Canon Series L Tilt-Shift Lenses

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Photographing buildings or interiors in tight quarters can be unnerving, as any architectural photographer can tell you. In urban surroundings, there's usually a limit to how far you can back up before you bump into a wall or step dangerously into oncoming traffic.

Back in the day of photographing architecture with large format view cameras, wide-angle optics in the range of 47mm and 58mm bailed us out—and often with dramatic results. With the advent of quality full-frame DSLRs, the optical choices for shooting architecture and studio imagery requiring lens movements with wide-angle optics have been limited to 24mm which, while adequate for many applications, still doesn't cut it when working in tighter quarters.

In response to this need, Canon recently introduced the TS-E 17mm f/4L tilt-shift lens, which should prove to be a godsend for Canon DSLR users who require the flexibility and creative control afforded by this marvelous lens. As with all of Canon's TS-E-series optics, the TS-E 17mm f/4L allows for rise, fall, tilt, swing and shift adjustments, which can be applied when shooting horizontally or vertically.

The new 17mm tilt-shift contains 18 elements in 12 groups, including UD glass and floating elements to keep the edges sharp and reduce chromatic aberrations. The lens has an angle of view of 104° and an image circle diameter of 67.2mm, up to 6.5° of tilt, 12mm of shift and a minimum close-focusing distance of 0.82' (0.25m). The lens’s control wheels and lock mechanisms have also been improved over earlier Canon tilt-shift series optics to provide smoother, more positive performance in both vertical and horizontal modes. To help reduce ghosting and flare, the bulbous front lens element is coated with advanced SWC coatings.

Rather than aiming the camera upwards, the TS-E 17/4L allows you to keep the camera body parallel to the structure while using the lens's Shift/Rise function to bring the top
of the building into view, minus the keystone distortion. The ultra-wide 17mm focal length of this lens makes shooting in tight quarters a walk in the park.

Not quite as wide as the TS-E 17/4L, but equally sweet, is the new TS-E 24mm f/3.5L II, which is now an L-series lens and features noticeably improved edge sharpness compared to the original TS-E 24/3.5 tilt-shift lens.

The new Canon 24mm tilt-shift features an 84° angle of view and a 67.2mm image circle, contains 16 elements in 11 groups, and incorporates UD glass with SWC coatings to deliver and maintain maximum resolving power with minimal flare and chromatic aberrations. Other improvements over the original 24mm tilt-shift include an increased +/- 8.5° of tilt functionality and enhanced controls in vertical and horizontal positions, as well as locking mechanisms. Minimum focus for the new TS-E 24/3.5L is 0.69' (0.21m).

Aside from architecture, tilt-shift lenses are quite useful in the studio for fudging perspective or increasing/decreasing depth of field when photographing products and still-life imagery.

The photographs of the Canon G11 clearly illustrate the benefits of tilt-shift optics for product photography. The image above was taken with a 24mm tilt-shift lens with all lens controls set to the neutral position and the capture camera (a Canon EOS 5D Mark II) aiming slightly downward at a straight-on angle to the subject.

By aiming the capture camera straight ahead (parallel to the G11) and shifting the lens downward (rather than the camera) it was possible to render the subject correctly while maintaining a slightly elevated view of the top deck of the G11.

The 3/4 views of the G11 (below) demonstrate the 24mm TS-E's ability to capture sharp close-ups far better than a conventional 24mm lens, without having to stop the lens down to its minimum aperture (f/22), which is not its sharpest aperture. (Minimum apertures offer the greatest depth of field, but almost all lenses output their highest resolving power at about 3 stops down from wide open.)

The photograph above, left, was taken with the lens wide open (f/3.5) and shows a dramatic drop-off of sharpness toward the far end of the subject. The image above, right, was taken after the lens was tilted to an angle more parallel to the subject, which brought the entire face of the subject into focus. By stopping the lens down to f/11 (the “sweet spot” in terms of sharpness for this lens) I was able to bring the entire subject into focus, left to right and front to back. It's worth noting that a standard 24mm lens stopped down to f/22 at such a close distance would not contain the same degree of depth of field, nor would it be as sharp.

Selective focus is another area where tilt-shift lenses make their mark. By setting the camera to its widest aperture, it's possible to explore a variety of focusing possibilities. The following images were taken with the 24mm TS-E tilt-shift lens at f/3.5. By focusing the lens at varying distances and tilting the lens left and right, it was possible to isolate individual film cartridges as well as bring all of them into focus, without the need to stop the lens down.

In addition to the 17mm and 24mm lenses described above, Canon also manufactures a TS-E 45mm f/2.8 “normal” tilt-shift lens and a TS-E 90mm f/2.8 tilt-shift lens that focuses down to half life size (1:2).

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