A Beginner’s Guide to Free-Lensing

A Beginner’s Guide to Free-Lensing

2560 1440 Charlotte Davis

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.

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Charlotte Davis

Based in Bristol, transplanted from London, I have been taking photos since I could hold a camera (sometimes I still drop them, but the sturdy ones survive).

All stories by:Charlotte Davis
  • …..and all you need to complete your photo disaster is to put one of those weird blotchy part-exposed colour negative films in your camera. If you want to try something like this and get reverse Scheimpflug or similar interesting results, the best way is a second hand tilt shift lens from the likes of Hartblei or use a Lens Baby.


    • would you be so kind to share your masterpieces with us?

    • Haha. ‘Photo disaster’. That actually made me laugh out loud. Yes, I agree partly exposed film is generally a complete waste of money.
      But you can get some pretty good ethereal effects with this technique. Personally I prefer sharp, colourful, nicely composed shots, but it’s horses for courses.

  • I’ve heard about this but I’ve never had something where the effect is one which I think would work: but one day I’m sure I’ll find one! 😂

  • Hi Charlotte,

    Interesting article. I tried this a while back with my Olympus epl3 mirrorless and some mf lenses. To be honest it was tricky framing the shot while holding the camera in one hand and a separate lens in the other – you can’t turn the focus ring so you have to focus with your feet if you know what I mean.

    Even with an evf you don’t really know whether the image you get will be a good one or a dud until you’ve got it. But hey, us togs like a challenge….

    You’ve inspired me to try it again with my om20 and see what I get.


    • Thanks for the comment Richard – I know what you mean, I spent a lot of my time moving in very small increments trying to achieve focus. That’s part of the fun though – I’d love to see what you get with your OM-20!

  • My son the young photographer has made a whole genre’ of stuff like this. His is at night with neon, mirrors, prisms and all sorts of flare producing effects. Photography should be creative and personal.

  • Excuse me, but how can you take a photo if the lens is not attached to the camera? Especially if you’re shooting in Program mode and the camera is telling the lens to stop down to a certain aperture. Doesn’t make sense to me.

    • Most digital cameras will have an option to allow the shutter to release without a lens attached. Otherwise you can usually put the camera in full Manual mode and it will fire anyway. Hope this helps.

  • I’ve been aware of this on my own experimenting with various manual lens holding them in front of the sensor to test focus ect. However I’ve been terrified of actually taking a photo especially with my Sony ARll r because of damaging the camera! Apparently you’ve been able to take photos aside from the risks that come from exposing the sensor are there and other things to worry about? This looks like a fascinating technique however I’d like to hear more about risks and hazards of trying this on various cameras

    • The only real risk is that the sensor gets dusty. Obviously you’ll want to make sure nothing touches the sensor. And if dust does get on the sensor you should be able to blow it away with a blower. All of that said, you are right that there is a greater risk shooting this way than with a lens firmly mounted. If you’re really interested in doing this technique you could try with a cheaper film camera, or buy a cheap, old mirrorless camera that you won’t be afraid of treating poorly.

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Charlotte Davis

Based in Bristol, transplanted from London, I have been taking photos since I could hold a camera (sometimes I still drop them, but the sturdy ones survive).

All stories by:Charlotte Davis