A tilt-shift lens for portraits makes for interesting results. With careful focus and some tilt you get super sharp eyes, and naturally smoother skin tone and softer texture.
A good number of photographers I meet have never even seen a tilt-shift lens. Those that have, often think they are used for architecture to “stop buildings falling over”. It’s the tilt movement of these lenses that makes it possible to have different amounts of your subject in focus at the same subject distance.
When you tilt a tilt-shift lens, the plane of focus that would normally be parallel to the sensor, is tilted either up or down. The range of tilt adjustment on the lens is only a few degrees, but this translates to a much more tilted plane of focus than you’d expect.
Take this shot of two paper cups, taken with a TS-E 90mm f/2.8L Macro lens. The lens was tilted down to the maximum possible amount, and the aperture set to f/2.8. This gives a shallow plane of focus that lays flat across the top of the two cups. You can see that the surface the cups stand on is out of focus, as is the lower part of the cups, yet the top is clearly in focus. The cups are on a table in front of a mirror so the reflection in the background matches too.
Accurate focus is critical
Tilt-shift lenses are manual focus only. So you need to keep your eyes on the viewfinder, use a tripod and live view, or shoot tethered with live view to really see where the sharp parts of the frame are.
I have the older TS-E 90mm f/2.8 lens, and have in the past tried to use it on portrait shoots. Working with a live model and handholding the camera is a challenge to get the focus right on the eyes. The above shot was captured with the TS-E 90mm f/2.8 on my EOS R.
But when you get it just right, then the results are worth the effort
For me it’s the fall off in focus as you look up and down the face. This is not something that is readily achieved in Photoshop. You’d need to bring in multiple gradients of softening to achieve similar. But look how the sharpness extends beyond her ears to the tops of her ears, it’s quite different to a narrow depth of field look. It’s almost height of field, instead of depth of field.
One thing you soon find is that you won’t need to fully tilt the lens to the maximum it allows. Like most things, less is often more.
Focus aids help when using a tilt-shift lens for portraits
Your camera is not focussing the manual focus only tilt-shift lens, but that doesn’t stop it from helping you out. Choose a single AF point on your DSLR and as you manually focus, then you’ll see a focus confirmation indicator when you have focus on that selected AF point. EOS R includes the focus guide, it works similarly to the single AF point I use for DSLRs.
However the EOS R and M series cameras include focus peaking. This is available when you are using manual focus, which is always when you use a tilt-shift lens. In fact on my EOS R, I leave focus peaking active all the time, it only appears when I use a lens in manual focus. The great thing about focus peaking is that you really see a band of red, can be blue or yellow, moving up and down the face as you move the focus ring. It’s quite easy to see exactly when you have critical focus on the eyes.
Twist and tilt
TS-E lenses have a small metal lever on the body of the body of the lens that lets the lens rotate on it’s lens mount. This allows the direction of the tilt to be turned as you need. The latest TS-E lenses have two of these levers for the most flexible use of the tilt and shift movements independent of each other. Older TS-E lenses like my TS-E 90mm only have the single lever, the tilt and shift movements are at 90 degrees to each other. Canon service can re-orientate the lens to make the tilt and shift align, but it’s not as flexible as the newer lenses.
Which way should you tilt, up or down?
In this shot, the lens was tilted down, her eyes are sharp, but so are the leaves of the plants behind and below her elbow.
In this shot, the lens was tilted up, her eyes are sharp, but so are the leaves of the plants in-front at waist level.
There’s no clear answer when using a tilt-shift lens for portraits, you’ll need to experiment with TS-E lenses to work out the best way to tilt them. If the subject is more than a simple headshot like the one near the top of the post, you definitely need to look around the frame for the “what else is in focus in my picture” elements. Here’s where focus peaking is truly helpful.
Tilt-shift and extenders
Tilt-shift lenses are expensive, and there’s few alternatives from independent makers. However you can combine the TS-E lenses with extenders – not officially – but it fits. Adding the EF Extender 1.4x III to my TS-E 90mm, converts it to a 135mm f/4, adding the same extender to a TS-E 17mm f/4L makes a 24mm f/5.6. You do lose a little of the range of movements of buying the specific focal length though.
I wrote about using tilt-shift lenses with extenders in this earlier post: Break the rules it is essential for photographers
Once you start writing about tilt and shift lenses, you’ll appreciate that spell checkers are not 100% reliable. There’s a couple of bad words that are just a few keystrokes away from tilt and shift. I think I caught them all, but if you spot one let me know.