The art of freelensing: a step-by-step guide

  • freelensing photo of girl in a field with beautiful light by Holly Donovan

The art of freelensing: a step-by-step guide

The creative process is a process of surrender, not control.
-Julia Cameron

Early on in my photography journey I spent a good amount of time trying to attain sharp images and nail focus in my work.

I spent my days working on getting my lines straight, my compositions pre-visualized, and of course stalking every type of light.

Focus and composition are all very important, but I found that I could easily start to over-think these devices. There is something about an out of focus image that evokes a feeling in its own way.

It didn’t take me long to start experimenting with shallow depth of field, and using manual focus to achieve some blur.

baby laying on a bed pic by Holly Donovan

Blurred images, or partly blurred subject matter lend themselves to my impressionistic heart. Being able to achieve dream like, memory infused images with selective focus allowed me to let go of the technicals and just be myself and surrender to the creativity that freelensing allowed. I love the vintage feel that freelensing can provide with vignetting, light leaks, added dimension and mystique. The technique takes patience, but when done with intent, can produce some dynamic images.

Freelensing by definition is exposing an image while the lens is removed from the camera body. Selective focus is obtained by hand holding the lens close to the sensor and moving the lens in a certain direction for the effect. Any camera with a detachable lens will do.

Before you begin….

  1. Set your ISO, shutter speed and white balance before detaching the lens from your camera while you become comfortable with the lens being hand held. One hand will be on the body, and one cupping the lens.
  2. Set your lens to manual focus, and open it to infinity – Canon 50mm is best, the 1.8 or 1.4 to start. This is the easiest lens to use and gives the best results.
  3. Turn your camera to Live View mode if your camera has this feature to see the effects in real time and watch your focus.

family on the beach picture by Holly Donovan

Let yourself go….

  1. Remove the lens from the camera. Try your first few attempts seated if you are nervous about shooting without the lens attached. You don’t need to make big movements with the lens to get something in focus.
  2. Rotate the lens left to right and up and down directly in front of the camera sensor, as close to being connected to the body as can be. Move your lens in and out and all around and watch the image in Live View, spend time playing with what you see.
  3. Turning the lens to the right allows for the right half of the image to be in focus and vice versa for the left. Try moving it tilted up, down, and different angles and watch where the focus lands.
  4. Hold the lens too far away from the body and you will expose a lot of light to the sensor. This creates a soft glowing haze and is fun to play with. Open it too much and you will blow out the frame. Slightly let in a little bit of light at a time by opening one edge towards the light source and create light leaks.
  5. When you become a little more comfortable with the technique, you can adjust ISO and shutter speed to allow more or less light.

freelensed photograph of boy hair by Holly Donovan

Random bits….

  1. I shoot Canon, but it is noted by fellow Nikon shooters that the aperture ring on some Nikon lenses have to be manually held open if you use an intact lens. This is one of the reasons why I suggest purchasing and breaking the back off of a used lens specifically for freelensing. Broken lenses for parts are available on eBay for $20-$30. Perhaps you have an old lens collecting dust on a shelf somewhere like I did. The lens does not need to be brand specific, meaning you can use a Nikon lens on a Canon camera. Just be sure the glass is in good shape and the focus ring works.
  2. After you’re comfortable using the 50mm, give a 35mm lens and an 85mm lens a try. They’re a little more difficult but produce interesting images. Don’t be afraid to try different things. If trying with a zoom, set the focal range to 50. Wide angle lenses don’t work well because of the curved glass, but you can use them as a macro lens if you flip the lens around so that the front glass is facing the sensor. ‘Reverse freelensing’ acts like a magnifying glass if you get very close…I’m talking inches, from the subject.
  3. Always keep another lens or body cap nearby, you do risk a dirty sensor by allowing dust into your camera if the lens is removed. It doesn’t hurt to purchase a bulb cleaner and avoid dusty environments when playing. And always use your camera strap!
  4. Once you are comfortable with obtaining selective focus, start using it in your skill set as a creative element and surrender to the blur. Soon you will be in control of the focus and can add composition, light and use it to produce impressionistic artful photographs. Take portraits, tell stories, record details and don’t be afraid to use it in a session!

freelensing picture of girls swinging by Holly Donovan

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About the Author:

Holly resides in Chicago Illinois with her husband and four children. She is a self taught hobbyist turned pro, concentrating on natural light and storytelling. Holly feels her film studies in college have helped her learn the digital format quickly and uses her skills to record the simple moments of life as its being lived, without much direction or prompting. She collects film cameras and hopes to include them in her business and personal work as a hybrid shooter sometime in the future. Holly started business early this year as a Chicago family documentary photographer, and also offers fine art portraiture and lifestyle. Holly Donovan serves Chicago, Southeast Wisconsin, Northwest Indiana and Southwest Michigan. Visit Holly Donovan online.
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16 Comments

  1. jennifer nobriga Mar 09 2015 at 10:26 pm - Reply

    this is amazing holly!! i have only tried once to freelens and it was not successful!! your tutorial is making me want to try again!! thank you for this!! <3

    • Holly Donovan Mar 12 2015 at 1:45 pm - Reply

      Thank you Jen! and please try again. Your fab work mixed with a little blur would be divine!!

  2. Sarah Wilkerson Mar 09 2015 at 10:53 pm - Reply

    This is a wonderful tutorial!! Thank you, Holly!!

  3. Lisa Benemelis Mar 09 2015 at 11:28 pm - Reply

    This is fantastic, Holly. Thank you!! I’m excited to work through your suggestions and try this. 🙂

    • Holly Donovan Mar 12 2015 at 1:43 pm - Reply

      Lisa, I hope you give it a spin, it is so fun. I know it isn’t for everyone, but I really enjoy the unexpectedness of it, especially when I fall into ruts.

  4. Maureen Petru Mar 11 2015 at 12:58 pm - Reply

    Can you explain to me what you mean by “open your lens to infinity?” I have a the same camera and lens that you are using in the example … so I should be able to follow an explanation in your terms! I have tried freelensing a few times, but not incredibly successful with it yet. I have never turned on Live View, so I am excited to see what that does for me too! Thank you for taking the time and sharing your knowledge writing up the tutortial!

    • Holly Donovan Mar 12 2015 at 7:38 am - Reply

      Hi Maureen! Look through the small focus window on your lens itself, set to manual focus, if you turn focus all the way to the right, focus is set to infinity, noted by an infinity symbol that resembles a sideways 8. This gives the best results when trying to achieve a focused area while the lens is off but held close.

      • Maureen Petru Mar 13 2015 at 11:36 am - Reply

        ahhhhh … got it! OK – going to give it a shot right now!

  5. Sue Bahen Mar 11 2015 at 5:37 pm - Reply

    Thanks for this great tutorial! I really want to try I just have to work up the nerve.

    • Holly Donovan Mar 12 2015 at 1:42 pm - Reply

      Don’t be nervous! Expect to not have good results the first few tries. Practice in a comfy chair and play around first until you get the hang of it 🙂

  6. April May 24 2015 at 3:14 pm - Reply

    I’m trying to find a broken 50 1.8 on ebay but I’m not sure what I’m looking for! Would you mind linking to one or two?

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