Freelensing is a relatively inexpensive way of getting the similarly unique affect of an expensive tilt-shift lens, where the focus plane is thrown out of whack with the added bonus of natural light leaks. While this isn't anything new, it's a technique that not everyone knows about, especially the way that I do it. Yes, I did purchase a brand new Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 D lens from B&H only to take it apart the minute it arrived...but that was the reason I purchased it. I had tossed around the idea of spending the money on a tilt-shift lens that would easily cost me over $1000 but after reading about the freelensing technique from my friend Sam Hurd, I figured I would give it a try. At the end of the day, it's the unique look that I'm going for, so if I could get that by breaking a $150 lens, lets do it.
Most photographers try to use this technique with a regular lens, which I had even tried before going to the extent of taking a lens apart. For those of you who have never tried it, your probably even questioning the basic idea of taking a photo without having a lens attached to the camera. Yes, your DSLR can do this. The technique will slightly work with an unbroken lens, regular lens, but not good at all. The problem is that the rear element needs to get closer to the sensor then the mount of the lens will allow. I tried this with a few different lenses, but I realized the only way to do this was to do a little re-constructing of a lens, so I hopped online and ordered up the $120 Nikon 50mm f/1.8....to take apart.
Three days later big brown showed up with my new lens and you would have thought that $1830.00 Nikon 85mm f/2.8D PC-E tilt-shift lens had arrived I was so excited. Screw driver in hand, I opened the box and like a surgeon I began to operate. I removed the mount, aperture ring, and while trying to not glue my fingers together, glued the aperture ring so it stays wide open. This wasn't by any means a ground breaking procedure, this technique of using a broken lens has been done before, but anytime you purposely break a lens right out of the box it just feels...well...a little odd. Once I had it stripped down, the rear element stuck out like a sore thumb and there was now room for it to get closer to the sensor. If anything, now I would have to be careful not to hit the mirror with it.
Once the glue was dry I grabbed my D800, dismounted my 24-70mm f/2.8 that was on there, made sure it was on Manual Mode, then turned on Live view and started moving the broken 50mm lens around in front of the sensor. WOW, that did it, getting the rear element closer to the sensor was the trick. Now, getting something in focus...that would take a little practice. I set the focus ring to infinity and moved the rear element back and forth from the sensor to get the focus I wanted.
The first things I noticed were...
- The focus plane just goes really out of whack, which is what I wanted, but it's hard to control at first. In order to get the results that I wanted from this, I would need to be able to nail the focus on the one spot I wanted in focus, and get some control of the focus plane.
- After some practice I was able to start getting focus up close and further away. It's difficult to do, but moving the lens closer and further away from the sensor before tilting it seemed to help.
- Light leaks are a really cool affect, when they are controlled. It was hard not over doing the light leaks and getting too much light in was something I needed to watch out for.
- If you like bokeh and razor thin DOF...this will blow your mind.
- It's great for Macro work with a little practice, as you can see in a couple sample shots below.
- There is a lot of vignetting, which just helps put the focus on the subject when done right.
- DUST! I needed to order some sensor wipes, dust was going to be an issue no matter how hard I tried to avoid it, but as long as I'm at least careful it shouldn't be that big of a deal. After freelensing for over a week the dust still wasnt that bad, and only needed air to clean the sensor.
- Yes, this is a lot different that using a Lensbaby. A Lensbaby gives a tiny sweet spot in focus, one point of focus, and blurs out everything else. Throwing off the focus plane is much different. The same difference between a tilt shift lens and Lensbaby, a line of focus compared to a spot of focus.
So was my freelensing project successful? I think so. Is it something I can use on every shoot or regularly for Cass Imaging? No. Is it something I can toss in my bag and bring with me to sneak in a few shots with certain clients that would appreciate a little creativity and uniqueness? Absolutely. I originally wrote this article in April of last year, and still use and love this technique today.
No...the look this technique gives isnt for everyone, and I'm sure there are going to be a lot of you scratching your heads still at the fact that I broke a brand new lens. Overall...I couldn't be happier with my decision. I use this technique not only on personal shoots, but also engagement shoots, and even weddings, giving me a unique look that my clients love. It's a lot of fun to do, and usually once I explain to my clients what I'm doing, they are more than happy to have a little patience while I get my shot.
There are a couple different techniques that I use to add a little creativity to my shoots, such as the Brenizer Method and this freelensing technique, depending on the client. It may surprise you, but for the most part they end up loving those shots in the end, and its the final product they are concerned with, no matter how you went about getting the shot. Whether it be a broken $120 lens or a $2000 tilt-shift lens. Creativity goes a long way in photography, and setting yourself apart from everyone else with a camera...or cell phone...is what you should be striving for. You want to stand out, you want to separate yourself, you want to have people recognize your work and know that a photograph is yours without seeing a watermark with your name. Yes, this is difficult to do, especially in today's world of smart phones and Instagram, but the more techniques and tricks you have in your bag the better. The more you can do with an image in-camera as opposed to in photoshop is huge.
I hope you enjoyed the article and I definitely recommend giving freelensing a try if you have a few extra bucks to spend on a lens to break. A used 50mm f/1.8D can be found on Craigslist for about $100 if not cheaper, it doesn't have to be brand new. If you have any questions please don't hesitate to ask, I would be more than happy to help you out with this. It definitely takes practice, but so does everything else before you are good at it. Here are a few shots I took using the freelensing technique. I had originally wrote this article almost a year ago, and had it published at several different sites, but I've recently started getting more emails on it again. I wanted to update it with new shots and post it back up for anyone that may have missed it.
Thanks for reading!