Freelensing: Technique and Tips

I’m super excited to talk about the creative technique of freelensing this week! It's one of my absolute favourite ways to great creative behind the lens. I came across this technique years ago when I began to dabble in creative photography, and it has stuck with me.

The very first lens I purchased, beyond my kit lens, was a Nikkor 50mm 1.4. Over time, as I expanded my lens collection, my 50mm started to collect dust. I contemplated selling it until I discovered that I could freelens with it. Freelensing is called the “poor man’s tilt-shift” because it captures images with a similar look. When a photographer captures a picture with a lens attached to the camera body, she can control the depth of field or focal plane only through aperture choice. Freelensing disrupts the plane of focus because the lens is detached from the camera body. This technique results in a thin line of focus that is not necessarily only horizontal and extreme blur throughout the rest of the image.

Here are some tips to help you get freelensing:

1. Start with a 50mm

As mentioned, I use my Nikkor 50mm 1.4 when freelensing. You can freelens with most lenses; however, the 50mm is said to be one of the easiest lenses to use when photographing with this technique. This lens is also smaller, and it's manageable to handhold up to the body of your camera. The weight of larger glass could be more difficult.

ISO 400, 50mm, Freelensed, 1/1000SS

ISO 400, 50mm, Freelensed, 1/1000SS

2. Set exposure prior to detaching your lens

Before you detach your lens from your camera body set your exposure using the widest aperture for your lens, for example, when I use my 50mm 1.4 to freelens I set my aperture to 1.4 then balance my exposure settings to attain a well-exposed image. Since I’ll be shooting very wide open, I usually have a lower ISO and faster shutter speed.

ISO 100, 50mm, Freelensed, 1/1000SS

ISO 100, 50mm, Freelensed, 1/1000SS

3. Detach your lens

Once you detach your lens, Nikon users will need to tape or hold open the aperture ring. Nikon lenses automatically close down the aperture (lens opening) when a lens is detached from a camera body. I have a little piece of paper that I use to stick into the aperture slot to carefully force and hold the aperture open while I’m freelensing. Some photographers purchase older lenses specifically for freelensing and alter the lens so that the aperture ring permanently stays open. I haven’t done this with my lens because from time to time, I still like a fully functioning 50mm. Canon users don’t have to worry about forcing open the aperture ring when detaching the lens from the camera.

ISO 800, 50mm, Freelensed, 1/2000SS

ISO 800, 50mm, Freelensed, 1/2000SS

4. Set focus on your lens to infinity

You will not be able to use autofocus once your lens is removed from your camera. You can prefocus your lens before you detach it from your camera body; however, if you or your subject moves your focus will be off. So I like to and suggest you set the focus on your lens to infinity. To achieve focus when freelensing, you’ll want to move closer or farther away from your subject while moving the lens slightly from side to side or up and down.

ISO 400, 50mm, Freelensed, 1/1000SS

ISO 400, 50mm, Freelensed, 1/1000SS

5. Hold your lens close to your camera but leave it unattached

The art of freelensing is capturing an image while your lens is detached from the camera body. You will hold your lens very close to the camera body and with slight movements of the lens left to right, or up or down, you’ll be able to achieve a thin slice of focus. The trick here is to remember that the movements of your lens should be very slight.

I strongly recommend you use a neck-strap to secure your camera to your body. You’ll be holding your camera body with one hand while holding your lens with the other. If you accidentally let go of your camera body, then it’ll be secured to your neck with the strap instead of crashing to the ground. Do not let go of your lens or it’ll fall.

Due to the fact that your lens is not attached to your camera body it is possible and likely to get light leaking in and hitting your sensor. It does depend on your angle to the light in the scene, as well as how close or far away your lens is to your camera body, but it’s fun to experiment.

If you twist or turn your lens significantly or pull it away from your camera body, it is also possible to create some fun vignetting so don't be afraid to experiment a bit.

ISO 800, 50mm, Freelensed, 1/400SS

ISO 800, 50mm, Freelensed, 1/400SS

6. Use Live View

Acquiring focus when freelensing is not easy. It takes practise and a lot of patience. When I first started freelensing I practised on flowers all the time. This way, I could experiment with twisting and turning my lens and identifying how to attain different focus planes. In the end, don’t dismay if the focus is not sharp. I think that’s a beautiful part of freelensing. Images that are soft in focus can be breathtaking and dreamy, so embrace the blur!

ISO 200, 50mm, Freelensed, 1/2000SS

ISO 200, 50mm, Freelensed, 1/2000SS

7. Be very careful

Freelensing should be done at your discretion. With your lens detached from your camera body, there is the potential for dust and other particles to end up on your sensor. I have a second and older camera body that I use when freelensing, but I am still always very cautious about where I’m freelensing. I would never take too big of a chance and freelens in conditions that may damage my camera sensor. Accidents can happen so be cautious when using this technique.

ISO 500, 50mm, Freelensed, 1/1000SS

ISO 500, 50mm, Freelensed, 1/1000SS

8. Try reverse freelensing

Are you a macro lover? My eldest daughter adores macro photography and reverse freelensing is her absolute favourite technique. I’ll often find her laying down on a forest floor capturing the micro-world or up close and personal with a bug. The steps to reverse freelens are the same as above, except you will need to turn your lens around. The result of turning your lens around and photographing is stunning. You’ll capture a gorgeous macro scene surrounded by incredible bokeh blur.

ISO 500, 50mm, Freelensed, 1/160SS

ISO 500, 50mm, Freelensed, 1/160SS

Freelensing is an absolutely gorgeous creative technique but it does take some practice so don't dismay if it doesn’t go well the first time you give it a try. Overall, have fun with the creative process and remember to be very cautious when trying out this technique.