How to mimic the tilt-shift effect

THE MISSION

To get the effect of a tilt-shift lens for much less money

Time: 20 minutes

Skill level: Intermediate

Kit needed: D-SL, 50mm lens, Tripod

Tilt-shift lenses are notoriously costly, but you can get a similar effect without having to shell out on expensive optics. So-called ‘free-lensing’, where you detach your lens and hold it in front of your camera while shooting, can result in some very interesting effects. As with a tilt-shift lens, with a ‘free’ lens you can adjust the plane of focus in your image, so only a narrow band is sharp. 

Although you can use any lens for this technique, older analogue lenses are best, as they enable you to set the aperture manually (see Step by Step for why this is useful). You can pick up an old lens quite cheaply, and you don’t have to worry about the fit since it doesn’t need to be attached. For our photos we used an old Fujica 50mm f/1.9 lens designed for use with a 35mm film SLR. 

This technique takes a little practice, but you can get some great effects from the vignetting and colour casts that result from moving your lens around, as well as the amazingly shallow depth of field this creates. Here’s how...

STEP BY STEP: Shoot more freely

1 GO MANUAL

A lens that enables you to focus manually is essential for this technique, while a manual aperture ring will also help. It is also a good idea to shoot somewhere still, and without too much dust or sand around, as your camera sensor will be exposed to the elements. 

2 FREE UP YOUR HANDS

Using a tripod will help you to get sharper images, and teamed with a timer or remote trigger it’ll leave your hands free to move the lens around. You can get light leaks when moving the lens, so hold something dark, such as black card, at the sides to prevent this.

3 OPEN WIDE

If your lens has a manual aperture ring, set it as wide as you can to let more light in, and give you a brighter viewfinder image. Without a lens attached, you won’t be able to use your camera’s metering system, so you’ll need to experiment with shutter speed in manual mode. 

BEWARE DUST!

This technique does leave your sensor and lens vulnerable to dust. If you don’t want to risk this, there are other ways to get a similar effect: one option is to use a Lensbaby Spark, which costs £60/$90,(www.lensbaby.co.uk). This is a lens with a bendable tube that enables you to twist the lens around while your sensor remains covered. The Spark’s effect can be quite strong, and it can’t match the optical quality of a 50mm lens, but it’s great fun for creative focusing while keeping your sensor protected.

4 KEEP IT CLEAN

Free-lensing creates a very shallow depth of field, but it’s still a good idea to ensure backgrounds are clutter-free. To complement our bright, colourful subject, and make it stand out more, we shot against a dense green bush, which also helped to provide some texture and detail. 

5 MIND THE GAP

Using small movements, move the lens away from the camera, at a slight angle to it. This may create a gap that will leak enough light in to blow out your image, so keep the gap small and use your hands to block the edges. This will also give a colour cast to your image. 

6 FOCUS WITH CARE

Accurate focusing takes a bit of practice, but a good starting point is to use the viewfinder or Live View to set the focus point just in front of or just beyond your subject, and then move the lens back and forth, very slightly, to focus on the thing you want to be sharp.