I’d hesitate to say I’m “into gear.” I’d rather read a personal finance blog than the Digital Photography Magazine Buyer’s Guide. In writing, gear is just not interesting.
Where things get interesting for me is when gear enables new techniques. Last year, I used BorrowLenses.com to rent a 200mm prime lens and a 24mm tilt-shift for Holy Week in Mexico. To have two new weapons in my bag made the week’s imagery 100% better. The 200mm allowed for more intimate candid shots during the processions, while the tilt-shift opened up hundreds of doors of creativity for my cityscape and architecture. It was like shooting in a third and fourth dimension.
For Kauai, I once again rented two lenses: this time, a 24mm–105mm zoom lens (a must for the helicopter tour) and a 45mm tilt-shift lens. Once again, the tilt-shift rocked.
Tilt-shift photography is a bit hard to explain, so here’s the Wikipedia page. But in essence, its about manipulation. Tilting manipulates the plane of focus, while shifting reorients the subject in the image area without moving the camera back, thereby eliminating converging lines (handy in architecture imagery). The lens actually moves on the camera body. A knob pivots the lens up and down for tilting, while another knob slides the lens across the front of the camera. A third button rotates the lens on the camera body, so pretty quickly you can get funky.
In Kauai, I was shooting landscapes, and didn’t end up shifting as much as tilting, so all of the images in this post are the product of angling the lens up or down and rotating it on the camera body, and not shifting. I did a brief illustration on the above image to show how tilting alters the plane of focus. On conventional lenses, the focus is related to the distance from the camera (e.g., everything 10 feet away is in focus, while everything closer and further is out of focus). Think of that focused area as a plane. With tilting, that plane is redirected. Suddenly, a swath across the image will be in focus, which in the above image includes my brother Ben and his son Jeremiah some 30 feet away, footprints on the beach 25 feet away, and the surfers bobbing in the distance, some 200 yards away. Meanwhile, the waves 25 feet away, as well as the distant palms trees and nearby footprints, are heavily out of focus. At that moment, I wanted to train the viewers eye to my brother and the surfers at the same time.
Here again I tilted and tried to get the plane of focus to follow the surf line into the distance. I almost nailed it. Because of its nature, shooting with a tilt-shift is all manual focus, so getting it exact is a challenge.
Everybody’s favorite effect with the tilt-shift is to “miniaturize” a landscape. By shooting down from a high vantage point and altering the plane of focus, you can make a landscape look like a handcrafted model. My best effort at this is the top image of the Hanalei Valley Lookout, but it also works well here on Waimea Canyon. Again, the key is having an elevated position and tilting down on the scene.
Shooting vertical images with a tilt-shift lens can present its own challenges. I think that’s because I often go vertical when I’m looking up a bit, so as with the sailboat masts on Kalapaki Beach above, or the foreground/mid-ground/background of the taro fields at dusk, executing the right plane of focus can be difficult. Sometimes it works for completely the wrong reasons. The sailboat shot is actually mostly out of focus, but the bow on one boat, the surf and the clumps of palm trees are crisp, giving the shot a surprising intimacy (not what I was going after). On the taro field shot, I should have done a diagonal plane of focus going the other way with the sunbeams. Oh well.
Here are some other experiments: