How to Simulate Tilt-Shift Lens Effects Using Lightroom


We’ve all at one point been enamoured by the effects produced by tilt-shift or PC (perspective control) lenses.

Even in wide-angle shots, the extremely narrow field of focus transforms the scene into a surreal miniature world. It can be hard to decipher whether it’s actually a close-up of a tiny model scene, or the result of the visual trickery that a tilt-shift lens can produce.

Tilt-shift effect applied to a beach scene.

The tilt-shift effect can be used on more than city street scenes. Use your imagination and be creative!

Besides the nifty miniaturization effect, these high-end specialty lenses are imperative for professional architectural photography. Tilt-shift lenses are basically split into two, parallel to the lens, elements and enable you to tilt the front of the lens barrel in relation to the rear portion, or slide it parallel.

Without actually changing the physical location of the camera, these adjustments allow you to alter the perceived perspective. The most practical application of this effect is to eliminate certain types of distortion, especially the keystone effect.

The keystone effect refers to the convergence of parallel lines which occurs when a camera’s sensor is not parallel to them. You have seen this distortion a million times when the camera was pointed upward at a tall building. It looks as if the building is about to fall over backwards, and it creates the illusion that it is wider at the bottom and continually narrows to the top. The same thing happens with horizontal lines but is often less noticeable, or detrimental to the image.

Although tilt-shift lenses have other practical uses, these are the two that can be replicated effectively in post-processing: creating a miniature effect, and fixing certain kinds of lens distortion.

Eliminating Converging Lines Distortion

Correcting lens distortion in Lightroom (LR) is fairly straightforward with a couple of considerations to keep in mind. I’ll use a night shot of the Petronas Tower in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia as an example.

1. Straighten first.

If the image you are working with has a distinct horizontal or vertical line which you know to be level or plumb, use the Straighten tool located within the Crop tool (keyboard shortcut R) to align the image before making any lens corrections.

The Level tool can be found beside the Align slider or activated by holding CTRL key.

The Level tool can be found within the Crop panel beside the Align slider, or activated by holding CTRL key.

To align the image using a vertical line, it must be near the center of the image due to the distortion which you are about to fix. With the Crop tool active, you can either grab the Level tool located beside the Angle slider, or hold down the CTRL key and drag the cursor along the chosen line and LR will rotate the image to level or plumb.

Note: new in LR6 or LRCC is the Auto function of the crop tool which attempts to do this for you. Alternatively, the Rotate slider in Lens Corrections can be used with similar results.

2. Open the Lens Corrections panel and click on the Manual tab.

Distortion corrections are made in the Lens Corrections panel.

Distortion corrections are made in the Lens Corrections panel.

3. Check the Constrain Crop box.

Note: As is often the case in life, you don’t get something for nothing. When LR manipulates the image to fix these lines, it must also crop it. You can also crop it manually after you adjust the image, but it is easy to inadvertently leave a little gray strip somewhere along the edge of your image by not cropping it enough.

4. Adjust the sliders

There are several ways to adjust sliders: dragging the slider itself, clicking the name of the slider and using the +/- keys, clicking the value on the right of the slider and dragging the cursor left or right, clicking the value and entering the desire value or clicking the value and using the arrow keys to make micro adjustments. I recommend the latter for accuracy.

5. Show the grid

Hovering the mouse over any of the sliders will show a grid over the image to help guide your adjustment. For this image, a -18 compensation straightens the lines right up.

A before and after showing corrections for converging lines.

A before and after showing corrections for converging lines.

If you plan on shooting architecture and utilizing this feature instead of dropping $1,400 on a tilt-shift lens, it may benefit you to activate the crop tool (keyboard shortcut R) to get an idea of how much LR cropped your image. This will give you a point of reference while composing scenes in the future.

Creating a Miniaturization Effect

The tilt-shift effect of severely softening most of an image to isolate a small sharp strip can be simulated in post-processing very effectively. Although there are a couple of different ways to achieve this effect in Lightroom, I find the following to be the easiest and most effective.

Golden Gate Bridge with the tilt-shift effect applied.

The tilt-shift effect can add another level of interest to certain photographs.

Keep in mind that not every photo is a good candidate for this effect. You can find good advice about image selection in the article An Introduction to Tilt-Shift Photography.

1. Process the image as you normally would.

Boosting sharpening, contrast and saturation can help exaggerate the effect.

2. Activate and setup the Adjustment Brush (keyboard shortcut K).

Drag the Sharpening slider all the way down to -100. I also like to reduce Clarity which adds a bit of glow and exacerbates the effect.

3. Show the Mask Overlay box (keyboard shortcut O)

This will allow you to clearly see where the effect is being applied (shift+O will rotate through different mask colors, you may find red is better one image whereas green may work on another).

5. Adjust the brush settings

Setup such things as brush size, flow, etc. Spend a few minutes experimenting with different combinations of these settings to find what works best for your image. CTRL+Z (CMD+Z on Mac) is your friend here.

6. Blur most of the image less a small strip

Holding down the shift key while you click and drag the brush horizontally across your image will apply the effect in a straight line. The goal is to blur the entire image except for a small strip. Make one line across the upper boundary and one line across the lower boundary of the strip you wish to isolate. You can then release the shift key and paint in the remainder of the areas. The in focus strip should account for 20 per cent or less of the image area. If the strip is too big, the effect will be weak.

Holding down the shift key will keep the brush level to paint a straight line.

Holding down the shift key will keep the brush level to paint a straight line.

7. Repeat to increase the effect.

Repeating the previous step several times will compound the effect. To repeat the step, click on New at the top of the Adjustment Brush panel – this will remove the mask to reveal the most recently applied effects, and allow you to add a new pin (brush strokes) and repeat the process.

Before applying the effect to a photo of Penang, Malaysia.

Before applying the effect to a photo of Penang, Malaysia.

After application of the miniaturization effect.

After application of the miniaturization effect.

The effect can also be applied using the Graduated Filter tool but I find it ends up blurring the entire image to some extent and is less effective.

This is a starting point from which to experiment with the effect. Everybody’s tastes differ, so although the general process will remain constant, go crazy with the other variables and see what happens!

Read more from our Post Production category

Jeremie Schatz is a freelance photographer, photojournalist, journalist, copyeditor and videographer for a variety of clients and companies in the United States and Thailand. Find his portfolio of colorful images and more of his writing at Exposed World Photography and on Facebook.

  • Morgan Glassco

    Wouldn’t this be better to do with the Graduated filter?

  • Michal Rosa

    No. Graduated filter makes part of the image darker, not blurry. Do you even photo?

  • Michal Rosa

    Just don’t do it. It’s an effect that requires an artist to really make it work. It’s one of those things that many try to do, very few can pull it off.

  • Morgan Glassco

    Haha @michalrosa:disqus the guy that doesn’t know that the Graduated Filter has the same setting options as the Adjustment Brush but thinks he is in a position to call out other photographers. Tool

  • The writer mentions why he doesn’t do it that way: The effect can also be applied using the Graduated Filter tool but I find it ends up blurring the entire image to some extent and is less effective.

    But you may have more success. You can do it either way.

  • The Graduated filter in Lightroom can apply any of the same settings including: exposure, saturation, clarity, sharpness, contrast, color tint, etc. It is not just for darkening. Here are some articles that explain it

    Hope that helps.

  • I get the point but let’s refrain from the name calling please. Thanks.

  • Neoh Soon Hueng

    Hi Jeremy,

    Good to see the photos of my hometown being featured in this example. I believe you must be staying in City Bayview during your visit to Penang. Do come visit us more often.

  • robra

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  • Puntore

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  • I use OnOne’s Perfect Effects – their tilt-shift filter is great. You can get Perfect Effects free during a promotion.

  • Jeremie

    The Graduated Filter can certainly create a similar effect but it is less precise and the adjustment brush is quick and easy.

  • Jeremie

    I have visited Penang several times and love it. Friendly people, great food and a very photogenic city!

  • Jeremie

    Like any type of art, the quality of the results are subjective. I encourage people to learn as many methods and tricks as possible. Of course not everything you learn is applicable to every photo, but it’s good to have the skills and knowledge if you bring home a image that’s a good candidate.

  • Helen Raynor

    Great, clear and concise, I’m going to give it a go! Thanks

  • Muhammad Bilal

    thanks for the article Jeremie .. what to do next after applying the red on selected area ?
    a little help will be appreciated. thankyou

  • Neoh Soon Hueng

    Sure, do let me know on your next trip. We can hang out and have a few drinks.

  • Evelyn
  • Jeremie

    Go to step number 7. After you repeat the painting step several times, you can click on the Adjustment Brush to de-activate the tool which will remove the mask. You can always activate the Adjustment Brush again and repeat the steps if necessary.

  • Jeremie

    Thanks! Feel free to share your results with everyone.

  • mamino

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    fu? time ?ude?t. Im ??g a? ??l?e b??e?? ?pp?rtu?ity I heard ab?ut a?d I've g?t ?id

    ?uch great m??ey. It'? act??y ?er frie?dly a?d I'm j?t ?? ?ppy t?t I f?u?d ?ut ab?ut

    it. Here? w?t I d?,

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  • With the new Lightroom you can do both! Start with the Graduated filter then brush in and out details to constrain the blur where you want it, like those light poles on the Golden Gate Bridge.

  • denise.garci
  • Holly5896
  • janet.taylor24
  • Susie in Sarasota

    Jeremie, thanks for this tutorial – very easy to follow and great information! I tried the SHIFT+Click & Drag with the Adjustment brush, but I got a very uneven line. Here’s what I did: Clicked Adjustment Brush; Pointed to the left edge of my image; Pressed SHIFT+Left Mouse Click; Dragged across to the right side and let go of the SHIFT and mouse.

    Can you comment on what I may have done wrong? I’ve included a screen shot so you could see the line and the settings. Thanks!

  • Yes it’s very hard to see this way as we can’t see the line or the whole image. Feather set to 0 will give you a very hard edge, you want that set much higher.

  • Jeremie

    Susie, good news, it’s an easy solution. In the Adjustment brush panel on the right you will notice an option for Auto Mask towards the bottom. You need to uncheck that box. The Auto Mask feature tells LR to automatically detect areas of varying tone or color and exclude those areas from your selection, hence the random splotches in your screenshot. Good luck!

  • Gordon

    Was there any name calling? He was asking a legit question based on your comment. Cheers!

  • “tool”

  • Rick

    I also found that adding a little extra saturation strengthens the effect. Closeup pictures of small objects don’t suffer from ambient desaturation as far away objects do. Works for me. Cheers and thanks for the great tutorials.

  • Dave packer

    just found this link from a Facebook group, cant wait to try it out, LOVE LR cheers

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