So, your bokeh is boring and your ƒ1.4 isn’t giving you the creative pop you crave? I introduce to you a whole new world of lens wizardry.
Certainly not a new concept, but definitely a controversial one, the fascinating (and somewhat nefarious) tactic of freelensing is on the rise in the world of professional photography. We’re addicted to the novelty, the danger, the relative uncertainty of the oh-my-god-I-just-might-get-dust-on-my-sensor but the shot will be more than worth it.
That’s what we live for, after all. Getting the shot. We aim to separate ourselves from the countless others by doing something daring.
“Hard Luck Woman” by Indienate via Flickr
Published with permission
What is Freelensing?
What is this composition-shattering technique that’s bringing the previously unfocused to the fore, and making these shots so much more appealing? Simple. Freelensing is when the photographer holds the lens manually in front of the sensor.
But what do you mean?! The lens isn’t attached to the camera?
What occurs when the lens is removed from the mount, and held away from the sensor at a close range is extraordinary. The flatness of the focus that your camera is supposed to ensure disappears. You are thrust into a world of uncertainty from which there’s no return. Well, I’m being a bit dramatic. There is a way to focus while simultaneously not focusing, resulting in a tilt-shift effect that’s seemingly from the space age. And, what’s more, if you flip the lens around, you’ll get a macro effect.
Freelensing opens up a whole new world of versatility, and turns one lens into three. And although this jerry-rig won’t quite have the power of a true tilt-shift or macro lens, it will do in a pinch.
Photo by Joey Phoenix photography
Tips to remember
1. Use prime lenses
For freelensing, I always use a 50mm, and this seems to be the standard amongst those who do it regularly. Feel free to try narrower (wider has an adverse effect), but keep it prime. Zooming in and out will just make it easier for dust particles to get in through the cracks.
2. Keep the lens close
Keep the lens tight in to the camera to have more control over focus points. Too far away, and the whole scene will be a blur.
3. Manually set everything
With the lens disconnected, the camera is not going to be able to communicate with the lens as easily as it would if they were connected. Set everything beforehand to make sure everything is perfect, turn off autofocus, and then dismantle.
4. Adjust the “tilt”
Depending upon the angle at which you hold the lens, the focus points of the images will change. Move it around to capture different effects, and be amazed by the results.
Photo by Joey Phoenix photography
5. Embrace the blur
The whole point of freelensing is to get an epic blur that will make your image fascinating. Putting the focal point on an unexpected area of the frame with the blur prevalent will make it a better shot. So don’t fear it; embrace it. You’re creating art.
Disconnecting the lens from the mount and holding it directly in front of the camera gives you a tilt-shift effect, but if you flip the lens around, you have instant macro capabilities. Hold the lens tight against your camera (the blur will be extreme regardless), and get as close to the subject as possible. The detail will be extraordinary, and you didn’t have to pay a penny for another lens.
Photo by Joey Phoenix Photography
Warning! Freelensing is not for the faint of heart. Handling your equipment incorrectly—even in the name of art—can lead to disaster for your camera. When you disconnect your lens from the camera body, you are exposing the mirror and the sensor to the elements: dust, moisture, tiny insects, etc. Unfortunately, once this stuff finds its way inside, it likes to stay there.
To keep your camera safe and avoid costly or time-consuming cleaning, there are a few things you should consider.
1. Minimize the amount of time the lens is disconnected
When using this technique, you need to be deliberate in your actions. Don’t go several minutes with the lens disconnected from the mount. Shoot a handful of shots, reconnect the lens, check to see what you’ve got, and then, if necessary, disconnect again. Some photographers go into paroxysms if their lens is separated from the body for more than a second. You don’t need to be quite this careful, but you do need to realize the risk involved.
2. Don’t freelens in dusty or damp environments
Once again, it all comes down to risk. If you’re in a studio or outside on a nice day (and not on a construction site, in the swamplands, or photographing the Holi Festival) you can safely freelens without worrying about what will filter through the opening. If you’re on the cusp of the Sahara or in your grandpa’s dusty tool shed, you may want to think twice about disconnecting.
3. Keep handy cleaning tools on hand
You should have this stuff with you regardless—at minimum microfiber cloths and an air blower—but if you’re going to be freelensing, you need to be proactive about keeping your gear clean. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of expensive sensor repair.
4. Use the neck strap
Don’t try to hold too many things at once! Hold the lens with one hand, the shutter release with the other, and let your neck hold the weight of the body in case your hand slips. The last thing you want is cracked glass in the name of a single photograph.
If you’ve taken all of these things into consideration, then you’re ready to go, all risks aside.
So live dangerously; freelens a little.