Phototgraphy

How to Do Freelensing Photography (+5 Tips)

How to create amazing freelensed photos

When I first discovered freelensing, I was blown away. Here was a technique that allowed me to create beautiful, highly artistic images – and all it took was a basic camera and a budget lens.

Of course, successful freelensing photography does require some technical know-how; otherwise, the effects can be unpredictable, and you may find yourself rejecting whole photoshoots worth of images. Fortunately, over the past decade or so, I’ve been carefully experimenting with different freelens approaches, 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 master this form of creative photography? Let’s do this!

What is freelensing in photography?

Freelensing is a photographic technique that allows you to selectively adjust your camera’s plane of focus. You simply detach the lens from the camera body, and then focus by moving and tilting the lens in different directions.

camera freelensing detach lens
Example freelensing technique with a 50mm lens. Note how I’ve pulled the lens (slightly) away from the camera body.

What does this do to your photos? When you manually tilt and move the lens, the plane of focus tilts with it; therefore, the plane of focus is no longer parallel to the sensor but instead cuts at an angle across the scene.

In other words, some near and far objects are in focus, while other near and far objects are out of focus. Take a look at the photo below, which I captured using the exact freelensing technique that I describe in this article. Do you see how leaves in the foreground and leaves in the background (look in the bottom right corner) are in focus (or, at least, relatively in focus), while the rest of the scene is blurred? That’s because the plane of focus in the image cut diagonally from the near left to the distant right.

freelensing macro bokeh autumn leaves
This type of effect is easy to produce with some freelensing basics!

Here’s another freelensed photo, which I captured on the same day as the image above:

Freelensing in photography

Note how the main leaf has a diagonal window of focus, and how the back-left portion of the leaf is actually softer than the second leaf in the back-right corner, even though it’s closer to the camera. That’s freelensing for you!

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.

(I do most of my freelensing with macro subjects. It’s a great way to capture flowers and plants in a new light!)

freelensing macro photography bokeh

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!

(Just bear in mind that freelensing can be unpredictable, so if you’re shooting for a client and need some usable images, make sure that you capture some more conventional files, too.)

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 in my experience, 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 – when I tried to freelens with a 90mm lens, I gave up in frustration – and shorter lenses offer less intense freelensing effects.

(That said, you can always try working with a shorter or longer lens and see what you get; this is creative photography, and it’s all about experimentation!)

Before I describe the technical specifics of freelensing, I do want to emphasize:

Freelensing involves holding the lens detached from the camera. Hence, there is always the risk that you might drop something. That’s why I like to freelens with glass that’s on the cheaper side; this Canon 50mm f/1.8 model has long been my go-to choice, though any 50mm prime will do the job just fine.

Also, it’s worth noting that the camera model isn’t important. As long as your camera takes interchangeable lenses – that is, as long as you can detach the lens from the camera body – you can do successful freelensing.

I tend to use one of my old DSLR bodies, however, because detaching the lens from the camera does increase the risk of dust and other debris getting inside and onto the sensor. Sure, I could use my main camera, and everything would probably turn out fine, but I’d prefer not to risk it!

I’d also encourage you to use a DSLR, not a mirrorless camera; the DSLR mirror will protect the sensor from the outside elements. These days, you can grab a used DSLR for a bargain price (though if you have a backup mirrorless camera lying around, it can certainly work).

freelensing flowers macro photography

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.

Now, in most cases, when the lens is taken off the camera, the aperture setting will reset to its widest value, so your chosen aperture won’t make a difference.

However, there are two exceptions:

First, 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.

And second, if you’re using a lens with an aperture ring, you’ll generally be able to change the aperture independently – in which case you can test out various aperture settings and see what you think of the results!

Once you’ve dialed in your settings, go ahead and focus the lens on a distant object. 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 in front of the mirror/sensor. Turn the camera back on.

Step 3: Adjust 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 closer you’ll need to get to your subject in order to capture a sharp image. In other words, when you pull away the lens, you’ll obtain greater magnifications (which is great for macro photography, but not so great when you want to photograph a person in the distance!).

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 you’re first starting out. However, when in doubt, only tilt the lens a little; if you do too much tilting, you’ll run into the problem I address in the next paragraph:

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; in my experience, heavy light leaks will obscure the rest of the image. To minimize light leaks, try to keep the lens relatively close to the camera body, and 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!

freelensing nature macro photography
If you bring the lens away from the camera body, you can magnify your subjects! That’s how I captured this image (though it took me a few tries to get the focus just right!).

Pro tip: When freelensing, your camera’s metering system is essentially useless. Therefore, I often take a few experimental shots, incrementally increasing or decreasing the shutter speed (and checking the resulting images 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, so the bokeh effect is often intensely impressive.

Of course, for the best results, you’ll want to find already nice backdrops, then let the freelensing effect enhance them further. I recommend looking for relatively plain, non-distracting areas behind your subject (such as trees, bushes, or distant buildings).

One of my favorite ways to take this even further is by shooting into the light (with the subject backlit):

freelensing macro photography bokeh backlit
The setting sun (just to the right of the flower) offered some great opportunities for freelensing!

You can also work with a shaded subject, especially if the background is lit by direct sunlight, for a more subdued result:

freelensing poppy flower macro photography

Basically, pay attention to your background, and see if you can take it to the next level with the power of freelensing.

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!).

Here, I wanted to focus on the middle of the daisy petals, so I made sure to adjust the lens until I achieved the perfect point of focus, then I took a few shots:

freelensing daisy macro photography

As you can see, most of the image turned out blurry, but the point of focus is relatively sharp!

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 from an apparently cluttered scene. Simply tilt your lens, and a sliver of the scene will turn sharp while the rest blurs away. (Technically, you can always use a shallow depth of field approach to bring order to a chaotic scene, but freelensing supercharges your capabilities by allowing you to blur out elements that are on the same plane as your subject!)

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:

autumn leaves freelensed macro

4. Use light leaks for artistic effect

Earlier in this article, I cautioned you to be careful when working with light leaks – but when used right, light leaks can be so beautiful. Here’s an example of a heavily light-leaked image:

freelensing daisy macro photography
I created this effect entirely through light leaks (and freelensing, of course!).

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 impressive 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 sunflower macro photography

Of course, not everyone will love the look, but if you’re seeking more artistic close-up shots, it’s definitely worth a try! Just be mindful of light leaks, and if you’re noticing too much leakage, cover the gaps between the camera and the lens.

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!

freelensing coneflower macro photography

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