Freelensing: Un-Focus To Tell a More Dynamic Story

So often we are distracted by what we see, sucked in by that which is right in front of us. Each day can be a battle of not missing the forest for the trees, and losing track of the big picture, both metaphorically and literally, is a demon to which we frequently fall prey. But, life is as much about the unseen as it is the seen…it is more honest to say that it is what’s lurking in the shadows that truly defines us rather than what the world around us seems to see.

This concept, when considered in photography, is as much philosophical as it is visual. There are thousands of tutorials on how to maintain a sharp focus or isolate a subject or achieve that perfect image. But, life, which is the literal reflection of art, is not sharp or clearly-defined or nice and perfect. It’s not! What if more contemporary photography chose to focus on the imperfect, the beauty in the flaws, and creation by suggestion rather than destruction by defining?


Tilt-shift photography is, at its core, simply altering the focal plane of your lens (and, thereby, the image) and has been commercially-available for decades. We are most familiar with this technique being used to create those little cutesy miniature scenes from real life settings or even perform in-camera image correction when dealing with all the converging lines and shapes of architectural photography. But, it hasn’t been until the last few years (the exact number not being clearly-defined) that this principle has been applied to a broader range of the photographic spectrum. Companies like Lensbaby now offer a variety of more affordable options (when compared to $1,400, for instance, for the Canon 90mm tilt-shift lens), and there’s a plethora of do-it-yourself rigs out there. But, what about those who are a) too broke/cheap to spend money on some fancy lens, b) too…whatever…to have not yet built their own setup (I toss myself into this category), or c) want something even MORE raw and unrefined (yeah, I’m there, too)?


Yes, and it’s as fun and unpredictable and frustrating and rewarding as it sounds…and typically works best with a shorter prime lens that you can also manipulate the focus ring on as well.


Once upon a time, I found myself in a grungy industrial building with a partially-nude model shooting a very emotive scene, and the frames I was capturing, while good, did not fully convey the confusion and emotion I was trying to communicate through the images. I wanted to be able to feel the mind-numbing haze of the subject, to experience her utter loss and confusing. Being the notorious cheap-ass that I am (a fact I have made no effort to conceal to you, my readers) I had not (and still have not) sprung for a commercial tilt-shift lens, so I simply used what I had on-hand — a Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 — and followed a fairly simple process to achieve what I wanted.

How To: The Basics

Can you hold a camera? Good. You’re qualified. Now, let’s get started.

Step 1: Detach your lens from your camera body.

Step 2: Tilt and move the lens around in front of your sensor, adjusting the focus ring, if necessary, to captured the desired results.

Step 3: There is no Step 3. [Insert Chuck Norris joke here.]

It’s not rocket science. In fact, it’s barely even science! (Alright, don’t some of you go off on me, now…I know it’s technically ALL about science, but we’re mostly free-spirited types around here.)

There are a number of variations out there, including removing the mounting ring from your lens or attaching some type of bellows betwixt the lens and camera body to allow more stability, predictability, and prevent light leaks. But, one of the best parts about this technique IS the random light leaks you can naturally get in-camera. And it doesn’t destroy your lens in the process.

How does this help tell a better story?

“To suggest is to create; to describe is to destroy.” As I said, life is not perfect; life is not always in focus and clear. And that’s okay! That is what comprises our story; that is what helps define who we truly are! It’s sometimes in the haze that we are able to find ourselves and from the shadows that we take renewed vision. Being able to accurately portray this through your photography is probably as real it can get on the artistic plane. Let your art be a reflection of you. Let your life reveal itself through your work.

When freelensing, you are in complete control over what is defined in your image; you determine what is seen and unseen. This affords you the ability to more precisely isolate your subject or details and gives you complete artistic freedom to feed off the imperfections. While, yes, similar effects can be replicated in Photoshop, life isn’t an editing program…there are no undos or multiple tries…we are given but one shot. Getting it right the first time is both metaphorical and literal.

To see more of my “Shattered and Alone” series, CLICK HERE. [NSFW]


How about you?

What do you think? Is art a reflection of life? Should it be? Is it better off creating fantasy worlds to dazzle our eyes or portraying the realities and imperfections?

Have you tried this or a similar technique? Have you built your own DIY tilt-shift lens? We here at DIY Photography would love to hear about it! I’m looking to build my own tilt-shift lens (ashamedly, I still have not done this) and would love any tips you might have to offer!

  • bigcabdaddy

    Once upon a time I carried a cheap skylight filter and a small tube of Vaseline for similar effects. Idea stolen from some other photographer of course. Maybe Robert Farber? But I wouldn’t swear to it of course.

    • Allen Mowery

      Interestingly enough, I had seen this mentioned one time over the years, but I had completely forgotten about it and never actually gave it a try. THAT is definitely changing! Thanks for the idea!

  • Paul Danger Kile

    I did this, but with the lense held backwards, for a soft focused macro flower image.

    • Allen Mowery

      Definitely been there before!

      • Darren Landrum

        Ooh, I might have to try this today.

  • Pavulon

    Nikkor 1.8 closes down completely when I detach it. Is it normal?

    • Allen Mowery

      With Nikkor lenses, yes, they default to closed when detached (Canon lenses default to open). I saw one photographer who used Super Glue to hold his aperture blade adjustment open, but that was after removing the mounting and aperture rings entirely.