A change of perspective: using tilt and shift photography

  • Written by  Keith Wilson
  • Published in Geophoto
A change of perspective: using tilt and shift photography Ikerlaes
14 Mar
2016
Tilt and shift photography has become famous recently for the curious ‘miniature’ effect it can produce. But there’s a lot more to it than just replicating toy town

Many of us are familiar with the effect of converging verticals when photographing tall buildings, columns, and other perpendicular structures from the ground. As we step back and point the lens up to include the full height of the subject, it appears to lean towards the centre of the viewfinder instead of maintaining the straight, upright line that is the reality of its construction. This optical effect is a type of distortion that becomes more pronounced the wider the angle of view of the lens in use. It’s as if every building ends up looking like the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

In truth, most lenses have a degree of distortion, but the so-called ‘barrel’ distortion of wide-angle focal lengths is the most visibly apparent, particularly at the edge of the viewfinder frame. To avoid converging verticals, photographers have to shoot square-on to the subject and from a distance that allows them to include its full height, using a relatively distortion-free lens such as a short telephoto. However, this is rarely practical or even possible, particularly with prominent landmarks and skyscrapers, so a special type of lens is required – a Perspective Control (PC) lens.

Also known as Tilt and Shift lenses, these allow the photographer to tilt the lens when it is still fixed to the camera body and ‘straighten’ any converging verticals within the frame. Simply, the photographer begins with the lens in its normal position (mounted on a tripod) and frames the scene, making sure that the camera is level and the sensor vertical. At this point the shot won’t include the top of the subject, and there will be too much foreground, but by shifting the lens upwards, the framing is altered to include the top of the subject while keeping everything straight within the frame.

bay land

Large format origins

It is not just the photographers of architecture and cityscapes who find an advantage in the tilt and shift movements of these specialist lenses. For many decades (and well into the digital age) some landscape photographers used large format bellows cameras for the freedom of movement they provided to adjust depth of field and alter perspective without changing lenses or their shooting position. Add that flexibility to the larger format of these cameras and the resulting image quality, and it’s easy to see why some landscape professionals continue to use this kit today.

In design, build and function, today’s 5x4in and 10x8in cameras, made by Ebony, Linhof and Wista, closely resemble the cameras used by the pioneering photographers of Victorian times. They use sheet film and deliver an image far larger than any digital format sensor. The quality remains of the highest order and the large format camera’s capacity to make precise adjustments to perspective in order to correct distortions, gives them a huge advantage over other cameras. However, large format also means large in size and weight and this means the cameras are slow to use and transport. Also, only one exposure can be made per sheet of film.

cars land

Tilt and shift differences

In effect, the tilt and shift lenses made by Canon and Nikon for their respective digital SLR cameras are replicating the perspective controls and lens movements of these older-styled large format cameras. Canon has four such lenses in its range (17mm, 24mm, 45mm and 90mm) and Nikon three (24mm, 45mm and 85mm). Their specialist design and engineering means these lenses don’t come cheap. Nor do they use autofocus.

So what is the difference between tilt and shift lens movements and what are their other uses? In short, shift movements keep the lens parallel to the sensor, but move it up, down or from side to side, allowing the photographer to control the perspective of the image. Tilting the lens shifts the plane of focus so that it no longer lies perpendicular to the lens axis, resulting in a depth of field that increases in width further into the distance of the composed scene. The tilt effect allows the photographer to customise the position of the lens in relation to the subject. In other words, depth of field and image perspective can be manipulated quite markedly with tilt and shift lenses, in a way not at all possible with standard camera lenses.

church land

Miniature faking

In recent years a special effect made possible with tilt and shift lenses has increased their popularity among digital SLR users. The diorama effect, also known as ‘miniature faking’ or the ‘toy town’ effect is a technique that makes a photograph of a life-size location or object look like a picture of a miniature model. In these, only the central part of the image is clearly seen while other parts of the image are blurred to simulate the shallow depth of field normally associated with macro photography.

Not surprisingly, the ‘toy town’ effect is more pronounced when shooting down on the scene from an elevated position – much like the perspective of looking down on a miniature model – and tilting the lens up. Shooting from a high viewpoint also means that you can angle the camera more than when shooting at the same level as the subject. By tilting the lens upwards the plane of focus moves in the opposite direction to the way that the subject is positioned, thereby producing an extremely shallow area of sharp focus.

This effect is even more pronounced when setting wide apertures. Remember, PC lenses have to be focused manually, so when you’re ready to press the shutter, you will need to refocus on the area of the scene that you want to be pin-sharp, because tilting the lens completely alters the lens focus settings. This shallow depth of field ‘toy town’ effect has become the most popular use for tilt and shift lenses among digital SLR users – yet it is the complete opposite result to that sought by landscape photographers who use tilt and shift movements to maximise depth of field, particularly in the foreground.

dome land

Other effects

As well as correcting converging verticals in architectural shots, creating the ‘miniature’ effect, or maximising depth of field in landscapes, there are a couple of other applications that can be used by these specialist optics. One of the simplest, and of particular appeal to landscape photographers, is the creation of a panoramic image.

To achieve this result, the shift movement of the PC lens comes into play: after setting up the camera on a tripod, all the photographer needs to do is take three exposures, one with the lens shifted left, one centred and one shifted to the right. Now, this optically-applied effect can be completed digitally by stitching the three images together in Photoshop or with other software such as Photomerge. The final stitched result is almost impossible to distinguish as three separate frames because of the camera’s single fixed position for each exposure. That said, these panoramas do not have the extreme angle of view obtainable from specialist panoramic cameras that use rotational lenses.

As any outdoor photographer knows, field obstructions such as posts and fences can sometimes hinder a desired composition and make it impossible to get the camera into a position that gives a clear view. In some instances, it may be possible to use the shift movement to alter the viewpoint sufficiently for the offending obstruction to move just beyond the edge of the viewfinder.

green land

Focusing and general use

Although PC lenses do not work with autofocus, the focus points and focus lock confirmation in a digital SLR viewfinder can still come into use when working with one of these lenses. When focusing manually, simply select a focus point on your subject and use the focus lock LEDs in the camera viewfinder to confirm when your focusing or the lens tilt has brought this point of the subject into focus. When working with very shallow depth of field, this confirmation indicator can be most reassuring – a final check before pressing the shutter.

Tilt and shift lenses may seem like a more rarefied and expensive optic to have in your camera bag, but recent years have shown a diversification of their use from the original purpose of correcting converging verticals. Although built around optical principles that predate digital technologies by centuries, it is the onset of digital imaging that has extended their appeal. Digitally stitched panoramas and the ‘toy town’ effect have now become an important part of their allure. Like the sophisticated capabilities of today’s digital SLR cameras, these lenses need time to learn and master, but the effects they deliver can extend the photographer’s repertoire like no other optical accessory.

london land

DO
• Shoot down from an elevated position when making the ‘toy town’ technique. The higher your viewpoint the better the resulting effect.
• When using a PC lens to correct converging verticals, shift the lens upwards to include the top of the subject while keeping everything straight within the frame.
• Consider using shift movements to deal with obstructions in the scene. On a PC lens it may be possible to alter the viewpoint sufficiently for the offending obstruction to move just beyond the edge of the viewfinder.

DON’T
• Use PC lenses without a tripod. Always fix your camera and lens onto a good quality tripod to ensure absolute steadiness when making your required tilt and shift adjustments.
• Point the camera up or down when trying to minimise the effect of converging verticals. Whether using your usual lens or a PC lens, the camera needs to be ‘square-on’ to the subject.
• Expect to use autofocus with a PC lens – focusing has to be done manually. However, you can use your camera’s viewfinder focus point LEDs to confirm your focus point before taking the picture in question.

square land

Recommended reading
The Tilt-Shift Lens Advantage for Outdoor & Nature Photography by Darwin Wiggett & Samantha Chrysanthou; Oopoomoo; $20 (ebook)
Architectural Photography by Adrian Schulz; Rocky Nook; £29.99 (softback)
Using the View Camera by Steve Simmons; Echo Point Books & Media; £29.95 (hardback)

waterfall land

equipment selections

Lens option: Tilt and shift lens

Both Nikon and Canon make specialist tilt and shift lenses. These are fixed focal length, non-autofocus optics from wide-angle to short telephoto. Their specialist design, engineering and low production runs, mean they aren’t cheap (£850 to £1,480), but they have developed a following from those intent on exploiting the techniques only these lenses offer.

www.canon.co.uk, www.nikon.co.uk

Accessory option: Tripod

Tilt and shift effects require a tripod, preferably one that is solid and rock steady. Gitzo and Manfrotto are the most reliable brands and the Manfrotto MT055CX PRO3 (£350) is ideal value for money. Fully extended shooting height is 1.83 metres and maximum load bearing weight for the head is 8kg – more than enough for most camera/lens combinations.

www.manfrotto.co.uk

Camera option: View camera

These cameras may seem like museum pieces, but they still have distinct advantages over digital SLRs for manipulating depth of field and perspective control. The Ebony 45SU (£3,500) is a 4x5” view camera hand-made from ebony and solid titanium, with asymmetrical rear tilts and swings which allow for precise focus during adjustments. Front and rear adjustments and bellows extensions up to 20° are possible – considerably more than the 8.5° of Nikon’s PC lenses.

www.ebonycamera.com

This was published in the March 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.

Share this story...

Submit to FacebookSubmit to Google PlusSubmit to Twitter

Related items

Leave a comment

ONLY registered members can leave comments and each comment is held pending authorisation before publishing. Please login or register to voice your opinion.

READER SURVEY

We want to know what you think...

Help us shape the future of Geographical and enter our prize draw to win a Thule backpack worth £100!

Reader Survey

 

Subscribe Today

EDUCATION PARTNERS

MaltaUni300x100UniOfHertsBuilding300x100StAndrewsUniBuildingLogo300x100

TRAVEL PARTNERS

CoxKing300x100

Intrepid300x100

DOSSIERS

Like longer reads? Try our in-depth dossiers that provide a comprehensive view of each topic

  • Long live the King
    It is barely half a century since the Born Free story caused the world to re-evaluate humanity’s relationship with lions. A few brief decades l...
    London: a walk in the park
    In the 2016 London Mayoral election, the city’s natural environment was high on the agenda. Geographical asks: does the capital has a green future, ...
    The Money Trail
    Remittance payments are a fundamental, yet often overlooked, part of the global economy. But the impact on nations receiving the money isn’t just a ...
    Dealing with drugs
    While Ebola makes the headlines, a raft of unreported and under-researched diseases are responsible for far more deaths across Africa every year. But ...
    Growing pains
    Population levels are rising and nowhere is this felt more keenly than in the world’s megacities – urban sprawls that each house over ten million ...

MORE DOSSIERS

NEVER MISS A STORY - follow Geographical

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in NATURE...

Oceans

The 7.8 magnitude earthquake that hit New Zealand in November has caused…

Energy

As a dried-up dam starts to refill, and a push…

Energy

Over the last year, Tesla, the American automaker and energy…

Energy

Geographical’s regular look at the world of climate change. This…

Geophoto

Photographer Simon Anderson tells Geographical about the process of capturing…

Wildlife

Jonathan and Angela Scott are synonymous with Africa’s big cats. Geographical’s…

Energy

Chinese firms plan to build a solar power plant in…

Climate

Thunderstorms in the US could be transporting harmful mercury from…

Energy

What will Donald Trump in the White House mean for…

Climate

Last year saw several African countries the worst hit by…

Oceans

The seaweed industry is booming, and winning plaudits for its…

Geophoto

For many, elephants are an integral part of the African…

Energy

Last year, the UNFCCC Paris Agreement was hailed as ‘historic’…

Oceans

A landmark decision has given the green light to creating…

Climate

Could extreme weather cast the deciding vote on the world’s…

Climate

Geographical’s regular look at the world of climate change. This…

Geophoto

British birdwatching is undergoing a transformation: in the last decade…

Energy

Could a small-scale and portable new method of generating renewable…

Wildlife

Tim Laman’s stunning treetop orang-utan capture takes top prize as…

Geophoto

With hundreds of islands and thousands of miles of beaches,…