The Tilt-Shift Lens

Kenneth Jones

The Tilt-Shift Lens

Photography is a vast and diverse industry that includes every type of photography you can imagine. From micro photographers who specialize in shooting tiny insects to wildlife photographers, sports photographers, landscape photographers, architectural and interior design photographers, astrophotographers who shoot stars and celestial bodies, and countless others.


To achieve the highest quality photographs in each of virtually countless photographic genrés, niches, and sub-niches requires the appropriate type or types of lenses. And in the world of architectural and interior design photography, the one lens that is absolutely essential to producing the highest quality photographs is called the tilt-shift lens.

Before we move on, you should understand that the tilt-shift lens isn't "new" technology by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, the modern versions of this technology are based on the principles commonly found in cameras that were built in the late 1800's.

As for what a tilt-shift lens is and what it does, let me start by explaining what makes a high-quality architectural and interior design photograph.

While there's a certain level of "art" within most types of photography, including in architectural and interior design photography, the ultimate goal in this field is to accurately represent the subject of the photograph. Consequently, such photographs cannot distort the subject since that would not be a true representation.

Therefore, when shooting the exteriors and interiors of buildings, as well as when shooting interior design elements, such as furnishings, appliances, and design features of kitchens and baths, it's essential that all vertical lines in a photograph (being the exterior perimeters and interior corners) must be at a 90° angle with the horizontal plane, such as level land or the interior floor.

Unfortunately, due to the physical properties of a standard lens, it's virtually impossible to achieve a 90° vertical (as shown in the photo top right). In comparison, the photo bottom right demonstrates the 90° verticals that can be achieved using a tilt-shift lens.

Tilted Buildings Represented by Red Lines


How Does a Tilt-Shift Lens Work?

Unlike ordinary lenses that can only move near and far on the perpendicular plane of the camera's sensor (such as does a zoom lens), a tilt-shift lens can move vertically and horizontally across the camera's body in the "shift" mode as well as on an angle from the camera body in the "tilt" mode.

Both the tilt and shift functions happen while the camera body (and the camera's sensor, which captures the image) remains in a fixed position. (See photos at right.)

Another difference inherent to a tilt-shift lens is that unlike most modern camera lenses that have an auto-focusing ability, the tilt-shift lenses can only be focused manually. This is likely due to the complexity of their mobile functionality.

Another difference from other types of lenses, is that the tilt-shift lens doesn't have any form of built-in stabilization. However, due to the nature of how and where these lenses are use, which is virtually always by mounting them on a tripod, there's no need for auto-focus or stabilization.


Lens in the tilt mode.


Lens in the shift mode.


NOTE: Tile-Shift Lens Aperture is estimated for demonstration purposes.

Another significant difference between a common camera lens and a tilt-shift lens is that the diameter of ordinary camera lenses is only as wide as is necessary to cover the entire width of the camera's sensor, whereas the diameter of a tilt-shift lens is significantly larger than the sensor.

The larger  diameter allows the lens to move, or "shift" horizontally and vertically to capture different parts of a subject while the camera body remains in a fixed position which produces several component parts of the same subject, such as a tall or long building. All of these component photos are then assembled like jig saw puzzle pieces, then blended and merged together in the editing process to create a single image of the entire subject.

The larger diameter of the tile-shift lens also allows it to be tilted up and down and from side to side. This feature enables the lens to focus clearly on parts of a photo composition that are close to and distant from the camera, a benefit that ordinary lenses cannot accomplish.

Because having straight vertical lines is essential in architectural photography, the most commonly used function of a tilt-shift lens is the shift function. However, the tilt function is also used, particularly for various types of interior design shots where it's important to have items that are both near and distant from camera to be equally focused.


Canon 50mm Lens in a Tilt Position


Canon 17mm Len in a Shift Position

Using a Tilt-Shift Lens

Learning how to use a tilt-shift lens isn't brain surgery. It's like learning to use anything else that you're unfamiliar with, which means it's going to take a little time to get comfortable with it. But, if you're an experienced amateur photographer who understands how to use your camera, learning how to use a tilt-shift lens shouldn't take more than an hour (at most).

Whether you're an amateur or a professional photographer, the most frustrating part of using this type of lens is learning how to focus a scene in the tilt mode. That said, even for professional photographers accustomed to using a tilt-shift lens, using the tilt mode is always the more time consuming.

Example of the Shift Function

The most common use of a tilt-shift lens is the shift function. It's also the primary function employed by architectural and interior design photographers to produce photos with vertical lines that are 90° to their horizontal plane.

Graphics B-1 and B-2 we can see how the shift function allows the photographer to shoot a tall building. These graphics represent the range of photographs that must be taken to capture all the necessary images to be merged to create a single photo of the building.

With the camera positioned at a distance where the lens can capture the entire building within its shift lens' range of motion, we can see that the camera's sensor remains in a fixed position while the lens is shifted upward.

The height of the building and the camera's distance from the building, will determine how many shots must be taken to capture the entire building.





Keep in mind, the shift function can also be used to create wide, or panoramic photographs by shifting the lens from left to right rather than up and down. The photo below is an example of a wide/pano sample shot I took when familiarizing myself with my Canon 24mm f/3.5 TS-E (tilt-shift) lens. Keep in mind, this was a test shot.

You may also want to view this short video about tilt-shift lens basics posted by Canon.

The Tilt-Shift Lens is Professional Gear

(Professional "Kit" for you Brits)

A tilt-shift lens is a highly specialized piece of equipment. They are designed, engineered, and built to satisfy the critical needs of some of the most demanding commercial photographers.

In short, they're not intended for the beginner or the weekend warrior. That's not to suggest that the amateur is incapable of using this special tool. But if you're thinking about acquiring one, be prepared to pay for it.

For example, the most commonly used tilt-shift lens by professional photographers is the Canon 24mm f/3.5 L II TS-E. As of this writing, B&H sells it new for $1,899.00 and offering a few used iterations from $1,299.95 for a well worn piece to $1,556.95 for a like-new model.

B&H also sells the Nikon PC-E NIKKOR 24mm f/3.5D ED Tilt-Shift Lens for $2,196.95. B&H is offering used models of the 85mm version of this lens from $1,126.55 for a moderately used model to $1,205.95 for a like-new model.

Although there are a couple of economy manufacturers of these lenses that offer this type of lens at lower prices, those lenses tend not to produce the image quality demanded by working professional photographers.


In Conclusion...

The tilt-shift lenses we use today are old technology that's been adapted for use on modern camera bodies. There's really nothing mystical about the concept of this type of lens, and contrary to the common perception, they're really not difficult to use.

And, other than the fact that they've faded from most photography genrés, save architectural and interior design photography, the tilt-shift lens can be a very useful lens for many other types of photography, including product photography, food photography, landscape photography, general real estate photography, auto and motorcycle photography, among others.

My advice to anyone who wishes to experiment with using a tilt-shift lens, rather than purchasing one (which is a very expensive proposition), find a local camera store that will rent one to you for a few days or a week (I strongly recommend starting with the 24mm). This will afford you enough time to get familiar with its features, benefits, and limitations to help you determine whether it's something you'd benefit from using in your work.

If you have any questions, or would like to discuss this, or anything else about photography, please contact me any time.

Thanks for stopping by, and I look forward to hearing from you.


Ken Jones


architecture, interior design, lenses, verticals

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