each scene rather then just press a button to focus then shoot. One thing to keep in mind is that without a grid screen you can still use the focus audible beep on your camera to confirm a focus. I do this by selecting a focus dot in my viewfinder and putting that on the part of the image I want in focus. I then press down the back button focus button while manually focusing my image. Once the focus dot is in focus it gives me a beep confirmation. Another easy way to do it is by using Live View on your camera. That said, I would not use this lens if I had a couple walking towards me and I wanted to make sure each shot was clean. As I get better at tracking with manual focus it might be easier, but right now I would rather use a lens compatible with a continuous focus (AI-Servo) mode instead.
The optics built into this lens achieve outstanding performance and the blur created is very natural looking. While I have used the tilt-shift blur feature built into the new Photoshop in the past, I have found the blur coming straight from the lens to be more favorable. In the near future I will do some comparisons and post them in an article here on Fstoppers for you to compare and see which you prefer. The build quality is great and feels on par with an L-series lens. I also did not notice any chromatic aberration or barrel distortion in the photos.
As a wedding photographer, I shoot a lot of detail shots. These include the rings, the flowers, invitations and table settings. This lens has been great for this. Now a disclosure is that my first pick for these details is my 100mm f/2.8 L series macro lens. But once I have fired off some shots with the 100mm, I will pop on my new tilt-shift and grab some additional shots. The reason I love using it for details is because I can shoot at 2.8 thereby giving me a narrow depth of field but still tilt my lens axis to match that of the flowers for example. Doing that allows me to get more of them in focus while still giving me some beautiful bokeh pulling them out of the background and making them pop. Focusing is possible down to an extremely close shooting distance of 0.5m/1.6ft enabling effective close up photography. A maximum magnification of 0.29x is available.
In conclusion, the reason the T/S-E 90mm f/2.8 is now my favorite lens is because it causes me to slow down to really focus on what I am shooting, selectively focus areas of my photo and create images unlike everyone else while still providing me amazingly sharp images. If you are on the fence, rent it and give it a go to see if you like it.
Couple useful resources:
My Photos from Thirst Relief Benefit Shoot - most of the images were shot with the T/S-E 90mm lens.
Lens Manual from Canon for the Tilt-Shift Lenses
Clayton Austin Blog - Amazing wedding photographer who inspired me to look into tilt-shift lenses.
For those of you that enjoy studying the MTF charts, here is the one on the T/S-E 90mm.