The Beginner’s Guide to Free Lensing

Free Lensing is a technique used by photographers to achieve certain effects such as extra bokeh in the photo or if the lens is tilted in a certain direction it shall create a light leaking effect on the photo as well. You can see the difference below in the 2 photos. They aren’t the best examples, as the technique takes some practice.

Editor’s Note: The opening photo was done by Chris Gampat using the Olympus E-510 and a Canon FD 50mm f1.8 lens.

The 2 photos were taken in my friend’s basement. The focus point is the lamp. If you examine the photos you can see that the right one has just a bit more bokeh than the left. This is because as you move the lens away from the camera what you see in the view finder becomes more and more out of focus. This is just one of the things you can do while free lensing. Others have tilted the lens while it is unlocked from the camera body to achieve a warped look to their photos and to allow light to leak in between the body and the lens which can result in getting a vintage-type look to the photograph.

Getting Started

To achieve these kinds of effects: unlock the lens from the camera body and slowly bring it away from the camera. You want to use caution though as not just for the dust and small debris that can now easily get to the sensor of your camera, but also if you take the lens too far away from the camera body all you will get is bokeh all over the photo. What you want instead is more bokeh surrounding the focal point or subject of your photo. Another way to do this is to simply tilt one part of the lens away from the camera. Doing this one must still keep in mind the risk of the dust and debris getting to the sensor. Also keep in mind that you only want to tilt the lens a tiny bit away from the camera. This again takes some practice as you now also have to steady 2 pieces of equipment instead of just 1 (The lens attached to the camera).

Using a tripod or gorillapod also works.

Make a Tilt-Shift lens

Another way to achieve this effect is to make a homemade tilt-shift camera lens. This is an easy and cheap project to do and will make things easier for you, especially if you don’t have the steadiest hands in the world. While you will still need to obviously keep your hands steady when using the lens, I find it to be easier than doing the above. What also is a plus about making a homemade tilt-shift lens is there is more room for shifting the lens as you will no longer have to worry about dust and debris getting onto the sensor and potentially damaging it.

What you’ll need is:

1) Your SLR or DSLR Camera Body

2) Lens – For this kind of project you don’t want too big of  lens. A Prime Lens for this project. I would recommend purchasing a refurbished or used lens.  The only reason I say this is just in case somehow you damage the lens.

3) Rubber Plunger with a bellows design – something like this. Try and find a plunger that will fit the lens and the camera, I would bring the lens and the camera with you to the hardware store so u can visually compare. The plunger acts as a “flexible arm” so that way you can tilt the lens or bring it closer or further away from the camera.

4)  A piece of cardboard(non-corrugated).  This will act as a buffer between the bellows and the camera body.

5)  A plastic cap to fit the camera.  Don’t use the one thats already on your camera, buy another one.  They’re not expensive at all.  This will be attached to the cardboard in the end.

6)  Adhesive such as Hot glue and a glue gun, or something similar.

After you have all that now begins the assembly…

Step 1:  Using a rotary tool or a hobby knife remove the middle of the body cap. Afterward take sand paper or a grinder and smoothen out the edges as so there are no rough spots later on.

Step 2:  Take the plunger now and cut a hole at the top (where the stick is) so that is is large enough to fit around the base of the lens.

Step 3:  Take your lens and make sure it fits on the plunger.  Don’t worry about gluing it just yet as right now you just want to make sure it will definitely fit.

Step 4:  Next you need to build the backing (The body cap end of the lens). What you want to do is take the cardboard and cut it so that it is the same circumference as the plunger. You want to do the same with the same piece of cardboard except cut a hole the same circumference as the body cap. Also you’re going to want to paint the side of the cardboard that is going to face into the plunger back. Doing this will cut down on a lot of possible reflection.

Step 5: Next is where all the gluing comes in. What you want to do first is glue the cardboard to the plunger, and then the cap to the cardboard. Next you want to glue the lens to the plunger.

Step 6:  Attach the lens to the camera and give it a go.

An important thing to note here though is that while this is an inexpensive way to make your own tilt-shift lens, there are limitations that need to be brought to light. One thing is that auto-focus is completely disabled. The only way to focus here is to focus manually and you do this by turning the focus ring on the lens, bringing the lens closer/further away from the camera, and by tilting the lens up, down, left, and right. Another thing is the Aperture. Closing it will only make things difficult for shooting as you will lose alot of light, resulting in you having to stand still while shooting. Another thing is depending on how long the bellows is, if you tilt the lens enough you will totally lose the image in the viewfinder.

An alternative to this is to buy an actual tilt-shift lens as you will retain all the functions of a normal lens(auto focus, etc) and the functions of a tilt-shift(and never lose the image in the viewfinder). You can find these at B&H Photo and Video. If your a Canon user you’re in luck, if not you can always buy an adapter for the lens. Either way though if you don’t feel like making a home-made one, and losing functionality then these lenses are the way to go.