The art of Freelensing :: Digital Photo Secrets

The art of Freelensing

by David Peterson 3 comments

As photographers and in turn artists, we are constantly searching for new ways to invigorate our art and revitalize our passion for it. Sometimes this need to create something new and different causes us to try out unconventional and potentially ill-advised methods. Freelensing is one of these sometimes applauded, sometimes frowned upon practices which provides visually interesting photographs that are hard to recreate in any other fashion. But it also has its risks....

[ Top image soft by Flickr user gioiadeantoniis]

The Basics

Freelensing, sometimes referred to as the poor man’s tilt shift lens, isn’t actually a lens. In reality it’s a technique used by adventurous photographers to achieve results that are sometimes similar to those created with a tilt-shift lens. Instead of purchasing a tilt-shift lens, you can use your current lenses; instead of actually mounting the lens to the camera, it is handheld in front of the sensor, usually at an angle to skew the focus plane.

When your lens is properly attached to your camera body the depth of focus runs parallel to your camera. What that means is the depth of focus runs linearly across your photograph. This is especially evident when you have a picture shot at a large aperture stop like f/1.8 where the percentage of the photograph actually in focus is very small. For example, in the dog photograph below, if you follow the picture from left to right, it’s easy to see that everything on the same plane as the dog’s face is in focus while the rest of the photo is out of focus.

When you are freelensing, the in focus area is no longer neatly arranged. Instead it is bent, depending on the amount of angle of lens tilt you are utilizing. The photo below is a good example of a skewed focus plane. If the picture of this man was taken with a regular lens properly mounted onto the camera body, his face would all be in focus because it is on the same plane but because of the freelensing process, only half of his face and some of his body is in focus.

  • Canon EOS 5D
  • 200
  • 0.001 sec (1/2000)

Laurent Bourque by Flickr user kronick_

Freelensing is by nature a trial and error process. Doing it leads to results, either good or bad, and then adjustments are made from there but the basic mechanics are as follows:

  • Mount the lens you intend to use on your camera.
  • Set to manual mode.
  • Meter and set all of your settings.
  • Switch your lens to manual focus and set the focus to infinity.
  • Turn off your camera.
  • Detach the lens.
  • Turn your camera back on.
  • Pull the lens away from the body in one spot.
  • Focus and take the shot. Close the gap and review. From there you can adjust your settings and lens position to achieve your wanted effects.

The Risks

Freelensing isn’t a new practice, although it seems to have gained popularity in the mainstream photography world over the past couple of years. Many photographers are aware of the practice and the mechanics for executing it, but choose not to. This is because the practice does present some risks to your gear. You should be aware of the risks associated with freelensing so you can weigh the possible pros and cons to make an informed decision.

The first, and most obvious risk is dropping something. While damaging your equipment is always a possibility when you take it out of your well-padded camera bag, having multiple pieces to keep track of makes the likelihood of dropping something automatically double.

The second risk is exposing the inside of your camera body and your lens(es) to dust, moisture, or other particulates such as pollen. Every time you open your camera body to change the lens you open it up to the possibility of collecting unwanted dust. Dust on your sensor or in your lens can mar your picture leaving unattractive black spots on your photographs which become more and more evident as you take pictures with larger depths of focus. Many DSLR cameras are now equipped with a sensor cleaning function which basically jiggles particulates off the sensor. Despite that feature, the more time your sensor is open to the elements, the more likely it is to collect too much dust to just shake off. Professional cleanings cost anywhere from $75 to $150 depending on your camera and the shop or manufacture servicing your camera. Is it possible to clean your sensor at home, but many photographers, even professionals prefer to have a trained technician take care of it. Supplies for the DIY option cost about $100 and can last you years if properly stored.
When dust gets into a lens, depending on where it’s located, it can be difficult or even impossible to remove. In some cases you may even have to replace the lens. Before you start the somewhat addictive practice of freelensing, it’s best that you calculate the risk to benefit ratio based on your own interest in this particular type of photograph manipulation.

Tips and tricks

Before you even think about freelensing on location, try it in a controlled environment first without elements such as wind, dirt, water, or other variables you can’t control. Practicing in a studio or even in your living room will allow you to build up the muscle memory to work quickly and efficiently when you are shooting at a location that is not a controlled. Your goal is to know how it works enough work quickly and expose the inside of your camera and your lens for as little time as possible.

  • Sony NEX-7
  • 100
  • 1/4000 sec

34::274 - Freelensing the Rokinon 35 off the NEX7 by Flickr user WarzauWynn

Take one shot at a time. Taking multiple shots at a time means that you are holding your lens away from your camera for an extended period of time. It is best to do as much of the work as possible before moving the lens away from the mount, take a single shot, close it up and recompose.

Use a neck or wrist strap. When you are taking an educated risk, it’s always best to eliminate the number of things that could go wrong. Using a neck or wrist strap minimizes the chances of dropping your camera body so you can focus on the death grip you have on your lens.

Avoid freelensing in dusty or wet environments. Perhaps it should go without saying but when freelensing, you should avoid environments that are dust of moisture heavy. Locations such as the beach, the open desert, or any locations with moving water are no-gos.

Use prime lenses. To avoid creating a dust trap, use prime lenses. Zoom lenses are already more likely to suffer dust damage because of their mechanics. When you zoom in and out, the lens pulls in and pushes out air, which often contains dust. Despite the fact the air that gets pulled in gets pushed out, the dust often sticks to the glass inside and becomes entrapped in the photography equivalent of the Bermuda triangle.

Start with an inexpensive lens

I always recommend that you use a lens that is relatively inexpensive to replace as you get used to the process and practice of freelensing. If you are going to drop your lens or get dust in it, you don’t want it to be the most expensive lens you own. The nifty fifty is often the sacrificial lamb on this altar. Typically retailing at about $100 most photographers consider the lens inexpensive enough to replace if they drop it into oncoming traffic (which is much more likely when your lens isn’t officially tethered to your camera).

Wide angle lenses are not ideal

Using a wide angle lens is not recommended, especially when you are just starting out because they are notorious for supplying freelensed images with exactly 0% of the photo in focus. They are just difficult to make work for this purpose.

  • Canon EOS 5D Mark II
  • 100
  • 1/3200 sec
  • 50 mm

Rusty Freelensing the light by Flickr user Benicio Murray

Frequently Posed Questions

Why not just use a lensbaby? For those of you who don’t know, a lensbaby is a brand of lens made specifically to manipulate the focus plane of a photograph. There are a couple of reasons why feelensing is different than using a Lensbaby. The first reason is light leaks. I think lensbaby is missing a big potential demographic by not offering one of their squeeze lenses with clear bellows. Anyway, a light leak is an inconstancy of the light in a photograph caused by light actually leaking through the space where the lens and the camera body do not meet completely. The light leaks give a different feel to each photograph depending on the color and amount of light in addition to the manipulated plane of focus. Additionally, the blur provided by a Lensbaby tends to be more motion blur-esque because of the curvature of the optic.

Who probably shouldn’t freelens? In general, if you haven’t mastered shooting in manual and manual focus, you aren’t going to have much success. Because the lens isn’t actually mounted to the camera, you aren’t going to get metering info or be able to use that handy auto-focus feature. Practice nailing your settings before you start playing with the subtle art of freelensing.

Are there other alternatives that are safer? Freelensing is a risky business. There are some DIY covers made to cover the gaps and some of those options use a clear plastic so light can still leak in but so far there is nothing on the mass production market specifically for that purpose.

Why not just get a tilt shift lens? In short, they are really expensive and for many photographers don’t serve enough of a purpose to justify the cost. And like Lensbabies, they are sealed up tight for good reason but that seal doesn’t allow for the light leaks people find so charming.

While freelensing can be perilous, it is not much more hazardous than changing your camera lens, or camera tossing. And it might just be the technique that re-lights your love of photography. Keeping the tips and tricks in mind will allow you to make this quirky practice as safe as possible while still reaping the benefits. The best thing about freelensing is that it’s nearly impossible to take two identical images; while practice will allow you to get in the ballpark, you will be required to adapt to different lighting situations and subject. These types of challenges pushes us as photographers, as thinkers, and as artists.

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  1. bob pearce says:

    Am I missing something my Sony a77 brings up a message when my lense is not attached properly ?

    • David Peterson says:

      Some cameras try to protect you from doing things that could be dangerous to your camera. Check the manual and see if there is a way to disable this 'feature'.


  2. Kevin Arthurson says:

    So much fun and great results. As they say, "rules were made to be broken!"
    Thanks for the great tips.

  3. Loren Swanson says:

    Thank you, I am always looking for new ideas and this one is definitely new to me! I have no idea what I will do with it and I still like the idea.

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About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.