freelensing around the home: a how-to

Last night I tried freelensing, which sounds like an extreme sport or spectacularly dangerous sexual practice, but it’s actually relatively safe. Unless you’re doing it in the midst of a basejump. While having sex with someone. And trying to freelens at the same time. What, do you have extra arms or something?

Because freelensing requires both arms, and sexy basejumping is difficult enough already.

Anyway. Freelensing is pretty much what you imagine: removing your lens and shooting with the lens held just a fraction of an inch from the camera. You have leave to wiggle the lens around.

Why would you do this? Because you can get some strange and beautiful shots, and you’ll discover that your lens can do things you never imagined.


wooden duck sculpture

With Desmond the Duck (so named by the woman who brought him home) volunteering but not looking very happy about it, I was able to get an extremely shallow depth of field with some strange distorted blur around his breast and bill (pints on special at the Breast & Bill!). And there’s some nice elongated bokeh in the background. Bokeh is probably the greatest word to come out of photography, and it refers to the quality of the blur in out-of-focus areas of your image. There are all kinds of ideas on what makes for good bokeh and bad bokeh, but the main thing to take away from this is that the word bokeh sounds like someone got punched in the gut in the midst of a talk on floral arrangements.

Here’s Lula, who’s all like, “Why are you wiggling that black cylinder around? Is it something I should smell? I’m going to smell that cylinder, just to make sure.”


freelens a lula

So what is going on here? What’s with all the blurriness and why isn’t it just doing what a camera and lens should normally do? Why isn’t the answer just something like “You can’t take photographs, Aidan - that’s what’s going on here.”

The non-ego-destroying answer, which is probably interesting to some, involves the phrase plane of focus. Or maybe focal plane, if you like fewer words in your jargon. Manufacturers spend a lot of time making sure that the plane of focus, like an invisible wall of sharpness, runs perfectly perpendicular to the lens. Which, under normal circumstances, is perfectly parallel to the camera body. Insert diagram below!

That’s actually the first result in Google image search for ‘diagram’. So don’t look at it. But when you tilt your lens back and forth, you’re changing the plane of focus and putting the focus in weird areas of the image. You also get all kinds of blobs, smears and leaks that rough up your image.


freelens a ring of flare

That horrifically blurry image is me taking a photo in the bathroom mirror with my bizarre puffy clown hands smothering the camera. But I’d prefer to direct your attention to that purple ring of light. To coax that ring into existence, I just used Photoshop tilted the lens down a bit to let the overhead light hit the camera sensor.

One thing you’ll notice when you start freelensing is that your portrait lens suddenly becomes a macro lens, or macroesque. You can take shots from just a few inches away. Move your lens farther out and you get that tilt-shift effect that all the photographers loved so much in 2007. Yes, these are some cutting-edge tips. 

At this point you’ve probably figured out that what we’re doing is the bargain basement, warranty-voiding cousin of tilt-shift photography. Companies like Lensbaby and others actually make equipment to get similar effects. Tilt-shift lenses do a host of other cool things as well, like make it possible to take a photo of a room with a mirror without having your reflection show up in the shot. But with freelensing, you’re paying nothing, and you get much wider apertures for better depth of field effects. And it’s just sort of fun. I took a whole bunch of pictures of a shriveled piece of ginger root, but I didn’t upload them to Flickr. Because then people would know that I spend my winter nights photographing ginger root and not doing sexy basejumping like a proper man.


freelens an onion

There are dangers to freelensing, mostly involving dirt and dust. Most cameras have sensor cleaning mechanisms, but if you let signifcant bits of dust or cat hair into the camera body, you’ve got a problem. If you have a mirrorless camera then you should be particularly careful, because the sensors are completely exposed when you remove the lens. If you have a Leica, I just hate you. And nothing will assuage my furious hatred until you give me your Leica.

The other danger is dropping your lens. The best solution is not to drop it.

Anyway! These are my first attempts at doing freelensing, and also my first attempt at explaining why I thought it was such a great idea to muck around with expensive equipment. Photojojo and B&H Photo have really good tutorials on the subject with frankly much better examples than mine. Go there! Then go out and break some stuff.

Just out of curiosity: what do you do with your camera that messes with the rules a bit? Do you freelens? Tape it to the side of a building? Film yourself doing a sexy basejump? Careful with that one.