Free-lensing. Have you heard of it? It sounds a little bit like something offered by a weirdo in slightly pungent harem pants, but there’s nothing to fear. If you own an interchangeable lens camera and a (preferably) manual lens, you’ve got everything you need to begin your path to extreme bokeh, selective focus, and light-leak enlightenment.
When you take a photo with a lens attached to your camera everything is flat and perfectly aligned. The film plane (or sensor) is perfectly vertically plumb in relation to the glass elements of the lens, which are also vertically plumb. This means that the plane of focus is also plumb – that is, everything that is the same distance from your film or sensor is in focus by the same degree. That’s why when we take a portrait and focus on the eye, usually the subjects other eye is also in focus (as is their face, which is usually on the same plane as the eyes). Objects closer to and further away from the point of focus will be blurry, but by turning the focus ring on the lens we’re able to move the plane of focus closer or further away as well. But with a fixed lens exposing images on a fixed plane, we’re not able to tilt the plane of focus away from plumb without special gear (or free-lensing, the technique I’m about to describe).
Simply put, free-lensing allows us to tilt the focus plane out of plumb. By tilting the lens we’re able to tilt the focal plane. This can skew the effect of focus in areas of an image that would usually be uniformly in or out of focus. For decades this technique, called tilt, has been achievable to large-format photographers or to photographers with special gear like a tilt-shift lens. For those of us without this gear, the effect is still easily achieved.
All you need are two steady hands, a detachable lens, and a camera. Set your aperture to its widest, then simply remove the lens from your camera, hold it a centimeter or so in front of the lens mount, and tilt the lens to focus an image onto your film (or sensor). If you’re using a digital camera, switch to Live View to get an exact view of how your image will turn out – you may also need to check your camera settings to enable you to trip the shutter while the lens is removed.
With a film SLR, look through the viewfinder as you would normally. Move the lens closer to and further from the body of the camera. Tilt it from side to side or up and down, and move yourself around in relation to the available light in the environment. Keeping one side of the lens close to the camera body, and opening the gap on the other side will allow light to flare into your image. All of this experimenting will allow you to hone in on your personal preferred technique, the free-lensing tricks that achieve your preferred aesthetic.
The fun of free-lensing is not in making perfect images – random focus, soft focus, weird bokeh and light leaks are all part of the appeal of the technique. Experiment to achieve different results by setting the aperture wider or narrower, and see how a different focal length of lens can change the final image. I’ve found that longer lenses can be more difficult to achieve focus, and that it’s not worth bothering with wideangle lenses much at all. While James’ images were made with a digital camera, my images included in this post were taken on a basic Cosina film SLR using a cheap 50mm lens and Agfa Vista 200 – proving that free-lensing really can be “the poor man’s tilt-shift.”
If you’re the type who takes great care with your gear, you might be thinking, “But what about dust? Surely taking your lens off and waving it around will invite disaster.” That can be true, so have a blower handy just in case. But as long as you’re sensible (don’t try this technique in a sandstorm), you shouldn’t have to worry too much. Give it a try and share your results with us in the comments section. Good luck.