A tilt-shift lens is something I’ve always wanted to play with. However they tend to be expensive, so I’ve never actually had one. A while back I read about a technique called freelensing, where you shoot with the lens detached from your camera body. This isn’t necessarily a cheap substitute for tilt-shift photography, but you can apply some of the same principles with practice.
Choosing a lens
To start with, you need a lens. I’m not sure if there’s an optimal lens to freelens with, but you probably won’t go wrong with a 50mm. This is an Auto Sears 50mm f/1.7 MC that I had sitting around for use with a Ricoh film camera.
The main reason I chose this lens was curiosity. I had taken a few nature/street photos with it on the Ricoh camera, but I wanted to see how it would fare with a digital body shooting figures. There are adapters to convert this lens (Pentax K-mount) to Canon’s EF mount, but with freelensing the mounts obviously don’t matter.
Another benefit with this lens is the manual aperture control. Canon’s EF lenses all have electronic aperture control, so if they’re off the body, they’d be wide open. With the Sears lens I was able to stop down when needed to get a little more depth of field. Also I just LOVE operating that aperture ring. It’s so smooth and the clicks at each stop are just right.
I’m not very well practiced at this, as this is the first time I’ve tried freelensing. The main thing that helped was using a tripod. My left hand rested on the tripod head and held the lens. My right hand gripped the camera, with the index finger on the shutter and the other fingers helping to stabilize the lens. It wasn’t perfect but I could perform a wide range of tilt, shift, and focus adjustments this way.
One thing to consider when freelensing is the effect of having the lens farther in front of the camera than if it were mounted. This is like using an extension tube, so you’ll probably have to get pretty close to your subject in order to focus. Operating the focusing ring is difficult, and doesn’t make much of a difference compared to simply moving the lens back and forth.
You also have to be aware of the size of the image circle for the lens. If you start tilting or shifting the lens, you might bump up against the edges of the image circle and get vignetting.
Some of the appeal of freelensing, at least according to what I’ve read, is in the way the light leak affects your image. It lends a vintage, Instagram-y look to your pictures if you shoot in available light.
I saw a little bit of that with my first test. I was mostly using LED light and sunlight to shoot this Rise figure. With a shutter speed of 1/100s, aperture at f/4, and ISO at 1600, the image looks a bit washed out by the ambient light leaking into the sensor. This is bad if you need contrast, but creates an aged, film-like look.
The main thing I wanted to play with was the depth of field control and selective focus effects from tilting the lens. Working with a narrow depth of field is difficult when freelensing for a number of reasons. Your hand needs to be extremely steady in order to keep the focal point where you want it. It’s hard to confirm focus through the viewfinder, and sometimes the effect is subtle enough where you can’t even tell what’s happening until you see the image full size.
By using a flash to avoid having to rely on ambient light, I think this shot represents a truer test of the Sears lens’s capabilities. You can see that the contrast and color reproduction are actually very good, and the center sharpness is good at f/2.8. Thanks to the ability to shape light from the flash, there’s minimal light leak in these shots.
You can see a little bit of the selective focus effect in the above two shots. I’m still not close to mastering the technique (let alone using it creatively) so these aren’t great examples, but hey, you can see something at least!
In this shot I tried tilting the lens from side to side in order to align the plane of focus with Saber’s torso. The end result isn’t really that noticeable, though. However I’m still impressed by the performance of this lens – it was only about $30 from ebay! Cheap primes are awesome!
This was a fun diversion, and there’s still plenty left for me to learn and practice. The creative applications of freelensing are only just starting to come to me. I think maybe an outdoors shoot would be a good opportunity to practice the technique. Hopefully I’ll be able to come up with more interesting shots than these…