Forever Freelensing: Photos from A Workshop

Freelensing: Shooting with your lens detached from your camera body to create a tilt-shift effect.

I scheduled a last-minute photo walk to introduce freelensing to a group of Atlanta photographers. I’ll be honest: I was a little nervous that no one would show up and I’d be demonstrating wonky photography techniques to an empty field. But all 15 spots were sold, and I spent Saturday afternoon teaching and shooting with a gorgeous group of talented photo-makers!

These are my photographs from the workshop, all freelensed with my Canon 50mm f/1.2 on a 6D body.


Freelensing has phenomenal isolating capabilities. I wanted to focus entirely on Shea’s beautiful bone structure for this photograph, a striking contrast to the chaotic natural textures surrounding her. I love the way the foliage around her face looks like a crown. TIP: Focus your lens to infinity before you begin freelensing! This is marked by a figure-8 symbol on most lenses.

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With a 50mm lens and a full-frame camera, I do my best freelensing at distances of 5 to 20 feet from my subject. The tilt of the lens is usually no more than a few millimeters – a barely perceivable angle to an onlooker.

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At a distance of about 10 feet, I was able to get Heather’s entire face in focus – not just her eyes or lips. Freelensing is, in effect, like shooting at f/0, so you have to be very intentional with your focusing. The closer you are to your subject, the harder you’ll find it to achieve any significant depth of field.

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We looked at ways to make compelling images in less than ideal surroundings. The best angle here was to photograph Amanda with the covered bridge behind her. But a group of joggers came through, so I framed her from a different angle, with the crossbeams of the bridge creating leading lines toward her face.

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Carlos’ poncho totally stole the show. That, and his smile, which I chose to make the sharpest point in this photograph. I typically focus on eyes; but, in this case, a slight shift toward the mouth felt right. TIP: After you’ve detached your lens from the camera body to begin freelensing, rest the lens back in the lens mount as if you are going to reattach it. This will give you a secure platform on which to balance one edge of the lens as you gently tilt the other edge away from the camera body.

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Yes: you can freelens photograph more than one person. The simplest way to do this is to keep both subjects on the same plane, and to shoot from a bit of a distance. Here I was approximately 15 feet from Cindy & Sharon, shooting across the bridge railing to add texture and depth.

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You can also freelens photograph two people on two different planes. It requires finessing, and necessitates tilting the the lens on the diagonal to achieve focus on both planes at once. Under normal circumstances (i.e., when your lens is still connected to your camera body), you would simply shoot at a higher aperture – say, f/8 or f/11 – to achieve greater depth of field. But freelensing strips you of that control, so you must manually adjust the angle of lens to camera in order to focus on both subjects.

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Freelens focus is easiest to achieve at the third-points of your composition. Here I have Kinzie framed in the lower-third of the image, where I can get a nice, sharp focus on her face while including the tall, colorful birdhouses towering over her.

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It’s also possible to freelens photograph someone in motion, like Cassie here, strolling toward me. Focus quickly and precisely when you’re freelensing a moving subject. TIP: Freelensing is an imperfect technique. Be cautious when freelensing for clients. It’s not always easy to tell if an image is sharp until you’re viewing it on a large screen – when the shoot is over and you can’t retake any missed images!

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Freelensing throws backgrounds into extreme bokeh – the blurry effect you see here behind Rebecca. This is great for isolating your subject in odd spaces. Here, freelensing allowed me to distort the buildings in the background, so your eyes are drawn directly to Rebecca’s face.

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Freelensing offers dramatic focus fall-off, like in this picture of Jennifer. Clearly, her body is occupying one plane. But my tilted lens creates an intense bokeh effect that increases as you follow the image toward her feet.

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I shot through a tiny window in the wall of the mill ruins, about 8 inches square. Freelensing pushed not only the wall into bokeh, but also Kristin’s body from the hips down. TIP: Newer Nikon lenses automatically close down to f/22 when detached from the camera body, but you can open them back up for freelensing with a little piece of tape over the lever on the back of your lens! Alternately, invest a few bucks into an older manual Nikon lens with an aperture ring. You can pick one up for only about $50 on Ebay!

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We experimented with incorporating layers and texture into our photographs. I photographed Ally through a heavy patch of tall grasses, which added a dreamlike softness to this image.

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Because of freelensing’s narrow focal plane and harsh bokeh fall-off, only one of Dylan’s eyes could be in focus at a shooting distance of about 3.5 feet. TIP: Tilt the edge of your lens that is furthest from your light source to avoid unwanted lens flare and extreme light leaks!

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Shooting at dusk, I highlighted Lanette’s face in this photograph by having her lift her chin toward the sky. This made her face the brightest point of the image. Freelensing allowed the rest of the scene to fall into bokeh and shadow.

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Here’s our little photography crew! C’est moi in the green beanie on the left! THANK YOU to everyone who joined me! I’m looking forward to more of these in the future!

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6 Comments

  1. “Five minute read?” Ha! Your freelensing portrait article held me hostage for the better part of an hour. Thank you so much for sharing your art. Beautiful!

  2. Fantastic article, I learnt free lensing from Sam Hurd tutorials but this has some great comments and tips. :)

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