Using a tilt-shift lens for mirror portraits

When taking a portrait of a person in a mirror, the challenge is not appearing in the photo yourself. To keep yourself out of the frame, use the shift movement of a tilt-shift lens.

So before we start, let’s take a look at what the shift movement does.

Shift movement

Shift is the movement conventionally used by architecture photographers, to ensure that buildings are kept upright. In effect, shifting the lens is like repositioning the camera to a higher or lower position than it really is.

To keep the sides of a tall building straight, you need to position the camera mid-way up the building, and have the camera back parallel to the building. Of course the practicalities of 100 foot tall tripods, and cranes are difficult to to manage. Enter the tilt-shift lens.

Make sure the camera back is vertical, then shift the lens up until the top of the building is in frame. It’s as if you’ve raised the camera a long way off the floor to a new taking positions. Here’s an example with the Radcliffe Camera building in Oxford, photographed with a TS-E 17mm f/4L lens.

Taking that same idea of appearing to move the camera, and combining it with the ability to rotate TS-E lenses on the lens mount, and it’s like the camera is moved sideways…

This sideways shift offers a couple of additional creative options, you can take three shots and combine them to make a wide, perfectly aligned panoramic image, or take photos of people in mirrors.

Mirror reflections

If you want a portrait in a mirror, you’d need the lens to be looking at the reflection and this makes it hard to keep out of the shoot. Shifting a TS-E lens sideways allows the photographer to stand to the side of the reflection, yet still have a viewpoint as if they are looking in the mirror. Using my tilt-shift lens for mirror portraits, I’ve left me in the reflection on the left of the frame, by not fully shifting the TS-E 90mm f/2.8L Macro lens sideways.

tilt-shift lens for mirror portraits

For this second shot above, I fully shifted the lens to allow me to move out of the reflection completely. One thing is that the newer TS-E lenses have increased range of tilt and shift, so offer more capability to hide you from the reflection.

Combining shift and tilt movements

I’ve written about using tilt-shift lenses for portraits before, that post concentrated on the tilt movement. There’s nothing to stop you combining tilt and shift movements for otherwise impossible shots. The shot above does exactly that. I’ve shifted the lens sideways to remove me from the reflection, and tilted the lens. This makes the plane of focus pass through the models shoulder and side of her face in both the real and reflected parts of the image. If you look to the left of picture, you’ll see the bricks in the background are sharper then the ones on the right. I used the TS-E 90mm f/2.8L Macro lens on the EOS 5D Mark IV at 1/200s, f/4, ISO 800.