Tilt-Shift Lenses (Part II)

Welcome to Part II of my two-part post on tilt-shift lenses.  Part I addressed the tilt function of these unique tools. This week, I will be talking about the other control that is available – the shift.

To put it VERY simply, shifting the lens (either up, down, left or right) gives the photographer the ability to control perspective in a photograph. As I wrote in my last article, the ability to control perspective in your photograph is not a new concept. It’s been possible ever since view cameras were commonplace. The first lens that offered perspective control (shift movement) was a Nikon 35mm f/3.5, which was introduced around 1961. At the end of this article I will be talking about what lenses are available today.

Let’s begin with an example. Imagine that you are in a big city looking up at a tall building. What do you see? Do the two sides of the building appear to be parallel all the way to the top, or does the building look smaller at the top than it does at the bottom?…..Right, smaller at the top. The two sides of the building are converging and that’s why they’re called converging lines.  When I talk about “controlling perspective” I am talking about trying to reduce or remove converging lines in your image. I’m going to explain to you how a tilt-shift (TS) lens can help to reduce or remove these converging lines.  Now in extreme cases (when the building is REALLY tall) even the maximum shift that your lens has to offer will not be enough.

The whole trick to eliminating converging lines is to keep the film plane parallel to the side of the building.  This means that you need to keep the camera pointing straight at the building and not up at it.

If you point your camera directly at a tall building with a normal lens, or a TS lens set to “no shift”, you will notice that you cannot see the top of the building through the viewfinder (unless your lens is ultra-wide of course). This is where the shift movements come into play.  When you shift the lens up, you will notice that it seems as though you are changing the angle of the camera and pointing it up.  But in actuality, that’s not happening.   Your sensor still remains exactly parallel to the side of the building.  By shifting your lens, you are giving what you shoot a much greater sense of dominance in the photograph.

How to Duplicate the look of a Tilt-Shift lens on the Computer:

One of the questions that I get asked the most in reference to tilt-shift lenses, ironically enough, has nothing to do with the lens itself.  Rather, it is how to create the tilt-shift “look” using a computer.  (This might have something to do with the hefty price tag that usually accompanies a TS lens).  The quick answer I give people is, to a certain extent you can, but the results will in many cases be less than satisfactory. If you are on the edge about buying one of these wonderful tilt-shift lenses, and the only thing holding you back is the knowledge that you can do it on the computer, I would say BUY THE LENS.

Here I will briefly describe the process of duplicating these effects in Photoshop CS5.  If there is enough interest, I will do a more in-depth article on this later this year.

Lets start with the tilt movements that allow us to control our focus…..remember last week’s article?

Now, if you recall, tilting the lens can either give you unlimited depth of field (tilting the lens down towards the ground), or it can be used to create a sliver of focus in your photograph.

Photoshop for Unlimited Depth of Field:

So, can Photoshop create unlimited depth of field in a photograph? Nope. But, you can simulate that look by taking multiple photographs. You just take your tripod, set your camera up, compose your shot and shoot 3 to 4 photos moving the focus point each time ensuring that you get a photo focused on each part of your composition.

Now, back at home, you’ll have 3 to 4 photos that all look the same, with the focus point in a different area each time.  You just need to composite the photos together into one, creating masks on each and painting in the sharp areas of the photograph. When this is done, you should be left with one photo, that has essentially simulated unlimited depth of field.

Photoshop for “Sliver of Focus” Effect:

The process to duplicate this look on the computer is really easy, but getting satisfactory results is the hard part. Making it look like it was actually shot with a TS lens can be really difficult and time-consuming.

To start, choose a photograph that you want to kick out the focus on parts of the image. Now, you want to duplicate the background layer because we don’t want to blur the entire photograph. Next, we need to blur some areas in our photograph.  To do this, I like to use the “Gaussian Blur” under the Filter—-> Blur panel in Photoshop.

Choose the amount of blur that you think looks good. Next, create a mask and paint black on the areas that you want to remain sharp. I find it useful to vary the opacity and size of your brush to make this look more realistic. A good way to learn how to do this better is to look online at photographers who actually used a TS lens.  By doing this you can control the eye of the viewer, making them stay focused on the subject of your photograph.

Photoshop for Shift Movements:

This may be the easiest movement to duplicate on the computer, simply because the folks at Adobe have put in a tool that does a lot of the work for you.

All you need is a photograph that has severe converging lines (like a tall building).  In Photoshop just go Filter—-> Lens Correction. In the Lens Correction dialog box, there are multiple sliders that allow you to fix some common problems with distortion. You may need to click the “Custom” tab in the upper right corner of the box to see the sliders.

To fix converging lines simply drag the “Vertical Perspective” slider.  You will notice that this filter will distort the photograph and fix the distortion problems previously experienced.

The downside? You lose A LOT of your photograph.  The software needs to crop your image to correct it, so you end up with a much smaller file and a composition that is usually not what you wanted.

Now you can see that it is possible to duplicate some of the effects of a tilt-shift lens on the computer, but the results are usually not of the same quality you would get out of a real TS lens. As with everything in photography, it is always better if you can get it right in the camera rather than using editing software.


As for the equipment that is available for TS photography, I am mainly going to cover the two main brands that professional photographers use – Nikon and Canon.

There is a way to get the same selective focus that you can get with a TS lens without spending over $1000. Lensbaby have always prided themselves on creating a tool that gives photographers the ability to control the focus in their images. I would say that if you are interested in playing with these fun techniques, a Lensbaby would be a great choice.

If however, you want full control through both tilting and shifting your lens, you will want one of the more expensive lenses made by Canon and Nikon.

Canon makes four models:
Canon 17 mm TS-E f/4L
Canon 24 mm TS-E f/3.5L II
Canon 45 mm TS-E f/2.8
Canon 90 mm TS-E f/2.8

Nikon makes three models:
PC-E Nikkor 24 mm F3.5D ED
PC-E Nikkor 45 mm F2.8D ED
PC-E Nikkor 85 mm F2.8D ED

Although expensive, a Tilt-Shift lens gives you more control over your photographs through both focus and perspective control and really aids your creativity as a photographer. I would highly recommend that any photographer who has any interest in what I have talked about, try one of these lenses.

A quick note, I own the Canon 90mm TS lens, therefore it makes it quite hard to shoot architecture and demonstrate these techniques. My great friend, and wonderful photographer Forest Woodward on the other hand, has played quite a lot with the Canon 24mm lens and is letting me use one of his photos for the example image as shown below.

12 thoughts on “Tilt-Shift Lenses (Part II)

George DeWolfe

Hey Forest!
Great articles about Tilt/Shift lenses. Keep up the great work.

Forest Chaput de Saintonge

Thanks George!

Kate Cooper

Both posts explain the process nicely, good diagrams and nice illustrations, thanks Forest.

Kyong Brust

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Hello Kyong,
We would love to hear your ideas. There’s a ‘contact’ tab beneath our Paper Airlines header at the top of the page. It’s between “about” and “rmsp.com” Thanks so much for your interest and participation!


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Nicely done!

I’m planning on renting a Nikkor 24mm PC lens for an upcoming trip to Yellowstone. I can’t wait to try it out.

Thanks for the great information on TS.

Forest Woodward

Great post as usual Forest!!

and thanks for using my image :)!

Racquel Prete

I just like the blog, however couldn’t find find out how to subscribe to obtain the updates by email. Can you please let me know?

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Page Orb Pedde

Hi Raquel,

You can subscribe to our blog emails by clicking on the “Subscribe to Paper Airplanes via E-mail” link on the right hand side of the page just below the main banner or at the bottom of the Contact page.

Richard Gallegos

Would you address the issue of exposure–how, etc? Thank you.

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