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An Introduction to Tilt-Shift Photography

A Guest Post by Patrick Ashley

Some photographers enjoy portraiture, capturing the essence of a person; others enjoy capturing a fast moment in a football game, or a delicate moment of a newly wed couple.

I like to shrink things.

Tilt-shift photography (or “miniature faking”) is a photographic genre that seems to have been gaining popularity in the last few years. Essentially, it’s taking a photograph of a real-world scene and making it look like a miniature scene, such as you’d find in a model railroader’s setup. 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?

Tilt Shift Example.jpeg

Tilt-shift effects are done either optically, via a special (and expensive) lens, or more usually, in Photoshop. The procedure in Photoshop is not complicated; it can be accomplished in as little as one minute by those with experience. You don’t even need to have Photoshop to make a tilt-shift photo; tiltshiftmaker.com has a free service for you, using your own photo. And of course, there’s a couple of iPhone apps for that.

Like anything in photography, it can be done, but can it be done well? That’s the question. Not just any photo can be used; and once a candidate photo is considered, the tilt shift post processing procedure must be done right as well.

At tiltshiftable.com (site no longer live), I’ve got a post up about what constitutes a good candidate photo for a tilt shift treatment:

  • The photo must be taken from above, but not directly overhead. This only reflects what someone taking a photo of a miniature scene would likely do; it’s unlikely they would (or even could) be level to the subject. If you have a direct over shot, you won’t be able to get a decent depth of field that is required.
  • A simple scene is usually better than a complicated one. This is because miniature scenes are usually very simple; you wouldn’t find a dense city block, for example, in a model railroad scene. 
  • Photo sharpness is a must, as well as good lighting. There will be enough blur in the photo as it is; your focal point must be sharp.
  • If people are in the scene, they need to be fairly obscure and small. Again, reflecting what you’d see in a real miniature scene. People are very small, and not well detailed in miniature scenery. 
  • Generally, avoid wide shots, and make sure the scene is interesting – for instance, an aerial photo of a cathedral with spires and flying buttresses is interesting, while an aerial photo of a flat-topped shopping mall would not be.

Once the photo is selected, then the tilt shift treatment can begin. I use Photoshop, and while a complete tutorial is out of the scope of this post, you can find tutorials at tiltshiftable.com (site no longer live). Yet, I can give you a brief over view of the process. First, you determine what your point of interest (and therefore focus) will be in the photo. You create a mask, they use the gradient tool on the mask to select was is to be in focus, and how the blur gradient will be placed. The the Lens Blur filter is applied. The gradient placement and amount of Lens Blur usually requires some trial and error to get right. Once it is satisfactory, the look of being a miniature is already apparent. Next, I kick up the master saturation level about 30%, giving more to greens sometimes, or other colors that you want to pop out. In miniature scenes, typically colors are very bold and saturated, hence this step. Finally, using the Curves tool, I will enhance the contrast in the high tonal highlights of the photo. That’s pretty much it, in brief. 

At tiltshiftable, we don’t just feature tilt shift photos – though we do have a Pic of the Day feature. We also have mesmerizing tilt shift videos, tips for achieving a convincing tilt shift effect, where to find photos to tilt shift, and much more. 

Patrick Ashley is the author is the founder and chief blogger of tiltshiftable.com (update: site no longer live), a blog dedicated to informing and teaching others about the technique of photographic tilt shift.

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