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Recent years, perspective manipulation has seen a surge in popularity throughout the photography community. Whether it is the eccentricity of miniature-faking, or the dreamy elegance of selective blur, tilt-shift lenses have undoubtedly solidified their place on many contemporary photographers’ to-buy lists. While they’re certainly familiar tools to serious architectural and landscape photographers, they have become increasingly favorable for artistic endeavors in portraiture, still-life, and even filmmaking.
Their steady presence among cinematographers has seen them go as far as the big screen. In 2010, David Fincher’s The Social Network included a beautifully shot scene of the Henley Royal Regatta, its bystanders and spectators blurred by selective defocus. It created an emotive, visually compelling result that testifies to the creative strengths of this type of photography. However you intend to use it, having a basic understanding of tilt-shift prior to making it your next big purchase is the first step to capturing these compelling, striking images.
Tilt-shift offers a hands-on approach to optical manipulation and perspective control. Tilt determines the plane of focus by allowing you to point a lens at an angle other than perpendicular to the image plane. As a normal lens can only focus on a singular plane, the areas of sharpness in a photo will be the same distance from the camera. With tilt, the focal plane becomes pliable.
Because of the Scheimpflug principle, it becomes possible to capture an image entirely in focus (background and foreground), as well as narrow the focal plane down to a small sliver of clarity, surrounded by soft blur. It is through tilt manipulation that miniature-faking is possible, creating the illusion of super-shallow depth of field, as if looking into a diorama. Often times, this leads to the tilt-shift lens being unfairly labeled as a one-trick- pony by those less familiar with it.
Shift, on the other hand, is the parallel upward or downward displacement of the lens to the image plane. This results in the photographer being able to adjust a subject’s place in a composition without needing to move the camera itself. It also keeps everything squared, eliminating the convergence of vertical lines, a phenomenon known as “keystoning” that occurs when photographing tall buildings, for example.
For professional architectural photography, these qualities are essential for keeping buildings squared and in focus. The creative possibilities of tilt also attract photographers looking to add dynamism to portraiture, weddings, still-life, and for isolating details. Nikon manufactures three variations of a tilt-shift lens, designated with a “PC-E” to signify “Perspective Control.” They include the wide-angle PC-E Nikkor 24mm f/3.5D ED, the standard length PC-E Nikkor 45mm f/2.8D ED, and the medium telephoto PC-E Nikkor 85mm f/2.8D. Canon has four tilt-shifts (TS-E) on the market, two of which (the TS-E 17mm f/4L and TS-E 24mm f/3.5L II) bear the prestigious red stripe of the L series. The remaining two choices are the TS-E 45mm f/2.8 and the TS-E 90mm f/2.8.
Those looking to invest a bit more into a tilt-shift lens can consider Schneider Optics, whose lineup of professional glass is compatible with Canon, Nikon, Sony Alpha, Pentax, and Mamiya/Phase One cameras. These lenses are available as a 28mm f/2.8, 50mm f/2.8, and 90mm f/4.5 for DSLRs as well as a 120 mm f/5.6 for medium format Mamiya/Phase One cameras. Budget-friendly 24mm wide-angle tilt-shift lenses are also available from Bower, Samyang, and Rokinon. These lenses are designed for compatibility with Canon, Nikon, and Sony Alpha cameras. Photographers who are new to tilt-shift should have their tripods ready and expect a learning curve, as all these lenses are manual focus and require a bit of finesse.
Long before the digital age, tilt and shift adjustments were achieved with traditional view cameras by manipulating the flexible bellows between the two standards. The front standard, which houses the lens, can be moved upward or downward on a parallel plane for shift, or tipped on a skewed axis for tilt. These large format cameras are still used today by serious and professional architectural photographers, and have even been optimized for digital functionality. Cameras such as the Linhof Techno Digital Field Camera are designed specifically with commercial architectural photography in mind, and come equipped with flexible bellows that extend for focusing up to 240mm.
Many photographers who enjoy the playful, creative leeway of tilt don’t necessarily require the corrective control over shift. In these cases, the price tag on a proper tilt-shift lens can seem extravagant and unnecessary. Fortunately, Lensbaby’s series of lenses and optics delivers just the right dose of affordable perspective tweaking to add something extra to portrait, environmental, and still-life photography. Most notably, the Composer Pro lens with Edge 80 Optic (currently available for Nikon and Canon cameras) allows shooters to tilt their plane of focus and create areas of selective blur. When manipulated accordingly, this can result in a whimsical miniature effect or can simply add a dreamy finish to portraiture, scenery, and more.
As a last resort, it’s also worth noting that in its most recent edition, Adobe Lightroom 6 has a Development section for corrective perspective control. Under the Lens Corrections panel, users may click the Basic tab to toggle through a series of Upright modes (Auto, Level, Vertical, and Full) that correct for minor keystoning and distortion. While not as apt in extreme situations, it is an effective tool for those looking to square up the vertical lines in photos of buildings and landscapes shot with a regular lens.