Freelensing: Make a DIY “Poor Man’s Tilt-Shift” by Breaking a Cheap Prime Lens


Freelensing. It’s been around for a while. It’s essentially the “poor man’s tilt shift.” All the technique requires is disconnecting a lens from the camera body and floating it around in front of your sensor to shift the focal plane in weird directions. It takes practice to get accurate with it, but overall the technique is pretty straightforward.

I wanted to take it a bit further.

I decided that when floating my lenses in front of my camera, there just wasn’t enough room to move around with. I wanted extreme focus angles and crazy vignetting. I wanted images to look completely organic and one of a kind.

So, I broke a lens.

Yup, I ripped the lens mount right off my Nikon 50mm f/1.8.

Why 50mm? Why 1.8? Well, over time I found that the 50mm focal length is perfect for my way of seeing the world and great for getting the focus where I wanted it while freelensing. The 1.8 rear element is much smaller than a 1.4 or 1.2 so it really allows for a lot more movement.

To focus while freelensing, you set your lens focus to infinity (or in my case the broken 50 f/1.8 was stuck on infinity) and move the lens forward and back from the sensor. You’ll see in live view or in your viewfinder how the focus plane shifts. Pretty straightforward, but it takes a lot of practice to master!

I bought my 50 f/1.8 lens here. This exact lens will also work with Canon cameras and virtually any other type of camera that you can hold a lens up to.

So, here’s what I ended up with:


Mine looks kind of dirty as I’ve been using it for a while. That glue-looking area is just super glue that I used to keep the aperture ring open, since I ripped off the stock aperture ring. Nikon lenses default to having the aperture closed, but with Canon lenses you would not need to do this. Here is a video showing the lens:

…and here is a video demoing how the lens actually floats in front of a camera:

Here are some of my favorite examples of images I’ve made with this modified Nikon 50mm f/1.8 lens:

03-freelensing-example-photo-cherry-blossoms-in-dc copy

04-freelensing-tilt-shift-effect copy

05-freelensed-engagement-photo copy

05-tennis-court-freelensing copy

07-couple-engagement-session-freelensed copy

08-bride-freelensed-portrait copy

One of the cool benefits of having a lens without the mount on it is the ability to get in-camera light leaks. All of the images you see here have organic and natural light leaks:

10-light-leaks-with-freelensing copy

06-portrait-of-groom-freelensed copy

11-freelensing-with-lightleaks copy

12-freelensing-tilt-shift-with-lightleaks copy

13-bride-and-groom-lightleaks copy

14-light-leak-with-extreme-lens-whacking copy

…and here is a video demoing light leaks and other freelensing effects:

So, you’re probably wondering if it’s safe to use your camera with such an exposed lens? Well, I’ve been doing this for nearly two years and have not had a single problem. I clean my sensors regularly using Visible Dust products. You probably don’t want to do this while laying in mud, but overall just be smart and quick about when you decide to try it out.

Obviously, this technique isn’t going to appeal to everybody. Just like prisming, it has a time and place. I just like sharing really cheap and easy ways to get more out of your equipment than perhaps you thought possible.

This lens is super small and is worth just zipping into a side pocket for an added tool in your camera bag. There are products that offer a similar look (e.g. Lensbaby), but you lose the ability to get light leaks and you lose the extreme focus shifts. Plus, my way is much cheaper.

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21-ron-paul-freelenesed copy

22-freelensing-examples-destination-dc-wedding-photographer copy

24-groom-portrait-freelensed copy

25-bride-and-groom-black-and-white-portrait copy

About the author: Sam Hurd is a portrait and wedding photographer based in Washington DC. Visit his website here. This post was originally published here.

  • Astonfreak

    This lens can only tilt, not shift.

  • Bhautik Joshi

    If you’d like to build a version of this with a flexible enclosure, have a look at the bendycam design, detailed here:

  • Caca Milis

    Some great shots, it would be great to try on a cheap K-mount lens but I hate cleaning sensors lol

  • Stan

    Awesome photos. Reminded me of Sam Hurd’s style (I follow him on FB), scrolled up and saw his name… Great job!

  • Ariel Caudis

    mmmm let me think about it

  • JonG

    Horrible photos, might as well take them with a phone and run them them Instacrap.

  • notyouagain

    Here we go…

  • hmmm

    haha I’d say you should leave a link to your own work before saying such things, but I’m guessing that’ll never happen

  • wilmark johnatty

    Nice article but, Why does your pics look like they are from instagram? Does the tilt shift give these odd colors?

  • wilmark johnatty

    Good point, I was going to try this out but then i looked at the pics and was turned off.

  • G

    Hum..? The article is by Sam Hurd so I assume the pictures not only looks like Sam Hurd.. it IS Sam Hurd’s work ;)

  • G

    Darn… tried to be a smart ass and it backfired :P

  • E

    You don’t have to be able to do it better yourself in order to say something is not good. Personally I hate this style.. I don’t see how showing my own work’s gonna add anything to the statement. Do I really have to be able to do better free lens photography before I’m entitled to say I don’t like the look of it?

    BTW. I think Twilight sucks, but I doubt I’d be better to write a better book or make a better movie so I guess I’m wrong then..

  • Kay O. Sweaver

    That would be the light leaks he was referring to in the article.

  • Matthew Neumann

    Try reading the article and not just looking at the pics there, willy.

  • Jonathan Maniago

    I find it a bit strange that most photographers would rave about the bokeh of fast lenses (f/1.4 and larger) but freelensing and Lensbabies still get plenty of flak. The latter are simply alternative methods of enforcing the same principle of subject isolation by blurring out unnecessary details. Sure, they have their issues, but I think it’s still plenty of bang per buck when cosidering the price tags of most fast lenses

  • h


  • uksnapper

    I recall using a pair of Zeiss 10×50 binoculars on my old C3 Mamiya twin lens camera in the late 60s at night to photograph the moon using Tri-X film in a similar fashion.
    I did not have to modify anything though and black velvet wrapped round the package kept it light tight and exposure was done the old fashioned way by using a makeshift lens cap.
    Exposure was calculated using a Lunasix light meter,surprisingly accurate too

    It was actually quite successful.

  • Daniel Lin

    You actually bought a new lens to intentionally break for this project? On Nikon, a system that cannot stop advertising that you can mount 98% of their lenses ever made? Not sure if stupid or just showing off.

    This whole thing seemed like a great idea, one that I’ve actually undertaken with old Bronica medium format lenses, until I read that you just went ahead and broke a perfect good, new lens and suggest that people do the same.

    I got my Bronica lenses for $15 each, and have next to no value in today’s market. I would rather have bought a new 50 and given it to a friend or even a stranger who was trying to advance their photography. You claim bought a new 50, did a piss poor job of hacking it apart, to make Instacraps on what I can only assume by your website is a D4 or a D800. How ironic.

  • Swade

    And yet you got two upvotes, people read just as well as you.

  • Swade

    He didn’t buy a new lens. He used an old lens he had that was broken (stuck on infinity).

  • Swade

    He probably used VSCO presets to get film emulations. I guess making digital look like film means instagram these days, but HDR is cool. Nobody likes to get the look they want while being cost effective.

  • dancebert

    Cheap entry into a photo fad that clients like.

  • Daniel Lin

    I see that now. The emphasis on breaking an easily fixable lens and then a prominent link to where to buy it still is quite disconcerting though.

  • Matt

    This style of photos is not for everyone. There are people who will pay $5K+ for this kind of photos for their wedding though.

    I think people are running out of new photography techniques and are trying something gimmicky and atypical. I love Sam Hurd’s perspectives though but not so much about these freelensing and prism photography.

  • Bhautik Joshi

    Depends. You can still shift the lens – the rear element can be translated from center a significant distance in the mouth of the camera body. If you are using a non-full-frame-sensor with this lens (say, an APS-C) you can move it quite a bit before you get any vignetting.

    This is less the case on a full-frame sensor, but that depends on your tolerance for the vignetting and how comfortable you are with cropping out the dark edges in post :)

  • Nanang Kusuma

    light leaks effect look great, will try this method if my prime lens broke:D

  • dean800

    until I looked at the draft which was of $9158, I didn’t believe that my best friend was truly erning money in there spare time from there labtop.. there mums best friend has done this 4 less than 19 months and recently paid for the morgage on their home and got themselves a Alfa Romeo. go to, jump15.comCHECK IT

  • Rafael

    Thank you very much! I`ll do a bendycam myself, so easy!

  • Bewarethemoon

    Interesting use of a good lens! I’ve just bought an old Nikon 50mm 1.8 to us via a lens mount with my Canon, but I won’t be doing this! If you want great original light leaks, open the back of a film camera slightly on a roll of exposed film, I accidentally did this with an old rangefinder and the results were spectacular.
    I will try this tilt shift method without wrecking a lens, and if I like the results I’ll get a lensbaby. I’ve got a cheap macro zoom I used with my OM-1 many years ago, which is wrecked, so I might customise that one for this purpose.
    I don’t mind the results above, I’ll have a go and see how it comes out

  • Stephan Haggerty

    ugh … randomly distorting bad snap shot looking photography doesn’t improve it. Poor photography made even worse with a gimmick. I don’t care if its “popular”.
    MacDonald’s is the most popular food in the world that doesn’t mean it isn’t garbage.

  • hurd300403

    not true

  • Oscar

    Some of these effects look like they can be achieved with Onones’ Focal Point software. Nonetheless IMHO if an effect is achieved organically it’s more appreciated.

  • dslr video studio

    I think the dust thing, with this is an issue but great fun experimenting though.

  • Forrest

    Ron Paul!!!!! :D

  • photogabi

    Great article! But that Nikkor 50 f/1.8 D has am aperture lock that will keep it open once it is off camera. Does it really need the super glue? I’m just cringing at the thought of using glue there. Or is it needed once the rear is removed?

  • Laurel

    Question… I forgot to move the ring on my 50mm to infinity before taking it apart, and now it’s completely stuck, all the way back at .5. Yikes! I haven’t used it too much outdoors or anywhere – just playing w/ it in my room, but I’m trying to figure out how much of a difference that makes. The inside of the lens can completely screw out of the outer ring (which has the focus ring settings)… and It seems to be useable even outside of that ring. Do I NEED the outer ring, and does it have to be set at infinity? Will it make a difference? thanks in advance!

  • flightofbooks

    Candid wedding photos are “bad snap shot looking photography”? lol okay dude.