How to create a tilt-shift photograph.

Dubrovnik tilt-shiftContinuing on from last week’s miniature theme, another trick for making big things look small is the tilt-shift technique. Tilt-shift works by selectively blurring parts of your photo to give a very narrow band of focus, which you’d usually only see in macro photos. This has the effect of making a life-size scene look like a small scale model or toy. It’s most effective when used on cityscapes or urban scenes that have been photographed from above to give the kind of bird’s eye view you’d normally have when looking at a toy. But, like all good techniques, it’s also become popular in wedding and Instagram photography because by adding blur to a scene you can really draw the eye to your subject.

There are dedicated tilt-shift lenses that create this effect in camera but in my opinion they’re just not worth the expense for a gimmicky technique that can easily be created in Photoshop in less than 10 clicks. And I daresay there’s an app for that too.

How to photograph subjects for tilt-shift

Unlike all the other photography tricks I’ve covered in this blog creating a tilt-shift effect is super simple and doesn’t require any fancy in-camera tricks. While there’s no set rules for tilt-shift, your primary motive is to make a scene look toy-like so here’s a couple of tips to help achieve this effect.

  1. Try and find a simple, yet interesting scene. I like to include some people, vehicles or activity in the shot because that gives your photo interest and helps tell a story. My favourite tilt-shift examples are those taken at famous monuments or sporting arenas.
  1. Shoot a scene that has lots of depth. This is why tilt-shift scenes are usually photographed from an elevated position so there’s objects of interest in the foreground, middle ground and background. Some will suggest that tilt-shift doesn’t work on scenes that are photographed from directly in front or directly above but if you have enough depth and interest in your image it doesn’t matter where it’s shot from.

 

How to edit a tilt-shift photograph

  1. Load your photo (or photos if you’re playing around with a few) into Photoshop. Make sure the image is cropped how you desire.
    Original photo - Dubrovnik

    Original photo – Dubrovnik

    Quick Mask tool

    Quick Mask tool

  1. Enter Quick Mask mode by pressing Q or using the Quick Mask tool in your tool palette. This tool makes your selected areas turn red so you’ll easily be able to see your area of focus when you draw in your gradient.
  1. Press G to load your gradient tool or select it from the toolbar. In the tool’s options bar select the ‘Reflected Gradient’ which is the 4th icon along.

 

  1. Take a good look at your photo and decide exactly where you want the focus to be before you draw in the gradient.

     

    The first point of your gradient will be the area that is most in focus and the centre of your focus area. Draw a line upwards from this point to where you want your focus to start to fade away. Because you’ve only drawn the top half of the gradient, the tool then analyses this area and reflects it to the bottom portion. When drawing your gradient, keep in mind how focus works so if a subject is straight on to camera, its whole surface should be in focus and everything in front and behind will be out of focus. When you’ve drawn your gradient a red bar will show you the selected focus area and everything that’s not red will become blurry. It’s difficult to get this right on your first go so keep redrawing the gradient until you are happy.

 

  1. Exit Quick Mask mode by pressing Q again and the red bar will disappear and become a selection.
Your selected focus area

Your selected focus area

 

  1. Make sure your layer is selected.
  1. Go to Filter>Blur>Lens Blur
Select Lens Blur

Select Lens Blur

 

  1. Play around with the Radius slider to create your blur. I haven’t noticed much difference by changing the other sliders. Click OK when happy.
Lens blur sliders

Lens blur sliders

 

  1. Press Ctrl + D to deselect your focus area and check your results.

 

There’s a couple of extra steps you can take to really sell your miniature effect. Because scale models are brightly coloured it helps to saturate the colours of your image and add some contrast.

  1. Go to Image>Adjustments>Hue/Saturation and boost the saturation of your image to taste.
  2. If you’re familiar with S curves, add a curves adjustment layer and create an S curve to boost contrast. Otherwise a Brightness/Contrast adjustment layer may be easier to use and control.
Subtle saturation and contrast added

Subtle saturation and contrast added

 

And that’s it! Another effective technique to add to your post-processing arsenal to give some creative flare to your shots.

Here’s a few more examples I’ve created from photographs I took during a trip to Europe in 2013.

 

About this week’s image ‘Hats off to Venice’

‘Hats off to Venice’ is an idea I’ve had for quite some time that I thought would work well to demonstrate the tilt-shift effect. It’s a composite image created out of a photo of Venice taken from a cruise ship with the tilt-shift effect applied, a sky from an image of Stonehenge, a balloon lantern shot in my backyard, a photo of me shrunk down to fit inside the balloon and a falling hat. I wanted the result to look like a vintage postcard so I added a bunch of textures, some colour toning and tattered edging. Bon voyage!