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Tilt-shifting is a popular way of presenting digital photos which “miniaturises” a scene – giving the impression it’s a toy or model diorama. Several tools now exist which can help you apply this effect to existing photos, so let’s take a look at your options.

Fundamentals

Before we get into the tools themselves, it’s important you have a basic understanding of what the effect actually is, and why it works – this will help you to get the best results.

Take a pen and hold right in front of your eyes, focussing on it. Your peripheral vision – everything else except for the pen – will be blurred. This is called a shallow depth of field. Now look out the window at something distant – everything is in focus. Tilt-shifting is about giving the illusion that a far away object is actually really close up, by creating a false shallow depth of field. In layman’s terms – if you take an object that would normally be seen from far away, and blur out parts of the image, it will look like it is directly in front of your eyes – and the only way that would be physically possible is if it was a model. That’s why tilt-shift photography works.

Remember then that not all photographs are good candidates for the effect. Here’s a quick guide:

  • Keep it simple – models tend to not be that complex.
  • Photos looking down from above (but not directly above) work best.
  • The focal area must be sharp – tilt-shift won’t magically sharpen your out of focus photos!

Real tilt-shift photography involves the use of a special lens. This video from Still Motion blog explains the usage quite clearly with great examples.

DIY Lens

Actual tilt-shift lens can costs thousands of dollars; you can make your own for a fraction of the cost with some bits of plastic, a plunger, an old oversized lens, and a hot glue gun. Put your MacGuyver pants on, and watch this Make Magazine video to learn how.

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Photoshop

I’ve written an extensive tutorial before on how to achieve the tilt-shift effect in Photoshop How To Make Your Own Tilt Shift Scenes In Photoshop How To Make Your Own Tilt Shift Scenes In Photoshop Read More , but here’s a summary of the steps involved, and in video for visual learners:

  1. Press Q to enter quick mask mode.
  2. Using a large brush, paint your central focus point, covering about 1/4 to 1/3 of your entire photograph.
  3. Exit quick mask mode, and go to Filters -> Blur -> Lens Blur. Play with the radius to get the right basic effect.
  4. Play around with Image->Adjustments-> Hue and Saturation to get a suitably toy-like mix of garish colours.
  5. Got to Image->Adjustments->Levels, dragging in the left and right sliders to increase contrast.

iPhone: TiltShiftGen 2 ($0.99)

A paid update to the original TiltShift Generator app, this still takes the top spot as the best tilt-shift app for iPhone and iPad. If you’re stuck on an iPhone for or older iOS versions, I would use the “>original app instead. The process is as simple as choosing your photo and focus details, but you can also tweak the saturation and apply filter effects if you wish.

tiltshiftgen2

Android: Awesome Miniature Pro ($3.99)

A comprehensive tool with different blur shapes, saturation and exposure adjustment, and even live preview. Note, some users are reporting licensing errors – I’m unable to test this, so let us know in the comments if you’re experienced this too or know of a better alternative. There’s also a free version of this app.

Online: TiltShiftMaker.net 

A quick and easy tool but with little room for tweaking. There are sliders to adjust the focus area size and strength, but you’re limited to a horizontal plane and colour enhancement is an on/off choice.

tiltshiftmakernet

This is how my image of a busy Kyoto station turned out – not great. I would have preferred to adjust the saturation a lot more.

tiltshiftmaker-example

Remember, you can also apply the tilt-shift effect to video too if you have a tool like Adobe Premiere or After Effects at your disposal. Another interesting photo effect you might be interested in is High Dynamic Range; and you’ll find even more fun effects in Part 4 of our complete Photoshop guide.

I think there’s still some life in the tilt-shift effect yet – I give it a few years before someone builds a social network around it, millions of clone apps are made, it gets purchased by Facebook and finally gets integrated by Apple into the iPhone core camera feature rendering all the other apps useless. That’s how the Internet works, right? Link to your best work in the comments, or tell us how overused you think tilt-shift is now.

  1. Zaphod Beeblebrox
    January 2, 2014 at 2:28 pm

    @James B: Slartibartfast and Wolfgang are both correct. All the above techniques except the DIY lens SIMULATE tilt-shift lens photography.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tilt%E2%80%93shift_photography

    Tilt–shift photography is the use of camera movements on small- and medium-format cameras, and sometimes specifically refers to the use of tilt for selective focus, often for simulating a miniature scene. Sometimes the term is used when the shallow depth of field is simulated with digital post-processing; the name may derive from the tilt–shift lens normally required when the effect is produced optically.

    • James B
      January 2, 2014 at 3:07 pm

      Thanks, but I never said it wasn't a simulation. What I disagreed with was the claim that tilt-shift had nothing to do with focus, or depth of field. It clearly does: Slartibartfast was claiming the only use of tilt-shift is to "correct perspective".

  2. BPD
    October 21, 2013 at 12:11 pm

    Snapseed works very well for this too...

  3. Wolfgang Grajonka
    October 21, 2013 at 12:24 am

    I'm with Slartibartfast on this. Why else would it be called "tilt-shift"?

    http://www.northlight-images.co.uk/content_images_2/modify-tse-lens/modified-tse-90.jpg

    • James B
      January 2, 2014 at 3:10 pm

      What does it matter what the original tilt-shift lens was created for? It can be used to create this effect; and this effect is known as "tilt shift". What's the problem exactly?

    • Alfonzo Garboon
      May 5, 2015 at 1:24 pm

      The problem is the "tilt-shift" name is being applied to a well-known effect in photographic circles that's been used more than a century. So when someone uses the term, if the listener is a serious photographer, she/he needs to figure out which tilt-shift is being referred to.

      Using a term to refer to an already existing concept--regardless who started it--causes confusion. Saying, "Your wrong" and "What does it matter" doesn't enhance your credibility or people's desire to read your columns. Were you not aware of the previous use of the term?

      I know. You don't care. If it wasn't invented in your lifetime, it doesn't count.

    • James Bruce
      May 5, 2015 at 1:34 pm

      The title makes it quite obvious how the term is being used, so there should be no confusion. This clearly wasn't an article aimed at the "serious photographer".

  4. Slartibartfast
    October 20, 2013 at 7:58 pm

    Sorry to break it to you, but tilt-shift has NOTHING to do with what is in focus. Tilt-shift is a technique for correcting for perspective in-camera. It is usually used to make it look like a tall building was photographed from mid-height rather than ground level. It may have some depth of field side effects, but that is not what a tilt-shift lens is for at all

    • James B
      October 20, 2013 at 8:02 pm

      You're wrong. What you've described is a single use case of tilt shift, but certainly not the only one. This is the more commonly understood definition of tilt shift "effect".

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