Daniel McQuillan Photography | A Modern Approach Daniel McQuillan Photography | A Modern Approach

Technique // Using a Nikon 45mm Tilt-Shift Lens for Portraits

Using the Nikon 45mm Tilt-Shift for Creative Portraits

The Nikon 45mm Tilt-Shift lens (or any tilt-shift for that matter) is a unique lens.  Other than freelensing (a technique I will cover in a future article) it is the only way you are able to manipulate the plane of focus within the camera.  Arguably, it is also the easiest effect to recreate in post-production.  Although tilt-shift lenses are generally regarded as an architectural lens due to it's features, I am going to show you how to use it to increase the creativity of your portraits.

All images were taken around my house and backyard using the Nikon D850 and Nikon 45mm 2.8 T/S Lens

A missed shot but a good example of how weird things can get

Pros of a Tilt-Shift for Portraits:

  • Amazing contrast and colour
    • Specifically, Nikon 45mm T/S has my favourite colour and contrast rendering of all of my lenses.
  • Able to create unique compositions within the camera
    • Nothing is more gratifying than seeing results in the back of the camera, especially when establishing trust with clients.   
  • Doubles as a Macro
    • Take portraits as close of as far as you want from your clients.
  • Create increased DOF (depth of field)
    • Ability to really isolate subjects in backgrounds that may be distracting.
The macro feature allows for unique portraits angles a normal 50mm wouldn't allow

Not a portrait but I wanted to show the macro ability off

Cons of a Tilt-Shift for Portraits:

  • Extremely difficult to focus
    • Even with the highlight peak focusing of the D850 it is still extremely difficult to nail complete focus on subjects - Especially when tilt has been applied to the lens.
  • Slow process to taking the photos
    • Between adjusting the tilt/shift settings and focusing the lens (it is completely manual) the process of taking a photo is greatly increased
  • Can become a crutch
    • Like any photography technique, it can become easily relied upon to create unique photos.
Clients may become a little impatient with longer times between photos while using the Tilt-Shift 

Earlier I mentioned that the main advantage to the tilt-shift lens (probably it's only advantage) is it's ability to manipulate the plane of focus within the camera from it's original state.  To catch y'all up on what the plane of focus is, I find it is best to visualize an imaginary wall (i.e Fortnite) parallel to the camera.  As the f-stop increased from a smaller number to a larger number, the wall becomes thick, encapsulating more within in it's range.  With a normal lens, this wall is always parallel to the camera.  It is simply moved closer and farther from the camera as the focus is changed.  Now, imagine that way being twisted and turned - that is what a tilt-shift lens does to the plane of focus.  

As you rotate and manipulate the Tilt-Shift lens the plane of focus is altered

Generally speaking I do not use the shift feature on the lens when shooting portraits.  This is much different from architectural photography where the shift feature is used much more predominantly than the tilt.  I try to avoid the shift feature as much as possible when shooting portraits because I find it can distort the image in way that just seem generally uncomfortable to the human eye.   The tilt feature of the lens is much more effective in creating the altered depth of field - the key reason for using this lens for portraits.  

You can see weird things start to happen that are just visually comfortable when the shift is applied (especially bottom left)

A much cleaner and visually appealing look when the tilt is applied on it's own

I'll often use the tilt-shift lens to separate my subject(s) from the background and really make them pop in the image.  Because the plane of focus is able to be manipulated in such a three dimensional way, the lens has the ability to isolate the main focus of the image.   If you are working an environment that might not be the most interesting or eye catching, the lens also has the ability to really eliminate 'image clutter'.  When you get really comfortable with the lens, you can than begin manipulating the plane of focus to use the depth of photograph to your advantage (No examples included because I shot a single subject).  A simple example of this would be putting a bride and groom and varying distances from the camera and manipulating the plane of focus to include them both.

The tilt-shift lens creates bokeh on both the top and bottom of the shed allowing the isolated subject to really pop

Using the tilt feature to eliminate the photo clutter that does not add to the image - Making something out've nothing

Like any photography technique: Do not become reliant on it and do not overuse it!  It is very easy to fall into a pattern of using it on every creative portrait of every shoot - Try to only use it when the situation calls for it.  You ever seen the Instagram feed of a photographer who discovers a prism?  All of the sudden every photo as a gosh dang'd refraction in it.

Subtle application of the tilt feature - Less is always more

I wanted a little of the fence in focus which would've been impossible with a normal lens

TL;DR The Nikon 45mm Tilt-Shift is a great way to add a little flare to your photos if done tastefully

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