The Lost Art of Freelensing. How to Get the Tilt-Shift Look in a Crafty Way

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Freelensing is a trick that’s been long forgotten. A while ago, it was very fun to do. It delivered a completely different, creative look that many of us loved. But I haven’t seen the photography community do it in a very long time. So in this post, I’m going to talk about freelensing, give a few tips, and tell you some of the best gear you can use to do it all for yourself.

What Is Freelensing?

Freelensing is an idea born out of early Instagram. In those days, people liked the fake tilt-shift effect it could deliver. So they took to using their dedicated digital cameras to understand how to make the look. They ended up unmounting their lenses and shifting them around. Of course, that means that sensors got dirty at times. But it worked. The effect was super cool and very fun!

Freelensing evolved over time. Companies like Lensbaby popped up to support the idea. However, they had their own optics to do it. To this day, the Lensbaby Composer Pro is probably the best bet at getting a proper tilt-shift lens for any lens format. However, it’s still not the fullest effect. Proper tilt-shift lenses let you adjust the perspective and a lot more. Basically, you can do most of what you can with Adobe Upright’s tool with a proper tilt-shift lens. But all people wanted were things like the miniature effect and the cool bokeh.

How Do You Do Freelensing?

Years ago, we wrote an article on how to freelens. Here’s a critical quote from it.

“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).”

These days, you’d obviously do it with a mirrorless camera. Ensure your camera is set to shoot a photo without a lens attached. Depending on what lens you’re using, you’ll have varying amounts of tilt. Some lenses have larger back elements, others are smaller. The direction also plays a big role. But in essence, all you’re doing is unscrewing the lens, bringing it slightly forward, tilting, and shooting. 

General Tips?

Here are some general tips to doing freelensing a lot better:

  • Focus your lens first if you’re using an autofocus lens. Then unscrew it and tilt it slightly.
  • Always have a rocket blower or an Arctic butterfly.
  • Don’t do this in a windy environment.
  • Don’t do this in the rain.
  • This is honestly best done with manual focus lenses because you can easily focus the lens after you unscrew it. That’s not always the case with focus by wire lenses. Go grab some nice vintage lenses and adapt them to your camera.
  • You’re going to obviously lose sharpness. And you’d be kind of foolish to sit there and look at the image critically at 100%. That’s not the point here. The point is to get an overall effect.

Best Gear for Freelensing

Truth be told, the Lensbaby Composer Pro II is the best tool you can use for this kind of stuff. But you’re going to be limited to their optics. That’s not a bad thing, though. 

If you want lenses with more control, you can’t really beat lenses from 7Artisans. They’re affordable, good quality, built well, and they work. Plus, you’ll have manual lens control and manual aperture control. That’s the best part of all this.

Chris Gampat

Chris Gampat is the Editor in Chief, Founder, and Publisher of the Phoblographer. He also likes pizza.