Photography - Knowledge

Tilt-Shift Lens Techniques: A Beginner's Guide

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All life we have been asked to see things for what they are but what if we want to tweak our perspective and alter image appearance? What if you can transform the world into its miniature version, something like a snow globe? Wouldn’t it be amazing to see life-sized things around you turned into the sizes of board game pieces? Perspective manipulation is a wonderful “trick the eye” technique that has been vastly exploited in different art forms, including photography. Tilt-shift lens in photography is a medium to create optical illusions with converging lines or squeeze the world smaller in size to create better focus.

Photography is much more than most of us understand. It is not only about finding a destitute on the roadside and snapping them to be another post on your social media gallery but also finding the right balance in that picture- it’s emotion, idea, the truth and the underlying message. It is to conceive optical magic and bring a shift in the image perspective. Making erect buildings seemingly falling or focusing on a particular entity and blurring the other existence around it.

Wedding photography with tilt-shift lens
Use of the Tilt-shift Lens is Quite Popular in Wedding Photography (source)

Advanced photographers may know all about what we are talking but those slightly clueless novice snap bugs, here’s a crisp go-to guide on how to use a tilt-shift lens to create dreamy portraits. Check out!

Looking for new camera gears? Check out the Canon 85mm 1.8

Tilt-Shift Lens in Photography: What & Why?

Tilt-shift lens photography
Create Depth of Field with Tilt-shift Lens (source)

Complicated as it may sound, the tilt-shift lens is a camera lens that tilts and shifts. It is used to throw the focus plane off its usual position. In regular lens, the focus plane is usually parallel to the camera’s sensor. Tilt-shift lens lets you play with the angle of the focus plane, allowing you to point the lens at an angle other than perpendicular to the image plane.

Moving on, tilt feature is also used to maximize or minimize depth of field. You need to move the camera lens up or down to use the tilt feature. While in case of shift, as the name implies, you need to manoeuvre the lens side-wise, like left to right or upwards and downwards. The shift is used to control perspective and a very useful tool in panorama shots.

The shift was originally designed for architectural photography to solve problems with building photographs. Photographers can also fix parallax problems with trees and structures by positioning the camera exactly straight ahead in the frame and shifting the lens upwards.

Another clever usage of the shift technique is in taking panorama photographs. Instead of moving the entire camera, why not just move the lens to take different parts of the view and mesh them together in photoshop for a perfect picture.

Panorama photography
Taking Three Parts of a Scene (source)

After merging the three separate photographs, you get a perfectly overlapped panorama picture.

Panorama photography
A Complete Panorama Scene (source)

Livingit Tip:

A better way to capture panorama is moving the body of the camera instead of the lens. There are cameras which such facilities.

Like we said, the tilt-shift lens also helps to control perspective. When you point the camera vertically at a tree, you shall find that the base of the tree is bigger than the top. That is because you are standing much closer to the tree. Now, try this- point the camera straight down at the base of the tree and turn the lens up. You would be amazed to see the difference between both the images.

In the previous image, the tree seems to be falling backwards but in the second image, the tree appears to be more straight up- exactly how it should be.

Forest scene
Tilt-shift Lens Allows Your to Click Straight Tall Objects Without Any Distortion (source)

On the other hand, the tilt feature enables photographers to change the plane of focus to selective focus. Mostly used in landscape, product, and portrait photography, the tilt gives you very smooth, selected part of the image in focus which can be used to create a fake miniature effect.

Miniature effect with tilt-shift lens
Create Miniature Portraits With Tilt-shift Lens (source)

So, instead of having a flat wall of focus perpendicular to your sensor, you can now choose to have two subjects in focus, despite their dissimilar distances from the lens.

You can also specify how wide the band of focus in the photo is by how much you tilt. A big tilt will appear to have a narrower band of focus running across the frame and a small tilt will give you the opposite. It provides a unique and dream-like quality to the image by the way it captures focus and treats light.

When to Choose Tilt-shift Lens

For photographers, lens selection is a critical decision. With different properties and nuances, every lens gives a unique life to a photograph. And with the bonus tilt-shift variables, photographers have ample options to explore. So, when to choose tilt-shift lens over a standard lens? Keep reading to find out!

To Click Group Photographs

Group photography with tilt shift lens
Tilt-shift Lens Technique is Useful in Shooting Group Portraits (source)

When taking a group shot, a tilt-shift lens comes in as a great help. Group pictures wherein the subjects of the picture are closer but further away from the lens and all their faces are more or less at the same height on the frame.

To Manipulate Moving subjects

Moving subjects in photography
Manipulate Moving Subjects with the Tilt-shift Lens (source)

Tilt-shift lens can also be useful while trying to capture the subject as it moves towards you or away from you. On a regular lens, a subject changing its distance from the lens might fall out of focus instantly. But with the tilt-shift lens, you can stretch the focus plane behind and in front of your subject so that they do not lose focus while changing distances from the camera.

To Create Bokeh Effect

Bokeh effect
Create Superb Boked Effect with the Tilt-shift Lens Adjustment (source)

Tilt-shift lens produces smoother and silkier bokeh images than the standard lens. So, if you want to create aesthetically pleasing, soft-out of focus backgrounds then tilt-shift lens is your ammunition!

Learn tips on creating mesmerizing Bokeh images.

How to Work Using Tilt-shift lens

Tilt-shift lens mechanics
How Does a Tilt-shift Lens Work? (source)

Tilt-shift lens works on the Scheimpflug principle. In a nutshell, the Scheimpflug principle is a geometric rule that describes the orientation of the focus plane of an optical system when the lens plane is not parallel to the image plane. Using the Scheimpflug principle as premises, photographers can minimize the region of sharpness by using large tilt and small focal length.

On a focus plane parallel to the image plane, the depth of field (DoF) or simply focus range is equally distributed. But employing the Scheimpflug principle, the DoF turns wedge-shaped with the apex of the wedge at the PoF rotation axis. The DoF is zero at the apex, remains shallow at the edge of the lens’s field of view, and increases with distance from the camera. The shallow DoF near the camera requires the PoF to be positioned carefully if near objects are to be rendered sharply.

Choosing the correct tilt-shift lens

For a greater part, the traditional lens-choosing rule still applies, which is- choose a wider lens if you have a larger scene, like a landscape or a cityscape to capture. That will give you range to include the environment around your subjects. Conversely, for a tighter portrait, selecting a longer lens will a better choice.

In case you are feeling a little bit more inspired, try using a wider focal length. This will get you closer to the subject and bring in a touch of intimacy in the final output. Eliminating objects of separation between the subject and background makes it a further a unique portrait.

Know your lens

It is essential that you know lens characteristics if you are considering photography seriously, especially the tilt-shift lens as they behave so distinctly than the standard glasses. For instance, the Rokinon 24mm TS provides a beautiful, cinematic blue flare when the sun rays hit the side of the lens. Similarly, the Canon 45mm TS will generate a rainbow flare under certain lighting conditions. The more you know how your lens manipulates light the better you shall be at selecting the right ones for the right time.

For example, backlit subjects when shot with the Canon 45mm TS, the pictures are low-contrast and buttery. Hence, if you want a dreamy, washed-out look, that's the lens you can choose.

Select locations that maximize the effect

Typically, you would want to shoot with a background that depicts a lot of texture. For example, tree canopies yield surreal bokeh when you tilt the lens. On the contrary, clicking with a lot of negative space as the background, like a clear blue sky or an overcast sky, will fail to utilize the qualities of the tilt to the fullest because the focus plane being manipulated will go totally unnoticed.

Negative space in photography
Avoid Using Negative Space While Working with Tilt-shift Lens (source)

Focusing the Focus

Once you have selected your lens for the purpose, decide how wide of a focus plane you would want. Some photographers tend to tilt the 45mm lens up about half way to its maximum tilted position. Now, when you tilt the lens up, the top edge of the frame will not be focused. Likewise, as you tilt it down, the frame’s bottom edge will also not come in focus. Don’t worry it’s just a matter of practice with your specific tilt-shift lens to grasp the focus limitations and use it to your advantages.

A few photographers shoot on Canon 5D III bodies and use the AF indicator light in the viewfinder to place their focus plane exactly where they want.

Livingit Tip:

Rather than checking through the viewfinder, shooting in live view mode can be more helpful as you can zoom in and check focus more accurately.

On another note, doing some focus bracketing is also not a bad idea. When you think your subject is in focus, try nabbing a couple of bonus shots with the focus shifted a little lower and a little higher from where you think it should be. You'd be surprised to know how often you accidentally miss focus, and will surely thank yourself later for doing some extra work.

Focus adjust with tilt-shift lens
Find the Perfect Focus Before Finalizing One (source)

Usually, photographers shoot with the focal plane horizontal in the frame (the lens is tilted up or down). However, you can choose to shoot with the focal plane being vertical (by swinging left or right). Doing this will provide quite a different look where the image to the left and right of the subject is out of focus.


For the first shot, you can use the camera's meter to get it as close as possible. Next, review the image’s histogram for a better understanding. Because of the tilting and the lenses’ behaviour with direct light, this could appear as a trial and error approach. Also, be prepared to find some truly wacky readings which can be off by a few full stops.


With the tilt-shift techniques, you should also know how to process the images. For instance, if you shoot with certain tilt-shift lenses into the sun, you will find that the image is too washed out, of course, because of the flare. So what do you do? In such cases, treat those images with a bit more contrast. Otherwise, keep the processing for tilt-shift photos the same for any other shots.

Things to Avoid When Using Tilt-shift Lens

The best opportunity to nail the focus effect Is when clicking a group of subjects. In such a case, avoid keeping the plane of focus too narrow. Heidi Browne, a photographer, recommends, “Always err on the side of a wider plane.”

Taking care of lens flare is another thing to be mindful of while working with a tilt-shift lens. Be careful that lens flare doesn’t wash out the image too much. Take your thing to learn the nuances of the technique before unleashing it into any kind of commissioned job scenario.

Tilt-shift lens photography
Understand the Purpose of Tilt-shift Lens Before Using It (source)

Fight the urge to get carried away with it. Like any special lens, avoid saturating a series of photos with tilt-shift feature. Always remember that it just depends on the complete look you want. Some people love the softer, more ethereal look of the tilt-shift, while others may want a more clean and sharper end product. Expert photographers mostly shoot with two camera bodies. One will have a tilt-shift on it and the other one has a standard prime. That way when they are shooting a particular scene, they shall have both the looks and decide later what worked best in bringing out the whole essence of the moment.