Besides making cool miniature city scapes and stopping converging lines, there are a host of reasons why you should consider buying a tilt-shift lens.
Way back in about 2010, I bumped into a photographer with a wonky-looking lens. I was at the early stage in my photography where your confidence far outweighs your abilities and I thought I knew everything, yet I hadn’t seen this before. Not being too proud to ask, I ambled over and inquired about this contraption. Thankfully, the photographer was a nice guy and he set about explaining how cameras hadn’t always only focused forward and backwards and that he liked to be able to have a few more movements to mimic what he had when he shot large format. So I headed home, opened up the Google, and began to learn about the Scheimpflug principle. I then found a rental store and rented a Canon TS-E 90mm f/2.8 Tilt-Shift Lens for the weekend.
The lens arrived all shiny and new, and I quickly attached it to my Canon 5D (the original one) and set about playing. First off, it has no autofocus, which is fine in 2019, but back then in a pre-live view world, focusing a tilt-shift lens with a standard DSLR focus screen was a nightmare. I quickly upgraded the ground glass to a manual focus one thanks to a speedy online delivery and went about testing it. That weekend, I managed to achieve absolutely nothing. I had no idea what was going on, and I felt pretty defeated.
Fast-forward about five years and I had a booking to shoot a billboard campaign on a pretty tight budget. If I rented a Phase One there would be no way that I would make any real money from the job. So, I decided to rent a tilt-shift lens and make a panoramic. I also didn’t own loads of 3,000-watt lights, so I needed to achieve a great depth of field at about f/8. A tilt-shift lens was the tool for the job. Suddenly, all of my previous confusions had vanished, and I had found the purpose for these brilliant lenses. Over the years, they have been a permanent feature in my camera bag, and I have often rented more niche focal lengths to achieve the images I wanted but previously could not achieve.
You Can’t Afford Medium Format
This was the original reason that I purchased the lens. I needed more pixels, but my bank balance didn’t allow for medium format. Yes, you can make a panoramic with other tools, but this method is utterly brilliant. It gives a medium format depth as well as offering a higher resolution for your final image. Obviously, you can’t use it in every situation, but even with people in shot, there are workarounds to get it to work.
You Are Short of Light but Need a Big Depth of Field
The Scheimpflug principle is something that every photographer should familiarize themselves with. Being able to increase or decrease your depth of field at a given aperture by changing the plane of focus is a valuable asset. This is oversimplifying it, but go have a read and find out what you have been missing out on for all these years. This is of particular interest to anyone into landscapes, still life, or architecture photography. Lenses don’t generally work very well at f/22, but at f/5.6, with a carefully applied lens tilt you can create an amazing depth of field while hanging on to the amazing lens optics. I use these lenses for almost all product photography, especially when the products get small. It negates the need to do focus stacking in almost all instances and allows for a faster workflow without any loss in image quality.
The shot below I took at a recent portrait sitting. It gives a real 80s and 90s vibe from back in the day when photographers were still using technical cameras. This uses the lens in the opposite way that it is designed to be used, allowing me to focus on just the eyes while the forehead and chin melt away into the out of focus area. But I was still at f/5.6, so the image was tack sharp where it is needed, and I didn’t have to remove my big studio lights to bring in something smaller allowing me to use a standard lens at f/1.4, although even at this setting, I still would not have had the same aesthetic. Although overusing this look can be a bit tedious, it was very trendy a few years back in the wedding photography world with photographers chasing a standard focal length with tilt and shift options.
These lenses are amazing. I recently used the Canon TS-E 135mm f/4L Macro Tilt-Shift Lens and I would go as far as saying that it is optically the best lens I have ever used from this brand. Even the older non-L versions are up there with anything costing three times the amount. With there being no autofocus, there is very little to go wrong with them (although I still managed to break one). Even used as a standard lens without any of the movements, the lens produces beautiful images and has the focus assist bleeps, so it isn’t complete guess work trying to focus with DSLR ground glass.
You Want Better Control of Your Focal Plane
Sometimes, focusing front to back isn’t what we need, a more diagonal plane might be better suited, or maybe a razor thin plane of focus in the top third of the frame going from front to back. Either way, this opens up a lot more options for you. If overused, it can look a bit gimmicky, but a well-placed focus adjustment can really help with your image.
The draw back to these lenses is that they are nowhere near as good as a 4x5 camera. They are kind of a stop gap for those of us who don’t want to spend half an hour focusing a camera, but still want to have control over the way that we focus out cameras.