Tilt-shift photography is a method of image capture that allows you to change the image plane for effects that are otherwise impossible to create. You have to have a tilt-shift lens to pull off the look, although some digital manipulation can create a somewhat similar effect. The uses are a bit limited in a professional photography context, but you'll quickly find that tilt-shift lenses are a lot of fun to play with!
Discover tilt-shift photography and how it can enhance your photos!
The National Portrait Gallery with a 17mm Tilt-Shift Lens. 1/50 sec at f/8.
The same settings and lens, but without tilting to simulate a regular lens.
What is tilt?
When you take a photo with a regular lens, you are creating a two-dimensional image. It is flat. And there is a single plane that you are capturing. That plane is exactly perpendicular from the direction your lens is pointing. In other words, the left side of the plane and the right side of the plane are the same distance from the camera, as are the top and the bottom. When you use the tilt function on a tilt-shift lens you are changing the plane. For example, the left side of the plane may appear further back than the right side, or the bottom closer than the top. You are tilting the plane of the images.
Exterior of the Portrait Gallery while tilting. 1/1000 sec at f/5.
Uses for tilt
Why would you want to change the plane of the image? Let’s say you have an image with a very close foreground in the bottom of the frame and a very far background toward the top of the frame and you want everything to be in focus. You could try to take your f-stop down to something very small, like f/22. But perhaps even that doesn’t get the sharpness you are looking for, or there is not enough light to allow such a small f-stop. If you change the plane of the image, your focal plane is also changed, and you can potentially focus on both foreground and background at the same time.
What is shift?
When you take a photo with a regular lens, there is almost always some noticeable perspective lines. That is just the way our eye (and a camera) sees things. We may not notice it, because our brains compensate for perspective, but in a digital image it becomes more noticeable. The shift function on a tilt-shift lens allows you to shift the plane of the lens up or down, or to the left or right. By shifting the lens plane, we can compensate for perspective and make images look more the way our brains interpret for our eyes, with perfectly vertical and horizontal lines.
The top and bottom of this photo look out of focus because I shifted the plane of focus.
Uses for shift
Why would you want to shift the plane of the image? Imagine taking a photo of a tall building. As you point your lens upward to capture the whole building in the frame, perspective takes over and the lines of the building converge upward, almost making it look like the building is falling backwards. If you point your lens at the level horizon, the lines of the building become pretty straight, but the top is cropped out. Solving this problem means pointing your tilt-shift lens at a level horizon and then shifting the lens upward to capture the whole building while the vertical lines remain vertical. Architectural photographers use this technique often for either eliminating the converging lines of perspective or exaggerating them.
Both tilting and shifting functions can be simulated using Photoshop for some applications. Sometimes we tilt the lens to create selective focus. By throwing the focal plane off, only part of the image is in focus. A lens blur command and some quick masking will give you a lower quality version of this effect, but a similar look to the untrained eye. You can also manipulate the perspective of an image in Photoshop. This is a great way to get those perfect vertical and horizontal lines in architectural photos if you don’t have access to a tilt-shift lens.