An accomplished architect and fine art architectural photographer, Julia Anna Gospodarou, has shared her knowledge with us on using a tilt-shift lens when specifically working with architecture. It is not the easiest lens to use. However ,she has broken it down for us and offers exclusive tips on how to optimize the use of the tilt-shift lens.

If you’re looking to obtain straight vertical lines (as compared to slanted ones caused by a wide angle lens), read on for your guide to using the tilt-shift lens!

Guest article by Julia Anna Gospodarou

This tutorial is a fragment from the extensive tilt-shift lens study I present in my book From Basics to Fine Art – B&W Photography – Architecture & Beyond, a book written in collaboration with B&W fine art photographer Joel Tjintjelaar. 

The fine art architectural images shown in this tutorial have been shot with a Canon tilt-shift lens TS-E 24mm f/3.5 L II, using neutral density filters Formatt-Hitech ProStop IRND, and were processed using Photoshop, Lightroom and the Topaz Labs plugins, mainly B&W Effects, DeNoise, Detail and ReMask.

The Essential Tilt-Shift Lens Guide

The Tilt-Shift Mystery and Charm

There is a certain mystery around the tilt-shift lenses among those who have not used one yet. At the same time I can notice among many photographers a sort of awe combined with inhibition when it comes to talk about this lens and especially when it comes to shoot with it.

From what I see around me, this is the least understood lens among the DSLR lenses and the one that is the most underused, meaning that it is used by many well below its full capacity and capabilities. This happens mostly because the tilt-shift is a very different lens comparing to the regular lenses, a lens not so easy to use, being mostly manual and a lens that is considered professional, while in reality it could be used by amateur photographers as well if they want to get high quality results.

In this tutorial I will try to elucidate the mystery created around the tilt-shift lens and to bring it closer to the photographer that does photography as a hobby, but also to show to the professional photographer how he could make better use of this piece of exceptional glass.

However perfect this lens might be, it is still only a piece of equipment, therefore the first thing I want to state, before even touching any technical matters, is that this lens has to be the extension of your hand, of your mind and soul, the extension of your artistic personality and the tool that can make your vision come true. Only in that case will it help you create good photography, when you will use it as a tool to express yourself and your vision and not only because it is a remarkable lens.

Why is the tilt-shift lens the best tool for shooting architectural photography?

One of the main tools for an architectural photographer is the tilt-shift lens. The most important quality of this lens and what makes it so popular and needed in photographing buildings and interior spaces, is the fact that it can keep the verticals of a building parallel, thus presenting the object as we see it and not with the verticals converging, as a normal or wide lens would capture it.

In other words the use of tilt-shift lenses “removes” the wide angle lens distortion, or rather it does not introduce it in the first place. It removes the “keystone effect”, as the convergence of the verticals in case of tilting the camera is otherwise known. We will see further in this chapter why this is happening, how this is possible and how to control it.

Another important characteristic of this lens, a characteristic that makes it ideal for the architectural photographer, is its exceptional clarity, sharpness and lack of chromatic aberration, that are not equaled by the more common lenses. The superior sharpness and high quality image is one of the characteristics of the prime lenses, as all tilt-shift lenses are, and more specifically of the tilt-shift lenses, due to their construction and exceptional glass quality.The Essential Tilt-Shift Lens GuideThe two most popular tilt-shift lenses for architectural photography: the Canon TS-E 24mm f/3.5 L II and Canon TS-E 17mm f/4L

The Movements of the Tilt-Shift Lens

The main and commonest use of the tilt-shift lens is to control perspective by means of the movements relative to the sensor plane that this lens can perform, as opposed to the classic lenses, whose parts only move to focus and to zoom.

A tilt-shift lens can be easily compared with a small view camera, a camera whose lens can also rotate relatively to the film/sensor plane and not only move forwards and backwards as in the case of a normal lens.

The movements of the tilt-shift lens enable the photographer to modify the lens plane independently from the camera sensor (or film) plane by TILTING which means tilt and swing movements (rotating relatively to the sensor plane) and by SHIFTING, which means rise and fall movements (moving parallel up and down or left and right relative to the sensor plane). Some tilt-shift lenses also rotate around their own axis, giving more freedom in positioning the field of focus.

The tilt movement is used to control which point of the image is in focus, while shifting controls the parallelism or convergence of the vertical lines when it is done upwards and downwards.

How much a tilt-shift lens can tilt or shift? For instance a Canon TS-E 24mm, which is one of the most popular tilt-shift lens for architecture, can shift up to 12 mm on either side , and it can tilt up to 8 degrees on either side. The other tilt-shift lenses available have similar values.

Note: It is useful to also mention that, if the tilt-shift lens is not moved relative to the sensor plane (not tilted or shifted), it functions like a normal prime lens from all points of view.

The Essential Tilt-Shift Lens Guide(above) Tilt-Shift lens in shifted position
The Essential Tilt-Shift Lens Guide(above) Tilt-Shift lens in tilted position

Shooting Architecture with a Tilt-Shift Lens – How to remove the Keystone  Effect (the Wide-angle Lens Effect)

The first use of a tilt-shift lens for architecture is to control perspective, namely to control the keystone effect.

The first thing you need to keep in mind when shooting architecture with a tilt-shift lens, in order to have the verticals parallel, is to always place the camera in a parallel position with the plane of the building, thus perfectly vertical. Unless you do this, the tilt-shift will not be able to remove the
keystone effect.

Then, after you compose your shot so the vertical are parallel and you have the needed scene in the frame, you can start to slowly shift the lens upwards till you include the entire building in the frame and also avoid the convergence of the verticals.

It needs a bit of practice to know how to compose so you get the final image exactly where you want it after shifting the lens, but experience comes with time and you will very soon feel very confident composing with a tilt-shift, having the final image in mind even before shifting the lens.

The Essential Tilt-Shift Lens GuideIn the first image below, an example of photograph I shot with a wide angle lens and the camera tilted upwards so to cover the entire height of the buildings, while in the second image I used to shoot the same scene a tilt shift lens shifted upwards to capture the height of the buildings.

You can observe the keystone effect in the first image (the converging verticals), while in the second image the verticals of the building remain parallel because the lens was shifted upwards, thus the sensor plane was kept parallel to the building plane.

The Essential Tilt-Shift Lens GuideShot with wide angle lens and camera tilted upwards
The Essential Tilt-Shift Lens GuideTilt-shift lens shifted upwards

How does a Tilt-Shift lens work or the relation between the lens image circle  and the camera sensor?

For a more visual explanation of how a tilt-shift lens works in practice, you can look at the image provided as example so you can understand how this process unfolds. In the case of a normal lens, the image circle is only slightly larger than the sensor, while in the case of the tilt-shift the circle is much larger, so it allows for all the movements the lens can do, as can be seen in the image.

When the lens is tilted or/and shifted, what happens in essence is that the image of the scene in front of it is projected onto the camera sensor. The resulting image is an image that is slightly different in each of the positions of the lens, and that always inscribes in an imaginary circle created by the movements of the lens in its extreme tilt or shift positions. This imaginary circle is called the Image Circle and it covers the entire field that the lens can capture from the scene in front of it.

Therefore you can see now that the lens can only cover a limited area of the scene in any direction and this area depends on the maximum possible displacement of the lens related to the sensor’s position.

The Essential Tilt-Shift Lens GuideFocusing with a Tilt-Shift lens

You will only be able to focus manually, since the mechanics of the tilt-shift makes impossible the use of an auto-focus system in this lens.

By using the tilt function it allows front-to-back depth of field (DoF) meaning we can keep everything in focus, no matter the aperture, even at f/3.5 of f/2.8.

What you need to do to get a front-to-back depth of field is to use a “trial and error” method:

  1. Mount the camera on a tripod.
  2. Set your aperture at f/8 for best quality of the image (you can also set a different aperture if needed).
  3. Open the Live View of the camera.
  4. Choose two important subjects (points) that you want to be in focus, one in the foreground and the other one in the background.
  5. Focus on the closest point you want sharp in the scene (the foreground subject you chose).
  6. Tilt the lens downwards slightly till the farthest point in the scene is in focus (in general a tilt of no more than 1-2 degrees will be enough most of the times to bring everything in focus).
  7. Go back and forth 2-3 times with fine tuning, while zooming up to 10x in Live view to check out the focus, till both subjects (in the foreground and in the background) are in focus, and the entire scene will then be in focus.

The Essential Tilt-Shift Lens GuideMetering light and setting the exposure with a Tilt-Shift lens

When tilting or shifting the lens, the exposure the camera meters changes due to the light that leaks into the camera when the lens parts move relatively to each other, since the parts of a tilt-shift lens are not sealed between them and the fact that they are moving relatively to one another creates small openings that allow the light to enter the lens and confuse the light meter that indicates us the right exposure.

How to deal with this? It is not very difficult, just meter your scene before tilting or shifting the lens, while it still works like a normal lens from the point of view of the movements it makes.

Tilt-Shift and Long Exposure Photography

Issues concerning shooting long exposure with a Tilt-Shift Lens

At first glance, shooting long exposure with a tilt-shift lens is not different from doing it with any other regular lens.

There are though two aspects to take into account when shooting long exposure with this lens and that make it different from shooting long exposure with a regular lens:

Focusing and Metering Light

The first aspect and issue is related to the way we will focus and meter the light so we can calculate the needed exposure. In the case the lens will be used tilted or shifted or both, just as in the case of short exposure, the light metering will be done before tilting/shifting the lens. This needs to be done so the light meter does not get confused by the light that may enter through the small openings created between the tilted/shifted parts and reach the sensor when tilting or shifting the lens.

Light Leakage Issue

The second aspect and issue is the light leakage that can occur in a tilt-shift lens during a long exposure. Just as in the case of metering light in a regular exposure with a tilt-shift lens where, if tilted or shifted, the lens allows the light to leak in and confuse the light meter, the same can happen in the
case of a long exposure because of the extended time the lens is exposed to light while not being sealed properly and meant for use in long exposure photography.

How to overcome light leakage in a Tilt Shift Lens during Long Exposure Photography

It is not difficult to avoid light leakage. You will use the same principle you use so the light does not leak into the camera through the viewfinder: cover it. Thus, you will cover the lens in the case of a long exposure with a black cloth that will need to have the shape of a sleeve and be rather thick so it
does not let the light inside the lens. You can also cover the entire camera with a black cloth and just leave uncovered the opening of the tilt-shift lens.

The Essential Tilt-Shift Lens GuideNeutral Density filter placing on ultra-wide angle lenses as the 17mm Tilt-Shift

Shooting long exposure with a 17 mm tilt-shift lens, such as the Canon TS-E 17 mm, creates a serious problem for the long exposure photographer. The same problem all the ultra-wide angles create – the fact that their front glass element is so bulging that it does not allow the placement of a
neutral density ND filter directly onto the lens.

Therefore these lenses cannot be used with screw-on ND filters but only with filters placed on a holder and not even with normal holders where the filter is placed in the same plane with the holder, but with special protruding holders, as for instance the Formatt-Hitech Lucroit holders that allow the placement of the filters at a distance from the exterior ring of the lens where they are fastened.
You can see in the image below the Formatt-Hitech Lucroit holder together with the Joel Tjintjelaar signature edition ProStop IRND filter kit, consisting in a 10-stop, a 6-stop and a 3-stop ND filters, the standard ND filter kit for shooting long exposure architecture, the one I use myself.

The Essential Tilt-Shift Lens GuideThe Tilt-Shift magic – A Fine Art Approach

Why and how I use the Tilt-Shift blur to express my vision

Using blur to shoot architecture is surely a non-conventional way of shooting this kind of subject and not what you would use in a professional commercial architectural assignment.

But as far as a fine art approach is concerned, if you already read my Guide to Vision in the book From Basics to Fine Art, you will know that any means, technique or approach is good as long as it helps you express yourself and give shape to your vision. The tilt-shift blur is one of these techniques that helps me do this.

You do not need to use blur if it does not suit your artistic representation of the world, but in my case it does, thus the need I felt to create the series Fluid Time where  I explore the world through using the tilt-shift lens and its specific blur.

I find that this kind of blur serves my vision because it reminds me of the eternal mystery of the world and the so many different ways in which one can see it, also the so many different ways that one could live in this world; even if we choose only one way to see, to think , to live, the options are always there, like in a dream. In a way the blur a tilt-shift lens can create is a very suitable tool for me to express this multifaceted, multidimensional  world.

Of course, this is just my vision, you will surely have a different one, but the good thing with a technique is that it has no life of its own and it can be used to express many different things, depending on the artist using it.  Therefore you are free to use it in a totally different way or not use it at all. All options are just as good.

Now, to get to some more technical aspects, the blur that you can create using a tilt-shift lens, is different from the blur (bokeh) we find in a regular lens. The texture, the density, the intensity and most important of all, the placement and shape of the blur.

Due to how the field of focus is created in the case of the tilt-shift lens, the shape of which influences the shape of the tilt-shift blur, the latter will have a rectilinear shape across the image, just as the shape of the field of focus, as opposed to the rather circular blur (bokeh) a regular lens creates.

This is a vital characteristic to understand  because it changes the approach to the image and to its composition radically.  It needs a different compositional approach to create an image where the blur will be circular, thus centered in a point, and a different one in the case of the rectilinear blur of the tilt-shift lens.


As I was saying in the beginning, much more information about what a tilt-shift lens is, about how it functions and how to use it in different types of photography, with details about long exposure tilt-shift photography and other ways you can use the tilt-shift lens in your work, can be found in the book From Basics to Fine Art – B&W Photography – Architecture and Beyond, a book we wrote together with B&W fine art photographer Joel Tjintjelaar and that is an extensive study of B&W photography, theoretical and practical, including our processing techniques also, tips and tricks but also theoretical and even philosophical views on photography and that  already had a big success and enthusiastic reviews from many specialists in fine art and B&W photography. If interested, you can buy the book here.

You can see an extensive preview of the book here or download it to the right: Book Preview.

Julia Anna Gospodarou – BIO

Architect and International Award-Winning B&W Fine Art photographer with high distinctions in the most important photography competitions worldwide (IPA, SWPA, PX3, IFPA, B&W Spider Awards etc.), Julia is mostly known for her B&W long exposure architectural photography.

Multiple times awarded in international fine art competitions:

  • International Photography Awards (IPA),
  • Sony – World Photography Awards (SWPA),
  • Prix de la Photographie de Paris (PX3),
  • International Fine Art Photography Awards (IFPA),
  • Black and White Spider Awards.

Author of From Basics to Fine Art

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