Canon 17mm TS-E review – the power for good, or evil

Canon 17mm TS-E review – the power for good, or evil

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I bought this lens to cover a large architectural job, and it’s quite a chunk of change – it costs significantly more than my other lenses, and in some cases, two of them put together. I knew what tilt-shift lenses were meant to do, and had seen a number of online explanations of how they work including words such as ‘orthogonal’ and ‘Scheimpflug’ – but essentially you can use them to correct, or deliberately distort, perspectives. Most commonly they’re used to straighten the lines on buildings that naturally converge as you view them from the street. Here’s a shot of the Civil Justice Centre in Manchester. With a lens this wide you can get right underneath it – but you can force the perspectives for an unusual effect.

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You can also mess around fundamentally with the rules on focusing. On normal lenses the plane of focus is always parallel to the camera sensor. For example if you photographed a person stood exactly between two trees with a building 20 metres behind, the subject and the two trees either side will typically be in focus, and the building will be comparatively blurred. With tilt shift you can, in exactly the same frame, turn the focus to one of the trees and the building, and leave the subject and the other tree out of focus altogether.

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And what a crazy looking lens it is. It has a large bulbous front element unlike any other lens I’ve used, and is covered with switches and dials that at first baffled me. The good news about this lens is, if you find yourself afraid to experiment, with no adjustment whatsoever it is a perfectly serviceable 17mm prime with predictable results. It’s not up there with the Canon 24L for sharpness, but there’s little fall-off at the edges, and compared to other ultra wide angle lenses distortion is very well controlled. Note too that the tilt-shift lenses are all manual focus only – but the cameras I have used it on both have manual focus assist. If the button you use to focus your camera is held down, eventually a beep will sound as you turn the focus ring to let you know you’re on the mark. I’ve seen better results from a 5d3 than from a 6d on this – so presumably the better the camera’s focusing system is, the more success you will have.

So how do pictures from real life situations look? Here’s some pictures from an event at Gorton Monastery I recently carried out.

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This one is a very wide room shot with just a bit of perspective control. 95% of the use of this lens, I have found, is in doing ultra wide interior shots, but using the perspective control to avoid the huge distortions towards the edge of the frame.

As for the other 5% – working out what that is useful for on a lens this wide, is a very individual problem. Or indulgence, however you look at it.

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On the picture below, notice how the man sat behind the candelabra and the pillars way behind him are sharp, but the view either side of that is blurred? Interesting to look at. What do I do with that effect? Not worked that out, yet…

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