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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40 Comments

Previous comments

And even more importantly, since it's a system that is designed to be modular there are tons of options that don't depend on specific camera bayonet mounts.

That shot of the corn exchange is a winner

Paul Lindqvist's picture

Nice article and great images Jonathan Reid !

I do not use any wide angle T/S but my Schneider Kreuznach 50mm and 90mm T/S lenses are my most used lenses for sure.

Alexander Parnell's picture

Great article Jonathan, have always enjoyed reading your posts and seeing your work! Ive currently got a canon 24mm TS and I find it so hard now when I use other lenses because of how sharp it is. I do a lot of property tour videos but have never thought about using my tilt shift for it so will be doing that on my next job! Really looking into getting a 17mm TS lens just for that extra wideness I find myself needed lately.

Also on a side note, I remember a while ago you asked about buying new gear in a post and what people would buy, as you were looking at maybe changing systems. What did you end up doing in the end? Im only asking as currently i'm in a similar position and looking at maybe moving to having full sony bodies, but just not too sure about the photo side with interiors and architectural photos?

Jonathan Reid's picture

I ended up very controversially sticking it out with Canon: https://fstoppers.com/architecture/why-i-chose-canon-camera-346888

Three months in and I’m pleased with my choice.

Bought one, enjoyed it for few years and it produced good results and then I sold it recently along with my 5D Mark IV body to get GFX-50S.

Yep. This lens is awesome.

charlie sanders's picture

I purchased the 24mm TS-E II ten years ago and must have picked a winner, no degradation. It’s used frequently on a RRS PG02 for verticals and horizontal panoramas on a pod for indoor architectural photography. I have used this without a pod to shoot panoramas( practiced a lot) with panoramas blending perfectly in PSCC. You can shift to blend three shots but, need to have a pod for that. Some places don’t allow pods and I’ll shoot freehand(5Dsr) architecture with excellent 5-7 shots that when merged is wider than anything on the market and very high resolution . One of my favorite lens that I use frequently for that wide angle view minus the distortion.

Jonathan Reid's picture

I got a good version too. I’ve got a second one now that is brand new and isn’t as good as my 6 year old one. Go figure...

Next article from F-stoppers would be that there is no such feature as "perspective control" via lens. As perspective is a point in space, and in cameras that is the nodal point. When nodal point doesn't move, perspective doesn't chance.

You can tilt camera on any direction and perspective doesn't chance.
You can change focal length as much you want or format or F-stop and perspective doesn't chance.

These shift lenses do not chance perspective, nor can correct them.

What shift lenses do, is move the image circle by shifting it, they do not move nodal point much, but still do, hence they do not correct or fix it either.

And you can perform exactly the same effect with software by doing panoramas. Start with a horizontally and vertically leveled frame, and then rotate camera around nodal point by using nodal slide or nodal swing.

You can do 360° spherical panoramas without any distortion, with higher resolution and higher dynamic range and all while doing it anyways.

The article does mention one thing that many forgets, shift lenses are really only useful for video. As you can't do that same for video as for photographs.

But video is not photography but videography.

If you do architecture photography or anything like that, forget shift lenses. Invest money to nodal slide or panorama swing. Far better value to money as you can control perspective by not being limited to one focal length and so on position, but you can freely move around and use even longer telephoto lenses for product photography etc as required.

If you use film, a shift lens is required.