Unconventional use of TILT shift LeNs

Once upon a time I saw some photos of the Winter Olympics shot on a medium format film camera. The photographer was shooting for Sports Illustrated (I believe). The conventional use of a tilt shift lens is to correct for converging lines produced by a “normal’ lens. The lens plane of normal lenses is exactly parallel to the sheet of film or in our case the camera sensor. If you take a picture 90º to the subject, all lines will be perfectly parallel up and down, discounting some lens distortion like barrel. But if you angle the camera (and of course lens) up, say to shoot a tall building, or anything taller than you, the lines will converge. The camera doesn’t see like our eyes see. Try for yourself, look at a building straight on, then look up. Do the lines of the edge of the building converge near the top? No, they remain parallel.

Enter the tilt shift lens. This unique lens has been around for ever. Think about the old medium and large format film cameras, where the photographer is under that hood, and the the middle part of the camera looks like an accordion. That’s a tilt shift. The front lens element is not fixed to the plane of the film. The photographer can slightly adjust the different between the two and thereby correct any distortion.

A modern tilt shift lens like the one I use the Canon TS-E 90mm is simply a compact version of the old system. Architecture photographers in particular will use tilt shift lenses to correct for converging lines distortion in their photos of buildings.

Circling back to the Winter Olympics photographer mentioned above, he was using the tilt shift in a completely unintended and unique way. By narrowing the depth of field and throwing the two planes WAY out of alignment a peculiar effect is achieved. The top and bottom of the frame are completely bokahed out leaving a narrow “slot” of sharp, in focus frame. The effect tries the eye into thinking you are looking at a scale model. The effect is pronounced if you shoot from an elevated position, mimicking looking down into a scale model scene. Shortly after seeing the Olympics photos, I thought doing these from a helicopter or small aircraft would be super cool. So I began regularly including a Canon 45mm TS lens into my airborne flight camera kit.

I certainly NOT a pioneer for this, others have been doing this for awhile as well. I’ll also say, these lenses have a pretty steep learning curve. Using them on the ground is hard enough, let alone leaning out of a helicopter 1,000’ up. They are 100% manual. There is nothing auto about them. You need to manually adjust the tilt and shift movements, the focus, shutter and aperture. But like most things, the harder it is, the more unique its going to be.

Adam SenatoriComment