Five Reasons Why You Should Own A Tilt-Shift Lens

Five Reasons Why You Should Own A Tilt-Shift Lens

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.

Creativity

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.

Brilliant Optics

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.

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32 Comments

Rob Mitchell's picture

Considered it (Nikon fit) many times but never settled on a focal length that's going to be most useful to me.

I had a 24mm PC-E for years but finally sold it earlier this year due to very infrequent use. I used it a lot, early on, but hadn't used it in over a year, recently.

Rob Mitchell's picture

That's what I don't want to happen.

Ansel Spear's picture

It will happen, mark my words. :-(

Ditto, happened to me with the 17 and 24 Canons. While the results were great I just don't have the discipline and patience so sold them and got something I do use.

Clay Wegrzynowicz's picture

I bought the Canon 45 2.8 and it honestly got me out of a creative rut. I challenged myself to take panoramic shifted landscapes even though my day job is people photography. I love how a lens like that can really force me into a new perspective creatively.

Richard Bradbury's picture

Would like to rent and run one myself at somepoint. Curious

While the author ( a very nice man I'm told) makes some fair points the real challenge is the cost and infrequency of use of these lenses if you do not shoot architecture.
Outside of tabletop products and architecture they are a novelty item.

I shoot a lot of architecture and while they can be invaluable at times, there are a ton of architectural shots that don't need them at all.

Rental is the best way for most to enjoy them without the weeping and wailing at resale.

Paul Lindqvist's picture

Renting is indeed a good option, if not only to learn and see if it warrants a purchase.

But let's not forget that the T/S lenses can be used even if you're not tilting/shifting the lens. :-)

The Schneider Kreuznach 50mm T/S and 90mm T/S are my two most used lenses, I use them even when I do not need them for the typical T/S requirements.

Mainly because optically they are really good and match my Zeiss primes, but also because they have other features that are beneficial.

- Fully manual (focus, aperture) forces me to slow down
- No electronic aperture (for timelapse, hdr, pano and stop motion)
- stepless aperture ring (for video)
-Rotating mount, which means I never need to remove the camera from my tripod or adjust my tripod head
-Shifting very useful for overhead shots, or when it will be a pita to reposition the tripod etc. (so not only for converging lines)
-Excellent build and Arca Swiss lens foot

Naturally, some of the above points only apply to the T/S lenses I use, but some of them are universal.

In the end, if you do not use the lenses enough it may not warrant the cost, especially for hobbyists. I'm just saying that the lenses can be used for more than two types of genre and since most of the T/S lenses are very good optically the only thing you're giving up is speed in af and aperture.

Agreed, but so many tempted by the lure of the lenses have been raised on automation of every sort and thus will tire quickly of the lens. Thus my advice to rent.

Simon Patterson's picture

For years I've been threatening to rent one of these and try it out. Must get to that at some point...

I JUST picked up a Laowa 15mm shift macro 2 hours ago.
My Nikon 14-24 can't do a polarizer easily and I wanted to eliminate some reflections in some store shots, no ability for the giant black drape behind me. The shift on it is mediocre, but hey, it's $500. I got it more for the macro fun and the ability to take my 77mm polarizer.
But I love my 85mm PC-E, highly recommended for product shots.

Mr Hogwallop's picture

I used to have the three Canon T/S 24, 45, 90. I sold the 90 as I didn't use it alot but I do get a lot use out of the other two when shooting automotive work. Both interiors and exteriors. They can be fun creative or they can just be useful.

Ansel Spear's picture

I've had my Nikkor 24mm PC-E for 4 years. It was modified so that both the tilt and shift movements work in the same plane. It's a wonderful device and has served me well when I had architectural clients. But now that I don't, I find that when I'm out taking landscapes, I forget to bring it along. D-oh! It's the most expensive ornament I have.

Paul Lindqvist's picture

Which lens do you take instead, as I'm sure you do not forget, but rather pick other lenses over it ?

Ansel Spear's picture

18-35 & 24-70

Paul Lindqvist's picture

Then it's more a matter of zoom vs primes no ?

Ansel Spear's picture

No. It’s a matter of forgetting that I have the 24mm PC-E.

Paul Lindqvist's picture

Lol not sure what to do about your memory.. 😂

C Fisher's picture

Hmmm maybe pin a note to your camera bag that say "BRING TILT SHIFT LENS". I need one that says "CHECK THE EXPO COMP BEFORE SHOOTING", its easily moved by accident 🤣

Michael Comeau's picture

I shoot Sony and I wish they'd come out with tilt-shift lenses, even though they'd be crazy super expensive.

Paul Lindqvist's picture

For E-mount, you can adapt Canon/Nikon lenses fairly easily. Due to the nature of T/S lenses with no need electronic coupling it's really no drawback to adapt them. My T/S lenses are native A-mount, but I still shoot with A99II's.

Michael - Check out the Cambo Actus view camera system:

https://www.cambo.com/en/actus-series/

I highly recommend this over traditional T/S lenses because its so much more versatile AND has direct compatibility with Sony E (as well as pretty much every other camera system on the market right now).

The other neat thing is that it opens up the ability to use multiple focal lengths and apertures since it relies primarily on Medium Format or larger image circle lenses.

One thing I can't understand about this article is the bit about higher resolution.

"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."

The only way I can imagine a tilt-shift lens giving your sensor more pixels is if you take several exposures, shifting the lens between each, then patch them together in post. But the story doesn't really explain that. The only clue that there may be a stitching process is "Yes, you can make a panoramic with other tools..."

Or am I missing something?

Ansel Spear's picture

I was also assuming that is what was meant. I often use to produce a 3-shot pano of client rooms by stitching shift left/centre/right pix together. .

Scott Choucino's picture

I think I might have made too big an assumption in that paragraph. Yes I mean by stitching the images together from a 3 shift pano.

Thank you! It certainly sounds like a brilliant way to make a pano without distortion.

Michael Yearout's picture

I've been using a Canon 17 mm TS-E for a couple of years now for architecture and real estate. I like it a lot. This story has given me some new ideas about how I can use it in other ways. Thanks for posting Scott.

Blake Aghili's picture

I "think" portrait of Michael Phelps on Time cover by Gregory Heisler was with a tilt shift lens too.

Mary Konchar's picture

I have the Canon 24mm, 50mm and 90mm TS-E lenses and use them for everything from landscape & architecture to macro and portraiture. I started shooting with the 90mm many years ago, and it changed the way I approached photography. They are the biggest reason I continue to shoot with Canon cameras.

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