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Ansel Adams was best known for his ultra-sharp landscapes, which he achieved through the use of a 4x5 view camera. The view camera allowed Adams to adjust the film plane and the lens plane so he could control the depth of field and the size relationships of objects in the frame with tilt and rise and fall movements. Using this technique, he was able to alter the perspective to his desire, whether he was trying to achieve perspective control through rise movements in Yosemite or increasing the depth of field by making the lens standard tilt down.
Today’s digital SLR with a tilt-shift lens can emulate the view camera in many ways. The film plane, or the camera’s image sensor, is always stationary and not adjustable like the 4x5 view camera; however, most of what Adams was able to achieve can be emulated with today’s modern high-tech gear by using these perspective-control lenses or tilt-shift lenses.
Rising And Falling
A 4x5 view camera gave Adams the ability to control focus and parallel lines in some of his most famous pictures. In Half Dome, for example, he was able to achieve a tack-sharp foreground, background and middle ground and keep the granite face from appearing to fall backward by using rise and fall movements and stopping down.
Adams’ use of the tilt function on his 4x5 view camera played into the role of changing the depth of field—literally, the distance in front of and beyond the subject that appears to be in focus. By tilting the lens standard of his view camera, he could extend the depth of field from very close to infinity.
By shifting the lens standard of the view camera, Adams was able to shift horizontally for some of the landscapes so that he could make perfect parallel lines for his scenic images.
Typical digital lenses can’t achieve the same perspective control as a view camera because of physics. When the film plane and the lens plane are rigid and kept parallel to one another as in most D-SLR lenses, then we can have a measure of control over depth of field and perspective, but ultimately we’re still limited. When we tilt the camera with a regular lens on it, parallel lines converge, and trees and other elements in the frame can look like they’re falling backward. A view camera uses the rise and fall movements to combat this. Also, a rigid D-SLR setup is limited to the lens’ minimum aperture to control depth of field. With a view camera, Adams took advantage of tilt movements to get total control over depth of field (see The Scheimpflug Principle sidebar).
Tilt-Shift Or Perspective Control
The advancement of high-tech gear in digital SLRs has expanded the abilities of the outdoor photographer to replicate what Adams was capable of with his 4x5 view camera. When using a perspective-control or tilt-shift lens on a D-SLR, we can come close to the same leveling control.
Both Canon and Nikon offer such tilt-shift lenses that have the same rise and fall and tilt movements of Adams’ 4x5 view camera. Canon has had a stable of tilt-shift lenses since they were introduced for 35mm film cameras in 1991. Nikon has recently updated its repertoire to include a tilt-shift lens, the PC-E Nikkor 24mm ƒ/3.5D ED, plus the older PC Micro-Nikkor 85mm ƒ/2.8D. Canon’s selection of tilt-shift lenses work on all of its EOS D-SLRs, from sub-full-frame to full-frame models. Its three fixed-focal-length tilt-shift lenses are the TS-E 24mm ƒ/3.5L, TS-E 45mm ƒ/2.8 and TS-E 90mm ƒ/2.8.
As these lenses are made for a specific group of photographers who have the need for this sort of perspective control, the use of them is a manual experience devoid of autofocusing, metering and other functions.
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Like Ansel Adams, David Muench has made use of this visual effect for much of his career. On a D-SLR, a tilt-shift or perspective-control lens gives you sufficient lens tilt to create the same effect.
Shooting Like Ansel Adams
One particularly cool advantage that we have with a D-SLR and a perspective-control or tilt-shift lens is that we can handhold and shoot. Adams was restricted to a bulky tripod, but we can move much more freely, watching how the look of the frame evolves in the viewfinder. Naturally, your best and sharpest images will come from using a tripod, but the modern D-SLR and a lens with movements lend themselves to a much more freewheeling style of shooting, and for many of us this makes for more creative images.
With the tilting function, you can pull in subjects that are in close range and those that are distant because the depth of field stretches out and allows you to get everything in the frame equally focused. The shift function allows the image circle to move so you can put a tall subject like Half Dome in the frame without the distortion of keystoning (the keystone effect makes your image look trapezoidal).
Another thing to keep in mind is that when using the tilt function of the lenses, you have to refocus the image because the lens won’t hold the focus you manually achieved before tilting. Also, exposure metering through the lens becomes much more restrictive.
When you’re shooting with a perspective-control or tilt-shift lens, make use of your D-SLR’s depth-of-field preview. Hold down the depth-of-field preview button and slowly stop down the aperture to see the effect in the viewfinder. Adams did this with a loupe on the ground glass and a dark cloth over his head. Take particular care with foreground objects because as you employ lens tilt, the tops of these objects can lose sharpness. Look at the diagram above, and you’ll see how the depth of field changes from what you’re used to with a rigid system.
|A byproduct of lens tilt is the slightly distorted appearance of near objects, which appear larger and more looming, and the relative smallness of background images, which seem to recede more into the distance.|
George Lepp, a professional who uses all the Canon TS-E lenses, conducts workshops where he teaches his students how to use them.
“You’re going to have to learn; it’s kind of like tapping your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time,” Lepp says of the learning curve involved. “You have to learn how to find the right angle so that you get the right plane to cover the area you want and to put that plane where you want it. It’s a combination of two things—of how much tilt and of where the focus is—so you’re doing two things at once. Number one, you have to find the plane; and number two, you have to find the focus where that plane is going to be. And you do them both at the same time. In a day, you can be doing it just fine. Then each time you use it, you get a little more comfortable with it.”
In practice, Nikon shooter Maynard Switzer uses the shift function on the 85mm lens to gain perspective you can’t achieve with a regular digital lens.
Says Switzer, “Say you were shooting something like tall trees, rather than having to tilt your camera up and get the keystone effect with that sort of image distortion, you could rotate the shift 360 degrees. You could look straight ahead and then just shift it straight up to bring in the tree, so you get a perfect perspective.”
The impetus of perspective-control or tilt-shift lenses allows for remarkable images for outdoor and nature photographers, whether it’s rolling landscapes and panoramic stitching of photos or macro work. There’s a groundwork that can be followed in order to achieve the optimization of these lenses that Ansel Adams set forth.