The “Shift” of a Tilt-Shift Adapter

I like doing photos of city scenes and tall buildings. There’s always the question of how “vertical” those buildings should look. Point the camera up and the vertical lines converge in the distance, making the building seem really tall. Sometimes that’s exactly what I want.

IDS Center, Minneapolis

But sometimes it’s not, and this is where a tilt/shift adapter comes into play – or at least the ‘shift’ part of it. We know it’s used for architectural shots where you want the buildings to look straight. But what does this old-school gizmo really do? Google finds many explanations. It “… alters the orientation of the plane of focus relative to the image plane.” It “… allows different portions of the image circle to be cast onto the image plane.” Or my favorite, from Hasselblad: “Simply put, the adapter expands the diameter of the projected image circle at the film plane.”

You may be left thinking “hmmm ok… but what can it actually do for me in a photo?” So here’s a real-world example where it made a difference.

This a shot of an old dock near my house, with the camera perfectly level. It’s nice, but the horizon right in the middle of the frame is boring, and that’s a lot of extremely dull sky on top. The interesting part, to me, is the late-day shadows on the old wood deck; I’d like more of that in the frame.


Squatting down for a low angle shot, while keeping the camera level, sort of works; there’s more wood, but the horizon is lost and there’s still a lot of empty sky doing nothing for the picture. And the viewer feels about 3 feet tall. I really want the camera back up where it was.


So I stand up, point the camera down, and get basically what I want in the frame. Not too bad but… the posts aren’t vertical anymore, they tilt out. It all feels a bit “off”, like you’re leaning forward and looking down. Which, in fact, I was.


Now, the magic. I stand where I want, get the camera level, and move the shift adapter down. Amazingly, it’s like I’m pointing the lens down but still somehow keeping it level. The posts are vertical, the dock feels solid and real. You’re standing up straight, looking at the horizon, but taking in a different field of view. This is the photo I wanted. And I couldn’t have gotten it without shifting.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.