Tilt-Shift Lenses - Focal Lengths, and Applications

August 29, 2017

Canon EOS photographers have had a series of tilt-shift lenses to choose from since the launch of the TS-E lenses in 1991.  For years, Canon offered TS-E lens choices at 24mm, 45mm, and 90mm.  Today, the range is even greater, and entirely populated by L-series lenses:

TS-E 17mm f/4L
TS-E 24mm f/3.5L II
TS-E 50mm f/2.8L Macro  NEW
TS-E 90mm f/2.8L Macro  NEW
TS-E 135mm f/4L Macro NEW

With the launch of three longer focal-length Canon TS-E lenses, there is now a full series of modern tilt-shift options for creative photographers and videographers.  This is the TS-E 135mm f/4L, the longest focal length to date in the Canon TS-E series.

With this variety of lens choices, you may be wondering, how does a photographer narrow his or her choices down?  And what types of subjects and applications are these different lenses useful for?  We’ll examine these questions in this article.

Of course, any comments about typical applications are starting points only.  We may not initially think of an ultra wide-angle lens like a 17mm as a lens for portraits, but in the hands of a creative photographer, there are no limits.  So don’t feel constrained by the comments which follow here; consider them more of a starting point for assessing the available choices in TS-E lenses. 

And, our comments will presume use on a full-frame digital SLR (such as a Canon EOS 5D or 6D series model, or an EOS-1D X model).  But keep in mind that all Canon TS-E lenses can absolutely be used on Canon EOS digital cameras with smaller APS-C size image sensors, such as the EOS 7D series, EOS 80D and similar models, and even EOS Rebel models.  As with conventional lenses, just multiply the lens’ actual focal length by 1.6 times, to get an idea of its effective focal length and coverage when mounted on an APS-C sensor camera.  (For example, the TS-E 50mm f/2.8L Macro on an APS-C camera would give coverage equivalent to an 80mm lens, if that 80mm were mounted on a full-frame camera.  50mm x 1.6 = 80mm effective coverage.)

A General Look At TS-E Focal Lengths

Some newcomers to lenses may tend to over-think the tilt-shift lenses, and how to assess the ways they can be used.  In its simplest form, it’s like selecting a conventional lens:  do you want a wide-angle perspective, a standard-lens perspective, or a telephoto perspective?  Answering that question alone will go a long way toward understanding the possibilities in the Canon TS-E lens line.

The basic optical characteristics — obviously, not speaking here of the tilting and shifting capabilities — of these lenses are essentially similar to conventional lenses.  Ultra-wide lenses, like the TS-E 17mm, will tend to exaggerate perspective distortion when moved close to nearby subjects.  Foreground objects tend to appear bigger, relatively speaking, than elements further back in the scene.  And of course, a lens like the TS-E 17mm or 24mm will tend to include a lot in the scene, with their expansive, ultra-wide coverage.  This is exactly the same as conventional ultra-wide lenses without tilt-shift capabilities.

Likewise, telephoto lenses will tend to want to throw foreground and background elements more out of focus, making it easier to focus sharply on only one element in a subject or scene.  And, they’ll tend to visually “compress” near and far elements, bringing distant parts of a scene visually closer.  Once again, this is very much like what experienced shooters would expect with a conventional telephoto lens, like a 100mm or 135mm design.

The point here is that what you know about lenses in general can be applied right away to tilt-shift lenses.  It can give you a starting point in deciding which lens(es) may be right for a particular project, or for the types of shooting you often find yourself doing.

Wide-Angle TS-E Lenses

Canon is well positioned here, with two modern tilt-shift designs.  The TS-E 17mm f/4L is one of the widest tilt-shift lens choices in the industry, and the 24mm lens gives a definite wide-angle “look,” but one that can arguably be applied in more situations.

TS-E 17mm f/4L:
Interior shooting is perhaps the first thing people think of with this superb, ultra wide-angle tilt-shift lens.  It’s outstanding for “getting everything in” when you’re in confined situations.  Even relatively small rooms and interior spaces can fit into its field of view.  This lens, and a full-frame camera, could be a tremendous entry point for great interior photos.  Compared to the 24mm TS-E lens, the 17mm is often the superior choice for capturing an entire typical-sized room in a typical home.  Especially if you shoot from a tripod, the lens’ shift function can ensure that vertical lines remain straight.  This alone can separate your images from those taken with a conventional ultra-wide zoom lens.

Many camera enthusiasts think of ultra-wide lenses like the 17mm tilt-shift as primarily for confined spaces and architecture.  That’s absolutely true, but they can help creative photographers with delivering great images in many other situations as well.

But the ultra-wide coverage can be a big asset for creative photography in general.  Combined with the ability to use tilt and shift, as needed, the TS-E 17mm f/4L lens can be a tremendous creative tool in the hands of a skilled photographer.  And that’s an important thing to remember about the Canon tilt-shift lenses — you don’t have to apply tilt and/or shift.  They’re added tools that you can use as needed, but these are tremendous, professionally sharp lenses when used with their movements locked and centered.

Landscape and scenic photography are yet other places where this lens and its tremendous wide coverage could be an excellent choice.  Here, the tilt function can be a real asset, enabling critical photographers to get expansive front-to-back sharpness, and yet still allow fast enough shutter speeds to minimize or even eliminate problems of flowers and foliage moving during shooting.

Here’s how that would work, with a tilt-shift lens.  Normally, a landscape shooter might feel he or she would need a small lens aperture to get sufficient depth-of-field, so they might set something like f/11 or f/16.  But at the low ISOs they’d want to work with, the resulting shutter speed might be unacceptably slow…like 1/30th  or 1/15th of a second.  With a tripod-mounted camera, this might not seem like a problem.  But if there are wind-blown flowers, grass, or other plants or subjects near the camera, they’ll blur those speeds — and that’s not the effect a landscape photographer typically wants.

With a tilt-shift lens, you can alleviate this, using the tilt function.  Focus on the nearest element (perhaps it’s a flower in the foreground).  Now, tilt the front of the lens forward, so that the top of the lens starts angling toward your distant background.  As you tilt, more things start to become similarly focused, and you can get front-to-back sharpness in the scene, without having to stop the lens way, way down.  Instead of needing f/16 to get sharpness, you might be able to get the front and back sharp at f/4!  Now, just do the math…instead of a slow speed like 1/15th of a second, at the same ISO, you now might get proper exposure at 1/250th of a second.  Blurs from wind-blown foreground objects would be a lot less of a problem!

TS-E 24mm f/3.5L II:
Still considered ultra wide-angle by many users, the 24mm TS-E lens has a distinctly different look and feel to its images, vs. the 17mm lens.  It’s still wide enough for many interiors, especially if you tend to work with broader spaces than rooms in typical homes.  And it might be a better choice for wide architectural exterior shots, giving a touch more natural perspective but preserving a wide-angle look.

For many shooters, ultra wide-angle coverage is too radical in some cases, whether shooting architecture, products, landscapes, or other subjects.  If you fall into this category, the 24mm TS-E lens is probably the go-to product for you.

This can be a supremely versatile lens for commercial work, photographing subjects ranging from flowers to cars and trucks.  Its tilting capability can completely change the way you work with extended sharpness, from front to back.  And, this can be combined with shifting, if and when you need perspective correction.

Likewise, this could be a tremendous option for scenic and landscape shooting, especially for shooters who prefer a little less “ultra” in their wide-angle photos.

Here’s an image taken with the TS-E 24mm f/3.5L II lens, using the tilt feature to extend the plane of sharpness from the flower in the foreground to the background.  This picture was taken with the lens wide-open, at f/3.5 — you can see that there’s still limited depth-of-field, with the area below the flower starting to blur…but the tilt extends the normally thin plane of sharpness from front to back.

But these are only the tip of the iceberg, in terms of potential applications for the wide TS-E lenses.  Creative shooters will find them a fantastic platform from which to create exciting images, whether of people, places or things.

Standard Lens Coverage

The TS-E 50mm f/2.8L Macro takes its place in the Canon TS-E line-up as the “standard lens” of the series.  While it’s easy to think of the wide-angle lenses as tools for architecture, interiors and landscapes, this is a lens that becomes a great fit for a different look in your shots:

  • Portraits
    The standard perspective and coverage, similar to the way the naked eye sees subjects, makes this a lens that can produce portraits and still include some surroundings — with the ability to perform tilts or even shifts as needed.
  • Products
    Commercial photographers are often called upon by clients to deliver still and video images that give an accurate visual depiction of a product — anything from a watch to a vehicle.  The natural perspective of the 50mm lens makes this easy to achieve, and you still have tilt movements to enhance what’s sharp in a final picture, as well as shifts if they’re needed to keep lines straight in a finished image.
  • Keep in mind that the new-for-2017 Canon 50mm, 90mm and 135mm TS-E lenses all have macro focus capability, and are able to manually focus from infinity to half life-size — you can fill the frame with a subject the size of a business card, using a full-frame camera.  In fact, for critical shooting for online product sales (craft websites, selling sites like eBay™ and similar online commercial sites), this lens could truly elevate a photographer above others who are using conventional lenses, without tilt-shift capabilities.
  • Landscape, scenic
    Again, Canon offers a tilt-shift lens that could easily fit the bill for landscape and similar images.  Many landscape photographers actually prefer a more normal or standard perspective in their images, so the 50mm option fits right in there.  It can be more effective at preserving the size and details of distant elements in a scene, unlike wide-angle lenses (which emphasize foreground objects, but distant elements quickly fall off in size and details).
    Great landscape photographers know that wide-angle isn’t the only way to capture these scenes.  Here, the 50mm TS-E lens, used wide-open at f/2.8, is tilted so the range of windmills remains sharp.  The 50mm tilt-shift lens is a versatile, professional option that provides a normal lens perspective, and can be used for many different types of subjects.
  • Close-up images
    We already spoke of the 50mm lens’ ability to focus down to 0.5x magnification (half life-size).  For users who extensively shoot close-up images of anything from flowers in botanical gardens to illustrating a process online, the combination of natural perspective, great sharpness, and control of both perspective and especially plane of sharpness makes this a very interesting addition to conventional lenses a photographer or videographer may already own.  We repeat again:  at its closest focus distance, you can fill the frame with a subject the size of a typical business card.
  • Architecture — details and longer-range exterior images
    The normal perspective of the 50mm lens may be exactly what’s needed to give the right look to homes and buildings that you can back away from sufficiently to get everything in.  Compared to the 24mm lens, there’s a huge difference in perspective, making the 50mm another excellent choice for critical architecture shooting.  It can also be a fantastic lens for interior details, giving control to preserve perspective of straight vertical and/or horizontal lines, as well as give focus control in situations where you want to shoot a flat subject at an angle, rather than straight on.

All these are appeal points which will vary from one photographer to the next, but the point is that the TS-E 50mm f/2.8L Macro lens can be ideal for the photographer who wants to begin with a natural perspective in his or her images.

Telephoto Lens Coverage

This is where many photographers begin to lose understanding of the potential power of tilt-shift lenses.  It’s relatively easy to explain how the wide-angle lenses are great for architecture and interiors, especially once a reader understands the shift function.  But a telephoto lens doesn’t at first seem a natural choice for buildings or interior spaces.  So what are they good for?  And why would you want tilting or shifting capability in a telephoto lens?

The following thoughts connect both the TS-E 90mm f/2.8L Macro lens, and the stunning TS-E 135mm f/4L Macro lens.  The longer focal length of the latter is the primary distinction between them, although some may desire the faster f/2.8 maximum aperture of the 90mm lens.

  • Portraits
    This may be the biggest potential application to consider for a tilt-shift lens.  Aside from being superbly sharp 90mm and 135mm lenses, the ability to use shift to alter the plane of what’s in sharpest focus — either expanding the range of sharpness, or conversely using “reverse tilt” and narrowing it to a small sliver of the subject — gives these lenses visual control which simply cannot be duplicated by conventional portrait-length telephoto lenses.
    This is a perfect example of “reverse tilt” — using the tilt feature of a TS-E lens to further minimize what’s in sharp focus, and in this case, restrict the plane of sharpness to the subject’s eyes.  This was taken with the 90mm TS-E lens, wide-open at f/2.8.  Tilt can also be used to extend the visible range of sharpness — for example, if the young lady was turned 45 degrees away from the camera, and the photographer wanted to have sharpness extend across her eyes and face, even at a wide lens aperture.
  • Family groups
    This market segment is becoming a huge money-making part of the portrait photography industry.  A key issue for anyone who does this professionally is depth-of-field control — how do you keep the entire family sharp?  With a tilt-shift lens, using the tilt capability can change the way you pose your groups, allowing precise control over that plane of sharp focus.  The 90mm lens in particular can allow the creative shooter the ability to step back, gain a telephoto perspective, and still not be restricted to a paper-thin plane of sharpness that every face in the scene has to be lined-up with.
  • Close-up and macro subjects
    Remember, these lenses can focus (manually — there is no AF on tilt-shift lenses) down to 0.5x magnification, or half life-size.  One of the biggest problems the close-up photographer has is controlling what’s in sharp focus across a small subject, and often, simply stopping the aperture down to f/22 or similar is not the final answer.  With a tilt-shift lens, the tilt feature can come to the rescue.  A photographer can decide upon a plane across the top of a collection of flowers, or along the surface of any small subject, which he or she wants at maximum sharpness.  Tilting the lens, sometimes in conjunction with rotating it to align the tilt with the precise plane of the subject, can give you that sharpness, and even permit staying at wider apertures in some cases.
  • As you’d probably expect, one benefit of the 135mm version is its greater working distance at close-focus distances, but either the 90 or 135mm lenses can be a terrific addition to the lens collection of critical photographers who shoot close-up pictures frequently.
  • Commercial and product shooting
    Not all products fall into the macro or small-subject category.  But a commercial or studio photographer may need a telephoto perspective, and still desire the controls that a tilt-shift lens provides to alter the plane of sharpest focus, or to preserve clean perspective if the camera otherwise would have to be aimed upward or downward.  Fashion, cars and motorcycles, large products in the studio…the possibilities are endless.  And remember, the TS-E 90mm and 135mm lenses are outstanding, sharp telephotos, whether or not the tilt and/or shift movements are applied.
  • Architectural details
    These can be great lenses for architectural photographers who need to capture details of an interior or exterior, as well as general wide views we normally think of in the context of architectural photography.  The new TS-E 135mm lens, in particular, may afford the critical working professional terrific opportunities for this type of shooting, with precise potential control over the plane of what’s sharp.  The shift capability adds to its abilities, allowing demanding shooters the ability to precisely control perspective in many instances, in ways that zooming-in with a conventional zoom or telephoto lens could not.


Tilt-shift lenses have long been professional problem solvers for photographers who need to go beyond what traditional lenses can deliver.  They may have started out aimed primarily at photographers shooting architecture, but Canon’s series of TS-E lenses has blossomed into a rich collection of lenses with powerful capabilities, in a host of different potential environments.  Even if you’re not a working commercial or portrait photographer, consider how the different focal length choices now would allow many different genres of photography to be captured differently, with added control that even the finest lenses without tilt-shift capability couldn’t deliver.

TS-E lenses aren’t simply for landscape or interiors, and they aren’t just wide-angle, either.  The addition of 50mm, 90mm and especially the 135mm lenses are a clear sign of Canon’s dedication to our customers, and expanding the visual potential each of them can aspire to.

The CDLC contributors are compensated spokespersons and actual users of the Canon products that they promote.


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