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Tilt-shift and moving beyond the small world look

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Moving beyond the tilt-shift look

Why lens tilt lets you do so much more than the model world look

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Mention the use of a ’tilt-shift’ lens to many photographers and their immediate thought is the ‘model world’ look in photos.

Some might think this is primarily what such lenses are for.

It isn’t, they can do so much more.

Keith takes a look at how the small world look comes about and how an understanding of this can open up a much larger range of creative options,

griffon and water

Keith’s articles about tilt and shift have their own index page at:
All about using tilt and shift

Small world photography

Ok, I’ll admit it, I can find it mildly irksome when people talk about the ’tilt-shift effect’. Usually it’s concerning photos where the feeling of looking at a model comes from selective focus.

Yes, it’s part what you can do with a lens that offers shift and/or tilt movements, but it’s rather a small part.

I guess one reason people have difficulty with more deliberate use of tilt is that using lens tilt breaks the comfortable technique of focusing your lens and then composing a shot (or vice versa).

Most people (myself included) when first using lens tilt, simply set some up/down tilt on a lens, adjust the focus and see what it looks like. It’s different, and with a bit of experimenting you get the idea that there is a zone of sharpness. Sort of like when you focus on something with a wide aperture lens, but different.

Note – Shift is a completely different ‘effect’ – it’s actually much easier to explain than tilt.
See this article for an introduction to its use: Using lens shift on your camera

The lenses

It doesn’t matter whether it’s a £2000+ lens like the Canon TS-E90mm F2.8L Macro or one of the much cheaper ‘bendable’ lenses from Lensbaby, the main feature is that the lens elements can be tilted off-axis.

90mm TS-E

The Canon TS-E90 [detailed review] showing the front end tilted downwards

35mm lensbaby

Lensbaby Composer Pro – Edge 35mm

I’m calling any such movement ’tilt’ here, although you may hear left/right tilt referred to as ‘swing’.

The plane of focus and model look

Tilting the lens downwards and the zone of sharpness can be seen to be a thin horizontal plane extending away from the camera. Changing focus will move where the sharpness is, but not in the way you normally associate with focus.

As this plane cuts through the scene in front of you, it draws attention to some parts of the image. It’s this mixture of sharpness and an apparently limited depth of field that can give a strong ‘model’ look. Taken with the TS-E90mm [click to enlarge images]

model world

It can help the effect to be looking down on a scene, but the key to getting a good ‘model’ look is having enough elements in the image that give a sense of scale. It’s this sense of scale that is warped by the selective focus.

Assorted resting photographers at The Photography Show. Taken with the TS-E50mm.


Notice the strong blur in out of focus areas. This depends a lot on the lens in use and is usually different on either side of the sharp zone, as you can see in this detail from the earlier photo.

detail of model look

One problem here is that the effect is very hit and miss. You change a few settings and see how it looks.

All those settings/adjustments on tilt/shift lenses are there for good reasons and understanding what they do is the key to unlocking the wider potential of such lenses.

Getting past the ‘hit and miss’ approach is why some photographer find such lenses a challenge. It’s also why there are often good used lenses available – people buy one, take a few ’tilt-shift’ photos and give up…

The costs

As well as used lenses, there are many adapters available for using old lenses with new cameras. There is a page here covering all my lens experiments, but here’s an old Mamiya M645 55mm lens mounted on my EOS RP using a Fotodiox TLT-ROKR adapter. The adapter gives up to 10º of tilt along with ±15mm of shift. The lens is shown tilted to the left here, but the mount rotates, so you can tilt it in any direction you desire.

Review: Fotodiox TLT-ROKR adapter

The lens has no electronics, so you will need to set the aperture as well as adjust the focus setting. With no tilt or shift, the lens works as a normal (fully manual) 55mm f/2.8 lens.


Lenses like this are widely available. Add the cost of an adapter and the outlay is decidedly less than for one of Canon or Nikon’s current tilt/shift lenses.

When teaching people about the uses of tilt/shift lenses [details] I generally start with looking at shift. The process is simple, you focus the lens and then shift it in whatever direction you need for your desired composition.

With tilt, this nice simple relationship is broken, since where the focal plane runs is given by a combination of tilt and focus setting. The distances marked on the lens no longer relate to where the plane of focus is.

The concept of just focusing on a subject doesn’t quite work. Add to this the lack of autofocus on tilt/shift lenses and the barrier to effective use of tilt is raised.

However, tilt can give you precise control over just where you want the plane of focus to be placed, whether along the ground, along a wall, or even along a ceiling.

Tilting the lens to the side

Let’s start with a variation on the up/down tilt used for the model world look, by swinging the lens to the side. Most tilt mechanisms allow the lens to be rotated to set the tilt direction, as in the adapter you can see above.

Set the lens at infinity (∞) and tilt to the left about half of the maximum. For the adapter, this is ~5º. Set your aperture as wide as the lens allows. The wide aperture makes the plane of focus easier to see. On the EOS RP I also used focus peaking. The position of the plane of focus is even easier to see with the peaking.

The vertical plane of focus can be used to isolate aspects of a scene, such as this path through reed beds on the Suffolk coast. (Mamiya 35/3.5 + adapter)


The effect hasn’t messed with depth cues, so we don’t see the miniature look.

This next example is looking along the canal tow path, using the 55mm lens.

bridge with sideways tilt

Our plane of focus is now vertical and runs along the edge of the path, passing just to the left of me.

The lens focus is still set at infinity, but we’ve sharp elements in the image running from just in front of me to the far distance. If I’d tilted the lens to the right, the sharp plane would be just the same, but running to the right of me.

Does this mean that the lens focus is no longer of use? Far from it, it’s just that it works together with the tilt to place the zone (plane) of sharpness.

No maths required

How far to the left/right of me does the plane of focus pass? It turns out that this distance is only set by the lens tilt (in degrees) and the lens focal length.

if I take the example of a level camera set on a tripod at some particular distance from the ground, then I only need the height above the ground and the lens focal length to set the tilt. At this tilt setting the plane of focus will run along the ground for a lens focused at infinity.

This camera to ground distance is all you need to know in order to accurately set the required tilt (at ∞ focus) for a particular focal length. There are phone apps that will give you tilt settings for a particular height (often referred to as a ‘J’ distance in more detailed discussions), or like me you can print out a simple table to keep in the camera bag.

This is explained in much more detail at: Focusing the tilted lens

tilt tables

One of my tilt table prints – a bit more complex because I was testing multiple lenses. There are downloads in the article.

With shorter focal length lenses than the 55mm used at the bridge, the plane runs even closer to the camera. My widest tilt/shift lens is the Canon TS-E17mm F4L, where at full tilt the plane of focus runs only a few inches from the camera.

This view along some seats has the lens tilted downwards and focused at infinity, so as to run the plane of focus along the wooden seating.


The aperture of f/4 means that the out of focus areas are not as soft as with the 55mm and 90mm f/2.8 lenses used earlier. If you want to emphasise the out of focus blur then a wide aperture helps.

The wedge of focus

Moving to say f/11 would have kept the distant building sharp as well. This is one of the popular uses of lens tilt in landscape photography. With many uses of tilt, you don’t want to show the effect, just to get the benefits of an apparently much greater depth of field.

At first thought, this flat plane of focus might seem ideal for capturing scenes from near to far. Remember though that the plane is in this instance running under your camera. A nearby flower might have the base of the stalk sharp, but the top completely out of focus.

The plane of focus is of different thicknesses at different distances from the camera. It can be very thin at closer distances.

With the adapter, I tested several medium format lenses. I’d not normally look to use movements (another term for tilt/shift) on a 210mm lens for a 35mm format sensor, but experimenting is what helps me better understand this stuff…

210mm tilt/shift

A Mamiya 210mm f/4 M645 lens mounted on an EOS RP with leftwards tilt and the view, showing how depth of field, or thickness of the plane of focus varies with distance.

dmu view

The plane of focus is passing to the left of the camera. The building with the leaning front is actually where I took the first ‘miniature world’ photo in this article from. You can also see some distinct vignetting at the right – this depends on the lens, aperture and amount of tilt.

Changing focus

The examples above have all shown the tilt effect with the plane heading directly away from the camera parallel to the direction the camera is pointed.  What happens when you change the focus setting of the lens?  Notice I no longer refer to it as the focus distance – those numbers on the lens can be helpful when the lens isn’t tilted, but add tilt and they are no longer directly relevant.

Changing the focus setting changes the angle the plane of focus crosses in front of the camera. If you’ve a lens that focuses past the ∞ mark then the plane can even pass behind the camera.

With the example of the level camera tilted so to run the plane of focus along the ground, reducing the focus setting from infinity will cause the plane to run upwards as you move away from the camera, whilst focus past the ∞ mark and it runs downwards.

Great for making the plane of focus run up a flight of stairs or hillside but it can be difficult to visualise (see my Focusing with tilt article for diagrams, examples and photos).

The real world of models

To make things easier to see I’ve set up a camera on my desk, tethered to the computer and running Canon’s EOS Utility to see the view from the camera and take photos. The camera is a Canon 5Ds and the lens, the Canon TS-E17mm F4L.

You can see that the lens has been tilted to the left (down in this picture).

planes of focus

In this view of the camera setup, I’ve leveled up the geometry of this image using DxO Optics Pro 3, to better show the relationship of lens/camera/subjects, but it’s the view from the camera that is important.

If you have a tilt/shift lens and never tried this out, have a go, it really makes the relationship between the tilt and focus settings very clear.

The camera is pointed along the desk. With 7 degrees of leftwards tilt on the TS-E17mm lens and focus at infinity, the plane of focus runs parallel to the edge of the desk.

The plane continues out into the corridor outside my office where you can see a large panoramic print on the wall (lit by diffuse daylight, hence the blue colour cast beyond my office).

focus plane shifting with tilt

Reduce (just) the focus setting, without moving the camera at all and the plane starts to swing around. At a setting of about 40cm, the plane of focus runs along the line of small cars.

There’s one other thing to note here – the tilt of the focal plane does not equate with the physical tilt of the lens. Another common misapprehension when first experimenting with such lenses is to assume that there is some simple relationship between the tilt setting in degrees, with the tilt of the plane of focus, which you could measure in degrees. There isn’t.

The photos are taken with the lens wide open at f/4. In general, strong lens tilt will introduce quite a few distortions and show stronger vignetting and other aberrations.

If you’re using tilt to emphasise sharp/soft areas, then wider apertures will do so, but in my normal day-to-day use of such lenses (for architecture and interiors) I generally don’t want to draw attention to the fact that I’ve used strong tilt. A smaller aperture can give a much sharper image, but you still need to take care of the thinness of the wedge of focus at closer distances from the camera.

Tilting diagonals

The examples here just show tilt along an axis parallel to a side of the image frame. Most lenses allow you to rotate the tilt axis, so as to have a diagonal slice through a scene at some arbitrary angle.

griffon and water

Altering the rotation of the lens mount can give fine control over just where you place the emphasis and sharpness. A wide aperture will of course blur areas, but notice how the quality of the blur is different on either side of the plane of focus.

The colour fringing from this adapted medium format lens could easily be reduced in RAW processing, but don’t expect much else in the way of automated correction.

The lack of lens electronics meant this manual adapted lens wasn’t there from the camera’s point of view. You may even need to set the camera to allow shots to be taken without a lens attached. Nothing shows in EXIF data beyond exposure and ISO, and even the Canon/Nikon tilt/shift lenses don’t record any of the lens movement settings in EXIF data.

Moving onwards?

I hope the examples have given some feel for the range of effects you can get once you understand why tilting a lens produces such changes.

There are over 50 articles and reviews on this site looking at tilt and shift – questions are always welcome!

As you might have guessed, I’m not a big fan of the miniature world look. It’s one of those things much like using a fisheye lens when you first get one – fascinating to try out, but a tool to be put back in the box for occasional use. Sure, I’ve seen some excellent images using the small world look, but for me the novelty of strong and obvious tilt quickly wears off.

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