The Best Wide-Angle Lens is a Tilt Shift Lens

The Best Wide-Angle Lens is a Tilt Shift Lens

The primary reason that I’ve remained a loyal Canon user is due to their range of tilt-shift lenses. In 2013, I acquired a 17mm tilt-shift lens. In this article, I’ll explain why this and the 24mm tilt-shift lens have been crucial lenses in my camera bag ever since.

I’m an architectural photographer with a background in travel photography. I bought the 17mm tilt-shift when my travel work started to focus on architecture in built environments. Initially, I used this lens exclusively for architecture, but after seeing the effect in architectural scenes, I started using it for a range of other subjects too, including landscapes.

Why Get a Tilt-Shift Lens?

Before I go into how to use perspective control, I should answer the question why. Why would I advise spending a significant amount of money on a manual focus lens?

Leeds Corn Exchange

Corn Exchange in Leeds, UK.

Firstly, this and other tilt-shift lenses have been designed for architecture photography, a genre that has no tolerance for distortion and other lens defects. It's quite disconcerting seeing a 17mm view, but with no distortion anywhere in the frame.

Secondly, this lens is razor sharp. I do a lot of video filming work for a client who takes care of the post-production. They require that my sharpening is turned down to the lowest possible value. When they first received the video files shot with Canon's 17mm tilt-shift, they asked me to check my settings, as the files seemed sharpened. I checked and it was still on the lowest setting. The lens is just that sharp.

Manual focus only may be off-putting, but for the work that this lens is going to be used for, architecture and landscape, focussing will mostly be done manually. Because this lens is designed as a manual focus lens, it is quick and precise to focus manually.

Mann Island

Mann Island building in Liverpool, UK.

Finally, and most importantly, this lens allows perspective control.

Perspective Control

The way we observe architecture from the street level is by looking upwards to see the top of the building. With a standard wide-angle lens, this requires tilting the camera upwards in order to see the entire building. The effect of tilting the camera upwards is that the parallel vertical lines start converging. This gives the effect that the building is leaning backwards. The effect is that the building looks less impressive in a photograph than what it appears like in person.

Architects design their buildings with the correct perspective, as if seeing the building from midway up the building. There are only two ways to achieve this in camera: the first is to get to the midpoint of the building and the second is to use a perspective corrective lens like the 17mm tilt-shift lens.  

Perspective control provides the ability the correct this effect. This is achieved by keeping the camera level while shifting the lens (moving it up or down) to get the correct composition. In other words, the camera is always level, regardless of if you’re photographing something above or below your point of view.

Uncorrected

This example shows the effect of perspective. In this image, the camera is tilted upwards to capture the top of the building. This gives the effect of the outer lines converging, making the interior look smaller and less impressive than what it appears to the naked eye.

Floor

To keep these vertical lines at 90 degrees, I had to level the camera. Now the lines are straight, but my composition excludes half of the building and includes too much uninteresting foreground.

Corrected

For the final image, I've kept the camera level, but I've shifted the lens upwards. My composition now shows the interesting part of the building while keeping the proper perspective. It has the same effect as if I had a giant ladder and photographed from the midpoint of the building.

The effect is even more pronounced looking at an exterior:

Uncorrected

Corrected

Versus Software Correction

You might be wondering why to use a perspective control lens over a software tool like Lightroom's upright tool. Before I started using a tilt-shift lens, I would correct the perspective using Lightroom's tools. It did a good job at least 50% of the time, but often left some problems that could only be fixed using Photoshop's wide-angle distortion filter. By the time I was finished with a file, I could have spent up to half an hour fixing it.

In all the images in this article, no lens correction filters have been applied. My post-production work is now limited to artistic effects rather than fixing the perspective of the image. This takes less than a minute in Lightroom. Also, it keeps every pixel that I captured.

Additionally, perspective is much more complicated to correct in video post-production. A tilt-shift lens becomes a necessity when creating architectural videos.

Perfect Stitching

An unexpected benefit of controlling perspective and keeping lines straight is the ability to make panoramic images. I use Photoshop's panoramic filter for stitching. It's always a bit of a lottery when stitching wide angle images, often resulting in an unusable image. Using the shift function, I now get near perfect results.

Panoramic Example 1

Panoramic Example 2

Panoramic Example 3

I use a 17mm TSE and a 24mm TSE, but I often stitch images together for an even wider view. To be able to confidently create panoramic images is a massive help when photographing architecture, especially in cities with narrow streets and tall buildings.

Other Wide Angles Are Dead to Me

Just like independent coffee stores ruined Starbucks for me, my perspective control lens has ruined other wide-angle lenses. I find that I can't go back to using a normal lens.

Here is the clincher, the price of the 17mm, while expensive, is roughly the same as Canon's 16-35mm, and Canon's 24mm and is cheaper than Canon’s 11-24mm. For me, it's a no brainer for wide angle photography.

If you have any thoughts on how a tilt shift lens can be an advantage over other wide angle lenses, please leave your thoughts in the comments below.

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42 Comments

Michael Breitung's picture

Interesting Article. One question, since you are using this lens for that long, did you also notice a severe degradation in sharpness, if you shift more than 5 or 6mm in any direction? I have a complete video talking about this annoying limitation of the Canon TS-E 17mm lens. I talked to some other photographers who also have this lens and they reported the same problem. Would be interesting to know what you're experience is as to the limitation of the shift capabilities.

Here's the video for reference: https://youtu.be/tqsGqSHaEBs

Jonathan Reid's picture

Yes I have noticed this. At first I thought it was due to a metabones adaptor, but when I went back to Canon, the problem was still there. I’ve now got a new copy of the lens and the problem is gone. That lens definitely degraded over time, I think it is quite fragile.

Michael Breitung's picture

That's good to know. The funny thing was, I rented it directly from Canon with that problem. And the next day I even met another photographer at that location who had done the same and we checked on liveview and he had the exact same problem with his copy of the lens. It really seems you have to be lucky when buying that lens now ;-)

How did the lens degrade over time?

Jonathan Reid's picture

Watch Michaels video, it explains the problem very well. Mine started perfectly and then after 6 years, looked like Michaels.

Colin Robertson's picture

Interesting... I have the 24mm TSE and have always felt it "should" be a bit sharper than it is. Maybe I should have it serviced.

Jonathan Reid's picture

My 24mm is ridiculously sharp, but my first 17mm degraded over time. My new one is great, I’d say (unscientifically), just slightly less than the 24.

He doesn't say the lens degrades over time but rather as one shifts to the extremes.
My 17 is very sharp but at extreme shifts it is a bit soft. This has been noted form the very first reviews. In extreme shifts I have re-focused for the edges but it has not been generally a pain

I have to say the 11-24 is extremely sharp across the field and has replaced a lot of my TS work as I can level the camera, shoot and crop. %)MP files allow a still stunning result.

Michael Breitung's picture

Well, since I rented it from Canon, it had surely seen good use before and possibly degraded during that use. But then, it's bad that Canon rented me such a degraded lens. Also, if it's that fragile, it's not the right lens for me ;-)

It's great you bring up the example of using the 11-24 and then cropping. That's exactly what I was also thinking about. With the 5Dsr, this would leave me with enough mpix for most situations and I'd have a more versatile lens.

cheers

I've been using the TS-E 24, 45 (now 50mm), and 90 for years, mostly for landscapes. As you mention, it is now hard to imagine using any other lens. It's easy to get a 2:1 aspect ratio by shifting laterally with the body in landscape orientation. Shifting vertically, again with body in landscape orientation, allows vertical 5:4 or square aspect ratios. There is no reason to be confined to a 3:2 frame.

Besides manual focus, the use of a tripod is part of the deal. Also important is a level; I find for landscapes that a bubble level attached to the hot shoe works fine.

The 90mm works well for macros. By shifting side to side for close up shots while the lens is tilted it's possible to create unusual panos. Be prepared to spend some time on your shot, especially when off-shoe flash and/or reflectors are involved.

Jonathan Reid's picture

I remember dabbling in macro a few years ago and seeing these impossibly beautiful macros all shot with a 90TS. High quality stuff!

Ed Sanford's picture

One of the best articles I’ve read on FS. It is fact based with good examples.

Michael Yearout's picture

I've been using the 17 mm for a little over a year now - mostly architecture. And I agree with everything you have said. Now I'm going to try some landscape photography with it.

Jonathan Reid's picture

I love how it accurately portrays the height of mountains

Regarding the Panos: Are you shifting the lens or the camera? To keep the perspective fixed, the lens should be the thing that is attached to the tripod, right? If so, how are you attaching the lens to the camera? Even more interesting, as I've just learned from the other comments, that this lens is very fragile.

Thanks for the good read!

Jonathan Reid's picture

Shifting the lens with the camera mounted to a tripod.

Nando Harmsen's picture

You should be careful with shifting when objects are close by. There is parallax when you shift the lens instead of the camera. That is what I witnessed myself when using the TS-E17. For far away objects there should be no problem.
The best way of doing panorama still is rotating with a nodal slide. Nevertheless, I love the TS-E17, also for the 2:1 aspect ratio shots.

Jonathan Reid's picture

For sure, if I were super serious about panoramic images I’d carry the special head, but the 17 shift technique covers all of my needs.

Nando Harmsen's picture

The nice thing about the TS-E17 is not only the 5:4 and 1:2 aspect ratios, but also the possibility to make super super wide angle shots. I wrote an article about it on my website about it, some years ago. It is a real multifunctional lens IMHO
https://www.flickr.com/photos/nandoonline/22827007047

James Friesen's picture

Because the lens itself and not the camera is the only thing moving nodal-point becomes a non-issue. It's like adjusting the crop only. There is no Parallax effect. Which is a reason why, unlike as it says in the article, shifting up on the lens is not like getting up on a ladder. The perspective is the same but the crop shifts upward.

Colin Robertson's picture

You can get a nodal thing that holds the front lens element in place while you shift the camera for even more precise pano's. I've never had a stitching error using the shift feature on my 24 TSE though.

Nando Harmsen's picture

Is there a special nodal thing for the TS-E lenses?

Nando Harmsen's picture

I would love to have it... but... unfortunately ridiculous expensive

Also can't forget about the Cambo Actus system! It's a true view camera (think Tilt/Shift on steroids for the new crowd) that is modular and allows for many different camera/lens combinations to work. And best of all a full system can be had for around the cost of one TS-E lens.

Jonathan Reid's picture

I’d love to give the system a good spin sometime. Is there a quality downgrade?

No the quality is as good or better with the right lenses. You’d probably be looking at Rodenstock Digaron S lenses. They’re some of the sharpest lenses ever created for anything. If you use digaron w or apo sironar Digital the image circles are massive with some hitting 120mm+. They’re expensive though. More than Leica expensive in some cases and rare on eBay.

Fair warning These lenses benefit greatly from being used with digital backs because digital backs have effectively no flange distance. It’s not possible to use certain wide angle lenses with a DSLR.

But I believe the widest Digaron is 23 mm. The larger shift potential obviates some of the FL disadvantage.

Very true... however to hit infinity with a 23mm lens you need about 23mm of space between the sensor and the lens.

Once you factor in the lens mount, both of the standards, and the bellows even with a mirrorless system the widest lenses you’ll likely be able to use are somewhere between 45 and 60mm

But yeah with stitching you can get extremely wide angle shots even with longish lenses.

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