Freelensing - Oli Sansom

11 February 2020

Freelensing is a nifty technique that you can use with any of your existing lenses to create magical blurred effects, as well as enabling you to control focus from front to back: something that is not normally possible to achieve without a purpose-made tilt-shift lens.

Freelensing requires a little patience and a lot of practice, but the results speak for themselves, and the process will give your existing lenses an amazing new lease on life. Perhaps best of all, you’ll get people looking at your images, going “what the hell?”. I’m a big believer in adding as many tools and techniques to your photographic arsenal as possible, to use in any given situation. Freelensing is unique, and simple once you get the hang of it.

I’m also a big believer in carrying a minimal amount of gear where possible: it’s why when I went to New York a year back, I was adamant I’d just use a single film camera with a fixed lens to keep things simple, so I could focus on taking photographs, not carrying gear.

Freelensing allows you to turn one lens into three: its original focal length, a tilt-shift lens, and a macro lens.

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So, what’s it all about?

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The concept is straightforward. Normally, the glass on your lens is directly parallel with your sensor: this means you have a plane of focus that is perfectly flat, for example: If you’re focusing on a person, everything that’s in front of them or behind them is blurred out. When you freelens, you remove the lens from the camera and turn it on an angle, which creates an angular plane of focus.

The result is typically seen in images that have a unique blur at the top and bottom, but it’s also possible to push past that and use it to intelligently focus on something in the foreground and something in the background: this is the exact reason why tilt-shift lenses were developed in the first place. In this way, we could have our person in focus, as well as something behind or in front of them, with the sides blurred instead.

There are features in Photoshop that attempt to emulate the technique, but in reality, they don’t even come close: as always, nothing beats the real thing.

A note about Canon and Nikon

Fortunately for Canon shooters, our lenses are by default set with their aperture wide-open when removed from the camera, which makes them perfect for freelensing. Nikon, however, has the aperture on their modern lenses close once they’re moved, which makes the technique impossible, without hacking your lens (easily enough done, however, we won’t go into it here).

In the meantime, if you’re a Nikon user you can simply use an older lens that has an aperture ring, which will allow you to manually keep the aperture open.

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So let’s get to it

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  1. Manually set your exposure beforehand, using your lenses fastest aperture. Once you remove the lens, it will default to that anyway.
  2. Set the focus on your lens to infinity - the technique does not work otherwise. There are a bunch of technical reasons why, but let’s be excellent to each other and save you a drawn out lesson in physics. After all were here to make kickass images, yeah?
  3. While firmly holding your lens and your camera body, rotate the lens all the way so that it disconnects and hits the end, but is still sitting snugly within the recessed lens mount.
  4. While firmly holding both lens and camera in separate hands, look through the viewfinder, pivot the lens, watch carefully where it’s focusing, and take your shot.


  • Always check before shooting that you’ve set your focus to infinity - it’s quite easy to accidentally knock the focus ring once you’ve removed the lens.
  • The effect of freelensing is most obvious when used with a longer focal length, but I use it predominantly on my 35L, 50L, and 85L canon lenses.
  • Try pivoting the lens at odd angles: up, down, left, and right are obvious choices, but when you pivot diagonally, you can create ethereal focus effects that seem to make the image appear 3D.
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  • To increase your chances of nailing focus, pivot the lens *past* where you want to focus on, then fire your shutter rapidly as you slowly rotate the lens past the desired point of focus. What you’re effectively doing is “Scanning” through the focus point whilst firing off shots. You might take 10 or so images, but you’re far more likely to nail focus than by simply relying on the viewfinder. This is a trick I developed that enables me to use this technique in demanding situations such as weddings and portrait shoots - situations where you need to be able to count on getting the shot.
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  • Further to the tips above, if you use live view, it’s exponentially easier to see what’s going on, rather than relying on the viewfinder.
  • Using freelensing, you can also turn any lens into a macro lens. Simply set your focus to infinity, remove the lens, and hold it further away from the camera towards the object you’re photographing. Be careful not to move the lens too far away though, or you’ll get unwanted vignetting at the edges of your frame.
  • When you remove the lens from your camera, you expose your sensor to potential damage. So avoid using the technique in dusty or sandy places, or anywhere where something might make contact with the sensor. I’m a bit of an anarchist with my gear: cameras are tools, there to be used in as many ways as possible - freelensing is a great technique, but just use it with caution and care.
  • Remember to always hold both your lens and your camera firmly: the last thing you want is to drop your expensive equipment.
  • Freelensing works brilliantly with the Fuji camera systems. I use it all the time on my XE-2, as well as my old film cameras. Try it with whatever camera you’re using.

More from Oli Sansom

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