When freelensing, what you're basically doing is turning your lens into a tilt-shift lens; the effects are the same. Tilt-shift lenses work by altering the place of focus. Normally your plane of focus is parallel to your sensor/film. When you tilt the lens, you're changing the angle of the plane of focus. Whichever way you tilt the lens, that's the way the plane of focus angles towards. For instance, if you're holding your camera in a normal position, the more you tilt your lens down the less it becomes parallel with the vertical plane of your sensor and the more it tilts towards the horizontal plane of the floor.
You can also shift the lens by moving it parallel with the sensor. This alters perspective, but keeps the plane of focus in its normal position.
What's the point?
By manipulating the plane of focus, you can create some very interesting and unique images. You can selectively focus on certain things and create bokeh in ways you couldn't normally. You can also create “miniature scenes” by decreasing the depth-of-field over a large scene like a town square. Alternatively you can increase the depth-of-field and take far-reaching landscape photos without stopping the aperture all the way down.
Lens shifting is often used in architecture photography because it allows for a different perspective. When standing at the base of a tall building and shooting up, the lines of the building are not parallel. The base of the building looks larger than the top because the top is further away, and the lines of the building converge towards that point. By shifting the lens, you can make the lines of the building look parallel without ever changing your position.
Is it harmful to the camera or lens?
Other than getting wrist cramps from a heavy lens, there is nothing substantially damaging about holding your lens against your camera unmounted. However, there is some potential for damage to occur. Dropping your lens is perhaps the most harmful thing that could happen. When freelensing, it's best to use a lightweight lens. Despite having a tight grip, just the fact that you're moving it around with only your hand to secure it makes it possible that you could drop it, which would be a very, very bad thing.
If you hold the lens right up to the lens mount, you're of course going to hear some scratching and tapping. But being that the mount on the camera and the lens are both metal, there's not really any damage being done. So as long as you're not smashing them together, there shouldn't be a problem.
One last concern may be dust and other particles entering the camera. Obviously you don't want to be trying this in the rain or in other bad weather conditions. Playing with this technique inside would be the safest bet, but if it's a nice day outside there's no reason you couldn't shoot outdoors. Just use your best judgment. Remember that the sensor is protected by the mirror, so if something does get inside your camera it doesn't mean it's ruined. But you will definitely want to remove said item(s) before you continue shooting.
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Written by Spencer Seastrom
Image credit: tiero / 123RF Stock Photo