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Tilt-Shift Photos (and How to Fake Them)


Tilt-shift photography (also known in the industry as “swing and tilt”) is a method by which photographers can take an aerial shot of a real-life place that makes it look as though it’s a miniature model. It’s a fascinating effect, and I have always found it interesting how the lens can fool the eye into believing something that isn’t real simply by adjusting light and focus. The end-result is very cool, and always reminds me a bit of the intro to Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood.

Some Amazing Examples of Tilt-Shift Photography

While tilt-shift photography has been gaining momentum, photographers Olivo Barbieri and  Vincent LaForet were some of the first to bring this technique mainstream, with LaForet’s work featured in the New York Times and all over the country. I’ve included a few of his pieces here, but if you like this style, be sure to check out the New York Times photo slideshow (with fascinating audio) of his work, a great collection of 50 Beautiful Examples of Tilt-Shift Photography by Smashing Magazine, and a substantial collection on Funtasticus (although I suspect a few of these may be faked – but more on that later.)

Photo by Vincent LaForet
Photo by Vincent LaForet
Photo by Vincent LaForet
Photo by Vincent LaForet
Photo by Vincent LaForet
Photo by Vincent LaForet

So How Does it Work?

According to Wikipedia:

Tilt-shift photography refers to the use of camera movements on small- and medium format cameras. In many cases, it refers to tilting the lens relative to the image plane and using a large aperture to achieve a very shallow depth of field. The technique relies on the Scheimpflug principle [a geometric rule that describes the orientation of the plane of focus of an optical system (such as a camera) when the lens plane is not parallel to the image plane] and usually requires the use of special lenses.

“Tilt-shift” actually encompasses two different types of movements: rotation of the lens, called tilt, and movement of the lens parallel to the image plane, called shift. Tilt is used to control the orientation of the plane of focus (PoF), and hence the part of an image that appears sharp. Shift is used to control perspective, usually involving the convergence of parallel lines.

Applying tilt on a small- or medium-format camera usually requires a tilt-shift lens or perspective control lens; shift can be applied with the same type of lens or with a lens that offers only the shift movement.

An article on Cheapshooter describes it like this:

A tilt-shift lens allows the photographer very exacting control over the depth-of-field in an image, much more than any regular lens could provide. Focus can be restricted to a single, narrow band, with everything else rapidly blurring away. This distorts the appearance and makes the eye think that distances are a lot smaller than they typically are. When applied to a large scene like a city or a museum, everything appears miniature.

Tilt-shift and perspective-correction lenses are available for many SLR cameras, but most are far more expensive than comparable lenses without movements. The Lensbaby SLR lens is a low-cost alternative for providing tilt and swing for many SLR cameras, although the effect is somewhat different from that of the lenses just described. Because of the simple optical design, aberrations are significant, and sharp focus is limited to a region near the lens axis. Consequently, the Lensbaby’s primary application is selective focus. If that’s what you’re looking for, however, the Lensbaby may be a great (and affordable) choice.

Tilt-Shift for the Rest of Us: Miniature Faking

Unlike my amazingly talented husband, who is a professional photographer (among other things), I am less-than-awesome behind a camera. I’ve managed to pull off a few decent shots in my life, but only thanks to digital cameras, and taking thousands of shots, hoping one might come out the way I want. Seriously, if I were kidnapped by that bad guy from the Saw franchise, and all I had to do to get out was take a decent photo using a camera that doesn’t auto-focus, I’d be dead.

My skills are more in the post-production area, using Photoshop to create the effect I am not capable of achieving through my camera alone. I can fake it, even though I can’t make it.

And just like everything else genuine and cool in this world, you have to figure that eventually someone would figure out how to fake it.

In principle, it’s not hard to make a fake: essentially, pick an area in a photo that you want to sharpen, then blur the rest. (Unnatural color saturation, one helpful fake-tilt-shift tutorial offers, “makes it look more as if it’s built from polystyrene and lichen.”) In practice, it’s a little harder and takes some time, but the end results are really fun.

Two excellent tutorials on using Photoshop to turn a regular photo into a faked tilt-shift photo can be found on TiltShiftPhotography.Net and Receding Hairline, although like any other tutorial for photo editing, it’s not an exact formula since every photo is different. Once you get a feel for the process, you’ll want to play around with the settings until you get the end result you’re looking for.

If you don’t have any aerial photos laying around to practice on, consider using Google Earth.  To get an idea of exactly how amazing this effect can be using Google Earth images, check out this video on the Google Earth Blog, that does a video flyover of San Francisco using faked tilt-shift photos based on images from Google Earth. Simply incredible.

And, For the Truly Lazy…

The website TiltShiftMaker.Com lets you upload your own real-life photos, and use a simple interface to select the area you want to focus on. Click a button, and boom, you’re done. If you’re skeptical that it can be that easy, check out their gallery on Flickr and see for yourself.

About the author


I'm a tech nerd from NY/CA now living in Lisbon, Portugal. I run Grokability, Inc, and run several open source projects, including Snipe-IT Asset Management. Tweet at me @snipeyhead, skeet me at, or read more...

By snipe
Snipe.Net Geeky, sweary things.

About Me

I'm a tech nerd from NY/CA now living in Lisbon, Portugal. I run Grokability, Inc, and run several open source projects, including Snipe-IT Asset Management. Tweet at me @snipeyhead, skeet me at, or read more...

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