Freelensing

Lately, I have really been happiest with my images that push the limits. The images that don’t follow the rules. The images where I let go and let the moment take control. The images that others may find flaws in, I find beauty and a story.

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That is what freelensing is all about – letting go. Using a different technique to capture the light, the moment. Not worrying about a technically perfect photo; instead, embracing the flaws and finding the beauty in them.

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I dabbled in freelensing here and there and mostly found myself frustrated. It wasn’t until I made it my mission to learn it and do well with it that I finally got it. I made my mind up that I was determined to figure it out and didn’t give up until I got it. You have to do it a lot, and I mean a LOT, if you want to get good at it. So that’s what I did. There are so many photographers who take this and just fly with it! I love looking at others’ freelensed images. Many of them have shared tips on freelensing as well, but I hope that you will take something new from my tips that will help you figure out this fun technique.

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First, let’s talk lenses. I’ve used a variety of prime lenses from a 20mm to an 85mm. I now own just two lenses, the Canon 50mm 1.4 and the Sigma 35mm 1.4, both of which I use regularly for freelensing. I’ve found that my 50mm 1.4 gives me results that I like the most. It’s been my go-to lens when I know I want to get some freelensed shots. I have noticed that with a wider lens, such as the 35mm, it is harder to get focus. The wider the lens is, the less you need to pull away, and vice versa. I don’t have a zoom lens so I have not tried freelensing with one, but I don’t imagine zooms would be a good choice. Having a small, light-weight lens is important, especially while you’re new at this. You have to be able to have a strong grip on the lens and move it around very carefully. I think the 50mm’s size is just right and the focal length is what has yielded the best results for me.

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The first thing I do is set the focus to infinity. If you’re one to shoot wide open, try stopping down to 2.0 or more, at least while you’re getting the hang of it. After you get your settings as close to what you’ll need as possible, take your lens off. With your lens pressed up against the body as if you’re about to attach it, point your camera to an object and look through the viewfinder. I want you to be about 12-18 inches from thesubject for now as I think this is the easiest way to start out – something close and inanimate. When you look through the viewfinder, your subject should be out of focus. You’ll be pulling the lens away to “focus”, in a way, rather than using autofocus or manually focusing with the ring around your lens.

Now, slowly start to tilt the bottom of the lens up and away from the camera body. Keep going until you find focus in your subject, then take a shot. I suggest tilting the bottom of the lens up for now, because it tends to be the easiest way to maneuver the lens. Of course, you can tilt it diagonally, sideways, or from the top. Play around with the direction you tilt it and find what you like best – this may change depending on the subject as well. Think about what your intent is with the shot; if your subject is off to one side and you want the length of that subject to be (at least partially) in focus, then you’ll need to pull your lens from the side, rather than from the bottom.

As I mentioned earlier, I suggest starting out shooting inanimate objects until you get the hang of finding the desired plane of focus. Moving subjects are much harder and you may get too frustrated if you start out with that kind of subject.

If you’re struggling to see what’s in focus through your viewfinder, switch to live view mode and watch the back of the screen as you pull the lens away and take your pictures. In fact, watching the screen as you tilt the lens in every direction, will be a good way to really see that focal plane move around. Pay attention to what comes into focus and where, as you pull the lens out from the bottom, the top, the left, and the right. Once I started using this method, I was able to nail focus almost every time. My vision is pretty terrible and I wear glasses, so that could be why this method has served me well, but I’ve had so many tell me that this was a game changer for them, too, so it’s definitely worth a try.

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I can almost guarantee that you won’t get it right away. I don’t mean that in a discouraging way, but the opposite actually. Just know that it takes time for everyone but if you keep at it long enough, it will click eventually! As I mentioned before, practice on inanimate objects at first rather than say, children or other moving subjects. As with anything, the more you do it, the better you will be at it.

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Before we wrap things up, there are a few things that you should be aware of before you begin. We all know how important it is to keep the insides of your camera clean. If it is really windy, raining, if you’re on a sandy beach, or in an extra dusty area, it’s typically not a good idea to freelens. Use your best judgement and take care of your gear. Now having said that, there are ways around those situations sometimes. I have a whole series of freelensed shots where it was raining at sunset (gorrrgeous!!), but I was inside a garage where it was nice and dry the whole time. Be resourceful and find ways to get those unique shots and still keep your gear safe!

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My biggest advice is to just shoot shoot shoot. Then shoot some more. Like I stated in the beginning, you’re going to have to do this a lot if you want to get good at it. Become obsessed with it; determined to get some images you can fall in love with. We all get into creative ruts at times, and trying a new technique is a perfect way to get out of one. Let go of technicalities and perfection. Embrace the beauty in the imperfections.

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Good luck and I truly hope my tips have helped you!

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  • July 28, 2015 - 7:01 PM

    Jessica - Thank you for this, Erin! This is the first tutorial that actually clicked with me! Can’t wait to get you lightroom presets.<3ReplyCancel

  • October 2, 2015 - 6:22 PM

    Sara True - whebever I have tried free lensing it always under exposed. I get my setting right before I remove the lens but then when I take it it’s always super underexposed. I’m I supposed to just kinda look at it on the back of the camera and change the settings accordingly or am I totally doing it wrong!!!! Thanks for your post! It is very informative and I love your work!ReplyCancel

    • October 4, 2015 - 5:42 AM

      Erin Hensley - Hmmm that’s odd! Typically, more light is getting in, so I usually account for that. I do often change exposure while the lens is detached though. :)ReplyCancel

  • January 11, 2016 - 5:23 PM

    Kimi Mills - You are so talented and I am completely in love with your work :) Thanks for sharing this tutorial. I hope to put it into practice in the near future…although it does scare me (so afraid of dropping my lens!) I’ve heard that Nikon is more difficult (I shoot Nikon)…do you know if that’s accurate statement?ReplyCancel

    • February 1, 2016 - 4:01 PM

      Erin Hensley - Thank you Kimi! Sorry for such a late reply – I do plan to add a little section at the end of this for Nikon users!ReplyCancel

  • April 1, 2016 - 2:01 PM

    Johanne Lila - Quick tip for Nikon users – we have to keep the aperture open manually ON the lens! I was devastated I got nothing before I realized this, now I can’t stop shooting! Maybe this is what you wanted to write about, Erin, for us Nikon’ers? If not – or until then :) – try and google it, guys, there’s a nifty way involving a rubber band to keep that thing open :) :)ReplyCancel

  • July 13, 2016 - 6:30 AM

    Melissa - Gorgeous!! I love the challenge of freelensing, though it can be quite frustrating. When you get it right, it’s magical. Thanks for the tips!!ReplyCancel

  • September 3, 2018 - 6:52 AM

    Sarah Jensen - I am loving this tutorial! Do you have lightroom presets?ReplyCancel

    • September 11, 2018 - 9:45 AM

      Erin Hensley - Thanks Sarah, I’m glad to hear you loved it!

      No, I do not have LR presetsReplyCancel

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