Freelensing with Film by Kaitlyn Zigrang

When I first saw Kaitlyn's FB post featuring her freelensed black and white horse images, I was floored by their beauty, their mystery, and how simple, unique and raw they were.  I've experimented with freelensing a bit with film but have never produced anything like this.  I wanted to know more, and Kaitlyn agreed to tell us more about freelensing with film.  Thank you, Kaitlyn!

I recently fell in love with film photography. I had been drawn to it for months, gasping every time I saw a film image on Instagram. Something about it grabbed me, pulled me in. It felt more ‘real’. So after months of gawking, I took the plunge and bought my Contax 645, and signed up for Sandra Coan’s Getting Started with Film class at Click Photo School to learn how to use it. I wasn’t sure how it was going to work out, because I am not a very patient or precise person. But someone how me and film just fit, and from the first scans I got back I was in love. After I had a few weeks of scans under my belt, I felt confident enough to try one of my favorite techniques from digital photography— freelensing. I love the dreamy artistic feel that freelensing gives, how it can transform an image, so I was super excited when I got to marry it with my love of film. I’m sure many of you are familiar, but for those who aren’t, freelensing refers to shooting with your lens detached from the camera, and tilted slightly in any direction to create a shift in the field of focus. The focal plane tilts along with your lens, and you end up with things very close and far in focus along a diagonal focal plane, and the rest very blurred. There are many tutorials out there on this technique and I am no expert, but I do loooooove it, and decided to take the risk to try it with film. So when I was asked to share a little with you all about free-lensing with film, and the basics of how to try it yourself, I jumped on the chance. 

1.  Start by metering. Pull out that light meter, and find your settings. Keep in mind that your aperture will need to be close to wide open to achieve the desired effect. I usually have mine between 2.0 and 4.0 when freelensing. I meter normally when I free-lens, though there is a possibility of light leaks. I know that film can handle a little overexposure, so I meter as I was taught by incident metering for the shadows with color film, and I normally meter for the mid tones or highlights with black and white film. That being said, I try not to overexpose when free-lensing since you do tend to let in a little extra light, so I am mindful of that and if it is a very bright day or I am shooting more directly into the sun, I may speed up my shutter speed a stop. Basically get your settings right for how you normally shoot, and then go from there. You may have to feel it out a little based on what kind of light you are working with.

2.  Choose a lens, and set your lens’ focus ring to infinity. I normally use my 80mm on my Contax (comparable to a 50mm on a 35mm body), I find that I can catch focus better with that one, but I have also used my 45. There is no autofocus with freelensing, but you will also not be moving that ring. You change the focal plane by how much (or how little) you tilt your lens. 

3.  Detach your lens. You will be holding your lens in your left hand and camera in the right at this point, so be mindful that it is a bit of a juggling act, and takes a bit of getting used to. Don’t move your lens far away from your camera body, you want to keep it pretty close, with the end of the lens not far from the mirror even though it is detached. You can move it in and out a bit while looking through the viewfinder to see the effect and find the spot you are comfortable with. I normally try to have it where I can see the focus like I would if the lens was still attached.

4.  Tilt your lens. Start out tilting it very slightly, and watch the focal plane change. Then tilt it more, and see what that does. If you lose focus completely and can’t get it back, just reattach your lens and start over by disconnecting it again. when I do that I normally check the settings and make sure the focus is still at infinity, because you can hit it with your hand and change it by accident sometimes. With film you will want to play around with this a bit until you are comfortable finding focus before you take any shots. In fact, if you have a digital camera and can practice with that first, it may be helpful and save you from wasting film, unless you are like me and ok with the more crazy shots. But beware that most digital cameras do not have lenses with aperture rings, so you will have to find one that does or jimmy rig your lens to get the aperture to stay open. 

5.  Not every camera is the same with free-lensing. I have tried free-lensing on both of my film cameras, my Nikon fm-10 35mm, and my Contax 645 medium format. By far the Contax is easier to freelens with. I believe the larger diameter and surface area of the lens plays in, as well as the clarity of the viewfinder. I have a much harder time getting anything in focus with my fm-10, and if I do it is at the extreme edge of the frame. Like I said, you will need to experiment a little and see what you can get in focus through the viewfinder, before ever taking a shot.

6.  Have fun! Freelensing can be frustrating at first, but when you do get the hang of it, it is addicting! So be ok with the process, and at some point being willing to take the risk and take some shots and see what happens. Sometimes, if you are like me, the shots that some would call mistakes and trash, may become your favorites. Freelensing reminds me of memories, and sometimes that is what it looks like to me, maybe not perfect but captures the moment perfectly. 

I hope this helps, and that you have some fun experimenting and seeing what freelensing can do for your images. It really can add a wow factor to an image, take it from good to great, and add a dreamy, otherworldly feel that mimics what our memories often actually look like. It can make you feel things, that maybe a perfect photo wouldn’t. It makes you look at things you may be used to seeing with new eyes, and shows how much a change in perspective affects things. I would recommend checking out Erin Hensley’s tutorial on free-lensing at if you have some questions and want to learn more, as she is a master of the subject and it is pretty comprehensive and helped me take my first leaps into free- lensing. 

See more of Kaitlyn's work here:

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