Who really needs to use tilt and shift lenses? Surely these are simply optical tools designed for architectural photographers to eliminate converging verticals? Well, the reality couldn’t be any further from the truth. Canon’s TS-E (TS-E is an abbreviation of ‘Tilt and Shift for EOS’) lenses are ideal for a wide range of work, from portraits and products in the studio, right through to stitching landscapes on location.
Add to this a close focusing distance of 40cm and 50cm for the TS-E45mm f/2.8 and the TS-E90mm f/2.8 respectively, the fact that they work well with extension tubes and the life-size converter and you have a sophisticated macro capability that is perfect for small subjects.
Canon tilt and shift lenses
Canon first introduced tilt and shift lenses back in 1973, whilst the current trio of TS-E lenses was introduced by Canon back in April 1991. There are three lenses in the current Canon tilt and shift range: the TS-E24mm f/3.5L, the TS-E45mm f/2.8 and the TS-E90mm f/2.8.
Despite the fact they were not originally being designed for use with digital cameras, all three lenses are generally acknowledged to be sharp and the TS-E24mm f/3.5L lens qualifies for the L series moniker, by virtue of its use of fluorite glass elements. All are beautifully crafted, with solid metal bodies and positive movements.
What is a TS-E lens?
Tilt and shift lenses were originally created to replicate the functionality of view cameras on 35mm film cameras. View cameras have the ability to move the lens independently of the film plane or imaging sensor. Canon TS-E lenses replicate this functionality by allowing the user to tilt and swing the front of the lens, to rotate it and also to move it up and down.
Bringing this functionality first to the 35mm camera and now to the latest generation of high resolution EOS DSLRs gives a powerful and flexible tool that is light, compact and in many cases, hand-holdable; something that can never be said of a view camera.
The Canon TS-E range of lenses all incorporate the following features…
Using a normal lens, the sensor, the lens elements and the subject are all perfectly parallel. By applying tilt, the front of the lens is rotated upwards and downwards in relation to the lens barrel and the imaging sensor. When the lens barrel is rotated by 90 degrees, the same movement can be utilised in a side-to-side direction and this is described as ‘swing’.
Shift means to maintain the parallel relationship of lens and sensor, but to move the front of the lens up, down or side to side in relation to the lens barrel and camera body. See the shifted upwards image above.
Additionally to the Tilt and Shift, there is a third function built into the lenses. By pushing the small, silver release button, close to the lens mount, the lens barrel can be rotated independently of the body, in graduations of 30 degrees. This provides a means for the movements to be used in any direction, thus allowing total flexibility in the way that the lens can be used.
So, why use it? The ability to move the lens in relation to the sensor offers enormous flexibility, both for image correction and for creative effect. The following examples show just a few of the uses that these versatile lenses can be put to.
Using Tilt and Swing
One effective use of swing is for portraits. By leaving the lens at a wide aperture of f/2.8 or f/4, it is possible to keep both eyes sharp by swinging the front of the lens by a couple of degrees to line up with the direction of the subject’s face (as seen in the image below). Reversing the swing or adding rotation can put focus specific areas of the face.
The sequence of three product images (shown further below on this page) shows four beer bottles that have been set up in the studio and captured using an aperture of f/5.6.
The right hand bottle is around 30cm behind the one on the extreme left. Using a normal lens, it would require a very small aperture to bring the distant bottle into focus. In reality, the image would still not be sharp enough to satisfy a client as small apertures cause an effect called diffusion and the sharpness of the image would be degraded. The solution is to rotate the lens so that it can be swung sideways by a small amount to bring the plane of focus more into line with the bottles.
In the second image of the sequence two degrees of front swing has improved, but not fully solved the focus problem. Focus on the rear bottle (right) has been improved, but is still not fully sharp.
For the third image, four degrees of front swing has been applied and all of the beer bottles are now perfectly sharp. The effect has been to increase the depth of field, whilst maintaining an aperture of only f/5.6. In reality, the depth of field has not been increased. Normally depth of field lies parallel to the front element of the lens. By swinging the front of the lens, the plane of focus has also been swung around, allowing a larger aperture to be used.
Interestingly, swing has to be used very sparingly. Four degrees works fine, but five degrees of swing reduced the sharpness of all the bottles. For precision work like this, it is best to tether the camera to a computer. Images can then be viewed in detail on screen as they are shot or by using the magnify window in Live View Mode.
Swinging and tilting the lens can be used for many different reasons. In addition to using tilt (or swing) for corrective purposes, the effect can be used creatively or to highlight points in an image.
In these following examples, the lens has been swung in the opposite direction to deliberately throw the band of sharp focus in a different direction. The effect is to create a line of sharp focus, with softly graduated out of focus areas to either side.
Shift for architecture
Just as the lens can be tilted or swung, it can also be moved up and down in relation to the camera. The most obvious use for such a function is for photographing buildings.
Imagine that you are at ground level. Keep the camera perfectly horizontal and point it at a building - unless it is a very wide angle, the top of the building is cropped and there is a substantial foreground.
To get the building into the frame, you will either have to tilt the camera upwards, or raise your own position, so that you are level with the middle of the building. At that point you will have both the top and bottom of the building in the frame.
There is a third way: mount the camera on a tripod. Level it to ensure it is completely horizontal and then using a TS-E lens, raise the front of the lens using the knurled wheel on the side of the lens, until the top and base of the building are in the frame.
Tilting a camera gives a distinctive image, with the sides of the building converging away from the base. By using the shift on the TS-E lens, the lens rises vertically and the sides of the building are kept perfectly parallel giving a pleasing look to the final image.
Shift in the studio
Another less obvious use of shift is in the studio. The camera is used as it would be for buildings, but instead of shifting up, the lens is shifted down. By keeping the camera horizontal products look correct, maintaining symmetrical edges, without the characteristic ‘tombstone’ look.
Combining two parallel images to create a larger one is described as stitching. TS-E lenses work well for this. On a tripod, shift the image to the maximum safe shift (with full frame sensors, take care not to shift into the red graduated areas of the scale); capture an image and then, maintaining focus and exposure settings, move the lens to the opposite extremity of shift. Combine the two images in Photoshop by opening the first image and extending the canvas to allow for the second image. Drag the second image onto the first and align and crop/erase as necessary.
The Canon TS-E lenses not only provide the means to extend the use of digital SLR cameras in the studio and on location; they also provide a sophisticated means of controlling sharpness that can be used to great creative effect. They are well worth a try and offer photographers from many disciplines the chance to extend their photographic capabilities due to their unique adaptability and versatility.