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Tilt Shift Photography: An Introduction

Note: Tilt shift photography is quite complicated. If you haven’t shot with a tilt shift lens before, trying to wrap your mind around these concepts can be somewhat difficult.

This article may seem very overwhelming at first, but if you’re interested in getting into tilt shift photography we encourage you to stick it out! We’re going to try to make this series as easy to follow as possible, while still discussing the technical stuff.

If this all seems scary, don’t panic. Read it through a few times, study the photos, and just give yourself some time to think about it. It will sink in eventually, and once it does you’ll have that “Aha!” moment, and you’ll be on your way to creating thoughtful and intelligent tilt shift images.

When we first bought a tilt-shift lens we found it to be so overwhelming it barely came out of our camera bag for the first year! Once we spent some time learning how to properly use it, and what to look for when shooting with it, it became a staple lens of ours!  

tilt-header.jpg

Tilt Shift photography involves taking photos with a type of specialty lens which allows you to control your plane of focus.

Lenses are made for 35mm dSLR and film cameras (Canon and Nikon) as well as medium format cameras. You typically see tilt-shift photography for things like food photography and architectural photography where it is necessary to precisely control the plane of focus (so that a whole plate of food is in focus) or correct converging lines (so that buildings appear geometrically correct).

More recently photographers have been using it with great success for interesting portrait photography, and tilt-shift photography is gaining in popularity.

When using it with portraits it helps create almost three dimensional images helping your subject pop out of the photo. At times it also grabs the viewers attention as being unexplainably different. It’s cool stuff.

Where did it all begin?

Tilt-shift may be considered a trend by some right now, but the fact is it’s a type of photography thats been around pretty much since the beginning of photography itself.

Large format 4×5 or 8×10 film cameras (like our Horseman shown below) could perform all the necessary camera movements in order to control the plane of focus the way modern tilt shift lenses can today – in fact they could perform more movements and at more extreme angles!

Rest assured that tilt-shift photography is not a passing trend, and that more and more photographers will begin developing their tilt-shift skills in the years to come.

4x5film01.jpg

To make it very simple, a tilt-shift lens can perform two different actions: it can tilt, and it can shift. The following two images show each function, and how it affects the same image.

Controlling the plane of focus – The following photo shows how tilt effects the image. Notice the beautiful gradient of lens blur from the top of the image to the bottom of the image where our couple is. With tilt you are effectively able to make objects at infinity (i.e. the building) out of focus, as we’ve done with this image.

In doing so we’re able to draw the viewer to the important part of the scene – the couple at the bottom.tilt-shift-portraits-5.jpg

Correcting converging lines – In the photo below I used the shift function to correct the converging lines in the building. When you’re taking a photo of a building from the ground up lines converge. That means that they appear closer together at the top, as you can tell from the photo above.

By using the shift function of the lens I was able to effectively straighten out the building. While not perfect, the lines appear much more vertical.

tilt-shift-portraits-4.jpg

Portraits – The examples above are more landscape images than portraits, but this lens can also be used effectively for closer portrait photography. Notice the tilted plane of focus in the next image. You can think about the plane of focus sloping down into the photo. Their eyes are in focus, and the bottom of the trees behind them are in focus. Just connect that plane and you’ll see that tilt effect.

tilt-shift-portraits-3.jpg

Controlling the plane of focus like this can be useful when you want to draw in other graphic elements in a scene, bringing them together in tight focus with the subject. The image below is a good example of this. The couple is in focus as well as the strong graphic element of the repeating red pillars.

weddings109.jpg

Another example of tilt. Tilt is definitely the function I use the most in order to isolate subjects.

tilt-shift-portraits-2.jpg

Making things miniature – The image below is actually a 4×5 film shot that I took using the 4×5 camera you saw at the beginning of this post. One result tilt can have on an image is creating the appearance that everything is miniature! This effect is most obvious in city shots, and shots taken from above, like the following.

tilt-shift-portraits-6.jpg

Here’s another example of connecting elements using tilt. While it was just good luck that the camera was tilted in the right orientation, Lauren’s quick thinking helped capture the bird in flight in the top right corner of this image.

tilt-shift-portraits-1.jpg

In the next post we’re going to take a look at what lenses you can use to create images like the ones above, and we’ll begin discussing how to properly control the lens. Click here to continue to the next post in this series now.

Back in time!

To the future!

Rob Lim

Hi there, I’m Rob! I’m a photographer and head ninja here at Photography Concentrate. I love all things photography: shooting, teaching and always learning more! If I’m not reading up on the latest photography news, or studying a technique, I’m probably reading a book or planning our next adventure!

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Discussion

6 Comments // Leave a comment

  1. Fantastic introduction to TS. I'm glad to see some of the practical (Non-architectural) applications of TS explored here. I like to think of TS personally as an alternate way to generate the effect of a shallow depth of field..

  2. Wow! This is great information Rob.

    Tilt Shift photography brings a wonderful dynamic to an image; especially in portrait photography. Using these techniques to also make things miniature is a great way of adding a "fun" and toyish context to the image.

    Excellent article. Keep them coming.

  3. I really liked your examples and explanations. I would have loved to hear a little more history on the topic, talking a bit more about bellows cameras.
    I loved Rob's film pic of the couple on the dock. Stunning!

  4. a beautiful start to a wonderful scope of photography!!! Can't wait for the next article on the lenses… whee~!!

  5. I know this will probably fall under lenses but I'd love to hear a little bit about your opinion on the lensbaby composers. I know it's not a true TS but the price is definitely right. Would it be good for a beginner?

  6. Hi Rob (and Lauren), I’ve been reading your blog and also bought one of your courses online! While, on my search through wordpress, looking for a blog platform..! (a blog virgin here!) And, it already improved my ‘taking photos’ technique! Isn’t it amazing how we all get connected. And, I must say all your posts answers all my questions I have regarding photography. Thank you so much for your contribution and sharing what you know. I am sure you won’t mind if I share your links on my new blog: http://www.everthinevermineverours.me.
    And, I would get my tilt shift lens on my next big buy! This is a very interesting post! :) I’ll see you in the blogosphere~~~ Sincerely, Anliette

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