How to Use a Tilt-Shift Lens for Creative Focusing

The tilt-shift is an extremely versatile lens. In a neutral position the lens acts as any other, but add a tilt and the options for selective focus play are many. Jay P. Morgan guides us through a shoot at the Yanks Air Museum in Chino, California and offers a simple explanation of tilt-shift focusing:

The shoot vignettes members of the 82nd Airborne inside a C-47 military transport aircraft. Space is extremely limited, so choosing the right lens was critical. A 45mm f/2.8 tilt-shift lens fit the bill; it worked well to minimize distortion while still offering lots of range and dramatic focusing in tight quarters.

Here’s an easy way to understand the effects of tilt lens focusing:

If you stand straight ahead of your subject and focus on them, the background will fall out of focus equally on either side. It acts as a regular lens would.

creative focus tilt lens

No Tilt

However, if you tilt or ‘swing’ the lens to the right, the subject and only the left side of the background come into focus. The right side of the foreground falls out of focus.

creative focus tilt lens

Tilt Shift Right

Tilting the lens to the left has an equal but opposite effect; the subject and right side of the background remain in focus, while the left side of the foreground is not.  The focus must be put back on the subject each time the lens is tilted.

creative focus tilt lens

Tilt Shift Left

Tilting the lens up and down  has the same effect, just on a horizontal axis. If the lens is tilted upwards, the background above the subject’s head will go out of focus, and the background below will be in focus. Again, the equal but opposite happens if the lens is pointed down; the background below will be out of focus, while the background above will be in focus.

creative focus tilt lens

Tilt Up

creative focus tilt lens

Tilt Down

The team wanted to mimic the look of soldiers getting ready to parachute from an airplane flying high in the clouds. For the shoot, the team set up a Rosco 1700 fog machine outside the plane, and a Dynalight strobe pack and head with a Photoflex Octodome Softbox inside. A reflector was used to further tone down the light from the softbox, creating a soft key light on the subject. A fill light was fired through two layers of diffusion material taped in the doorway of the cockpit.

The team used the sunlight pouring in from the door to their benefit. They shot at 1/200 second, f/5.0 and at ISO 160, which allowed them to shoot with strobes but balance it with the sunlight. A tungsten white balance setting gave the light a blue moody hue.

“I love the way the focus of this lens can single out an individual person and let everything else fall way out of focus around them. It’s a great look.”

creative focus tilt lens

Ambient Light

creative focus tilt lens

Fill Light

The team ended the session with a few photos using natural light. The color balance was switched to daylight and the tilt shift used in many directions.

creative focus tilt lens

The lens is tilted to the right; the two men on the right are in focus.

creative focus tilt lens

The lens is tilted to the left; the men on the far right is out of focus, keeping the emphasis and focus on the man at the door.

There are a few things to keep in mind when choosing a tilt-shift lens. It’s hard to focus and takes a lot of concentration. The auto features, like auto focus, do not work and must be done manually. Exposing a photograph can be tricky as well. The Slanted Lens team suggests setting the exposure while the lens is in a neutral position, then tilting it.

The tilt-shift is a fun lens, becoming increasingly popular in wedding and portrait photography. With its versatility in many styles of photography and unique selective focusing features, it makes a great addition to any kit. But if the high price tag turns you off, there is always the option of renting.

“Go ahead and keep those cameras rolling. Keep on clicking.”

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2 responses to “How to Use a Tilt-Shift Lens for Creative Focusing”

  1. NORM says:


    I’ve only used this feature on a 5×4 Linholf camera and we used it according to schinflugs (?) law by moving the lens plane we then had every thing in focus within the cone of focus. From zero to infinity.
    But what you have suggested here is a good twist on the law. I learnt this in the RAAF on a photography course.


    Norm Ford

  2. Lois Bryan says:

    This is very interesting to me. I do a bit of model home photography and fixing the inevitable geometric distortions is an eye-crosser. I’d read that a tilt-shift would help with that. I like that you covered the fun in- and-out-of-focus technique that the tilt shift offers … but wondered if you have any thoughts on help with the converging vertical problem I run into?? Also … if you were to go out and get a tilt shift … which would you recommend for a Nikon (D300 or D7000 in other words, cropped sensor)? Thanks …

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