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Use a shift lens to improve sharpness in food and product photography

Use a shift lens to improve sharpness in food and product photography
(Image credit: Future)

Before: at an optimal aperture of f/11 depth-of-field does not cover the entire front subject when using macro focussing distances (Image credit: Future)

After: By using full tilt on a macro-enabled perspective control lens maximum detail can be captured without using diffraction-inducing aperture settings (Image credit: Future)

Close-up photography is all about capturing detail. Whether the image is a macro shot of a plant in a natural setting or a magnified product image, the goal is the same – to show elements of the subject that are not easily visible with the naked eye. 

A characteristic feature of close-up images is shallow depth of field, introduced by the close focussing distances used. While this can compliment some subjects, with commercial product shots or scientific record images of natural subjects this fall-off in sharpness is often undesirable. For this image of a food product, it was essential to render the front item equally sharp across its surface. While it is possible to extend depth of field DOF by stopping down the aperture, the high f-number required would compromise lens resolution through diffraction. 

A tilt/shift lens is capable of adjusting the angle of the focal plane so that it covers more of the subject without stopping down significantly. This enables us to utilize the lens’s optimal aperture – in the case of this Nikon PC-E Micro NIKKOR 45mm f/2.8D ED that we’re using, around f/5.6, while still achieving required depth. A macro tilt/shift optic is an incredibly powerful tool, allowing high magnification, and perspective and focus control.

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Step 1: Arrange the scene

(Image credit: Future)

Set out your items, staggering them for added interest. Ensure there are no distractions. Here we used a large soft light from behind and a focussed strobe from the side.

Step 2: Set camera height

(Image credit: Future)

While DOF is increased by shooting at 90° to the subject, here it was necessary to aim the camera down at around 45° to capture the top surface of the product. This also controls background detail.

Step 3: Calculate exposure 

(Image credit: Future)

Since we will be avoiding small aperture settings, controlling lighting is essential. Use Manual mode, set an appropriate shutter speed and adjust the strobe output accordingly if using flash.

Step 4: Compose the shot 

(Image credit: Future)

Arrange the frame so that the subject fills the composition, making use of the lens’s macro capabilities. The angle here has restricted context to suggest a bakery setting, but with clear subject focus. 

Step 5: Rotate the lens

(Image credit: Future)

For vertical tilt, first press the rotate lock switch and twist the front lens section to rotate it into the vertical position. This will enable the tilt and shift mechanism to move the lens up and down.

Step 6: Tilt the lens

(Image credit: Future)

Twist the control knob to set positive tilt and align the focal plane with the subject. Use live view or the viewfinder to monitor DOF as you work. Here full tilt was required for maximum focus across the pastry.

Step 7: Adjust focus

(Image credit: Future)

Use the manual ring to adjust the position of the focal plane, to ensure your subject is correctly focussed. Here the front of the forward subject was used as the focal point to maximize visible sharpness. 

Step 8: Customize f-stop

(Image credit: Future)

Zoom in on your LCD to check that the front and back of the subject are equally sharp. Adjust aperture to further control depth of field – here stopping down to f11 brought out more detail in the rear subject. 

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