Tilt Shift

June 10th, 2009

A photographic technique that you see a lot of these days is the tilt-shift. Essentially, the process is very simple: take a photo (a long shot works best, like a shot of a landscape from a height) and blur only the top and bottom of the image, the blur being feathered to a fair degree. What results is an image that makes everything in it look tiny, like a scale-model set.

This effect tricks the eye because of our natural perception of depth-of-field. When taking an image, the camera is focused on objects within a specific distance. For example, if I take a photo of a person standing ten feet away, I want to be focused on that person. But the camera will catch anything between, say, eight feet and twelve feet away as focused; the rest will be out of focus, the farther it is from that range. This is depth of field.

The more the camera’s shutter is closed (higher aperture, or f-stop), the greater the depth of field becomes and more is in focus. The wider the aperture, the narrower the depth of field becomes. This is used in portrait shots, where you want only the person you’re shooting to be in focus, with the background out of focus.

Depth of field, however, is most noticeable when you are close-up to something. If you take a photo of objects at a distance of,say, more than 30 or 40 feet away, it becomes harder to create a depth-of-field effect. When you take a landscape shot of objects far away, creating depth of field is virtually impossible. Therefore, our minds relate depth-of-field with closeness–if there is a gradient of focus, we assume that what we see is within a few feet of our eyes.

Thus, when you see photos like the ones below, you automatically think it must be a scale model:



These are not the best examples of the technique, but they were easy to make: I just took snaps of the view from my balcony window, emailed them to myself, and then uploaded them to Tilt Shift Maker, a web site that will make the transformation quickly and easily. Just upload the image, select an area to blur, and a few more clicks will send the altered image back to you.

Adobe Photoshop CS4 has the feature built-in, but I don’t have that version. You could still do the effect in other versions of Photoshop (select a band of the image and feather by a large amount, invert the selection, then apply a gaussian blur effect; otherwise you make a gradient mask in a more complex process), but the web site was just easier.

For added effect, I took the images above into Apple’s free Preview app and goosed the color saturation (scale models are usually painted with stronger colors than in real life).

For some reason, I never heard about this being used before Adobe came out with the feature in CS4. But now you see it a lot, including in the opening credits for the new TV show Dollhouse.


Anyway, a fun little tool if you want to play with it. Here’s a page with some good examples of tilt-shifting, and you can find tons more on the net with a simple search.

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