Freelensing! Turn any Lens into a Tilt-Shift or Macro

A great philosopher once told us, “first, you must first learn to focus without focusing.” Or maybe it was our optometrist. Whatever. It’s deep.

That transcendental magic is at the heart of Freelensing, a photographic process that begins with the removal of your lens.

Freelensers simply hold unattached lenses in front their camera’s exposed sensor, and delicately tilt it until focus emerges.

Hand-manipulating a lens will reinvent your focal plane, producing amazing macro and tilt-shift effects that were previously only possible with special glass.

And more importantly, it will reinvent your concept of the universe. Or at least, tilt it slightly.

Photojojo’s Complete Guide to Freelensing

p.s. We’re going to JAPAN in search of amazing photo goodies for the Store! Where should we go? What should we see? Do share!

Freelensing isn’t as simple as just popping off any old lens: some lenses work better than others, and capturing your subject takes a bit of planning. It’s easy to make mistakes! Fortunately, we’ve been around the block with freelensing and over time have made every mistake a person can make so you don’t have to. These Photojojo-tested techniques will have you snapping successfully in no time.

What You’ll Need

  • An SLR
  • A 50mm (or greater) lens
  • Practice, practice, practice (also: practice)

First, a Warning

If you’ve been wondering, “isn’t this a little dangerous?” the answer is: yes!

Detaching your lens can introduce dust and moisture to the body of the camera; and just like getting the theme song to Blossom stuck in your head, once it’s in there it’s hard to get out. Mitigate the risk by exposing the interior of the camera and lens as briefly as possible. Don’t walk around around with them decoupled; only detach them when you’re ready to take your picture. And when you hold up the lens, make sure you don’t bump the mirror or sensor.

Another risk: dropping something. It’s much easier to drop the lens when it isn’t connected to anything! Before you head out, put a neck strap on your camera to reduce the need for equipment-juggling, and practice holding the lens in one hand while manipulating focus and zoom with your fingers.

Tips for Tilt-Shifting

This is our favorite look — and also the hardest to replicate. It’s going to take some practice and patience; but don’t worry. You pick things up quick.

How to Hold the Lens
It’s a simple enough idea: just hold your lens close to the body, and then hinge it ever-so-slightly to the side like it’s Nearly-Headless Nick from Harry Potter. Peer through the viewfinder and you’ll see what’s going on: if you tilt to the right, the left side of the frame retains the most focus, and the same for tilting left, right, or down.

Aiming that area of focus can be a bit tricky, though, since you no longer have the camera’s built-in AF to assist you. Very slight movements can produce dramatic changes in focus, so tilt with care.

It’s OK to be Blurry
Be prepared for nothing to ever be perfectly in focus. Unless you have the steadiest hands in the world, you’ll almost always have just a little bit of blur. That’s okay! Blur can suggest mystery and imagination. Like Jaws lurking below the surface or Narnia’s elusive White Stag, sometimes it’s what you barely glimpse that makes the deepest impression.

Use the Zoom
You’ll definitely need a tight zoom for this trick. In our tests, wide angles produced photos so blurry they were utterly indiscernible. We could get pretty good focus at 55mm and above, but anything less than that was impossibly fuzzy. And the fisheye lens that we tested was so blurry that the whole photo was all one color.

Zooming in tight is what produces that “squished-together” effect that makes tilt-shifts look like miniatures. So zoom! And zoom boldly!

Seek Depth
Photograph a scene with a lot of depth. Tilt-shifts don’t work as well when your entire scene is all the same distance from you (for example, the front of a building, or a distant horizon). To really appreciate the narrow depth of field, position yourself where you can see objects at varying distances from the lens. A good range is anywhere from 2 feet away to 20.

Scenes that Work Well
Remember, you want to look for scenes where you can zoom in on your subject and also see a lot of depth. A few examples:

  • People walking down a city street
  • Dense trees in a wooded glade
  • Shelves in a supermarket
  • A pumpkin patch
  • An office cube-farm

How to Make Macros

Macro-style photos are much easier to produce, since you don’t have to precisely line up objects over a distance of several yards. Just a few inches are enough.

Get up Close
Cozy up to your subject — we’re talking like inches away — and oh-so-gingerly nudge the lens away from the body of your camera. Because everything is very close together, the change in focus will be readily apparent. Zoom in tight if you want a look that says all-squished-together; and zoom way out to make tiny distances look vast.

Move the Lens
Now here’s the cool part, and by cool we mean nerdy: when you’re focusing on something close, you can move the lens way far away from the body. We’re talking, like, whole inches. The further away you move your lens, the more macro your magnification gets. Of course, you’ll also need to refocus very carefully. We found it was much easier when we used a tripod, since it freed up one hand to gingerly coax the focus ring.

Expect Light Leaks
As you’re lining up your shot, you may notice that as you move the lens away from the body of the camera, more and more light leaks can sneak in. That’s cool! Take advantage of that! Hang out near weird colored lights and you’ll get interesting swirly blooms on top of your photos.

Learn About Light Leaks

Nothing could be easier than getting a light leak — as many a frustrated photographer will tell you. In fact, you’ve probably seen plenty of light leaks already if you’ve tried the tilt-shift and macro steps above. All you have to do is position the gap between camera and lens in the path of a beam of light, and voila!

How to Strengthen Light Leaks
If your leaks aren’t strong enough for your assertive tastes, you can augment them by moving the lens a bit further from the body, or by aiming a flashlight into the gap. Slip a colored gel over your light source to produce rainbowy disco effects, and it’ll look just like those last few shimmering frames at the end of a movie reel. Be careful if you’re using a laser-pointer — although it’s rare, a strong enough laser could cause sensor damage.

Use a Diana Lens
Good news for anyone who picked up a Dreamy Diana lens from the Photojojo Store: we found that it’s particularly good at producing colorful leaks, especially when used along with a flash. So if you’ve been waiting for an excuse to grab one — well! Wait no longer.

Take it Further

  • Night photos: For an extra challenge, try tilt-shifting a night scene with a long shutter speed. Keep that hand steady!
  • Deliberate blur: Or don’t keep your hand steady: place your camera on a tripod, set up a slow shutter like 1/8th of a second, and produce intriguing soft-focus effects through the shake of your clumsy, unsteady, all-too-human hands.
  • Extra magnification: Prepare to have your mind REALLY blown: reverse your lens 180 degrees so that you’re looking through it backwards. As in, the filter-end is near the sensor, and the sensor-end is way out in front. Whoa, look at that! It’s like a magnifying glass! Who knew that flipping your optics around was even an option? It’s like that episode where Kramer reversed the peephole in his door. We are seriously down the rabbit hole here, people.
  • Fake light leaks: Is your light leak insufficiently leaky? That’s okay, you can fix it in post! If you’re an intermediate-level user of Photoshop, it’s not hard to create a phony light leak. Just create a solid layer filled with black, and place it on a behind your main image. Then switch your image’s blend mode to “Exclusion.” Finally, use a large, soft brush to paint your light leak color around the edge of the solid black layer.
  • Visualization tip: Try thinking of your lens as being like a see-saw for light. When the lens is attached, the see-saw is being held perfectly level. But as soon as you tilt one side down, the light is aimed up into the opposite corner; wherever that see-saw beam of light lands on the sensor, the picture is in is in focus, while the rest of the image is pushed into the realm of extra-blurry.