Shifting the Landscape: Landscape Photography with a Tilt-Shift Lens

by Rob Gappert

There are a lot of important elements that go into having a successful landscape photograph. Of course, you have to have great composition, beautiful light, an interesting scene, and all that. But, above all, the image needs to be sharp. Sharpness is paramount in landscape photography, and it’s what ultimately led me to the tilt-shift lens.

For several years my go-to landscape lens was the Canon 17-40mm F/4L. Don’t get me wrong, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this lens. My 17-40 and I have been through a lot together. We’ve seen some amazing things and made some beautiful photographs, but I got to a point where I demanded more. I decided to get more serious about my landscape photography and to do so, I needed a serious lens. The 17-40 just lacked the sharpness I desired and had come accustomed to with my prime lenses.

After a ton of research and talking to people, I eventually decided on the Canon TS-E 24mm F/3.5 L II Tilt-Shiftlens as my new companion. Moving to this lens was a big commitment. Not only was it a hefty financial investment, but you have to be willing to change your workflow. The sharpness of this lens is what initially caught my attention, but the shift capabilities added a whole new creative dimension. Another thing to keep in mind with tilt-shift lenses is that they are manual focus only. This scared me a bit, but it quickly become a part of my workflow with no issue.

When I shoot landscape with the tilt-shift, I typically go into it with the intention it will be a panorama. A lot of architecture and real estate photographers use tilt-shifts because they allow you to eliminate the distortion created by wide-angle lens. That same shift functionality also allows you to easily and seamlessly create panoramic photographs.

The tilt-shift lens rotates on it’s mount, which allows you to shift vertically or horizontally. When shooting, I always start with the middle shot (no shift). This is important because this is the image you need to set your exposure with. When the lens is shifted it restricts the amount of light entering the camera. This means you won’t get an accurate reading with your camera’s light meter if the lens is shifted. It is for this same reason you want to be careful not to shoot your shifted frames at the extremes. You can control how much shift you apply to the lens. If you apply the maximum amount, you will notice a pretty strong vignette on the outermost edge. So it’s good practice to back off a bit or just crop it out in post processing.

Below are examples of how I approach a vertical and horizontal panoramic. I do all the stitching in Adobe Lightroom (Photo/Photo Merge/Panorama)

Vertical Shift

Horizontal Shift

Now you can take this a step further. Like I said, I bought this lens because of it’s sharpness. Typically, I shoot with an aperture of f/11 or f/16 and I get great results. But, if I have a scene in front of me that I’m pretty excited about, and I know there is a good chance it will end up as a large print, I will focus stack the shots as well. This simply means that for every frame I shoot for the panorama, I also shoot multiple shots at different focus points. This will guarantee I get a final image that is absolutely sharp from front to back. For example, in the dock picture below, the middle frame I took a shot focused at the closest point to me and another about 3/4ths of the way into the scene. I don’t get too scientific about it, I just pick a couple points at varying distances. I do this for the other two pieces of the panorama as well.

When post-processing focus-stacked panoramas I use both Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop. Here is a brief overview of my workflow:

  1. From Lightroom I export the frames with different focus points to Photoshop as layers.
  2. I combine the layers into a focus stacked image by first aligning the layers (Edit/Auto- Align Layers) and then combining them using Photoshop’s Auto-Blend (Edit/Auto-Blend Layers)
  3. Then I merge the layers and save the image back to Lightroom. I do this same process for all three frames of the panorama.
  4. Typically, I do all my panoramic stitching in Lightroom, UNLESS I’ve done focus-stacking. For some reason, Lightroom doesn’t like to merge these images. So, once I have all the focus stacked frames in Lightroom, I export them all back to Photoshop for stitching. (Photo/Edit In/Merge to Panorama in Photoshop)
  5. Once the photos are stitched, I save them back to Lightroom for all other post-processing.

Focus-stacked panoramas can be a bit of work to shoot. They can also take some post-processing time. But it’s so worth it, I promise! Here are three examples of images I created by using the focus stacking technique mentioned above. (Click the thumbnail to see a bigger version).

The images in this gallery were all taken with my tilt shift lens, but without the added focus-stacking effort.


Rob Gappert

I love my family, I love Montana, and I love photography. And according to my wife, they are not always necessarily in that order… I enjoy sharing my experience through my photographs. I primarily shoot nature and landscapes, but I’ll pretty much a take a picture of anything that catches my eye. You will see by looking at my work, that I like bold, vibrant colors. I try to photograph, what I would consider, “untouched nature”. I struggle to incorporate people in my images, it’s a problem I’m trying to overcome. I love to travel, but I don’t believe vacations are for rest and relaxation. I’ve found that the great majority of tourists tend to sleep in, so it’s really not that difficult to find solitude in the most beautiful of places. I have always been and always will be a follower of light.