What is a Tilt-Shift Lens and How Does it Work?

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There is something undeniably charming about seeing our world in miniature scale—tiny cars, tiny people, and tiny dramas. Created by the “tilt-shift” lens, the effect has gained a lot of popularity (some would argue too much) over the past few years. Beyond producing the miniature effect, the tilt-shift lens possesses some amazing functions. Vincent Laforet of Canon Explorer of Light demonstrates the tilt-shift’s ability in eliminating lens distortion:

What is a tilt-shift lens?

The tilt-shift lens has two distinct types of movements as described by its name.

Tilt is the rotation of the lens plane relative to the image plane, controlling the area of an image that appears sharp. Think of it like “selective focus”—this is what creates the miniature effect.

Shift is the movement of the lens parallel to the image plane, allowing the position of the subject in frame to be changed without having to move the camera around.

Traditionally, the tilt-shift is used to help minimize distortion of wide angle lenses. It has found a welcomed home in architectural photography and portraiture, as well as landscape and product photography.

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Laforet sets up his Canon 5D Mark III and TS-E 24mm f/3.5L II under the Brooklyn Bridge to photograph the twilight cityscape. Many of us will have to make a choice when composing our frames with wide angle lenses. For Laforet, it’s keeping the top of the Brooklyn bridge in a distorted frame, or tilting down for no distortion with loss of the bridge.

“The beauty of tilt shift lenses is that you can actually shift them to get best of both worlds.”

Tips for Using Tilt-Shift Lenses

He gives us a few pointers on using a tilt-shift for lens distortion correction:

  • Compose your frame. Put your subject in center of the frame.
  • Make sure the plane is perfectly horizontal.
  • Use the ‘shift’ function of the lens and shift up or down to get the best frame possible.

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The lens will do the rest! Watch as the distortion or “pinched” look disappears, leaving you with a natural looking image.

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