Using PC Lenses (Perspective Control, Not Politically Correct) in Fashion and Portrait Photography

Using PC Lenses (Perspective Control, Not Politically Correct) in Fashion and Portrait Photography

Perspective Control lenses for SLR cameras were developed primarily for architecture, interior, and still-life photography applications. PC lenses simulate some of the movements and control that photographers can get from a view camera. They are great for keeping lines parallel and subjects in focus. Just as PC lenses allow photographers to control what is in focus, they also allow you to control what goes out of focus and how quickly it does that. Fashion and portrait photos with enhanced bokeh or selective focus create dreamy blur and guide attention to the areas remaining in focus. 

PC lenses or tilt and shift lenses have been around in various forms since the 1970s. The Fuji GX-680 made a big splash in the 1980s as a medium format camera system with built-in bellows that could accommodate tilt and shift movements. Some fashion and portrait photographers jumped at the opportunity to play with selective focus. Both Nikon and Canon have recently made waves by announcing ultra-wide PC lenses, but it was the Canon TS-E 90mm and the Nikon 85mm PC-E lenses that brought tilt and shift to focal lengths more favorable to portrait and fashion photographers.

This image was captured with maximum tilt keeping only the eyes sharp.

The tilt function of PC lenses allows a photographer to alter or tilt the plane of focus and decide which part of a scene they choose that plane to fall. For comparison, a traditional lens has a focus plane that is parallel to the film or digital sensor in the camera. The amount of depth of field is determined by the aperture of the lens and will give the image clear range focus 1/3 in front and 2/3s behind the exact point of focus. But when you alter the plane of focus using a PC lens away from parallel with the film or sensor, the area in focus can dramatically change.

The pair of images at top shows the same scene shot with two different lenses. The left image was shot with the Nikon 70-200mm zoom set at 100mm while the image on the right was shot with the Nikon 85mm PC-E. The right image and the image above show the effect of tilting the plane of focus on a horizontal axis leaving only the eyes in sharp focus. Since the current PC lenses are not made using bellows systems, they only tilt on a single axis as opposed to view cameras, but they can be rotated to accommodate a horizontal, vertical, or even diagonal axis. 

The Nikon 85mm PC-E lens mounted on a Nikon D800 body.

Shifting the plane of focus on a vertical axis can also produce dreamy effects. As the focus plane shifts relative to the image plane, part of the focus plane draws closer to the camera while the other part shifts away from the camera. This has the effect of compressing the area in sharp focus of a standing subject, which is great to isolate attention on the face or eyes. However, that shift of plane might also have the unfavorable effect of rendering a background or foreground element in sharp focus that might compete for attention. It helps to envision how the new plane of focus cuts through a composition and what is added or subtracted from the focus. 

In this pair of images, the left image was captured with a 105mm lens which shows regular depth of field. The right image was created using the Nikon 85mm PC-E which throws the hand and arms quickly out of focus.

These images show the same model shot at f/5.6 one with a traditional 105mm lens on left, and the 85mm PC-E lens on the right with vertical axis tilt which leaves a vertical zone of sharp focus on the model's face and front of her dress, while her arms go quickly out of focus. By shifting the plane of focus clockwise to bring the right side of plane closer to the camera and the left side further, the background on the right side of the background falls to soft focus while the left side actually gains more focus than is see with the traditional lens shot.

As with any creative effect, a little can go a long way. I tend to prefer a moderate amount of tilt of the focus plane on my fashion shots. I have been able to incorporate this effect into several fashion shoots, but unfortunately not all attempts have made it in to the final product. The rapid shift of critical focus can obscure details on a garment that can be important to my clients. My favorite uses of the effect bring the audience attention to the face while creating a soft and dreamy feeling to the overall image. This effect can be simulated to a great degree in post processing with blur and bokeh filters, but I do like the control that comes from seeing the effect directly in a viewfinder. 

This fashion image shows the effect of the 85mm PC lens at f9.5. A standard lens would have captures a regular plane of focus from the model's face down to her hands. The horizontal axis tilt blurs details below her shoulders.

PC lenses are decidedly manual focus. With the compression in the amount of focus these lenses take even greater attention to focus in the viewfinder. I had already been using Zeiss manual focus lenses before purchasing the Nikon 85mm PC-E, so manual focus was not too foreign. That doesn't mean that I don't have my share of missed frames with sharp noses and soft eyes. The electronic focus confirmation does still work with at least the Nikon PC-E lenses which helps determine exact focus. I don't have any experience with the Canon system, so I don't know if there is a similar function. 

Using the perspective controls on a fashion shoot does require more patience from both the photographer and model. Since the critical focus area is compressed a model must stay in a still position after focus is achieved. Altering the amount of tilt will also change the crop of the image slightly requiring re-composition. I generally use the lens on a tripod which allows using both of my hands to manipulate the lens controls, but with practice I have been able to use the lens effectively from a hand-held position.

I purchased the Nikon 85mm PC-E for both this focus effect on fashion and portrait images and the traditional utility of perspective control on still-life images to shoot images for my brother's bespoke furniture designs. Both the tilt and shift controls help when shooting objects requiring accurate display of angles and planes like this photo of a handmade credenza.

Handmade walnut credenza from Don Howell Joinery shot with the Nikon 85mm PC-E to keep the vertical lines parallel.

In working with the lens I found that it is also an extremely sharp and contrasty lens when used without the perspective controls. The Nikon 85mm PC-E happens to be a great, sharp lens for general photography, all be it manual focus, that rivals the sharpness of my Zeiss lenses.The cost of purchase might be somewhat steep compared to a conventional lens, but they can be rented for a special shoot. The Nikon along with the Canon PC lenses bring some of the compelling dynamics of shooting with a view camera to take contemporary fashion and portrait photography. 

Dan Howell's picture

Dan Howell has been a New York City area photographer specializing and fashion and portraits for catalogs and magazines for the past 20 years. He began photography with photojournalistic aspirations but found a more comfortable fit in the fashion and commercial world.

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I love my 24mm PC-E but wouldn't dream of using one for portraits. My eyes aren't nearly good enough and, along with the effects of tilting, using it in this way would be easy to overdo. JMO

I have a 45 ts and use it all the time for everything. I love it.

We used to do this all the time for music videos and commercials in the late 90s-early 2000s. Still a fun technique.

I totally understand the concept of T/S lenses for architecture etc. But for portraits I struggle to see the value. Let me tell you why... Whenever I see the T/S effect on portrait pictures on, say FB/Flickr/500px, I write the tog and ask if it was done by a T/S lens or added in post production. I have done so maybe 100+ times. So in essence, I have seen a large selection of images, some created with a lens, others with digital effects. And I can't really tell the difference. Maybe someone here is sharp enough to tell me what to look for?

I am also a purist and would love to actually go out and buy a T/S lens for portraits, but again I really struggle to see the difference between real T/S and post. What's your comment?

I agree with Dan, it's about seeing it live and interacting with your subject based on what you see through the lens rather than going back in post and playing with an image.

I always find it humorous when you can peg the author's brand usage by the title of their article :-) Nikon user ;-)

I did few pictures in studio with 85 TS from Ukraine... It is quiet challenging to have the right focus at the right place. Seems to be really much more easy to use on non moving subjects. (not all of them are using TS)