The art of freelensing is one that is useful to have in any photographer’s toolbox. Knowing how to use your lenses off your camera will expand their use into tilt shift and macro substitutes.
I found myself really embracing this technique when I went on a bike ride and only had my 24mm lens on my camera. I ended up at a local garden and wanted to photograph some of the flora, but was severely limited by my poor lens choice.
Knowing I could take my lens off to get a macro effect, I thought I might as well experiment and ended up loooooooving the results.
As an aside: poor lens choice has pushed me to think creatively on more than one occasion. Working within constraints can lead to real innovation.
What is Freelensing?
The basic idea of freelensing is simple: remove your lens from your camera and hold it in front of your camera instead of having it mounted to the camera body.
You literally free your lens from the constraints of the mount and have the liberty to play with it. You can move it further from your body, tilt it so the glass isn’t parallel to the film, or even turn the lens around and have the mount facing toward your subject.
If you love to experiment, this is actually all you need to know, but if you want a few more tips, keep reading.
Types of Freelensing
I always think of freelensing having two purposes, and they aren’t mutually exclusive.
I will use freelensing in order to have macro capabilities, to have tilt-shift capabilities, or to have both. (And usually if I am using it for macro photography, I also tilt the lens, because why not?)
What is Macro Photography?
Macro photography is having the ability to get very close to your subject, which is often used for photographing subjects like flora, isolating features in a portrait, or any sort of detail you want to capture.
Tilt-shift technically has two components. The first is tilting the lens so the lens plane is no longer parallel to the image plane, thereby creating selective focus. The second is shifting the lens, by moving it along a parallel plane to the image plane, for the purposes of decreasing image distortion for wide angle lenses, or keeping parallel lines from converging in architectural photography.
When I freelens, I am using the tilt-shift capability solely for the tilt function
Normally, when we photograph with a lens on, the image plane, lens plane, and focal plane are all parallel to one another.
When we tilt the lens plane, not only is it no longer parallel to the image plane, but the focal plane is no longer parallel to the image plane, and creates a wedge-like shape.
This wedge shape allows for selective focus of an object along the same plane as nearby objects, which is just a lot of fun for those of us who are bokeh junkies.
For focusing, if I’m doing macro and regular freelensing, I focus as close as possible. If I’m reverse freelensing for macro, I focus to infinity.
When you are holding your lens out from your camera body, you are going to let in ambient light leak onto the frame, giving you light leaks.
The further out you hold your lens, or tilt a side of it, the more light you’ll be letting into the camera body.
Some people will try to cup their lens to block out light, but you can also just let the leaks do their thing.
Because of this, the dehaze slider in Lightroom will become your best friend. (If it isn’t already. It’s been my best friend for a while now.) It will take those light-washed frames and bring in detail and color where there wasn’t much before.
I always use prime lenses for freelensing, partially because that’s what I use almost exclusively, but also because you are going to want to work with the widest aperture possible.
Make sure you are using a lens that opens up to the widest aperture when removed from the camera. For Canon autofocus lenses, they do this automatically when detached from the camera body. Whereas Nikon autofocus lenses automatically close up when detached from the camera body.
So if you only have Nikon G-series lenses, you actually won’t be able to freelens. If you have something like D-series lenses, you will just have to unlock the aperture ring so that you can manually open up the aperture.
If you only work with manual cameras, all of your lenses have a moving aperture ring, so you’re good. Just be sure to make the aperture as open as possible.
The biggest bummer is the lens mount will get in the way of your ability to tilt the lens in certain directions, and will also provide a buffer from getting any part of your lens as close as possible to the mount.
I have heard of people buying a cheap lens to break off the mount, but I haven’t been brave enough to take this step myself. Just know it’s an option if you get reallllllllyyyyy into freelensing.
Also note freelensing cannot be done with many leaf shutter cameras, since the shutter is often in the lens, and if your shutter is floating off your camera, you’re not going to end up with an image, but a completely light-drenched frame.
Focal Lengths and Their Different Effects
Different focal lengths will give you different effects when freelensing and can be used for different purposes.
Wider Angle (24mm/35mm)
This is the lens I had on my camera when I decided to freelens for the macro capabilities.
I opened up the aperture, focused to infinity, detached my lens, held it a bit away from the body, and tilted until I got my subject in focus.
Is this fussier than traditional macro lenses? 100%.
Is it nice to know I have a macro lens on me at all times that I can also get a tilt effect from? Also 100%.
Longer Length (85mm/135mm)
These lenses are a bit more versatile for freelensing.
You can pop them off your camera and use them as a macro just as I do with my wider angle lens, BUT the interesting part is you can’t get as close of a macro shot as you can from the 24mm lens.
BUT, you can also turn the longer lens around and REVERSE FREELENS to get a tighter macro shot.
Yes, because taking your lens off your camera isn’t wild enough, you can literally turn it backwards and go to town.
Once again, the rules remain, definitely keep your lens at its widest aperture and focus to infinity.
I will say this technique makes for a rather plastic lens look, which might or might not be your cup of tea. It’s almost like you’re shooting through saran wrap.
The interesting part about the longer length lenses is it’s easier to focus further and get a tilt-shift effect on objects that aren’t inches away from your lens. (Try focusing on something more than a few inches away with the 24mm and it’s just not gonna happen.)
You still won’t be able to focus to infinity, but it appears the longer the focal length of the lens and the closer you can get your lens to the mount, the further out you can focus.
Focusing to Infinity and the FFD
The reason you can’t focus to infinity is because you are tampering with the focal length of the lens and the flange focal distance (FFD).
Focal length is calculated by determining the distance between the point of convergence of your lens to your film when the lens is focused to infinity.
The flange focal distance is the distance from the lens mounting flange (the metal rings that lock the lens to the camera) to the film at which clear focus can be achieved for all focal lengths when focused to infinity.
Since your lens is now off the camera, both of these lengths are being stretched past their capacity if you’re using lenses that were made for the camera body.
I recently discovered that my Nikon F-mount lenses have a slightly longer FFD than lenses for the body of my Canon AE-1. The mount is also smaller, so I can quite easily nest the lens closer to the lens mount of that camera.
Because of this, I can focus to infinity by mixing and matching the Nikon lenses with the Canon body.
I could also use my Pentax 645N lenses with my Nikon, but the FFD is so much longer for the Pentax lenses that I’d have to hold the lens quite a bit further out from the Nikon body, which lets in lots of light leaks.
Just know that since you’re not actually mounting the lens ON the camera, the sky’s the limit for mixing and matching, as long as the aperture opens up.