Canon TS-E Tilt-Shift Lens Shooting Tips from Rudy Winston

In response to a tilt-shift lens question, Canon USA Technical Advisor Rudy Winston provided a detailed response that we though was worth sharing with you.
 
Canon TS-E Tilt-Shift Lens General Shooting Procedure
 
While there's no one "official" way to work with the TS-E lenses (I'm sure you'll find some diversity of opinion on what different users feel is best), the following is what works best in my experience. Keep in mind there's no "one-touch" way to set the lens up unless you've recorded previous settings and are shooting the same subject subsequently, at the same camera position, subject distance, and so on. Otherwise, there's a bit of trial-and-error, especially if you're trying to adjust the zone of sharpness (notice I avoided saying "depth of field," as that technically doesn't change; you're altering the plane of sharpest focus via the tilt operation).
 
THE BASIC OPERATIONS
 
It is important to be sure in one's mind what the two different possible adjustments – Shift and Tilt – do, and why you might want to apply one or the other. There are certainly many instances where just one will provide the look you want in finished images, so don't assume every shot will need a combination of both (of course, experimentation can be great fun).
 
A couple of other points:
 
I *always* recommend starting with both tilt and shift zero'ed out, before you begin to work with adjustments.
 
Metering with DSLRs: You MUST perform any in-camera metering with a TS-E lens at the zero Shift and Tilt positions. On any of the cameras with an optical viewfinder, you will get exposure errors or deviations if you meter daylight or E-TTL flash with a TS-E lens that's not at its zero adjust positions. Note that this is far less of a problem with the mirrorless cameras, since they're metering directly off the image sensor, and the light doesn't have to get reflected upward by a DSLR mirror, and then get scattered by a focus screen before it's read by a metering sensor in the prism area, near the viewfinder eyepiece. Bottom line, do any metering (manual mode, of course, is ideal for this, since nothing will change if you begin to adjust the TS-E lens), before you start tilting and/or shifting, and you should be in a good place to begin taking actual shots... don't freak out if you do need to tweak exposures, after a couple of quick test shots, to nail it down the way you want. Parenthetically, if you're using a separate hand-held meter (not the one built-in to the camera body), you can normally set the camera to whatever the meter suggests, whether you've engaged tilt and/or shift or not, as typically a hand-held meter will be pretty close to optimum exposure for ambient light.
 
Shift function
 
Shifting the lens up, down, left or right is primary for perspective control – the obvious example is keeping vertical lines on a building or product (like a cereal box) straight, and avoiding the "pyramid" effect of converging vertical lines. It can sometimes also be useful for literally shifting the subject in the frame, removing the image of photographer & camera if shooting into a wall with small mirrors (this won't work for an entire mirrored wall, of course!), and so on.
 
Canon TS-E 24mm f/3.5L II Lens Shift Example Cabin

Tilt function
 
Tilting the lens, so that the front section is no longer perfectly parallel with the image sensor/film plane, changes the plane of what is in sharp focus. Shooting with a lens from an angle (rather than straight into a subject, like a wide-angle shot of a car taken from around the front fender/wheel well), it's possible to focus on the near part of the subject, then tilt the lens so that the front section is closer to being parallel to the whole length of our hypothetical car (or any other subject), and you can get sharpness to run from the near area focused upon, down the length of the subject. To be clear, tilting has **nothing** to do with the architectural photography need to keep vertical lines straight; that's SHIFTING alone. Of course, you CAN combine tilt and shift in the same image... just be clear up-front about the role of each, or you'll spend a long time trying to dial-in an optimum setting.
 
Canon TS-E 50mm f/2.8L Macro Paddy Field Tilted at f 2.8

Shooting Aperture
 
Anything you want. If you apply tilt correctly, you won't require tiny f-stops like f/22 just to hope to get an entire subject sharp. In some cases, even a wide-open aperture can get the job done, which might never be possible with a conventional lens.
 
Tripod Use
 
Tripod use is definitely preferred where possible, since it keeps everything anchored and lets you concentrate on composing and working the lens's controls... though it *is* possible to do this hand-held. However, it's nowhere near as smooth an experience, and you can expect your arms to get tired after a while at the controls.
 
Release Knobs for Shift & Tilt
 
180 degrees from the actual adjustment knobs for each movement are locking knobs, slightly smaller in diameter. Be sure to UNLOCK each before trying to adjust shift or tilt, and then snug it back down once you've arrived at a desired setting to keep it from any inadvertent movement. This is especially important for SHIFT, since if you apply it vertically, the weight of the front section of the lens can sometimes allow it to drop downward slowly, if it's left unlocked after you've adjusted it.
 
Home Position and Rotating the Lens as Needed
 
By default, whether you've decided to apply shift/tilt or have everything zero'ed out, there's still a basic position from which you can apply your tilts and shifts. Mount the lens on the camera when it's all correctly oriented to the default settings, and you'll see the name plate at the TOP of the lens, when it's mounted and secured to the camera. AT THIS POSITION, any tilt movements (with most of the TS-E lenses, anyway) will be tilting the lens *left or right;* the larger Tilt knob will be facing upward and any shifting at the same default setting will move the lens up and down. This means the direction of each is at 90 degrees from the other movement, which is NORMAL operation for Canon TS-E lenses.
 
You're not locked-in to this. The lens can rotate, without loosening it from the camera. The 2nd generation lenses (see below) have TWO rotation points. However, the one closest to the camera body is definitely the primary one. It'll allow you to rotate the lens up to 90 degrees left or right. Example: in the standard position, the Shift is up and down. Say you wanted to shift side-to-side, for whatever reason. Ninety degrees to the right (think the 3 o'clock position, with the camera aimed at a subject, and in horizontal orientation) is a small, projecting tab, just inside the camera grip when the lens is correctly mounted. Press this release tab toward the camera body, and virtually the entire lens can be rotated in 30-degree increments, to the left or right. Move it 90 degrees, and your Shift now moves side-to-side (the Tilt moved as well, now tilting upward or downward).
 
In most real-life situations, you can rotate via this rear-most tab and move the desired adjustment to where you want it; much of the time, realistically, you won't be applying shift and tilt simultaneously. So just rotate the lens so your Shift *or* Tilt is where you need it.
 
Rotating Using the Forward-mounted Control
 
About 1/2 inch or so in front of the little, 3 o'clock projecting metal tab is another, very similar tab. THIS ONE allows you to rotate JUST the front section of the lens, while the rear section stays put. The primary purpose here is if you needed to apply both shift and tilt, and needed to change the normally standard orientation where tilt and shift are at 90 degrees from each other. However, DON'T use this rotation point to simply rotate the front section, if all you want is to change the tilt orientation... if you only want to change the direction of tilt, use the rear tab and rotation point to arrange the tilt where you want. There's a technical reason for not reaching for this forward rotation point if you can avoid it.
 
As I said, first-generation Canon TS-E lenses didn't have this forward mounted rotation capability... there is only one way to temporarily unlock and rotate the older TS-E lenses. Here are the lenses... check the lens naming at the front of the lens to determine which one you have.
 
First-gen TS-E lenses:
 
2nd-gen (current) TS-E lenses:
 
Shooting with the Canon TS-E Lenses
 
Example 1: Correcting converging vertical lines with SHIFT. I'll assume the camera is tripod-mounted, although again, you can do this hand-held if you can endure the hassle.
 
a. Keep the Camera Level – This is the most important part of being able to correct for converging lines, regardless of the lens you're using. Any upward angling of the entire camera, to "get the whole subject in," is going to make it impossible to correct for convergence... this is why buildings shot with conventional wide-angle lenses look like they're falling backward. It's perfectly normal not to get the entire subject in the frame at this stage.
 
Here's a wide-angle example of a typical building, with the camera aimed upward. The vertical lines converge inward, making the subject look a bit like a pyramid, or like it's falling over backward.
 
Canon TS-E 24mm f/3.5L II Lens Home Example Pointed Up

b. Aim the camera straight ahead, not tilted up. Obviously, you now can't see the entire subject, but that's the role of the Shift function. What you WILL notice is that now, with the camera level, the vertical sides of the subject are indeed parallel, and not tilting inward. This is your starting point!
 
Canon TS-E 24mm f/3.5L II Lens Home Example Straight Ahead Level

c. Now, start shifting the lens upward, to include more of the subject.
 
Canon TS-E 24mm f/3.5L II Lens Home Example Shift Up 1

Canon TS-E 24mm f/3.5L II Lens Home Example Shift Up 2

Canon TS-E 24mm f/3.5L II Lens Home Example Shift Up 3

Canon TS-E 24mm f/3.5L II Lens Home Example Shift Up 4

d. When the entire building (or cereal box, or whatever) is positioned where you want, lock the shift in-place, and begin shooting! You're done! Of course, if you move the camera, or go to a new subject, you'll likely need to use the Shift again to compose and align things as you want.
 
Example 2: Tilting to keep a subject sharp, as it recedes into the distance. Normally, this would require stopping-down to your minimum aperture, and hoping you have enough depth-of-field to cover you, front to back. TS-E lenses offer another alternative, and sometimes, you can even pull this off at the lens's widest aperture. Regardless, though, you'll find a lot less need to shoot at f/16, f/22 and so on!
 
a. Compose the scene as you desire, horizontal or vertical. We'll use a horizontal example here. b. **Focus on the NEAREST part of the subject or scene you want in sharp focus.** Of course, the background will be out of focus.
 
In this example, we've got a receding fence, drifting out of focus. Sharpest focus deliberately placed at nearest point we want in-focus; in this case, the first-generation TS-E 90mm f/2.8 lens was used wide-open, at f/2.8 throughout. No Tilt/Shift movements applied, yet.
 
Canon TS-E 90mm f/2.8 Lens Fence Example No Tilt Nearest Focus

c. Now, start to tilt the lens so that the front section starts to move in a direction closer to parallel to the subject you want to keep sharp. In this case, that meant the tilt section was moved so that (viewed from above) the front of the lens now tilts to the left.
 
IMPORTANT: As you start to tilt the lens, you'll see two things. The farthest part of the subject (fence in this case) will become progressively sharper. However, the front portion you just focused upon in step a will begin to drift a bit out of focus. Here's the key element to using tilt – you want to tilt until the degree of DE-FOCUS you see, front to back, is essentially constant. In other words, as you tilt, nothing in the fence or whatever the subject is will appear tack-sharp. What you want is to get the tilting so that the entire subject, front-to-back, appears about the same degree out of focus (it won't be radically out, but obviously just not tack-sharp, even at the point you focused on a moment before). This is absolutely normal.
 
d. Once you get the tilt so the entire subject looks pretty much the same, in terms of the degree of out-of-focus you see, you've got the tilt close to right-on. NOW, RE-FOCUS THE LENS TO GET THAT FRONT POINT SHARP AGAIN. If the amount of tilt was correct, the entire subject will now appear sharp. Again, if you examine the picture immediately below, keep in mind this was taken at f/2.8 with a 90mm telephoto lens.
 
Canon TS-E 90mm f/2.8 Lens  Fence Example After Tilt and Refocusing

A mistake many users make at first is tilting TOO MUCH, especially with relatively distant subjects. Do it in little increments, slowly, until you begin to get comfortable with the process. And, in general, the closer a subject is to the camera, the more you'll typically need to tilt the lens. This is something many users have to play with for a while, to get the hang of watching that entire scene/subject drift out of focus as they tilt, and stopping when the amount of de-focus is about the same, front to back. It's at that point, if done properly, that you've got the right amount of tilt dialed-in.
 
Thanks go out to Rudy Winston for providing this information. Images used in this article were provided by Mr Winston.
 
Read our Tilt-Shift lens reviews to find the right model for your needs:
 
Posted: 12/21/2018 8:10:52 AM CT   Posted By: Sean
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