Unique in the world of camera optics, tilt-shift lenses enable you to tilt the angle of the optical path, relative to the image sensor. They also allow you to shift the optical axis so that it’s off-centre but still parallel to the imaging plane. It might sound revolutionary but, in fact, large-format film cameras were taking this sort of thing in their stride, more than a century ago.
So what’s so special about tilt and shift? Tilting the lens enables far greater control over depth of field than simply adjusting the aperture setting, and without the latter’s restrictions on shutter speed. By tilting the lens in one direction, you can gradually increase the depth of field until it’s almost infinite.
We’re seeing a growing number of ‘macro’ or ‘micro’ tilt-shift lenses from Canon and Nikon respectively, which enable as much as a 0.5x magnification ratio at their closest focus setting. These lenses therefore work very well for extreme close-up photography, where gaining sufficient depth of field is always a struggle. Tilt the lens in the opposite direction and you can make the depth of field very small, enabling a ‘toy camera’ effect.
The Tilt facility certainly isn’t the only attraction of this type of lens. The shift function gives you the ability to take control over perspective effects. Indeed, Nikon gives its tilt-shift lenses a PC (Perspective Control) prefix. A classic use of the shift function is in architectural photography. Shoot from ground level with a regular lens and tall buildings will appear to lean inwards towards the top. By dialing in the necessary amount of shift, you can counteract the appearance of walls tapering inwards as they rise up. Another neat trick of applying shift is that you can shoot directly into a mirror and remove yourself and the camera from the reflection.
With independent rotation mechanisms, Canon’s current lenses enable you to use both tilt and shift functions in either axis for both landscape and portrait orientation. That also holds true for Nikon’s newest PC 19mm lens. However, the older Nikon PC-E lenses featured in our guide only have a single rotation mechanism. The whole lens assembly can be rotated but, by default, the axes for tilt and shift functions always remain perpendicular to each other. You can have a PC-E lens reconfigured at a Nikon service centre, so that its tilt and shift functions operate on the same axis. This orientation is generally preferred by landscape photographers.
Read on for more detail on what our recommendations for the best tilt-shift lens are…
Best tilt-shift lenses
The super-wide viewing angle enabled by this 17mm lens makes it a top choice for shooting skyscrapers from nearby city streets, where you physically can’t get as far back from the building as you might like. The same holds true for shooting architectural interiors, where space can be even more limited.
Typical of most Canon L-series lenses, it has a robust, pro-grade construction that includes comprehensive weather-seals. The high-quality optical path includes a large, precision-moulded glass element and four UD (Ultra-low Dispersion) elements, to boost sharpness and contrast while keeping tight control over chromatic aberrations. The lens can focus down to just 0.25m, so you need to be careful not to bump the bulbous, protruding front element into objects when shooting close-ups.
The 24mm focal length of this lens works well for most architectural photography. The viewing angle is less extreme than in the sibling TS-E 17mm, but should prove sufficient even for shooting large buildings from fairly close in. The amount of shift on hand should prove ample for correcting perspective, while the tilt range is a little more generous than in the 17mm lens. Further bonus are that this lens has an attachment thread for easily accommodating filters, albeit with a fairly large 82mm diameter, and you can shoot with a hood fitted, which is good for physical protection of the front element as well as for reducing ghosting and flare. The Mark II edition of the lens delivers improved image quality, with better sharpness towards the edges and corners of the frame. As with the 17mm lens, this one includes a large, precision-moulded aspherical element and four UD elements, along with high-tech SWC (Sub Wavelength Coating).
Canon claims this is an ideal lens for landscape and architectural photography although many might prefer the more generous viewing angle of the TS-E 24mm. On the other hand, the 50mm focal length does give a very natural viewing perspective, which can be preferable if you’re not cramped for space.
This lens also adds 0.5x macro magnification, when shooting at the closest focus distance of 0.27m, although that can feel a little on the short side if you’re trying to shoot timid bugs and the like. Two UD elements are featured in the optical path, along with dual, high-tech Air Sphere and Subwavelength Coatings to fend off ghosting and flare.
A focal length of around 90mm to 100mm is usually ideal for macro photography, as it enables a natural working distance of around 30cm between the focal plane and the subject. That distance extends to 39cm in this case, as the lens delivers a maximum magnification ratio of 0.5x instead of a full 1.0x, at its closest focus setting. Even so, that enables massive enlargements of tiny objects in close-up photography.
Canon is keen to point out that this lens isn’t just for close-ups, however, and advertises its suitability for portraiture and product shots. We’re not completely sold on its merits for portraiture, but the control over perspective and depth of field can be very beneficial in product photography.
Typical of Canon’s L-series tilt-shift lenses, the 135mm is beautifully built and offers very smooth and precise control over everything from focusing to tilt, shift and rotational adjustments. Indeed, TS-E lenses are all very hands-on affairs, as they lack autofocus and everything needs to be set up manually.
You’ll also find that you need to dial in exposure compensation when using tilt and shift functions. The 135mm focal length is likely to be the least popular option, not that any tilt-shift lenses are really ‘mass-market’ commodities. Canon says this lens is geared more towards studio use, and its 0.5x macro facility can certainly come in handy.
Nikon’s super-wide-angle 19mm is something of a revolutionary in the company’s Perspective Control lens line-up. The older PC-E lenses only have a single rotation mechanism, but this one has two. Crucially, this enables you to alter the axis of the tilt function relative to the shift function on the fly, without needing to send the lens away to a Nikon service centre to be reconfigured. In this respect, the new PC lens is more comparable to Canon’s TS-E lenses. The 19mm focal length allows you to shoot even tall buildings from a fairly close distance and is also perfect for cramped architectural interiors, where your back can literally be up against the wall.
Optical finery includes two aspherical elements, three ED (Extra-low Dispersion) elements and Nano Crystal Coat. Mechanical operation of focusing and tilt-shift/rotation functions are flawless throughout. It’s very expensive, even for a PC lens, but you get what you pay for.
The viewing angle of a 24mm wide-angle lens is ideal for architectural photography from a natural distance, while the shift facility of this lens enables you to correct perspective and stop vertical edges of from appearing to lean inwards. Unlike the newer PC 19mm lens, this one only has a conventional, single rotation mechanism, so you can only apply tilt or shift in perpendicular planes to each other, which is of less use for landscape photographers.
On the plus side, and unlike in the PC 19mm lens, the front element can be protected by a hood while shooting, and there’s an attachment thread for the easy addition of filters. Image quality is top-drawer, enhanced by ED glass and Nano Crystal Coat.
You might not be able to squeeze very large buildings into the image frame, at least from the confines of city streets, but the 45mm focal length of this lens gives a very natural viewing perspective for general shooting.
Naturally, you can still correct perspective errors with the shift function of the lens, as well as controlling depth of field with the tilt option. As usual with PC-E lenses, rather than the newer PC 19mm Nikkor, tilt and shift functions are locked in perpendicular axes, whether the lens is rotated for landscape or portrait orientation shooting. And as with other PC-E lenses, the overall range of tilt and shift movements can be limited when using some camera bodies (mostly DX bodies), due to the close proximity of the lower front edge of the viewfinder cowl.
This lens gives a 0.5x magnification ratio when shooting at its minimum focus distance of 39cm, reproducing small objects at half life-size on the image sensor. That makes it ideal for photographing bugs and other small items from a comfortable working distance, while employing the tilt function to extend your depth of field.
The lens is also a good choice for product photography, where the shift function can be equally useful for correcting any perspective effects. It’s the least expensive of Nikon’s current range of Perspective Control lenses, but still pretty pricey.
Unlike own-brand Canon and Nikon tilt-shift lenses, this Samyang 24mm is available in a wide variety of mount options, including Canon EF, Canon EF-M, Nikon F (FX), Pentax K, Sony A, Sony E, Samyang NX and Fujifilm X.
It only costs between a quarter and half the price of Canon and Nikon tilt-shift lenses to buy, but is still cleverly designed and well-engineered. Quality glass included two aspherical elements and two ED elements, while multi-layer coatings are applied to all 16 elements in the optical path. The complete tilt-shift assembly of the lens can be rotated by up to 90 degrees to the right, while the tilt section can be independently rotated by up to 90 degrees to the left. Image quality is very good indeed, making the Samyang a smart buy at the price.
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