How to use a shift lens on your camera
How to use a shift lens
What they do and why they are so useful
Normally you change the view of your camera by pointing it in a different direction. Using a shift lens (usually just the shift part of a tilt/shift lens) lets you point your camera and then adjust the lens to change the view.
Keith Cooper uses such lenses a lot and has written many detailed reviews – this guide looks just at lens shift, how you set it and what effects it gives you.
Most of the lenses in our reviews look at tilt/shift lenses, which offer a second lens movement (tilt), we’ll ignore this here, as Keith does in 98% of his architectural photography.
Using lens shift (perspective control)
The examples here are mostly using some of the Canon TS-E lenses on a Canon DSLR. You can use these lenses on mirrorless cameras with adapters. Nikon produce some tilt/shift lenses, although they use the term ‘Perspective control’. Samyang and Laowa also produce shift lenses, and I’ve used Mamiya 645 medium format lenses on my Canon DSLRs with a simple adapter.
This example shows a Mamiya lens attached to my Canon camera with an adapter.
The adapter lets me shift the lens (upwards in this case).
Look carefully at the adapter and you’ll see a scale marked in millimetres, and a knob below. This is what lets me shift the lens -upwards by about 10mm in this case.
This second example shows a lens mount end of a Canon TS-E17mm at its full 12mm shift.
All the adapters and lenses allow you to shift the lens by some amount, in any direction you like.
That’s up/down, left/right or at some arbitrary diagonal angle.
I’ll show some other lenses I’ve looked at, at the end of the article, if you’re curious about their features.
First though, what’s the problem they solve? Why might you choose to use one?
The basic problem is ‘convergence of verticals’
This short clip shows what happens when you tilt a camera upwards – note the way that vertical lines lean in towards the middle.
The lens here is a 24mm focal length (all shots here are on a full frame camera unless mentioned)
With shorter focal lengths, the effect is even more noticeable, such as this shot at 14mm
Whilst a few shots like this can look suitably ‘dynamic’, I know that my architectural and construction company clients won’t want many of them…
It’s not just buildings. You can see how by pointing the camera upwards I’ve lowered the horizon in the frame. Great for skies, but as this 14mm shot from Colorado shows, not so much for fence posts, trees or other things on the ground. [Click to enlarge – most images here can be viewed larger]
In fact, when processing this image (South Park in Colorado) a few years ago, I even cropped off a bit of the frame at the bottom to make it a little less obvious.
I’ll come back to ‘fixing’ this in software in a bit, but in the meantime, here’s my number one use for shift lenses.
The process is very simple.
- Set your camera level on a tripod, pointing towards your subject.
- Check your camera settings – all such lenses I’ve seen are manual focus, some are manual aperture too.
- Check your exposure – shifting the lens can mess with camera metering, so I use manual exposure, and measure with the lens unshifted.
- Adjust the shift setting to frame the shot as you want it.
- Take your photo.
- Maybe take another shot at a different shift setting, if you were thinking of stitching (see later).
Here’s the photo, with the camera initially levelled. Too much foreground and not enough sky (unless I’m photographing some of the landscaping works).
This short video clip starts with a level camera. The lens is shifted upwards to frame the shot.
It’s really that simple. Here’s the photo with the lens shifted up.
Here’s a rather more extreme example taken with the TS-E17mm
With practice I’ve done this hand-held – such as this time at Wells cathedral (TS-E17mm).
I’ll come back to some more uses of shift, but you may be wondering how shifting the lens does this for you?
Shift lenses work because the image they project behind them, onto your film or sensor, is much larger than needed to cover the area of the sensor.
This diagram shows the idea.
BTW, the image is upside down, because that’s what lenses do when projecting an image.
If you’ve never tried it, get a magnifying glass (or camera lens) and project the image of a window onto your hand or a sheet of paper. It’s inverted, so left-right reversed as well as upside down.
I’ve turned it round in the following examples to make things a bit clearer – the image in your camera is the other way up.
The unshifted lens, with the camera level gives the view you would expect.
The effect of shifting the lens upwards, with the camera unmoved, is to capture a different part of the image circle within the frame.
If you’re wondering about cameras with different sensor sizes, just imagine a smaller rectangle.
Still unsure? – get the magnifying glass or lens to project onto a piece of paper with a small rectangle drawn on it. Move the lens up and down to see how the part of the image filling the rectangle changes.
This short clip shows me holding a Canon 50mm lens to project the image of a window frame onto the card.
A normal lens has an image circle that only just reaches past the corners of the sensor.
This diagram (from Canon) shows the image circles of their lenses.
Note how the small sensor can work with a smaller image circle.
This is one reason you can’t use most crop sensor lenses on full frame cameras – they have smaller image circles – which does though make for smaller and lighter (and cheaper) lenses.
You can shift the lens downwards if needed to avoid tilting the camera down.
This example (from my TS-E90mm review) is shifted downwards a bit to keep verticals straight.
I’d note that it’s also taken at f/2.8 – one of the reasons that I’d say the TS-E90mm F2.8L Macro is one of the best quality lenses I’ve ever tested.
What happens if you tilt the camera first and then add shift?
This short clip does just that.
So, we can get leaning verticals without looking upwards.
There’s another use for tilting the camera first, and that’s to match the lean of the face of a building towards or away from you. This diagram shows how you match the plane of your camera sensor with the plane you are photographing, and then use shift to get the view you want.
It’s not a setup I’ve ever come across a need for.
In fact it’s just the same as levelling the camera in the case of the slope of the building face being zero – or vertical, as with most buildings.
Back to a level camera
Here’s the view square on to the doors.
The curvature of the floor blocks is not lens distortion, the surface slopes and is not flat.
Note too the reflection of myself and my friend Olly (another local photographer here in Leicester – one to whom I direct any portrait enquiries we get).
Shooting reflective surfaces can be an issue with my kit appearing in the shot – Photoshop is one answer, but I can also move to change the reflection in the windows.
I’ve moved right to change the reflected view, and get me out of the reflection.
I’ve left my camera bag on the wall showing where we were standing.
Obviously, the doorway is no longer central to the frame.
I’ve two choices – pan the camera left or shift the lens.
Shift to the left
By shifting I keep the horizontal lines level. You could think of sideways shift as a way of dealing with converging horizontal lines, but be aware that our perceptions of leaning verticals and non level horizontal lines are quite different.
Sideways shift can also be thought of pointing the lens at your subject and the shifting left or right to move this subject away from the centre of the frame.
Look at this example (TS-E17) where I wanted the view into the room beyond, but didn’t want the wall/window that was right next to me.
With a lot of shift, you need to take care that the image projection geometry doesn’t look a bit ‘wrong’. We’re very good at spotting such things, even if most people couldn’t tell you what’s actually different about the image.
Often a small amount of shift is all you need to fix unwanted reflections – like many effects, if you can see it, then you might want to question what it is you want to show in an image.
I’ve looked at shift up/down/left/right, but what if you want to combine a bit of upwards shift, with a bit of sideways shift?
Well, you can, since most shift lenses let you set the shift axis at any arbitrary angle.
Take this view of some stairs
Let’s say I wanted to reduce the emphasis of the ceiling. I could shift downwards.
If I also wanted to show the display cases at the left and still keep my view down the stairs, I could shift down and to the left.
I’ve exaggerated it here to show the effect, but it’s worth experimenting with. I don’t often use very strong sideways shift, but a small amount can work well, without being too obvious.
Right from the start I’m hearing some people scoff that you don’t need such lenses and that Photoshop (etc.) is all you really need.
In a way that’s true since I could just shoot with an extra wide lens and level camera and crop out what I want.
Take this 14mm shot from the same place I showed earlier.
It’s a 50MP image, so this crop is still over 4000px wide.
Indeed, if you are shooting just for web use, have enough megapixels to start with and have a good enough lens (Canon EF11-24 F4L in this case) then there is nothing wrong with this approach.
Another approach is to just correct any leaning verticals after you’ve taken the shot.
My personal software choice for this is DxO Viewpoint, used as a plugin in Photoshop. (I’ve a detailed review of Viewpoint 3)
Any significant change of image geometry will affect the quality of your image to some extent, but more importantly, any significant ‘fix’ for verticals means you end up with a trapezoidal image, which then needs cropping.
Cropping means you lose stuff from the edges – this can be difficult to predict when looking in the viewfinder.
I’ve quite a few articles that explore aspects of wide angle lens use, and software correction.
- Using a shift lens – why not just fix in software
- Viewpoint 3 – changing image perspective
- Architecture and the Sigma 12-24 – using a wide lens
- Sigma 12-24mm F4 DG HSM Art review – includes looking at vertical correction.
There is one software fix that I’m quite happy with and that’s dealing with chromatic aberration and colour fringing (only really an issue with older/cheaper lenses).
Modern RAW processing software handles this well for unshifted lenses, but with no shift lenses recording the amount of shift in image EXIF data, most automated fixes fail to varying degrees.
Lens aberration correction becomes more difficult with shifted lenses. Raw processing software in general just can’t handle this aspect of processing an off centre optical axis where the middle of the image circle not in the centre of the frame.
Personally, my commercial photography benefits from ‘more megapixels’ in my images, even if supplied at a reduced size for some clients.
Looking for more resolution from my old 21MP Canon 1Ds mk3 was one reason I started looking at image stitching.
Sometimes I want a wider view than a particular lens gives me. Or, I might want a square image, without the need to crop my 3:2 aspect ratio source image and lose resolution.
With modern software and a shift lens it’s easy to set the camera up, take a photo, shift the lens and then take another, then stitch them together.
I tend to do up/down stitches, but you can just as easily do left/right stitching, for panoramic shots for example.
You get a wider coverage, as well as megapixels – important when I’m looking at making a big print.
Going back to my image circle example, you’re just capturing more of it.
There are a few things to take note of if you’re doing this.
Shift lenses can by their design, introduce an additional bit of vignetting on the opposite side to where you are shifting, at wider apertures. This is in addition to the normal lens vignetting I’ve showed in the example above. I go more into this in some of my newer TS-E lens reviews, but effectively you want to work at smaller apertures (I use f/7.1 – 9 for modest shifts.
At extremes of shift, you are getting into the lower image quality you find at the edge of the image circle, this can be alleviated to some extent by moving to ~f/11 or even a bit higher. If I’m shooting a building or landscape with sky in it, then the lowest quality areas fall into parts of the sky, so are less of a bother. If I’m shooting just the facade of a building, I need to be a lot more careful about the corners in the direction of shift.
With the camera on a tripod, your viewpoint changes slightly as you shift the lens. If you’ve got crossing near/far elements in your image, then stitching may well show up parallax errors from this movement. One solution for this is to mount the lens to the tripod and shift the camera up/down.
Here’s my TS-E17mm lens mounted in a TSE Frame [review]. You can see the knob at the side of the lens that lets me shift the camera down/up (reversing the lens movements).
With a simple two shot stitch, I can create ~80MP square images from my 5Ds – that’s good for metre square prints.
You can of course shift in multiple directions and create even bigger images, but watch for image quality falloff in the corners.
A few examples of stitched images.
This dusk view shot with the TS-E24.
Be careful to use exactly the same settings for each shot (including white balance when processing the images).
The other entrance to the VJP Design Wing at De Montfort university in Leicester (TS-E24). It’s near where I live, so one of my go-to places for testing lenses.
The harbour pier at Whitby – a hand held 80MP shot (TS-E17).
Below, using the TS-E45mm
I took the top shot here and then waited for the rowers to get into position. If I’d had a tripod with me I might have done it the other way round.
Next, the Dock business centre in Leicester (TS-E17).
Don’t let the wider angle and higher MP capabilities make you forget that good light and composition matters. The wider views exacerbate any slight levelling errors too.
With the wider views (TS-E17) you can really push the angular look…
I generally prefer just my verticals vertical, but sometimes a flat on geometric look works (TS-E17).
Just one ‘warning’ – once you start using shift very much, your acceptance of leaning building/trees etc will plummet. That’s fine for me as an architectural and commercial photographer but I’d note that it can then take quite a deliberate process to decide that in some photos it probably doesn’t matter…
All of my related reviews and articles are in the ‘Tilt/Shift‘ listing category on this site – there are quite a few.
Here are some of the lenses I’ve looked at:
My personal favourite, the Canon TS-E17mm F4L
Whilst I use the Canon TS-E lenses for my work, I’ve tested some other makes that support a range of camera lens mounts as well as the Canon EF versions I tested.
I’ve a review of the Samyang T-S 24mm f/3.5 ED AS UMC
Another lens available in a variety of mounts, the Venus LAOWA 15mm f/4 Wide Angle Macro shift lens
Very wide and a close focus point just centimetres from the front element.
With an adapter you can add shift movement to all kinds of lenses. Laowa have their own interesting adapter to mount many of their lenses to Sony FE mount.
I used an adapter I found (from eBay) to mount Mamiya 645 medium format lenses to my Canon cameras.
The example below gives me a 35mm shift lens.
Lastly, a home made 5×4 adapter (or 4×5 for those of you in the US)
One reason I made it was to learn all about camera movements.
I hope this article has been of help in explaining just why a lens that shifts can be so useful – any questions, please email me or use the comments below?
Larger versions of many of the example photos from the article.
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