Tilt Shift Lens? How does that work?

Hi all. Richie here again. You probably already know this but if not, as well as working here in Mahers Photographic, I am also a Professional Architectural and Interiors Photographer. I have worked in the architecture world with one of Irelands leading award winning architectural practices McGarry Ní Éanaigh Architects for 18 years and in another award winning practice McKevitt King Architects now for over 3 years. I garnered a massive interest in the visual side of architecture and started photographing projects for many architects, contractors and estate agents all over the country for the last 15 years.

Architectural photography is quite a specialist type of photography and being honest there are not a massive amount of people doing it in Ireland. It's also made easier with some specialist types of equipment, one being a tilt shift lens and the other being a good tripod and geared head. Whilst the tilt shift lens is not 100% essential for this area of photography it saves an awful lot of time in post processing afterwards. It also allows one to get shots that would be almost impossible to get without one. They are typically very very sharp too which is an added bonus! So what are the options and who makes what?

Canon…. Canon currently have 6 different tilt shift (TS-E) lenses available. From 17mm to 135mm. I personally own 2 of them…. The 17mm and the 24mm. I have in the past also used the 90mm. All of them also work with extenders which allows them to be even more flexible! All are very sharp with plenty of ‘movements’ which I will talk about later!

Nikon…. Nikon currently have 4 different tilt shift or PC (Perspective Control) Lenses. From 19mm to 85mm. Again extremely sharp lenses across the range but unfortunately they will not work with extenders (without a bit of modification anyway!)

There are of course other brands none of which I know anything about.

So what exactly are TS-E or PC or Tilt Shift Lens. Simply put, a tilt-shift lens is a lens in which the optics can be tilted and / or shifted relative to the image sensor. These lenses also rotate to allow the lens to tilt and/or shift in a wide range of directions and not just at 90 degrees either. Many people think that their only use is for fixing perspective distortion and getting your images level. Nope… they don't get your images level. You do that by levelling your camera before you take your shot. Once your camera is level you will find that the horizon is at the centre of your image…. Well it should be if you are on this planet. Once you are levelled up you can ‘shift’ the front part of the lens up/down/left/right by turning little knobs on the side of the lens. The shift function is very important in the Architectural photography world as often a tall space or building will not fit in the frame without leaning the camera back. Doing this will give nasty converging verticals that nobody likes. So after you have levelled your camera instead of tilting the camera back you simply ‘shift’ the lens up to get the height you want in the image. See the sample image of St. Peters Church in Drogheda below.

Another use for the shift function is doing panoramas. So again you level the camera as normal but instead of shifting vertically you can shift the lens all the way to the right and take a picture, all the way to the left and take a picture and back to the middle and take a final exposure. Because you physically haven't changed your camera position all images with fit together really well in Photoshop (or whatever editing package you use). The one thing you have to be aware of is that extreme shifting to the edges of the lenses capabilities will result in large exposure differences. A tip to get around this is to just shoot in manual or in live view on your camera! 

You can also ‘tilt’ the front of the lens. Tilting is more complex to explain but basically with a normal lens your depth of field is parallel to your image sensor (or film if you are still using it). A lens with ‘tilt’ options allows you to angel your depth of field so its no longer parallel to your imaging sensor. You might have seen those miniature style pictures of a city where everything looks miniaturised. Well thats how thats done. Basically the photographer has selected a large aperture (small number F2.8 or F4) and tilted the lens so the depth of field is no longer parallel to the sensor. Here is one I did in Drogheda a few years back with a Canon 90mm TSE.

In fairness thats not what the tilt function was designed for. Using the likes of the 17mm or 24mm one could theoretically obtain a massive depth of field at f5.6 or less by simply adjusting the tilt a small bit to suit their needs. This has the advantage of keeping your shutter speed faster. They are also useful in the macro/product photography industry where the tilt function would be used to massively increase the depth of field but still keep the lens at the sweet spot aperture!

Above all these Tilt Shift or PC Lens are extremely versatile and useful tools, and not just for architectural photography. In time I’ll make a video to show how they work! For now I hope you lasted until here. Any question or if you’d like a demo please do not hesitate to ask or drop into the shop.

CanonMiniaturisationNikonPc lensTilt shift lens

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