Freelensing, a cheap way to tilt & shift?

UPDATE: if you shoot Nikon, get an old Nikon lens to do this, don’t use Canon or any other brand not meant for the Nikon F mount. Although you actually disassemble the mounts, there’s still a difference: the required distance of the rear optical element to the sensor differs with each mount. You have to get the rear optical element of a Canon FD lens too close to the sensor of a Nikon Camera to get a sharp image, resulting in crashing the mirror as described below. With a similarly modified Nikon 50mm F1.8 freelensing works just fine…

No. Not at all. A real tilt & shift lens allows for much more control and precision, but its a very specialised lens and therefore quite the expensive investment. I’d sure like to get my hands on one, but for now a cheap old broken Canon FD 50mm F1.8 lens has to do the trick. It’s certainly not a tilt & shift replacement, but it does its own style of image quite well, as seen above.

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Freelensing is shooting through a lens that is not attached to the camera body. This has its benefits and downsides: you have creative control over the orientation of the plane of focus relative to the sensor, as well as light leaks, allowing for a different creative scene interpretation than with a normal attached lens. On the other hand, successfully controlling the parameters of the image requires a lot of training and experience.

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I have been fooling around with freelensing since 2012, even during a wedding, using my Nikon lenses. The shot above was probably taken using the Nikon 50mm F1.4G. Downside is: newer Nikon AF-S G lenses stop down the aperture once they are off the camera body, so I always had to use a piece of tape to fix the aperture lever in position. And with the lens mount in the way, there is extremely little space to tilt, almost none to shift. Focusing was only possible on the edges of the frame, creatively not very interesting.

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Then I stumbled over this article by Sam Hurd which made me reconsider freelensing: removing the lens mount of a lens gives you much more space to move the lens around, and thereby much more control to focus.

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Deconstructing a perfectly fine lens is not an option regarding lens prices. While Sam Hurd used a broken Nikon 50mm F1.8D he owned, I had no such damaged paperweight collecting dust. But thanks to Canon’s lens mount changes during the past decades, old Canon 50mm F1.8 primes with the obsolete FD mount go for as little as 10 to 15 Euros at eBay. Mine came with a little scratch on the front element, but that won’t matter much for this kind of shooting.

Once I had removed the lens mount, the aperture ring and all other unnecessary stuff I used a strip of tape to fix the aperture in the preferred setting.

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Be sure not to remove too much stuff though, I accidentally had the rear optical elements fall out… oops!

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Setting the focus doesn’t matter with this lens, since the entire optical element arrangement is fixed, focusing is done by varying the distance between the lens and sensor. However you’ll get a maximum rear protrusion at infinity, allowing for a maximum of tilting. This comes with a dangerous drawback: Depending on how far away your subject is, the ‘sharp’ position of the lens can be too close to the sensor – in the way of the mirror. A sound and feeling you might want to avoid!

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I haven’t found a way around this problem on my full frame cameras other than to develop a good feeling of how deep you can stick the lens tube into the body. My Nikon D800 in fact offers kind of a solution: in LiveView, the mirror of the D800 isn’t moved at all. However, the lag between shots is several seconds, and I found focusing using the rear screen a lot more difficult than through the viewfinder. This might be an option for freelens landscapes, but certainly not for shooting portraits. I’m not sure if this problem occurs with smaller crop sensor camera bodies, got none to test it. If you’re scared of damaging your sensor, reattach the aperture ring to the lens for keeping a safety distance. You’ll loose some of the creative control, but gain ease of mind. I’m not sure yet if I should be scared.

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Still, focusing isn’t easy at all, it requires a lot of learning and getting to know the lens, angles and distances to your subject. I’m far from being confident when using the lens, the resulting images are still 95% crap. Stopping down the lens a bit does help, though you lose some of the appeal of the resulting images. Shooting sports or candids might not be the best way to start freelensing. Of course I tried…

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Freelensing means playing around a lot, with a high rate of failure and risk to your mirror. Not to the sensor however, one should be able to clean a sensor anyhow. A safer alternative may be the Lensbaby Edge 80, but that will set you back about 500 Euro – one fourth of a Nikon tilt-shift lens. With an investment of only 15 Euros, the Canon 50mm F1.8 FD lens can deliver quite pleasant results, a fun toy to spice up a few shots from time to time. It doesn’t ease the craving for a real tilt shift lens though :)

And finally, a few more samples…

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Focusing a moving subject… good luck with that!

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Comparison shot: above the Nikon 35mm F1.4G, a hundred times more expensive than the Canon 50mm F1.8 FD, freelensed below… A very different bokeh rendering, but both shots I really like.

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Freelens shot using the Nikon 24mm F2.8D

4 Responses to “Freelensing, a cheap way to tilt & shift?”

  1. Bernhard says:

    Ich find den Effekt bei “normaler” Fotografie etwas ausgelutscht – im Gegensatz zur Landschafts bzw. Architekturfotografie. Hab aber aus dem Grund noch immer meine Mamiya RZ67, weil ich hoffe, dass irgend wann Nikon eine Spiegellose mit FX-Sensor rausbringt. Die Möglichkeiten mit dem geringen Flansch und den RZ-Objektiven wäre traumhaft.

    Übrigens: Die Verzögerung bei LV hat nur die D800 – selbst die D600 ist da deutlich schneller.

  2. arif says:

    thanks…i get a lot of information..btw,ur tone colour also look so do you do?

  3. This is very interested – I will try myself on next session.

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