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Rudy Winston
Rudy Winston

Rudy Winston has over 14 years experience with Canon USA's Pro Products team, and has been responsible during that time for training Canon's staff on new products, creating presentations for customers and dealers, numerous writing projects, and providing technical assistance to professional and amateur photographers.

An Introduction to Canon's New Tilt-Shift Lenses

March 29, 2011

... they can also lend a unique look to portraits, travel, and landscape photography -- such as the 'Fake Miniature' effect …

It’s hard to believe that almost 18 years have passed since Canon revolutionized the professional photography market with three Tilt-Shift (TS-E) lenses: the 90mm f/2.8, 45mm f/2.8, and 24mm f/3.5L. These lenses quickly became synonymous with solving problems for professional shooters, and for years were the only series of lenses of their type for interchangeable lens SLRs. When launched in 1991, they forced many studio, commercial, architectural and even portrait photographers to consider a 35mm film SLR for the first time. As such, they were landmark products in the evolution of the single lens reflex, and continue to be widely used and appreciated by pros and serious amateur enthusiasts to this day.

Lenses with “shift” capability have been available for 35mm and medium-format SLRs for decades. What made Canon’s Tilt-Shift lenses special was summed up in their name. For the first time, SLR users had a lens that could mimic the movements of the front standard of a view camera. These lenses not only could shift to retain proper perspective control, but also could tilt to alter the plane of focus. Landscape photographers using the 24mm lens, for example, no longer had to stop down to f/22 and pray that (a) they’d get adequate depth-of-field, and (b) that the resulting slow shutter speeds wouldn’t result in blurs from wind-blown plants and foliage. Studio photographers found the same control when they used the 45mm “standard” lens, or the 90mm f/2.8.

Architectural photographers have favored the TS-E 24mm f/3.5L lens for years, for exterior and interior shots. However, in spite of its very wide-angle perspective on a full-frame camera, there have been numerous requests for Canon to “push the envelope” and develop a new lens with even wider-angle Tilt-Shift capability. And with today’s high-resolution, full-frame digital SLRs, very critical pros voiced a need to have the current 24mm lens updated for even better performance optically. Canon’s newest additions to the Tilt-Shift family emphatically address both these concerns.

New: TS-E 17mm f/4L

This is an entirely new category of lens, never before offered by any camera manufacturer. A super-wide angle lens of superior optical quality, with full tilt and shift capability. The possibilities for architectural, landscape, and commercial photographers are virtually endless. Here’s a lens that will deliver images never before possible with a 35mm-based SLR camera. This remarkable lens has an amazing four UD-glass elements to suppress color fringing, and likewise uses a large-diameter Aspherical lens element to keep distortion to an absolute minimum. Like the new TS-E 24mm lens, the TS-E 17mm f/4L utilizes Canon’s specialized SWC lens coating on the inner surface of the Aspherical element, to vastly reduce the chance of secondary “ghost” images and reflections with digital SLR bodies. Yet another dimension of this lens’s versatility is that it can be used on Canon digital SLRs such as the EOS 50D, with smaller APS-C size sensors. Even with the 1.6x “magnification factor”, the 17mm lens delivers images with a field of view equivalent to a 27mm lens on a full-frame camera.

Improved: TS-E 24mm f/3.5L II

A total re-design of the previous 24mm TS-E lens, this new lens offers vastly superior image circle coverage, wider range of shifting and tilting, and significant improvements in its optical performance — even when used at extreme shifts and/or tilts on full-frame digital SLRs. Noteworthy optical features include three UD (Ultra-low Dispersion) glass elements to significantly reduce chromatic aberrations (none were used in the previous 24mm design), a large-diameter Aspherical front element, and Canon’s newly-developed SWC (Sub-Wavelength Structure Coating) for outstanding resistance to secondary reflections and ghost images when used with digital SLRs. Furthermore, it introduces new mechanical features which make it more versatile than ever for professionals and dedicated amateur enthusiasts. The new TS-E 24mm f/3.5L II will replace the previous 24mm TS-E lens, which will be discontinued.

Shared new features

Both new wide-angle Tilt-Shift lenses share some excellent new features. Optically, both share an incredible 67.2mm image circle (that is, the circle of sharp imagery they project to the imaging sensor or film plane). In comparison, the previous-generation Canon Tilt-Shift lenses all produced a 58mm diameter image circle.

All lenses for 35mm-style SLRs have to project a circular image back to the digital imaging sensor or film plane, which is cropped into the rectangular frame we’re all so used to seeing. With a 24x36mm full-frame size, a standard, non-shifting lens has to generate a circular image that will cover the diagonal of the actual picture area — about 43mm.

However, any lens with shifting capability will need to project a broader circular image to the film or imaging sensor. With Canon’s previous-generation Tilt-Shift lenses, all three designs (24mm, 45mm and 90mm) produced a 58mm diameter circular image. This produced sufficient room for the lens to be shifted up or down, or side-to side, by up to 11mm, without significant problems of image vignetting.

Combining both wide-angle coverage and a wide image circle is a big challenge for any optical engineer. Canon’s designers have outdone themselves with these two new ultra-wide angle Tilt-Shift lenses, with their astounding 67.2mm image circle. This not only allows the new 24mm TS-E lens to deliver up to 12mm of shift in any direction, but promises to further minimize any possibility of vignetting or loss of light as the lens is shifted (or combined with shifting and tilting movements in the same shot).

With Tilt-Shift lenses, the mechanics of the lens address how the photographer can access many of the lenses’ unique features.

One feature that was revolutionary when introduced back in 1991 was the fully automatic lens aperture. This may not seem significant in the 21st century, but the TS-E lenses were the first of their type that could take exposure meter readings with the aperture wide-open, as conventional lenses can, and likewise were the first shift-type lenses that did not require the photographer to press a special lever before a shot was taken to manually stop the aperture blades down to whatever shooting aperture he or she had selected. Of course, the new 24mm f/3.5L II and 17mm f/4L TS-E lenses have automatic diaphragm control, and they remain compatible with any EOS SLR (dating back to the very first EOS 650 film camera).

Yet another innovation in these two new lenses is their ability to change the relationship between the axis of shift and tilt — a world’s first for Tilt-Shift lenses, never seen before from any camera maker. With the new TS rotation feature, it is now possible to change the tilting vs. shifting rotation axes from being 90° apart to parallel. Why is this significant? In the past, if a critical studio shooter or architectural photographer wanted to apply a certain type of shifting for compositional purposes, he or she was then limited to being able to tilt the lens in only one +/- direction. If the desired angle of tilt was perpendicular to this, the only answer was to have the lens modified by Canon’s service technicians. Now, with these two new wide-angle TS-E lenses, photographers have yet another type of movement at their disposal, available whenever they like.

These lenses offer another, more orthodox type of revolving, where both the shift and tilt can be moved together over a +/- 90° range, in 30° increments. This is commonly used to change from up-and-down to left/right shift movements, and/or to change the angle of tilt for horizontal/vertical images. Unlike their predecessors, which could only rotate to 90° in one direction, these two new lenses can use standard rotation either clockwise or counter-clockwise.

Knobs to control the movements, and separate knobs to lock the movements in place, are larger and work in a more positive fashion for easier operation in challenging working conditions.

How does shift work in a tilt-shift lens?

All this information about the specifics of these new lenses is a moot point if you haven’t experienced the benefits a Tilt-Shift lens in the past. Here’s a brief run-down of how and why these two movements are used.

To explain Shift, the example of photographing a building exterior is an easy one for most to follow. Normally, if you use a wide-angle lens and try to photograph a fairly tall building, you’d aim the camera upward to include all of the building in the frame. The problem? In aiming the camera upward, you introduce a perspective distortion. The sides of the building bow inward, giving a sort of pyramid-like effect. In our everyday photography, we’ve seen this so much that we’re usually acclimated to it and accept it. But to a critical professional, there are times when this distortion is not acceptable. Here is where a shift lens comes in.

With the lens’s movements all set to their centered “zero” position, the camera is aimed carefully at the building, with critical attention paid to insure that the vertical lines and sides of the building are perfectly straight. (Parenthetically, the new Live View feature of current EOS digital SLRs, combined with its on-screen Grid Lines display, is ideal for this type of use.) However, with the sides of the building straight, there’s a catch — the lens is pointed straight ahead, and we can’t see the top of the building. Shift now comes into play. Simply turn the shift knob to raise the front section of the lens upward, and the entire image begins to rise in the finder or on the Live View display. But since the entire camera isn’t being tilted upward to achieve this, the lines remain straight. Of course, tripod mounting is ideal for this type of use, but it can be seen even in hand-held applications.

Tilting a tilt-shift lens to alter plane of focus

Once again, tilting capability was the signature new feature that Canon’s Tilt-Shift lenses brought to the photographic world when they were launched nearly 20 years ago. As view camera users had known for years, tilting the lens lets the photographer extend the range of what’s in focus in many situations. Or, alternatively, it can be used to severely limit the range of what’s in focus, even if the lens aperture isn’t wide-open.

A classic example is a landscape shooter who’s taking a wide-angle shot of a vast scene, with the camera pointed slightly downward to include foreground detail as well as the distant background. With a conventional wide-angle lens, to get this entire scene sharp, you’d focus about 1/3 of the way into the scene, stop down about as far as the lens could, and hope from there that depth-of-field would be adequate.

Tilting a Tilt-Shift lens like the 24mm f/3.5L II or the new 17mm f/4L gives another option. Once the shot is composed, you focus on the nearest thing you’d want to be sharp (with TS-E lenses, all focusing is manual…there’s no AF capability).

With that set, you’d now rotate the lens so that the tilt would let the top of the lens move toward the distant background. Turning the tilt knob, you’d stop when the entire scene, foreground to background, appeared to be evenly sharp. A brief final touch-up of the focus ring will confirm visually that the entire scene is sharp, if you’ve tilted the lens the appropriate amount (a common error in the beginning is for users to tilt the lens too much, especially when not focusing upon a very nearby object).

With this done, you may find you get front-to-back sharpness at a much wider aperture. While it’s usually a good idea with a tilted and especially a shifted TS-E lens to stop down to at least a middle aperture, the days of f/22 and hoping for the best are a thing of the past.

Tilt-Shift lenses…a concept you may want to look into

It’s easy to consider the Canon Tilt-Shift lenses a super-specialized tool for a small minority of working professionals, but that view short-changes many SLR enthusiasts who want to continually improve both their skills and their images. Whether someone who’s a portrait enthusiast gives the TS-E 90mm f/2.8 lens a try, or a scenic shooter looks into one of the new TS-E wide-angle lenses, these versatile tools can open doors to pictures that the amateur enthusiast may have never been able to achieve up to now. While not cheap, they’re priced similarly to many of the L-series telephoto lenses serious amateurs often use or aspire to. The TS-E lenses are not difficult to use, and it should be mentioned that with no tilting or shifting applied, they’re marvelous fixed-focal length lenses for a wide range of uses. Without tilt or shift, automatic exposure modes such as Av, or even Tv and P, can be used and exposure lock isn’t even required!

Especially as the superb new TS-E 17mm f/4L and TS-E 24mm f/3.5L II are introduced to the market, it’s a good time for both pros and serious amateurs to revisit the realm of Tilt-Shift lenses, and perhaps to look into what these lenses can bring to your photography.


For an illustrated PDF on the lens techniques described above, please download Canon Tilt-Shift Concepts (4.2 MB)