What is freelensing photography, and how can you use it to capture gorgeous images?
Freelensing is a powerful creative technique; it can add diversity to a portfolio, and when used carefully, it generates some truly stunning effects.
I’ve been doing freelensing for years, and in this article, I share everything I’ve learned – from the absolute basics to advanced tips and advice. I also include plenty of freelensing example photos along the way, so you know exactly what the technique can produce!
Ready to become a freelensing photography master? Let’s do this!
What is freelensing photography?
Freelensing is a creative technique that involves detaching the lens from the camera body and focusing by moving and tilting the lens in different directions.
What does this do to your photos? When you manually tilt and move the lens, the plane of focus tilts with it; therefore, the area of focus is no longer parallel to the sensor.
In other words, you get both near and far objects selectively in focus. Take a look at the photo displayed below; do you see how leaves in the foreground and some leaves in the background (look in the bottom right corner) are in focus, while the rest of the scene is blurred? That’s thanks to the power of freelensing.
When should you use freelensing?
Freelensing is a fantastic creative technique, and I recommend you try it out whenever you get the chance, regardless of your subject. Who knows what images you might produce?
That said, certain subjects do lend themselves to freelensing. For instance, macro scenes – flowers and leaves, in particular – look amazing in freelensed shots; the selective focus creates a stunning bokeh background, and the subject colors really pop.
And people are also great freelensing subjects. You can selectively focus on a subject’s head, for instance, while letting their body blur into oblivion. Or you can focus on an outstretched hand, or an eye, or even a strand of hair. Freelensing lets you highlight certain features while blurring others, so use it to your advantage!
One more suggestion:
Try freelensing when shooting landscapes. Play with the selective focus, let the foreground or the background blur, and just see what you get. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t – but it’s always fun!
How to do freelensing: the step-by-step process
Freelensing is pretty simple to pull off, and it doesn’t require much gear, either. Here’s how it works:
Step 1: Gather the right equipment
I’ve found that freelensing works best with lenses in the 50mm range. Longer lenses make focusing unnecessarily difficult, and shorter lenses offer less obvious freelensing effects. (That said, you can always try working with a 35mm or an 85mm lens and see what you get; this is creative photography, and it’s all about experimentation!)
Note: Because freelensing involves holding the lens detached from the camera, there is always the risk that you might drop something. Therefore, I like to use lenses that are on the cheaper side; a Canon 50mm f/1.8 is my go-to glass.
The camera model isn’t important – as long as it takes interchangeable lenses – but I tend to use my backup body. Detaching the lens from the camera does increase the risk of dust and other debris getting inside and onto the sensor, so I prefer not to work with my higher-end equipment. I’d also encourage you to use a DSLR, not a mirrorless camera; the DSLR mirror will protect the sensor from the outside elements.
Step 2: Prepare the lens and camera
Begin by putting your lens on the camera as you normally would. Turn on the camera and set it to Manual mode, then choose whatever aperture you like. (When the lens is taken off the camera, the aperture setting will automatically reset.) Focus the lens on a distant object.
Note: With some camera makes and models, if you hold down the depth of field preview button while removing the lens, the aperture will lock on your desired setting. Test and see if your camera has this capability.
Make sure that your camera is not set to Live View. Then turn off the camera. Detach the lens, and carefully hold it in front of the camera body, just before the mirror/sensor. Turn the camera back on.
Step 3: Move the lens and take some photos
At this point, the fun begins! There are a few things to consider:
First, the farther you move the lens away from your camera, the greater the magnification.
Second, tilting the lens left, right, up, and down adjusts the parts of the scene that are in and out of focus. It takes experimentation to get the hang of this, so don’t be afraid to take quite a few images when first starting out.
Third, any gaps between the lens and the camera allow for light leaks. This can result in very interesting effects (but be careful not to overdo it!). To minimize light leaks, cup your hand tightly around the lens.
So find a subject, take some images, and see what you think. If you don’t get great results at first, that’s okay. Mastery comes with practice!
Pro tip: When freelensing, your camera’s metering system is essentially useless. I often take a few experimental shots, incrementally increasing the shutter speed (and checking the image on the LCD), until I reach an exposure I like.
5 tips for freelensing photography
Now you’re familiar with the basic freelensing process – but how can you take your images to the next level? Here are a few tips:
1. Use freelensing to create spectacular backgrounds
One of my favorite things about freelensing is that it can generate stunning backdrops. The shifted plane of focus causes greater subject/background separation, and the bokeh effect is often impressive.
Try shooting into the light (with the subject backlit):
You can also work with a shaded subject, especially if the background is lit by direct sunlight:
2. Find a point of focus
Freelensing can be an exhilarating experience; often, subjects that you’ve shot a hundred times will seem brand new. But don’t get so caught up in the uniqueness of freelensing that you forget to create strong compositions!
My advice? Find a focal point. This might be a flower, a rock, some leaves, or a person’s eye. Use this point of focus to anchor your shot. Carefully tilt your lens so the point of focus is tack sharp. (It’s okay to let the rest of the scene turn blurry!).
3. Use freelensing to isolate a subject from clutter
Adding to the previous tip:
One of the advantages of freelensing is that you can create order in an apparently cluttered scene. Simply tilt your lens, and a sliver of the scene will turn sharp, while the rest blurs away.
So seek out the type of images that would have previously felt chaotic. Find a main subject (see above!), then tilt the lens so that it – and nothing else – is rendered in focus.
For instance, this leaf scene looked far too busy until a bit of freelensing helped blur out the messy background:
4. Use light leaks for artistic effects
When used right, light leaks can be so beautiful. Here’s an example of a heavily light-leaked image:
Remember, the more you pull the lens away from the camera, the more the light leaks will appear in your photos. You can adjust the light leak position by shifting the lens-camera gaps or by covering up select gaps with your hands.
And if you want really strong light leaks, try shooting some backlit subjects!
5. Use freelensing for macro-level magnification
As I mentioned above, the more you pull the lens away from the camera, the greater the image magnification.
And while it’s a bit unorthodox, you can use this to get close-ups of macro subjects.
Now, there is a caveat: The more you pull out the lens, the softer your images will appear. But I actually like this effect; it gives freelensed close-ups a very ethereal look:
Freelensing photography: final words
Freelensing is fun, it’s creative, and it can be an excellent addition to your toolkit. By detaching the lens from the camera body, you can create unique backgrounds and artistic light leaks while emphasizing the main subject.
So grab an old camera and a 50mm lens. And have some creative fun!
Now over to you:
What freelensing do you plan to do? What subjects will you photograph? Share your thoughts in the comments below!