Thanks to their high degree of control over perspective and depth of field, tilt-shift lenses are often associated with architectural photography. But they are so much more capable than that, and are used extensively across other genres, including in fine art, product photography and photojournalism.
Here, three Canon Ambassadors discuss exactly why they use tilt-shift lenses in their very different fields of work. They explain how Canon TS-E lenses enable them to create a style that is both unique and inspirational – and even share tips to help you recreate the effect.
Fine art photographer and Canon Ambassador Dafna Tal finds that the wide-angle capability of the Canon TS-E 17mm f/4L lens allows her to create photographs that cover a larger area of the scene (as in her photo above). "I can do this while maintaining authentic-looking proportions with just a single frame," she says. Dafna acknowledges that it is possible to create composite photos by taking multiple images with a standard 50mm lens, and stitching them together. "But this means you have to take a lot more photos to fit in the whole scene, it's harder to imagine what the final result will look like, and it takes a lot longer at the editing stage. Also if you have people or moving objects in your frame, they may move while you are taking that set of images."
Dafna draws parallels between the style of her work and the classical paintings of religious scenes that inspired her. Her work can be seen worldwide in museums, gallery shows and photography festivals. Her series A Lasting Faith is focused on contemporary Orthodox Christian monks and nuns.
"Many interesting classical paintings depict a very large area that is impossible to capture with a camera lens, no matter how wide. Some of them are almost panoramic in all directions. This allows the eye of the viewer to explore a greater area across the artwork, and they're also free of the distortion that is inherent with ultra-wide-angle camera lenses."
The benefit of shooting with a tilt-shift lens, used correctly, is that the lines, shapes and other elements in a large scene will remain beautifully balanced. Mike Burnhill, Canon Europe's European Technical Support Manager, says: "The Canon TS-E 17mm f/4L is quite a specialist lens. It's intended for architecture photography, but it can also be great for landscapes and other genres. Using the shift function makes it possible to create panoramic images that will seamlessly fit together without any of the distortion that might otherwise occur if you move the camera. Despite offering such a wide angle and a range of optical movements, the Canon TS-E 17mm f/4L has stunning optical performance with little distortion thanks to the glass-moulded aspherical lenses and four ultra-low-dispersion optics."
"When using the shift element of a tilt-shift lens, I take care to position the camera and lens parallel to the scene and make sure it is perfectly level," says Dafna. "You can edit your image in software to introduce the shift effect after-the-fact, but you will lose important detail and reduce the quality of the photograph. To keep things level I use a good, stable tripod and use its in-built bubble level to make sure the camera is level both vertically and horizontally to avoid distortion in the scene. I also rely on my Canon EOS 5D Mark IV's Electronic Level, which is a great feature, to keep an eye on the level of the camera itself.
"I take care to ensure that my focus is in the desired place, and ideally use an aperture of f/8 to get crisp, sharp photos. However, this aperture choice isn't always possible when photographing in dark conditions.
"New, high-quality lenses will increase your artistic freedom, so it is important to renew your set of lenses from time to time. But I find a tilt-shift lens can change the whole way you shoot. While it's not for every photographer, once you master it, its new abilities feel like magic."
"In still life photography, it is always important to make something special and unique," says freelance advertising and industrial photographer, and Canon Ambassador, Eberhard Schuy. He explains that by using a tilt-shift lens it's possible to work more freely, and more precisely create areas that are in or out of focus. "We can work with camera placement and generate a smaller depth of field than is otherwise possible with a standard lens.
"I know the specialised construction and optical demands of a tilt-shift lens are high, which is reflected in their price, but I would argue that those who would like to work professionally in product photography need a tilt-shift macro lens. In the past we worked for a long time with large format cameras, and it was almost unthinkable not to use the tilt and shift functions."
After classical photography training, he worked for several years as a photography assistant before graduating from Cologne Handwerkskammer (Chamber of Crafts) as a master photographer. Four and a half years as a studio manager of an international advertising agency and another four years as an advertising assistant at an international industrial firm gave Eberhard the skills he needed for a successful photographic career.
For his photo above, entitled Coffee at Night, Eberhard used the Canon TS-E 135mm f/4L Macro lens. "This lens allows me to shoot the subject using a longer focal length, which in my opinion is particularly striking for still life. I use this longer focal length to clearly isolate the subject from the background." The sharp cup and saucer draw the viewer's eye, Eberhard explains.
"Next I work with the light to provide dramatic illumination and a mix of colour, with warm tones on the left and cooler tones on the right. I lit this with a Fresnel spotlight and shot it using my Canon EOS 5DS R with a Canon TS-E 135mm f/4L Macro lens."
Eberhard hasn't always worked with the Canon TS-E 135mm f/4L Macro lens, though. He spent many years shooting with the Canon TS-E 90mm f/2.8L Macro lens. He finds the 90mm great to use and still a powerful asset to any product photographer's kit bag, but ultimately now favours the 135mm for most of his work. "Now I have the 135mm in my studio, I can work again like I did in the analogue days," he says. He explains that the extra focal length is perfect for still life photos because it compresses the perceived perspective of the subject, resulting in accurate proportional renditions of his subjects. Also, the longer focal length enhances the effect of a shallow depth of field. This, when combined with the tilt function, can isolate the subject like no other lens.
"In my eyes at least," he says, "it seems that Canon has invented the TS-E 135mm f/4L Macro lens especially for the still life photographer!"
"In product or still life photography, it is always about drawing the viewer's attention to certain areas in the image," explains Eberhard. "Work with a wide-open aperture and use the tilt function to focus on only the areas you want to be rendered sharp. By shooting like this, you can create beautiful bokeh effects in the background as well as achieving extreme clarity on your subject.
"It's important to remember that unusual perspectives can be particularly captivating. Shooting with a tilt-shift lens that has a longer focal length will dramatically amplify any effect you add to the scene."
Mike Burnhill says: "The Canon TS-E 90mm f/2.8L Macro lens offers the widest range of movements of any tilt-and-shift lens on the market. With its 90mm focal length, it is also ideal for portraits. By using the tilt and rotation functions, it's possible to create stunning portraits, controlling exactly the area you want sharp. To enable the background to be thrown even further out of focus, use a fast aperture."
Photojournalist and Canon Ambassador Magnus Wennman shot his long-term project Where the Children Sleep using the Canon TS-E 45mm f/2.8 (a lens that the newer Canon TS-E 50mm f/2.8L Macro replaces in Canon's tilt-shift lens lineup). This lens may seem an unusual choice for a press photographer always on the go. The project took him to all kinds of environments, under a variety of weather and lighting conditions that would challenge any photographer to produce imagery that felt creatively and technically consistent.
"I generally don't think much about the technical side of photography," he says. "I just want to work [with the kit] and produce a photo that gives me the feeling that I'm looking for in the story. The Canon TS-E 45mm f/2.8 lens is something I have used for many years, especially for portraits. It is incredibly sharp and gives me the opportunity to work with sharpness and blur in a way I can't with other lenses. The most important thing for me is not to exaggerate the tilt effect. In fact, sometimes I'll use the lens without any tilting at all."
In this emotive series about children displaced by war, the Canon tilt-shift lens enabled him to place the focus squarely on each child he photographed. This created poignant images where the subjects were sharp and their surroundings soft and dreamy – despite many of these surroundings being harsh, even unsafe locations.
"We have been pumped with pictures of bombed cities in Syria and people fleeing war," he explains. "It is hard to take it all in. In the end you feel like closing your eyes. But to meet the children, as I did, in such relatable, everyday situations, such as when they are going to sleep, I feel it's that much more difficult to ignore. For instance, everyone can relate to the fact that a child should have security and a safe environment when they fall asleep for the night."
"Do not overdo the tilting," advises Magnus. "It is easy to want to take advantage of the effects you can get, but it is usually not good if you exaggerate too much."
Magnus also says that he finds it difficult to see exactly where the focus is when he looks through the viewfinder, but: "I get around this by taking many pictures in a sequence, changing the focus a little while I shoot."
Canon's Mike Burnhill says: "Although the Canon TS-E 45mm f/2.8 is a superb lens, the Canon TS-E 50mm f/2.8L Macro is the latest update to the Canon tilt-and-shift lens series, and introduces macro capabilities alongside the outstanding optical performance, which is everything you'd expect from Canon's legendary L-series lenses. An alternative use for this lens, besides the obvious architectural or portrait work, is to create artificial macro images. By shooting subjects such as a street from a high viewpoint, you can use the tilt function to reduce the amount of sharpness on the subject. This gives the appearance of a macro image with their inherent shallow depth of field."
Magnus completes his tilt-shift advice: "Use continuous shooting mode and adjust the focus manually as you shoot. If you don't yet have a tilt-shift lens, I recommend that you try to experiment as much as possible with the cameras and lenses you already have. Look at other photographers, but also try to find your own way. Sometimes it doesn't work but other times it becomes magical. That's the charm of photography."