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What You Didn’t Know About the Tilt Function on Tilt-Shift Lenses

Previously, we learnt about the shift function on tilt-shift lenses. In this article, we learn more about the tilt function and how its unique optical effects are useful in many photography genres, not just for practical purposes but also for greater creative expression!

Tilting and shifting lenses is a standard technique on large format cameras where the lens is connected to the camera with bellows. However, there are not many DSLR or mirrorless camera systems that have a tilt-shift lens lineup. Canon’s EOS system is one of the rare few systems that do, and it boasts the most extensive lineup for full-frame cameras with five tilt-shift EF mount lenses in focal lengths 17mm, 24mm, 50mm, 90mm and 135mm.

Tilt-shift lenses are generally manual focus lenses, but Canon’s lenses have automatic aperture control, making them compatible with auto exposure shooting modes. They can also be used on the EOS R system cameras via an EF-EOS R mount adapter.


How does the tilt function work?

The tilt function of a tilt-shift lens changes the angle of the lens, allowing you to change the angle of the focal plane relative to the image sensor.

To understand how it works, let’s first understand the principles behind the tilt effect.

The original use of the tilt function: Deep focus on scenes with depth

Many people think that focusing takes place on one point. In fact, focusing takes place on a plane. In other words, anything that is the same distance from the lens to a given focal point will be in focus.

On a conventional lens, the focal plane is parallel to the image plane (the camera’s image sensor). The parts of the scene that are in front of or behind the focal plane gradually fall more and more out of focus the further away they are. The parts of the scene that appear to be in-focus are what we know as the depth of field, which can be increased by narrowing the aperture so that more of the subject is in focus.

Refresh this in:
[Lesson 3] Learning about Aperture


Focal plane (normal)

Focal plane (tilt function)

However, for subjects with a lot of depth, you will have to use a very narrow aperture, which comes with a couple of risks:
- Diffraction, which harms image quality
- A higher ISO speed and more image noise due to less light entering the lens

The tilt function on tilt-shift lenses resolves that issue by allowing you to adjust the angle of the focal plane relative to the image plane, just like in the diagram above. This effectively allows things located along the depth (front to back) of a scene to be captured fully in focus.

Tilt-shift lens tilted

Canon’s TS-E lenses are equipped with the TS rotating system, which makes it possible to tilt the lens in any direction. The tilt ranges of the lenses are as follows:
- TS-E17mm f/4L: ±6.5°
- TS-E 24mm f/3.5L II, TS-E50mm f/2.8L Macro: ±8.5°
- TS-E90mm f/2.8L Macro, Canon TS-E135mm f/4L Macro: ±10°


What kind of scenes can we use the tilt function for?

Scene 1: Putting deep landscape scenes entirely in focus

Rolling hills fully in focus

TS-E50mm f/2.8L Macro / FL: 50mm/ Manual exposure (f/2.8, 1/2000 sec)/ ISO 100/ WB: Auto


How many hills do you see in this picture from the foreground all the way to the back?

If we were to shoot the above scene with a normal lens, even the narrowest aperture wouldn’t be able to put all the slopes fully in focus. However, adjusting the focal plane so that all the slopes are within the depth of field made this shot completely in focus from the front to the back, even at f/2.8. Imagine how useful this is for scenes where you don’t want to use an ISO speed that is too high or a shutter speed that is too slow!


Scene 2: Deep focus during close-up photography

Multiple dishes on table

TS-E50mm f/2.8L Macro / FL: 50mm/ Manual exposure (f/11, 0.4 sec)/ ISO 100/ WB: Auto

The above shot of multiple dishes on a table is something that you will often see in restaurant menus. Such a scenario usually requires close-up shooting, which results in a very shallow depth of field. With a conventional lens, it can be challenging to get everything in focus. But the tilt function makes it much easier—all you need to do is find the right tilt angle. This is also a useful function for achieving deep focus in product photography without having to do focus stacking.


How to estimate the focal plane position?

We can’t see the focal plane when we use the tilt function, but here’s a way to visualise it.

Imagine two planes: one parallel to the lens surface, and another parallel to the image sensor. The focal plane starts from the point where these two planes meet. This should help you estimate how much tilt you need to get the focal plane where you want.


“Reverse tilt”: A way to get creative with selective focus

Besides ensuring that subjects with depth are fully in focus, the tilt function can also be used in “reverse”—to put everything other than a specific subject out of focus. This is a form of selective focus.


How to achieve reverse tilt

Place the focal plane so that it intersects the subject. Only the areas within the focal plane will be in focus. This allows you more control over the position of the in-focus and out-of-focus areas than is possible on a conventional large aperture lens.

Focal plane during selective focus


Scene 3: Selective focus on only part of the frame 

TS-E90mm f/2.8L Macro / FL: 90mm/ Manual exposure (f/2.8, 1/640 sec)/ ISO 100/ WB: Auto

On a conventional large aperture lens, shooting from this distance would result in a larger depth of field, and everything to the left and right of the Tokyo Tower would have been in focus. But here, other than the Tokyo Tower and the buildings directly in front of it, everything else is out of focus. This effect is unique to a tilt-shift lens.


Scene 4: Miniature effect

Cross junction surrounded by buildings

TS-E135mm f/4L Macro / FL: 135mm/ Manual exposure (f/4, 1/1250 sec)/ ISO 100/ WB: Auto

Looks familiar? This is the original ‘miniature effect’, which is optically achieved with a tilt-shift lens by adjusting the focal plane so that it intersects with the ground. The ‘Miniature Effect’ Creative filter digitally recreates this effect, but gives you less flexibility to adjust the in-focus plane.

Fun fact: Miniatures models don’t look like this when you see them. However, when you photograph them, you usually have to shoot them close up which results in a very shallow depth of field. The “miniature effect” gets its name because it reminds people of photographs they have seen of miniature models.


Other applications of the tilt-function

In addition to the examples in this article, the tilt function on a tilt-shift lens has many other applications. Check out the examples in the videos below.




Canon’s tilt-shift lens lineup


TS-E17mm f/4L

TS-E24mm f/3.5L II


TS-E50mm f/2.8L Macro

TS-E90mm f/2.8L Macro


TS-E135mm f/4L Macro


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