My New Favorite Lens Is Not Found In Very Many Photographer Bags

My New Favorite Lens Is Not Found In Very Many Photographer Bags

About two months ago I was thinking about my upcoming wedding season that starts this weekend and lasts till June. Shooting a wedding every weekend can really challenge your creativity. So I decided I would add a 90mm tilt-shift lens to my bag to give my creative side a boost of adrenaline. I didn't realize how refreshing it would be to use this lens. In just a few months it's become my new favorite. Read on to learn why and see some photos taken with it.

I should start by saying just because this happens to be my new favorite lens doesn't mean you will enjoy it just as much. It is not one of those lenses that everyone throws on their camera and loves immediately. (Yes I am looking at you 70-200mm!) But if you are looking for something other than what everyone else has this might be the lens for you. Here are some of the reasons I love the Canon TS-E (Tilt Shift) 90mm f/2.8.

Fstoppers - Trevor Dayley - Tilt Shift 1

First just a quick introduction into Tilt-Shift lenses. For those not familiar with them, a T/S lens has a few different dials on the front to Shift, Tilt and Rotate the lens axis angle relative to the focal plane. For years I had seen tilt-shift lenses being mainly used in architecture work. By shifting the lens the photographers were able to get buildings that looked like they were falling backwards in photos stand up straight and by tilting the lens they were able to get the entire building in focus because the lens axis matched the angle of the building. But soon these lenses gravitated into the portrait, commercial and even wedding industry. One wedding photographer who uses the tilt-shift lens a lot and creates absolutely stunning work doing it is Clayton Austin. Many of you have probably seen timelapses using tilt-shift lenses that make the scene look like a miniature world. They do that by shifting the lens in reverse of how it would normally be used and create a very selective area of the picture in focus. Canon makes 4 different tilt-shift lenses, 17mm, 24mm, 45mm, and the 90mm. The most popular is the 24mm, but I decided instead that for my bag I would get the 90mm. I chose the 90mm because I knew I would be using it for portrait work as well as detail shots.


Tilting is useful when you want to achieve a pan-focus effect with a shallow aperture setting and a fast shutter speed, or, if you reverse the tilt so it does not match the plane of focus you can drastically reduce the area of the picture that remains in focus. So for example if I were shooting a couple up close and I wanted nothing but their faces in focus I could tilt the lens to blur everything in the picture but their faces creating a unique effect. By doing this you are drawing attention to certain areas of your pictures using this selective focus technique.

Fstoppers Trevor Dayley Tilt Shift 2

One thing to keep in mind when using a Tilt-Shift lens is that you must manually focus your shots. For those of you who have never had to do that, it can be a bit frustrating. I on the other hand loved it. It reminded me of the days shooting film with my Canon AE-1. For those doing this for the first time, there are different focusing screens that can be purchased for your DSLR that can make this process easier. A grid screen, for example, can be used to facilitate accurate alignment of horizontal and vertical lines in the scene. Using manual focus really causes you to slow down just a bit and really think through each scene rather then just press a button to focus then shoot. One thing to keep in mind is that without a grid screen you can still use the focus audible beep on your camera to confirm a focus. I do this by selecting a focus dot in my viewfinder and putting that on the part of the image I want in focus. I then press down the back button focus button while manually focusing my image. Once the focus dot is in focus it gives me a beep confirmation. Another easy way to do it is by using Live View on your camera. That said, I would not use this lens if I had a couple walking towards me and I wanted to make sure each shot was clean. As I get better at tracking with manual focus it might be easier, but right now I would rather use a lens compatible with a continuous focus (AI-Servo) mode instead.

Fstoppers Trevor Dayley Tilt Shift 3

The optics built into this lens achieve outstanding performance and the blur created is very natural looking. While I have used the tilt-shift blur feature built into the new Photoshop in the past, I have found the blur coming straight from the lens to be more favorable. In the near future I will do some comparisons and post them in an article here on Fstoppers for you to compare and see which you prefer. The build quality is great and feels on par with an L-series lens. I also did not notice any chromatic aberration or barrel distortion in the photos.

As a wedding photographer, I shoot a lot of detail shots. These include the rings, the flowers, invitations and table settings. This lens has been great for this. Now a disclosure is that my first pick for these details is my 100mm f/2.8 L series macro lens. But once I have fired off some shots with the 100mm, I will pop on my new tilt-shift and grab some additional shots. The reason I love using it for details is because I can shoot at 2.8 thereby giving me a narrow depth of field but still tilt my lens axis to match that of the flowers for example. Doing that allows me to get more of them in focus while still giving me some beautiful bokeh pulling them out of the background and making them pop. Focusing is possible down to an extremely close shooting distance of 0.5m/1.6ft enabling effective close up photography. A maximum magnification of 0.29x is available.

Fstoppers Trevor Dayley Tilt Shift 4

In conclusion, the reason the T/S-E 90mm f/2.8 is now my favorite lens is because it causes me to slow down to really focus on what I am shooting, selectively focus areas of my photo and create images unlike everyone else while still providing me amazingly sharp images. If you are on the fence, rent it and give it a go to see if you like it.

Couple useful resources:
My Photos from Thirst Relief Benefit Shoot - most of the images were shot with the T/S-E 90mm lens.
Lens Manual from Canon for the Tilt-Shift Lenses
Clayton Austin Blog - Amazing wedding photographer who inspired me to look into tilt-shift lenses.
For those of you that enjoy studying the MTF charts, here is the one on the T/S-E 90mm.

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Sandy Phimester's picture

I used to own the 90mm TS-E, I now own the 45mm TS-E, later this year I'll get the 90mm back. It was way too good. Super sharp (sharpness is mostly overrated anyway), and really well built, plus the tilt effect at 90mm is REALLY strong and really beautiful, and .... very unique.

Your comment about slowing down is good, and I agree. I shoot mostly film for this reason, but the TS-E lenses on my film bodies or my Mark II or Mark III really make me happy, and help produce some excellent images that often stand out.

I enjoy the 45mm version, and it's the one that most people have (that shoot people), but often it doesn't feel as special or unique, and I often find myself missing the 90mm for this reason. You just need more room, but on editorial shoots and other similar stuff, you have lots more control anyway. The 45mm would be more for practical shoots like at a wedding or whatever.

Another sign that I need the 90mm back. I find the 70-200 to be a lazy lens, beautiful and well built sure, but I'm far more interested in lenses specially designed for portraits and unique situations.

Great comments Sandy. I love your insight. thanks for sharing about your experience.

Sandy Phimester's picture

 I often felt like I had to be really far away in some cases, more so than with something similar in length like an 85mm, because I wanted to show more of the scene with this lens, which is why I ended up selling it in favor of the 45mm. But... I think the 90mm is more special, and was surprised/happy to see this article on here. Because really, the lens is quite unique, and when I was shooting it, I knew like.... no one that had this thing, everyone was rocking the wide angle ones or the 45mm for portraits and such.

whitneylanephotography's picture

I am dying to try this lens out! Love these shots Trevor <3

Thank you Whitney! It is an enjoyable lens to use. Let me know how your experience goes. 

Awesome! I love the look and you really gave it a solid review. Might have to check this baby out! 

John_Skinner's picture

If you originate an image with this perspective on it....That's what it is. This effect can by mirrored in photoshop by an existing filter ( part of Ps anyway) and you can add or decide what should be in, or out.. It's a far side less expensive than a 90 T/S and you have a clear copy of the image in the end anyway.

Unless the job calls for keeping those lines straight as much as possible prior to post... The rest is just artsyfartsy gobbleteegoop

DeathNTexas's picture

"artsyfartsy gobbleteegoop"

I believe you mean artistic choice. Or style. Or image making technique.

I am heavy into post processing, but Photoshop is not always the solution.

John you are absolutely right that there is a Tilt-Shift blur effect in the latest version of Photoshop. As I mentioned in the article I will run a comparison on the two in an article soon. I seem to be drawn to the blur from the lens more but then I have never done a side by side comparison so I am looking forward to doing it and sharing the results. The one effect (while not demonstrated in this article) that T/S lens does allow you to do that is not possible in Photoshop is matching the angle of a building or details (flowers for example) and get them all in focus while still shooting at a shallow depth of field. Stay tuned for the comparison between T/S and Photoshop Tilt-Shift. Heck maybe I will even toss in Instagram tilt-shift effect as well. 

Paul Gallo's picture

When doing the comparison, use a shot that shows objects along a tilted focal plane in focus while objects at the same distance-to-camera not on the focal plane are blurred. Like this: (not my photo, but a good example)

This is impossible to instantly reproduce by using a filter/app. You *could* isolate a bunch of objects at different depths and apply varying amounts of lens blur, ooor create a z-depth map and apply lens blur based on that. But both are time consuming and still hard (or impossible) to get accurate! People claiming that selective-blur apps can reproduce focal plane tilt are misinformed.

Sandy Phimester's picture

 So you'd rather do it in a computer, and not in a camera? And you're calling the TS-E "artsy fartsy"? Talk about lazy/backwards/negative thinking. Jesus... And there are many times where faking the effect is nearly impossible, and why would you want to? Aren't we photographers? I somehow neglected to realize that doing shit in photoshop was part of being a good photographer, you know, like with a camera and a lens...

Tyler Brown's picture

I am going to agree with "artsyfartsy gobbleteegoop" T/S lens have their place in Architectural Photography and certain aspects of Macro Photography, but tilt-shift portraits and freelensing is dumb!

John_Skinner's picture

So why is every opinion a bash ?

If I was still using 120 roll to shot these images, I'd still be on my feet for 2 hours in a darkroom sniffing developer. I post every image I do.... whats another 4 minutes on a T/S?

But thanks for the lesson.

Sandy Phimester's picture

 Because it's a dumb thing to say, honestly. That's why. Haha.

John_Skinner's picture

Okay Sandy......... I guess when I reach the wise old age that you're at, encompass all of that published work that you have, I'll have the stones (Oh sorry) to say in an open forum that someone is dumb merely because that have a separate skill set or different outlook. My original point of cost vs. effect still applies. It's not "dumb", it's merely a point of view. You may need to get out more a socialize with real people.

James Jenkins's picture

Wow. Way to sound like a smug ass. Unless your profile pic was taken about 30 years ago, maybe don't act like you already know everything. There's a difference between opinion and fact, junior.

ennuipoet's picture

I deeply want one of these, but I cannot justify the cost against other lenses which have a more practical application.   Aside from the photographer community, most people look at shots from this lens and ask why it looks so weird.  Doesn't mean I don't love it, just can't justify buying it right now.  :)

Taffy Johnson's picture

If you reside in USA, this lens can be rented for $60 a week. If you are only planning to use it occasionally, renting is the best way to go. 

Tom Piprek's picture

I use this lens for my street photography. It is truly unique and works magic. I won't say its my favorite (due to me having the 135L) but it is definitely special. Nightime bokeh from it is something else.

harry's picture

Yeppie...T/S, so overdone and so past it's prime in being original with creative uses for portrait/lifestyle/wedding photos.

This lens has been out for about 20 years so you are right that it's probably past it's prime. Heck in lens years it's quite old. But I'd say we do ourselves a disservice if we think that it still can't be used in "being original" or "creative uses." The beauty of photography is that no matter what gear or lenses you use you can still create photos that excite you. Using this lens got me excited so I am stoked to use it some more.

Spy Black's picture

I'm not sure you can replicate to blur rolloff effect in PS unless they've developed very effective algorithms. Optical blur, whether done like this or with a large aperture optic, is something I've yet to see effectively digitized. I'll have to take a closer look at the filter in PS to see if it really does something truly pseudo-optically effective.

Jürgen3D's picture

you can, when the camera also records depth information like the lightfield cameras.
im pretty sure in the future cameras will record depth infos for each pixel too and you can use this depth map for post processing.

im doing 3D for a living and when you have a depth map then post processing blur effects look pretty much perfect.

and trust me you have seen it in videos already.
it´s just so good you did not notice it´s artificial. :)

Spy Black's picture

Yeah but most cameras don't do that. I'm familiar with 3D depth maps, but we're talking strictly PS processes here, based on standard DSLR EXIF data.

Wow! I literally was going to write a similar article for my blog! I recently rented the 90 mm TiltShift and I cannot believe what an amazing lens it is! It is insanely sharp, pretty fast, long (which is great for portraits), and the tilt aspect adds a dramatic flair! I also like the shift ability for taking panoramic landscape photos. I have always found that around 100 mm full frame is a great landscape length. By having 90 mm and being able to shift left and right, you can get a really nice panorama! I have actually been thinking about buying this one for myself as it is truly a very overlooked lens! If I don't end up getting it, it will be either the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 or the EF 100mm f/2.8 L IS USM Macro but I think the 90mm will end up being the winner!

- Jordan

Hey Jordan thanks for the comments. You bring up some additional great points. It is fun tilting the lens into the fun and creating that flair. You just have to be carefully monitoring it to make sure you don't nuke out all the details. But yeah you can create some great lighting doing that. I haven't yet tried the panorama using the shift but I have heard about it and look forward to giving it a shot soon. Checked out your Flickr portfolio. Great work!

Denise Nicole's picture

Awesome photos Trev! I rented the 45mm and found it very hard to use. I didn't use it nearly enough. I wish I pushed myself further in Santa Barbara to pull it out more... but of course reached for my "go to" lenses instead. Good thing Im a CPS member and can rent these bad boys for two whole weeks! I will get both the 45mm and 90mm to see which I like best. I love the feel of it. The motion and movement really pulls me in. Thanks for writing about this.

Patrice Ngangula de Lemos's picture

The last shot is pure... Magic. Great article!

Thank you Patrice!

Jay Eads's picture

pretty much every young-ish wedding photographer i know of has been use TS lenses for quite a long time... in 2007 i thought it was unique and interesting, now it feels like one of 3 lenses that are most used. 35mm, 50mm, and tilt/shift (either the 90 or 45). sort of surprising to see this with the current title. i'd argue that it is found in a good deal of their bags, and for quite some time.
"My New Favorite Lens Is Not Found In Very Many Photographer Bags"

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