What Is a Tilt-Shift Lens? (And How to Use It for Architecture Photography)


Tilt-shift lenses are a specialist photography lens which allows you to move the glass optic of the lens without moving your camera.

They are a staple of the architecture photographers bag and if you have read my previous post on my favourite lens you will know I’m a big fan of them.

What is a Tilt-Shift Lens?

A tilt-shift lens is a lens which can move it’s optics relative to the image sensor in all directions.  

So instead of having to move your camera you can simply shift the lens around while the camera stays fixed in order to get a larger image or to avoid issues such as parallax (where part of the object appears larger or distorted) in your photograph.

What is Tilt?

When you tilt the lens, the optic is moved so it is no longer parallel to the image sensor.

Tilt Shift Lens - Tilt

This works on the Scheimpflug Principle which allows you to change the focus of the subject, getting both the foreground and the background in focus and changing the depth of field of the image.

It’s great for producing effects such as making a selective blur or faking something looking miniature but not massively useful for architecture photography.

What is Shift?

Shift moves the optics of the lens but keeps it parallel to the camera’s sensor, this allows you to move the lens to take images without getting the issues of parallax you get with a standard lens. 

Tilt Shift Lens - Shift

This is great for architecture photography as it allows you to shift the lens up rather than tilting the camera and keep all the walls of a building straight.

If you’re combining multiple photographs into a large panorama or can’t fit it all into one image, using shift allows you to do both without moving the camera which makes it miles easier in post production.

How to Use a Tilt-Shift Lens?

Using a tilt-shift lens is simple.

(A tripod is a massive benefit here as it allows you to fix your camera and move the lens instead.)

Once your camera is fixed in position, the tilt and shift function are controlled by the knobs on either side of the lens and once you have the lens in the position you need, you simply lock the knob, focus the lens and take the image as you usually would.

Having a camera with live view (and even better,, focus peaking)  is a massive benefit here so that you can zoom in and make sure that your image is pin sharp.

Advantages of a Tilt-Shift Lens

The biggest benefits to architectural photographers of using tilt-shift lenses is the ability to keep the camera fixed and shift the lens up to capture all of a building, while also avoiding the parallax effects you will get with a standard lens.

There is another benefit to architectural photographers in that you can create larger images than your sensor would otherwise allow you by shifting the lens around to capture multiple images and combining them afterwards in post production.

So if you’re stuck in a very tight corner you can get a wider image by combining multiple images into a panoramic.


This is an example of shifting the lens in all directions to capture a wider image.

If you’re into creative effects such as using the tilt to adjust the focus and make objects about miniature then a tilt-shift is a very easy way to achieve this without spending ages on post production.

Disadvantages of a Tilt-Shift Lens

Unfortunately for all the benefits you get from using a tilt-shift lens there are also a couple of disadvantages.

Firstly, all tilt-shift lenses are manual focus, so if you’re looking to use them for anything fast paced it may not be the lens for you.

The biggest sticking point for most is the cost, currently the Canon versions retails at £2k each so they’re a massive chunk of cash to spend on a single lens which stops many photographers getting into the market for one.

Recommended Tilt-Shift Lenses

Canon 17mm f/4L

The canon 17mm is the widest tilt shift lens available on the market, offering a field of view of 104 degree and giving 6.5 degrees of tilt and 12mm of shift.

There are 18 elements in 12 groups which means there is a decent amount of weight to this lens, coming in at 820g.  

It does also feature dust and weather sealing meaning Canon say it can “withstand regular use in the most testing environments”.

Nikon PC Nikkor 19mm f/4E ED

The Nikon counterpart is a few millimetres longer than the Canon version, so if you’re looking for the widest image and you’re yet to purchase a camera body and don’t want to buy adapters, Nikon may not be the way for you.

For most people though 19mm, or a field of view of 97 degree, will be plenty wide enough.

It offers 7.5 degrees of tilt and 12mm of shift as well as the ability to rotate the shift part of the lens 90 degrees to the left and right, with click stops every 30 degrees..

17 groups in 13 elements, including 2 aspherical elements and 3 extra low dispersion (ED) elements produce amazing image quality.

Samyang 24mm f3.5cED AS AMC

Samyang, which trades as Rokinon in some countries, offers a third party 24mm f3.5 ED AS AMC.

If you’re tight on cash this comes in at just under half the cost of the Canon and Nikon offerings.

So if you’re not particularly bothered which brand is stamped on your lens and only need the option of 24mm, this could be a good place to start looking.

Offering 8.5 degrees of tilt and 12mm of shift, this lens is going to be able to get you out of the tightest of situations.

Hopefully this post has given you a better of understanding of what a tilt shift lens is and how you can use it for your architecture photography.

Are you planning to buy a tilt shift lens or maybe you already own one? If so put some of the ways you use it in the comments below.

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