[00:00:00] A tilt lens lets you create images that are utterly unique, and impossible to create with a traditional camera lens. Photos where subjects at different distances from the camera are in focus, while other objects in the same plane, are not. Photos of small objects with curious planes in focus, and tabletop photography where everything on the table is in focus, without having to shoot top-down. Photos where focus is simultaneously near and far, without shooting stopped down to the smallest aperture. And of course, the miniature effect, where natural large scenes appear like train model miniatures.
[00:00:35] Tilt lenses are not new. In fact, some of the earliest cameras, and certainly large format cameras, were based on the idea that the film plane and the lens plane operated independently from each-other, allowing the photographer to really move focus precisely wherever they wanted it.
[00:00:51] These days though, with conventional cameras, the lenses focal plan and the film, or sensor plane, are perfectly parallel. That’s good, right? I mean… you want your focus and sensor planes to line up, right? Well most of the time, sure. Let’s illustrate this. First, remember that focus isn’t a point; it’s a plane.
[00:01:08] Here’s a roughly illustrated side view of a camera and a subject. If you’re photographing a person, and they’re straight in front of you, you hold the camera parallel to them, and even with a narrow depth of field, they’re in focus top to bottom. Easy. But now, say you want to photograph something bigger, like a building. The only way to hold the camera parallel to the building and to capture the whole building in a narrow plane of focus would be to be shooting from mid-way up the height of the building, but you’re not; you’re on the ground, pointing up at it.
[00:01:36] A wide depth of field might get the whole building in focus, but then everything in front and behind it would be in focus too. With a conventional lens, the solution at this point is to shoot with a really small aperture so you have a huge depth of field, which makes the image look flat, and again depending on the size of the subject, may still be impossible to get it all in focus anyway.
[00:01:55] What you need to do is tilt the lens plane slightly so the sensor, lens and focal planes all intersect. Check this out. Let’s go back to this illustration, move the focal plane back to the desired position, separate the sensor and lens plane so we can move them independently like in the old days, and let’s zoom way out of this view.
[00:02:15] We now have the sensor or film plane, the lens plane, and the focal plane. Next, imagine extending the lines each of these planes until they start to meet, and now let’s move in for a closer look. The goal is for all three planes to intersect. By tilting the lens plane just a little bit, that brings all three planes to converge at the same point, making, in this case, the entire building in focus!
[00:02:39] Modern lenses aren’t designed to accommodate this problem. Except, for a few, that are. Some camera companies do currently manufacture tilt or tilt-shift lenses for modern cameras; Canon I believe makes the most tilt-shift lenses, and Nikon makes a few, and lately a few third party companies have gotten into it as well.
[00:02:56] What I have today is one of the first L-Mount Tilt lenses, and this one is by TTartisan; it’s a 50mm f/1.4 with an 8º tilt angle, and notably this is a tilt-ONLY lens, not a tilt-shift lens. Manufacturing a shift lens means the lens has to be considerably larger, because the projected field of view has to cover much more area than the sensor, so by making a tilt-only lens, not only was TTartisan able to make it one of the smallest full-frame tilt lenses on the market, but also the most affordable.
[00:03:27] At under $200, it’s cheap enough for a lot of photographers to get one just to experiment with it. To compare, the Canon tilt-shift lenses start around $2,000, so there’s a huge difference. To round out the specs, again this lens is a 50mm f/1.4 full frame tilt lens with 8º of tilt in either direction — available in Sony E- Mount, Fuji X-Mount, Canon RF and Nikon Z, in addition to LUMIX L- Mount. It features an all-metal body, stepless aperture from 1.4 to f/16, geared focus and aperture rings for use with a Cine follow focus system, and a 90º rotation, which means you can tilt focus along any axis.
[00:04:04] Now, what I’m NOT going to do in this video get into a technical analysis of sharpness and bokeh pattern and chromatic aberration pixel peeping on this lens. That’s been done on YouTube already, and if you DO care about this for this lens, then you should watch Christopher Frost’s video, which I’ll link to just below my Like and Subscribe buttons.
[00:04:21] What I will say though is that this lens is NOT a great performer when you’re shooting it in its straight, unevolved form. I mean, I would never use this as an everyday nifty fifty. Break the lens a few degrees and everything goes wonky and beautiful and a little edge sharpness is largely irrelevant.
[00:04:36] This is not your everyday lens, nor is this your first lens. This lens is for folks who want something a little bit different; another tool in your bag. If you want the critical analysis, follow the link below to Frost’s video. But with all of that said, these talking head sequences — are actually all shot with this TTArtisan 50mm tilt lens, at f/2.8, so stopped down just a little. You be the judge; tell me in the comments after you’ve watched the whole video what you think of it for conventional use.
[00:05:01] Alright, so what IS the purpose of this lens? At its principal, as you saw in the illustrations, it’s to make two points at different distances from your camera, simultaneously in focus. To which you might say, “Why not just stop down the lens for greater depth of field?”. I’m glad you asked! It comes down to quality, and creativity, but let’s focus on quality.
[00:05:19] First; if you’re shooting at, say, f/22 instead of f/4 on any given lens, that tiny aperture may mean a lot more is in focus, but it also means you have a lot less light coming in, so you need a longer exposure or a much higher ISO. Second; stopping the lens down that much increases the risk of diffraction — and that’s always bad. Third; you’re only using the center of your lens, so you’re not getting the maximum quality of the glass that you paid for. And, four; EVERYTHING in the focal plane from near to far is in focus, which makes for flat and boring photos. And that’s not even to mention the creative uses for a lens like this, which I’ll save for the very end.
[00:05:57] So, let’s have a look at some practical use cases. I’d like to start with a common architectural example; shooting a tall building like I showed in the illustrations. And I said I’d like to… but I can’t. And here we run into the first “issue” with this TTartisan 50mm Tilt lens. It’s… 50mm. That’s a long lens for architecture. Too long.
[00:06:17] The tallest building in my town is only seven stories tall, and that’s too tall to photograph from the other side of the street and get the whole thing in the shot. So, if you’re looking for a Tilt lens specifically for architecture, consider first if a 50mm full frame lens is wide enough.
[00:06:31] I’m hoping that TTartisan releases something as wide as the Canon 17 and 24mm lenses in the future, but in the meantime, 50mm is what we’ve got. So, what CAN we do with a 50mm tilt lens? Quite a lot, actually. I went for a wander around town to get a feel for the lens, and the first thing I came across was this door.
[00:06:49] The double wooden door has symbols engraved on each door, and a pillar in front of them. With the camera on a tripod — and you really should be shooting on a tripod with a tilt lens, as it’ll make it much easier to ensure what you want in focus, is in focus — and the lens opened to f/1.4 with NO tilt, first I focused on the front symbol. Then, I focused on the rear one. So you can clearly see that wide open, both are not in focus.
[00:07:13] Then I stopped down to probably 5.6 or so until I could get both in focus. And that’s fine, but now that front pillar and side- rails are less… bokeh-ey. It’s not terrible, BUT… if I go back to f/1.4 and tilt the lens, and this is probably a 1º tilt, notice how the doors are both sharp while the pillar and other things in front of the door are quite a bit softer. Nice!
[00:07:36] This next series is a horrible photo but a great illustration. Starting at f/1.4, in the first photo; the rock is in focus. Second photo; the bushes are in focus. In the third photo, I stopped all the way down to f/16, and pretty much everything is in focus. But also, this shot is 1/6 of a second long. Not ideal if you have any movement. And of course, the photos is boring. But next, I went back to f/1.4, tilted the lens about 3º down, and check this out… the bushes, and the stone, are both in focus — but the water is not!
[00:08:07] For this next one, I really wanted to play with the idea of two objects in focus that are in different planes of focus, but more interesting than the rock in the pond. In the Japanese Gardens, here I’ve focused on this stone lantern, at f/1.4. In the next shot, I shifted focus to the waterfall. You know where this is going next… now at f/16 and 1/13 second, everything is in focus but it’s boring.
[00:08:28] So next, I ended up at a 3º tilt at f/1.4, to get this fun composition. Maybe it’s a bit too extreme, so I stopped down to f/4, and then I added an ND filter to get to an eight second exposure, and ended up with this. Far more interesting, I think!
[00:08:43] By the way, I’m leading a photography workshop in India in November 2023. Even if you’re watching this after that though, I’m already planning one for 2024 and beyond, so just keep listening. If the idea of going to one of the most colorful, dynamic, exciting countries in the world with a small group of fellow photographers learning new skills and creating amazing photos along the way sounds interesting to you, check out photojoseph.com/india, and I’ll tell you what— if you join me, remind me to and I’ll bring this tilt lens and you can play with it while we’re there. Alright, back to the video.
[00:09:17] For the next example, let’s look at tabletop photography. In this photo of a spread of books, even stopped down to f/16, from front to back is PRETTY sharp, but not as sharp as it could be. Now with the lens rotated 90º and tilted down about 5º, I can get the entire plane of books in focus, front to back.
[00:09:35] This is shot at f/4, and see the sharpness difference between the nearest books? It’s pretty dramatic. Also, the f/16 photo shows sensor spots; those are invisible at f/4. Overall clearly the tilted lens shot is a superior photo. Landscape photography is another great use case.
[00:09:52] From this position, if you want the distant mountains and the close-up tree trunk all in focus, you’d have to focus stack this, or use a close-focus split-diopter which is definitely not ideal. But with the Tilt lens, you can easily get the entire scene in focus! One interesting limitation however is that the rotation of the lens is 90º in only one direction.
[00:10:13] So if you’re trying to get something in focus at an angle, the angle may not line up. Here’s what I mean; see this photo of the stairs? The stairs are at… let’s call it… a 45º angle, from top right to bottom left. To shoot this, I held the camera vertically and rotated the lens 45º. But now here’s the same steps, short horizontally, and I can’t get the shot. I’d need to rotate the lens 45º in the other direction, and you can’t.
[00:10:37] Let me show you something to make this really clear. I’m just pointing at a flat surface here and focus peaking is enabled, so you can clearly see what part of the scene is in focus. The lens is tilted the maximum 8º, so the band of focus as I focus closer and farther is really narrow.
[00:10:51] Now, as I rotate the lens 90º, you can see how the plane of focus rotates — but also how it’s limited to this 90º rotation. I wish the lens could rotate 90º in EITHER direction, which is something that higher-end tilt lenses can do. If you use a tilt lens in macro photography, you can definitely get some interesting effects.
[00:11:09] This 50mm lens only has a closest focusing distance of half a meter, or just under 20 inches, so I added a 12mm extension tube to get this close. For this series, I started with a normal, no tilt photo at f/2.8. Then for the next four shots, I tilted the lens the maximum 8º, up, down, left and right, moving the camera as needed to keep the LEGO figure in the same position.
[00:11:33] You can see that the focus planes are all quite different, some definitely better than others, and each one unique! You can even shoot video with this lens! We’re currently at f1.4, so wide open in the full 8º tilt, and I’ve got it hooked up to my follow focus system, so you can see just how narrow that band of focus is.
[00:11:51] Now, speaking of the geared focus ring… when the lens is tilted it’s at a weird angle for the focus controller to grab on to, but it works just fine. This certainly isn’t ideal for a talking head shot, but you know, it’s kind of fun. Look at my eyes! Look at my mouth! Look at my eyes! What am I saying? Ha ha… alright, let’s go back to normal.
[00:12:07] Here’s an effect you’ve undoubtedly seen before — the miniature model train effect. All you need to do is tilt the lens down and focus on whatever you want! The more you tilt it, the more extreme the effect. This is essentially giving you an extremely shallow depth of field where the focal plane intersects the ground, and basically our brain just says “that’s not right” and we interpret it as something that must be really small, like a model train set. It’s super fun. If you like playing with unique lenses, next watch my video on the Nanomorph anamorphic lenses, let me know in the comments what funky lenses you would like to see in a future video!