Tutorial – Tilt shift miniature effect with photoshop CS6

The tilt and shift effect is one of my favourite photographic techniques. It allows us to recreate the focus effect created by using macro lenses to photograph small objects close up, fooling the viewer into thinking they are looking at a model or toy town rather than real buildings and people.

First what is tilt and shift?

A regular lens is designed to sit straight in line with your sensor, giving a flat image plane and even focus across the image. Focus can be moved away from or toward the lens but stays the same across the sensor. By tilting the lens up, down, left or right we can change the focus distance across the image and selectively focus on one part of the picture.

In contrast, shifting a lens from the centre of the image plane changes the way your camera sees converging lines. When you photograph a building from ground level the vertical lines converge towards the top of the image. By shifting the lens upwards from centre vertical lines can be corrected giving a more realistic representation. This is often used by architectural photographers but with the huge cost of tilt and shift lenses this is not an option for everyone. Photoshop offers very good distortion correction so this is no longer a real issue on digital. We’ll be concentrating on the ’tilt’ effect.

When you take a picture of a city scene, even with a large aperture setting you will find that most of your image is in fairly crisp focus. When photographing on a macro scale the opposite is true, achieving a large depth of field is very difficult so we associate that shallow focus with photographing small objects.

This effect is in vogue right now and has been used a lot by the BBC and in various sports coverage. The recent series ‘Sherlock’ used tilt lens filming in its intros to great effect.

Fortunately for us Adobes photoshop CS6 includes some great new tools for creative focus effects. We’re going to be looking at the tilt shift and iris blur tools.

First we need an appropriate picture. I’m going to be using this shot of Liverpool One shopping centre.

Unedited capture pre tilt.
Unedited capture pre tilt.

I deliberately found a high vantage point and included lots of people in the frame. Buildings tend to convert well so I’ve made sure there are some in the top of the image. I used a 50mm lens on FX to keep a natural perspective. Wide lenses don’t tend to work as well so 50-85mm is a good place to start.

It’s easy to imagine that this image will work but it’s way too flat and has fairly even focus across the frame. First thing is to make it look less real.

In Lightroom or Photoshop I level the highlights and shadows a little. Then boost the contrast, saturation and vibrance. Toys and models tend to be painted in vibrant primary colours so I’m looking for the reds and yellows in the frame to really pop.

Because this was shot in RAW I have the option to alter the colour temperature and I warm it up in Lightroom to give it a lamp lit look. This will take some practice and each image is different. At this stage the image looks pretty bad as a standard landscape shot but hopefully it looks something like this.

With contrast, exposure and saturation adjustments
With contrast, exposure and saturation adjustments

Now into CS6 and onto the blur tools panel.  The first thing to do is copy the image to a new layer. This means that whatever adjustments you make, you have the original intact. Yes you can use the history panel but trust me, press cmd-j to create a new layer copy and work on that.

First we’ll try ‘Filter>Blur>Tilt-shift‘ you should be presented with a screen with a letterbox area over your image and a control dial in the middle.

  • The area you are keeping in focus can be moved by clicking and dragging the centre of the circle.
  • The size and rotation of the area can be adjusted by dragging the white dots on the middle lines.
  • The transition area from focus to blur can be controlled by dragging the dotted lines.
  • The amount of blur can be controlled either with the slider on the right or by clicking an area within the outer circle.
Using the tilt-shift filter
Using the tilt-shift filter

Make sure you have the ‘preview’ box checked top-centre to see your changes in real time. You can see that this tilt-shift effect works well for most of the image but we have a few problems. The biggest of these is the building on the right. Despite the whole building being the same distance from the camera we have a clear section half way up with the base and top being blurred. If we had no structures such as this in the frame the tilt-shift filter would work well. For this example it might be best to apply an ‘iris -blur’ instead.

‘Filter>Blur>Iris blur’ gives us a slightly different interface. This time the centre controls are the same but the area we are controlling now starts as an oval and can be stretched to fit a specific area. This tool does take some getting used to, by dragging the white dots around you can only change the size of the inner area. The shape must be controlled using the outer edge so if you need to stretch the oval wide make sure to press the ‘f’ key as soon as you open Photoshop to allow full screen viewing.  The iris is ideal for keeping the focus in the area we need with a setup something like this.

Using CS6's Iris blur to focus on one part of the image
Using CS6’s Iris blur to focus on one part of the image

Once you are happy with the result click ‘ok’ to render the final image. Don’t be afraid to push the contrast and colour and play about with different settings. Below are examples all shot in the same day. Some work better than others, for example the less details you can see on a person the better it can be. Some images have multiple zones of focus and some are very quick and simple.

I hope this tutorial has been helpful. Now go out and shoot!

Don't be shy.. leave a comment.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s