How to Successfully use a Tilt-Shift lens in Portrait Photography

Posted by on Jul 3, 2012 in Tutorials | No Comments

This tutorial is all about how to creatively use a tilt-shift lens in portrait photography. Occasionally I like to use a 45mm TSE lens in my portrait work to create dynamic portraits that utilize unusual depth-of-field and unconventional blur. This is something I prefer to achieve in camera – and so can you!

How to Successfully use a Tilt-shift lens in Portrait Photography by Michelle Moore

What is “Tilt-Shift”?

Okay, so BASICALLY, tilt-shift lenses were made for photographing architecture without causing distortion. Imagine when you are photographing a subject with a normal lens. Your depth of field is parallel to the lens. But let’s say you are taking a photo of a building. You are standing facing the building straight on, and the right side is closer to you than the left side. So the plane of the building goes in a diagonal away from you. With a tilt lens you can change the plane of the lens to match the plane of the building so it ALL looks evenly in focus. Got it? Architect photographers would use these lenses so there was no distortion in the things they were photographing.
…..still with me?
So the fun part about using a Tilt-Shift lens in portraiture is you are creating very selective planes of focus that seem to “defy” physics on a normal lens. It’s a really neat way to create select focus that you can’t with a normal lens.

How to Successfully use a Tilt-shift lens in Portrait Photography by Michelle Moore


While I do love the look of a tilt-shift lens, and appreciate doing it “in-camera” instead of later in Photoshop (it looks more real and intentional) – it’s important to use it wisely and correctly. Think about it. Does it add to the story? Is it needed to enhance this photo? Would the photo still look “good” without the effect? You never want to abuse a technique, or use it just for the sake of it. Tools should aid in the telling of our work, not distract!

The TWO main reasons I pull it out at a portrait session are to:
– Focus on the eyes by framing them with blurry areas of the composition (instead of framing with hands or depth-of-field)
– Create visual interest to a background for a full-length portrait

How to Successfully use a Tilt-shift lens in Portrait Photography by Michelle Moore

Here are my tips and tricks to remember when photographing your client with a tilt-shift,

• I’m using Canon 45mm TSE

• With the lens on your camera, I first “tilt” all the way to the right, and then “rotate” by holding down the small lever on the side and twist to a 45 degree angle. This will create a diagonal blur through your plane of field.

• Make sure your Diopter is calibrated for your vision. Since the tilt-shift is manual focus you REALLY want to make sure what you are looking at is actually in focus for your camera.

• I shoot at f5.6 – it’s best NOT to shoot wide open for these shots, don’t worry, your out-of-focus areas will still create beautiful bokeh – and it makes it easier to nail the in-focus parts.

Take a few frames (I like to take an extra or two to make sure I nailed the focus I wanted) and have fun experimenting with the angles of your tilt and shifts. There is a high learning curve with this lens, so it’s best to go out and practice lots before using on a paid shoot. I recommend renting to “try before you buy”. Please check my recommended portrait tilt-shift lenses listed at the bottom, as well as where you can rent to try!

How to Successfully use a Tilt-shift lens in Portrait Photography by Michelle Moore


• When shooting a full-length, or 3/4 keep your subject close to their background (such as a wall, etc.) – otherwise you may see distracting objects in your background come in to focus. With a TSE lens your plane of focus runs in a line away from you – not parallel to your lens – which means distracting fire hydrants, tree branches, garbage cans, etc. that are behind your subject can potentially be part of what is in focus.

• When shooting portraits – check that your background is far enough away to be out-of-focus and that no strange objects are in your plane of focus. Check your Diopter ahead of time so you can nail the focus on the eyes.

• Hold your camera horizontally, and straighten the shift so you are just tilting to the side. You can create a straight focus plane that runs up and down through your composition to frame just your subject within their surroundings. Play and experiment to make the section smaller or wider to intensify or reduce the effect.

How to Successfully use a Tilt-shift lens in Portrait Photography by Michelle Moore

In conclusion, have fun – practice lots and just remember you can tilt and shift your lens in so many different angles, so try them all and what works best for you!

Check your focus and stay stopped down to around 5.6 so you have more wiggle room to nail your focus – while keeping lots of beautiful blur in the background!

Recommended Tilt-Shift Lenses for Portraiture

Canon TS-E 45mm 2.8 Tilt Shift
Canon TS-E 90mm 2.8 Tilt Shift

Nikon 45mm 2.8D ED PC-E Micro Nikkor Lens
Nikon 85mm 2.8D PC-E Micro Nikkor Lens

Lensbaby Composer
Lensbaby Composer Pro with Sweet 35 Optic

Rent & try before you buy!

• In Seattle at Glazer’s Camera
• Around the world & online at Borrow Lenses

How to Successfully use a Tilt-shift lens in Portrait Photography by Michelle Moore

Have additional questions about this article? Want me to add any additional tips or tricks? Please shoot me an email xoxo