The Magic of Tilt-Shift Photography With a Leica

By DIERK TOPP

My topic is sort of special and probably not for many readers, but it may be worth to think about using tilt-shift lenses on your Leica when shooting architecture. We’re not talking the miniaturization tilt-shift, but the serious architectural photography. Now, what are tilt-shift lenses? Wikipedia does a better job explaining it than I do, but let me give it a shot. I will concentrate here on the use of the shift function, as this is the useful function for the use on a rangefinder Leica without live view. We all know the problem of perspective distortions when shooting architecture. With a shift lens, this can be solved and compensated.

For What and How Are Shift Lenses Used?

The main application is for architecture. I used shift lenses since many years on my SLR and DSLR cameras. But now I sold all my DSLR gear recently. My favorite cameras are the Leica M9, Leica M Monochrom and Sony NEX. And I love shootung architecture and was looking for a solution for my Leica and the upcoming FF NEX.

With digital images we usually correct the perspective in post-processing (if you care about that at all). That means, the missing pixels have to be “invented” by the post-processing program. If you want to avoid that, you have to use a lens that can be “shifted.” Canon calls these TS-E lenses (tilt-shift), Nikon PC lenses (perspective control).

The PC-Nikkor 35mm F2.8
The PC-Nikkor 35mm F2.8
The specialty of these lenses is that they have a much larger images circle than normal 35mm cameras need (see example below). That allows (limited) moves of the lens parallel to the camera sensor in any x/y direction.

Again: when shooting architecture you always get perspective distortions of the buildings when pointing the camera upwards. Tilt-shift lenses (I am talking of the shift function of the lens) make it possible to keep the camera in a horizontal position (normally but not necessarily on a tripod) and move the lens up (or down or sideways).

The camera seems to look upwards now, but the building stays in perfect position without any vertical perspective distortions. This is normal business for large format cameras.

A Special Use of Shift Lenses: Panorama

As an additional effect you can shoot multiple images with different positions of the shifted lens and stitch these multiple images made out of one consistent image circle. And they fit perfectly, as they all belong to the same image (circle) — of course this only works as long as the object is static. You’ll find examples for it further below.

How to Use a Canon TS-E Lens on the Leica?

Wide angle lenses are a must in most cases for architecture, and the widest 35mm full-frame tilt-shift lens is the Canon 17mm F4 TS-E (Amazon/eBay). But: the E in the TS-E means the lens aperture is controlled by the Canon camera body! A Leica camera can’t do that.

BTW, NEX cameras offer electronic control of the E mount lenses and via the use of modern intelligent adapters like Metabone the NEX can also control the aperture of the TS-E lens! I use this adapter for the TS-E with perfect results on the NEX-7 and NEX-6 — and hopefully soon on the upcoming NEX-FF, howsoever it will be called. Today though I will concentrate on the Leica.

The Leica M9 with the Canon 17mm F4 TS-E
The Leica M9 with the Canon 17mm F4 TS-E | Dierk Topp
With the Canon TSE Tripod Collar from Hartblei. This collar keeps the lens in constant position and there are no parallax problems for stitching images. | Dierk Topp
With the Canon TSE Tripod Collar from Hartblei. This collar keeps the lens in constant position and there are no parallax problems for stitching images. | Dierk Topp
The Canon 17mm F4 TS-E | Dierk Topp
The Canon 17mm F4 TS-E | Dierk Topp

Searching on the Web for more informations about the 17mm TS-E I found the trick in a forum to control the aperture and use this lens on my Leica and have 17mm full-frame with tilt-shift. I need a Canon body, mount the lens on the body — stop down the lens to the desired f-stop and unmount the lens while pushing the stop down key — and the aperture stays stopped down!

And after a long search for a used cheap body I got a defect Canon DSLR body from Canon (for free!). I need it only for stopping down the lens, I always use F8.

The Adapter?

So far I use a cheap adapter from Hong Kong.

How to Focus?

The depth of field of a 17mm lens is very deep. With the use of F8 I set the distance to about three meters. Further below you’ll find a selection of images. All are shot shot with the Canon 17mm TS-E at F8 on a tripod. You find more images on my Flickr album.

But first some more technical background. Below you see a stitch of all possible shift positions of the Canon 17mm F4 TS-E with an overlay of real images of the extremely wide Voigtlander CV 12mm, the Leica Super-Elmar 18mm and the Leica Super-Elmar 21mm.

You will notice that with the 17mm lens shifted left and right you get even wider than with the 12mm CV lens! BTW, the 12mm CV was not corrected with CornerFix and you see the color shift on the edges.

Putting perspectives into perspective... | Dierk Topp
Putting perspectives into perspective… | Dierk Topp

Now here’s a comparison between stitched images out of one image circle from shifted lens to the typical panorama image with rotated camera and lens. I’m using the Leica M9 with the Canon 17mm F4 TS-E. The distance from the camera to the wall is about three meters!

Stitch of three images, landscape; center, shift left and shift right | Dierk Topp
Stitch of three images, landscape; center, shift left and shift right | Dierk Topp

Followed by a stitch of five images portrait with the camera rotated on the tripod:

This is the normal stitch result with distortions you get from cameras with rotating lenses, like the Horizon 202 or Seitz Roundshot. | Dierk Topp
This is the normal stitch result with distortions you get from cameras with rotating lenses, like the Horizon 202 or Seitz Roundshot. | Dierk Topp
With perspective correction in Photoshop, the result speaks for/against itself!
With perspective correction in Photoshop, the result speaks for/against itself!

I start with a very special image made with the new Leica M. This is the only image that I made with the 17mm lens on the new M.

I had this Leica Typ 240 and gave it back after two days. It just did not fit my needs, especially for tilted lenses. The enlarged focus point is fix in the middle of the image and for the control of tilted images this is absolutely useless! I wrote Leica an email about many more negative points — never got an answer.

In this image you can see that I shifted the lens up more than the useful maximum and to top of the image is getting blurred.

Dierk Topp
Dierk Topp

All following images are shot with the Leica M9 and Canon 17mm TS-E @ F8:

Lübeck, Germany | Dierk Topp
Lübeck, Germany | Dierk Topp
Church in Zarpen, Germany,  built in the 13th century / HDR shifted | Dierk Topp
Church in Zarpen, Germany,
built in the 13th century /
HDR shifted | Dierk Topp
Stitch of three HDR images portrait -- center, shift left and shift right | Dierk Topp
Stitch of three HDR images portrait — center, shift left and shift right | Dierk Topp
Shift of two images; one straight, one up -- HDR | Dierk Topp
Shift of two images; one straight, one up — HDR | Dierk Topp
One shot, post-processed for infrared look | Dierk Topp
One shot, post-processed for infrared look | Dierk Topp
Marienkirche in Lübeck, Germany, built from 1250 to 1350 --  The ceiling of the church is 38 meters high, the highest of this type in the world. -- Stitch of two images shifted in two steps upwards; the upper one shifted to the maximum (you see some blurred parts in the ceiling). | Dierk Topp
Marienkirche in Lübeck, Germany, built from 1250 to 1350 — The ceiling of the church is 38 meters high, the highest of this type in the world. — Stitch of two images shifted in two steps upwards; the upper one shifted to the maximum (you see some blurred parts in the ceiling). | Dierk Topp

The following images are a normal single shot with shifted lens:

Dierk Topp
Dierk Topp
Dierk Topp
Dierk Topp
Dierk Topp
Dierk Topp
Dierk Topp
Dierk Topp
Dierk Topp
Dierk Topp

This one is different:

Stitch of six images shifted upwards with rotated camera. The horizontal angle of view is about 180° resulting in 7,400 x 5,100 pixels = 35MP | Dierk Topp
Stitch of six images shifted upwards with rotated camera. The horizontal angle of view is about 180°
resulting in 7,400 x 5,100 pixels = 35MP | Dierk Topp
Church of Reinfeld, Germany -- Three images; lens shifted left, center and right; HDR | Dierk Topp
Church of Reinfeld, Germany — Three images; lens shifted left, center and right; HDR | Dierk Topp
One shot, shifted upwards | Dierk Topp
One shot, shifted upwards | Dierk Topp
Shift of two images, landscape; one about strait, one up; HDR | Dierk Topp
Shift of two images, landscape; one about strait, one up; HDR | Dierk Topp
Entrance to city hall, Reinfeld, Germany -- Shift of three images, landscape; one center, shift left, shift right; HDR | Dierk Topp
Entrance to city hall, Reinfeld, Germany — Shift of three images, landscape; one center, shift left, shift right; HDR | Dierk Topp
Shift of two images, landscape; lens shift 30° up, one to the left, one right; HDR -- Camera about half a meter above ground | Dierk Topp
Shift of two images, landscape; lens shift 30° up, one to the left, one right; HDR — Camera about half a meter above ground | Dierk Topp

And the last image of this series — Leica M9 with Canon 17mm F4 TS-E in tilt function.

As described above, this function is more or less useless on a camera without live view or SLR control of the plane of focus. With some experience with tilting you can guess the tilt, but it is more or less a question of luck with the poor display the M9 has.

Please note, the plane of focus lies parallel to the ground. The flowers are sharp from foreground to background — but the tree above them is unsharp!

Dierk Topp
Dierk Topp

Thanks your time and patience.




  • Robert Mark

    Dierk, the chuch images are lovely. I’ve been working on a book of church interiors, and I couldn’t do it without the TS-E 17. I’m looking for a way to get similar results after my new OM-D E-M1 arrives…

  • Pan

    You are a patient and very dedicated photographer Dierk. Wonderful what is possible with the right knowledge and craftsmanship. The photos exude a deep sense of devotion and tranquility. Thank you for showing us this very nice work.

  • dierk

    thanks Pan,
    thanks for this wonderful and sensitive compliment!
    thanks very much
    dierk

  • dierk

    thanks, Robert.
    you will know, that the Leica M9 is full format and the 17mm is “real” 17mm in our old 35mm analog world!

    I am afraid, that there is no tilt/shift lens for your OM-D with this wide angle today for Micro-For-Third?

  • Robert Mark

    I’ve seen a few Kiopn tilt-shift adapters m4/3 that I thought I might try. They make them for almost any lens mount. Alternately, I could try the Canon TS-E 17 on a m4/3 adapter and create a stitched pano.

    Regardless, there’s an unmet need for a wide tilt-shift for m4/3. I bet somebody will fill the void in the next year or so.

  • Ben

    Hello Dierk, I have just ordered an Adapter to mount my Canon TS-E 17 mm on the Leica M9 and the M-Monochrom. It is this one: FB10-11.jpg

    But one question. How do you manage the aperture of the lens with the Leica body?

    I hope you can help me with this question?

    Thanks

  • Ben
  • Steven

    I notice that a image of a building, when tilt shifted to keep the vertical lines straight, has a horizontally stretched top that makes the building look weird and distorted.
    So the top of the building is bigger than the bottom of the building.
    How can this distortion be corrected to make the building look natural and normal after it has been tilt shifted?

  • Dino Proctor

    Hi Steven. I have just got the Canon 17mm ts-e and have noticed the same thing. I have been using Photoshop’s Perspective Warp tool to reasonable effect to “tame” any unruly optical anomalies towards the tops of buildings. It doesn’t need much usually, just a touch up.

  • Dino Proctor

    Very nice article, Dierk, very helpful for me, as I have just acquired the 17mm ts-e also. Good to see some shots from my country of birth (I live in Australia now).

  • Steven

    This looks a little better but the building is still wider at the top. It almost seems like correcting the tilt is introducing a different distortion that is more unnatural than the tilt looks.

  • Dino Proctor

    Thanks for your input, Steven. I agree that it still looks a little wide, especially on the right side of the building. But it is purely an optical illusion. If you put a straight edge to the sides of the building, you will see that both of the edges actually taper inwards, not outwards. I’m still not sure as to how to deal with it. I’ll keep researching and experimenting.

  • Trackback

    Coolest Photography Links of the Week: Tutorials, Reviews, Great Photography and More | Light Stalking

    […] The Magic of Tilt-Shift Photography With a Leica – tilt-shift lenses can be applied many different ways in the creation of images, but the most notable has to be how it can be applied to architecture. This great article covers the principles in how to utilize a tilt-shift lens on a Leica body, and it includes some absolutely incredible sample photographs of very dramatic interiors and exteriors. […]

    http://www.lightstalking.com/coolest-photography-links-of-the-week-tutorials-reviews-great-photography-and-more/

  • matt

    I have forgotten what it is called but usually that is caused if you shift to the max. I dont have the 17 mm but I have the old 24 TS. When you shift into the red line zone this can happen. If you stay with in the white lines, it wont. I got a little too shift happy when I got it because it made my job easier but in the end, I had t do all the work over again. Tough lesson.

  • Excellent article – beautiful photos. I’m posting an article and how to video on a portion of what you covered. Probably publishing tomorrow or the next day. I’m using a Canon FD TS 35mm f/2.8 S.S.C. lens from 1972. Would love to expand my TS line to something in the 17mm range though.

  • Adamjasonmoore

    I had the same problem, I simply bought an old EOS film body ($8) and set the aperture, put the camera on bulb and remove the lens before you release the shutter. From then on you can only need to repeat this if you want to shoot with a different aperture.

  • al

    Hi…….could you share how you compose your images. Do you use an external viewfinder? thanks Al