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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.
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.
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.
I’ve written an extensive tutorial before on how to achieve the tilt-shift effect in Photoshop, but here’s a summary of the steps involved, and in video for visual learners:
- Press Q to enter quick mask mode.
- Using a large brush, paint your central focus point, covering about 1/4 to 1/3 of your entire photograph.
- Exit quick mask mode, and go to Filters -> Blur -> Lens Blur. Play with the radius to get the right basic effect.
- Play around with Image->Adjustments-> Hue and Saturation to get a suitably toy-like mix of garish colours.
- 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.
Android: Awesome Miniature Pro ($3.99) [No Longer Available]
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.
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.
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.
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.