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?
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.
Finally, and most importantly, this lens allows 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.
The effect is even more pronounced looking at an exterior:
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.
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.
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.