Lens whacking, or free lensing, is a videography technique that adds a soft, ethereal effect to video. This technique can add a vintage feel to your footage, or the look of super 8 flare; it can add motion and drama to shots and add the extra creative touch to corporate video.
In simple terms, lens whacking is the manipulation of light by moving the lens away from the body of the camera, slowly or quickly, a lot or a little, whichever achieves the desired results.
What most camera operators like about lens whacking is the hands-on approach to adding effects to the shots. Sure, there are a whole library of effects to choose from in post-production, but lens whacking is manual, it’s working the camera while on a shoot, it’s about being there in the moment, it’s the live performance, working the creative as you go, and besides, as lens whackers will testify, the similar effects in post just don’t compare.
The word photography means to write or draw with light; lens whacking takes light play a step further and plays with depth of field and light leaks. Moving the lens off and on the camera body allows light leaks and flare into the image, how much light you let in is up to you. When you remove your lens completely, a lot of light hits the sensor resulting in a total wash of light that obliterates the image, so this is where a careful hand and creative sensitivity comes into play. With your hand held above the lens, you can use your fingers as a fan, opening and closing them to give you extra control over the angle and volume of light hitting the sensor.
Start by moving the lens a few millimetres and move up to a fingers width of space between the body and the lens, with practice, gauging how much light to let in becomes instinctive.
Lens whacking plays with focus and light and allows some tilt and shift play into the bargain. Adjusting the lens focus alters the distance you need to keep between the lens and the body of the camera. The recommended focal length is between 50mm and 135mm.
To use the lens whacking technique set the lens to infinity to let the right amount of light in between the lens and the body; when the focus is altered the proximity of lens to body also needs to be adjusted. This requires a decent amount of playing around before mastering the technique.
As a bonus, you will find that when it comes to post-production, lens whacking effects can help transition cuts flow smoothly.
Ways to Play
Whether for video or still photography,coordination is key to successful lens whacking, you are moving an extra piece of equipment so stabilizing the shot requires a little extra thought during the process. It’s best to focus on one element, and if the subject moves away, bring the lens closer to the camera body, if the subject moves closer, move the lens out from the body.
Always keep part of the lens touching the camera body, this helps minimize too much movement and light flare. As with all effects, too much is just – well – too much. When experimenting with this technique in your video, remember, it’s all about balance.
The only real concern about lens whacking is getting dust on the sensor, James Miller, lens whacking master, suggests fitting a piece of filter film into the lens mount hole, but all camera operators should know how to clean their sensor anyway, and when it comes to creative experimentation, you need to jump in and take a few risks.
Philip Bloom has an excellent how to article on Lens Whacking it’s well worth exploring, especially if you want to add a little extra creativity to a corporate video production. He also explores the difference between real lens whacking and the effect added in post.