Phototgraphy

Tilt-Shift Photography: A Simple Introduction

How to do amazing tilt-shift photography

Some photographers enjoy portraiture, where they can capture the essence of a person; others enjoy photographing action at a football game, or birds soaring through the air, or the intimate gaze shared by a newlywed couple.

Me? I like to shrink things.

I’m talking about tilt-shift photography, a genre that seems to have gained in popularity over the last handful of years. It’s all about taking a photograph of a real-world scene and making it look like a miniature scene. Highly detailed miniatures have always fascinated me, so tilt-shift photography was a natural draw. The White House? Shrink it. Piccadilly Circus? Make it Lilliput Lane!

What’s not to love?

Below, I’ve shared all the basics of tilt-shift photography. That way, you can learn how to create a miniature effect just like mine – either in-camera or with post-processing.

Let’s dive right in!

What is tilt-shift photography?

Tilt-shift photography involves applying a miniaturization effect to the image, which makes the scene look like a toy model:

A tilt-shift effect before and after
My original aerial photo can look like a tiny world – and it’s all thanks to the tilt-shift effect!

As you can see in the example above, the tilt-shift effect relies on both foreground and background blurring to create the illusion of a small world.

Now, tilt-shift photography can be done in two broad ways:

  1. Optically, using a tilt-shift lens. Tilt-shift lenses do a great job of creating the effect that we’re after. The problem is that they’re very expensive, and there aren’t very many options to choose from. That’s why most photographers prefer to create the effect using the second technique:
  2. In post-processing, generally using Photoshop. The procedure in Photoshop is not complicated, and once you become relatively familiar with the steps, it can be accomplished in as little as one minute.

I recommend the post-processing route, but it’s worth mentioning that you don’t even need to own Photoshop (or any editing program) to make a tilt-shift photo. Tiltshiftmaker.com has a free service that lets you create the effect with an uploaded photo. And if you want a bit more control, you can always use Fotor’s online tilt-shift feature.

How to choose a photo for the tilt-shift treatment

Like anything in photography, the tilt-shift effect can be done, but can it be done well? That’s the question. You can’t use any random photo – instead, you must choose the right kind of image. And once a candidate photo is picked, the tilt-shift post-processing procedure must also be done correctly.

A tilt-shift photo example

So what constitutes a good photo for a tilt-shift treatment? Here’s what I’ve discovered:

  • The photo should be taken from above, but not directly overhead. This reflects what someone taking a photo of a miniature scene would likely do; it’s unlikely they would (or even could) be directly above the subject. And if you do have a direct overhead shot, you generally won’t end up with a deep depth of field, which is very important. You can capture this type of image using a drone, but an easier approach is to shoot city scenes from the window of a building or the top of a parking garage.
  • A simple scene is usually better than a complicated scene. This is because miniature scenes are usually simple, and we’re trying to mimic a toy model. You wouldn’t find a dense city block, for example, in a model railroad scene. 
  • The photo must be tack-sharp and well-lit. There will be enough blur in the photo from the tilt-shift effect. Your focal point must be sharp; otherwise, the impact will be lost. You also want to ensure you have plenty of depth of field in your initial file, and that the shot is well-exposed, without deep shadows. (The goal is to keep things relatively bright!)
  • If people are in the scene, they need to be relatively small and light on detail. Once again, this is to reflect what you’d see in a real miniature scene. People are small and not well-detailed in miniature scenery!
  • Make sure the scene is interesting. You can create a convincing tilt-shift effect with a variety of aerial photos, but for the most impact, you should go for an image with interest. An aerial photo of a cathedral with spires and flying buttresses is interesting, while an aerial photo of a flat-topped shopping mall is a lot less eye-catching.
A tilt-shift photo example
Was this scene a good candidate for tilt-shift photography? In some ways, yes. It’s taken from above but not directly overhead, the buildings are well-lit, and there are plenty of interesting elements. On the other hand, the scene is fairly complex, which arguably makes the effect less convincing.

Now, if you don’t have any aerial images in your portfolio, or you simply don’t enjoy shooting aerials, can you still do tilt-shift photography? Yes, absolutely! But I recommend getting as high off the ground as possible, even if it just means shooting at eye level. And for the most convincing effects, you’ll definitely need to experiment with different subjects and scenes.

A tilt-shift photo example featuring a skier
This simple scene wasn’t shot from high above, but the effect works pretty well!

One quick tip: Make sure you get far back from the objects in your scene so that everything feels far away from your lens. That way, even if you’re not shooting from above, your shot will have a clear sense of scale!

How to create the tilt-shift effect: the basics

Once you’ve selected an image, then the tilt-shift treatment can begin. I use Photoshop, and while I won’t go into too much depth here, I’ll give you a brief overview of the process.

First, you’ll want to determine your point of interest. This is the most important part of the shot – it’s where the viewer will look when they encounter the image. My recommendation is to ensure your point of interest is eye-catching from the get-go: a shiny building, a soaring church spire, etc.

Creating the tilt-shift effect in Photoshop

Next, you’ll want to duplicate your background layer (that way, you can always work on the copied layer – and if you mess up, or you want to start over, you can just make a new copy of the background layer and try again).

Make sure your duplicate layer is selected, then choose Filter>Blur Gallery>Tilt-Shift.

Creating the tilt-shift effect in Photoshop

The Tilt-Shift dialog will appear, and you should click on the central circle and drag it to your point of interest to ensure the effect radiates from the right spot.

Creating the tilt-shift effect in Photoshop

You can also adjust the blur intensity by dragging the Blur slider on the right-hand side, and you can drag the different tool guidelines to make the blur encroach on your point of interest more (or less) tightly.

When you like the effect, go ahead and click OK.

Next, I like to apply a Hue/Saturation adjustment (Image>Adjustments>Hue/Saturation), where I boost the Master Saturation slider to around +30.

Sometimes, I’ll also boost the saturation of select colors – basically, the colors that I want to pop, such as the greens of the grass and trees, the reds of bright cars, etc. (In miniature models, colors tend to be very bold and saturated, hence this step.)

Finally, using the Curves tool (Image>Adjustments>Curves), I’ll enhance the contrast of the image. Here, I generally just boost the right-hand side of the curve, thereby intensifying the light parts of the image while leaving the shadows relatively detailed.

And that’s pretty much it! You can always play around with additional adjustments, but the above workflow should get you a convincing tilt-shift photo.

Go create some amazing tilt-shift photos!

A city street with the tilt-shift effect applied

If you’ve made it this far, I’m sure you’ll agree with me that tilt-shift photography can be a ton of fun!

It’s also a great way to turn relatively straightforward images into something much more compelling, without investing in expensive gear.

Like I said, not every image is a good candidate for tilt-shift photography, but it’s definitely worth playing around to see what you can create! Don’t just follow my advice; instead, experiment with all sorts of images. Maybe you’ll hit upon a new kind of photo that works great with the tilt-shift effect.

Of course, we’d love to see the images you create – so be sure to share your favorite tilt-shift shots in the comments below!

Patrick Ashley is the founder and chief blogger of Tiltshiftable, a blog dedicated to informing and teaching others about the technique of tilt-shift photography.



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