Simulate the tilt shift miniature effect in Photoshop

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Author Image - Phil Middlemass

By Phil Middlemass

Our Creative Director giving his opinion on 17 years in the digitial industry working with leading brands and companies

Tilt shift is a photography technique using special lenses that can be moved and angled adjusting the position of the focal point in the lens and altering the depth of field. Tilt shift isn't new, some of the first cameras ever developed were capable of tilt shift. Many old cameras used a lens attached to the front of collapsing bellow, this bellow was used in much the same way as a modern tilt shift lens to alter focal point and depth of field on the image.

'Miniature faking' is probably the best known effect that can be achieved using tilt shift, using the manipulation of depth of field to simulate a macro photograph using large as life, real world scenes.

But not everyone has access to, or can afford a tilt lens, fear not, Photoshop is your best friend and can allow you simulate the tilt shift miniature effect using a layer mask and the Lens Blur filter. Better still, you can apply this method to any suitable photograph in your collection.

The importance of selection

Choosing the right photograph is crucial for the effect to work at it's best. Avoid existing macro images and badly lit night shots. What you really want to look for are photos with a good distance range, and ideally, angled shots that are looking down on their scene.

For this tutorial I'm going to use an aerial view of Monaco, it has a good distance range and plenty of features for us to use as a focal point

To create the miniature effect we are going to use the Lens Blur tool, but first and most importantly we need to define a mask that maps out the depth of field we want to achieve on the final image. The easy way to do this is to simply apply a linear gradient to your image that focuses on your chosen focal point. But this is crude and doesn't achieve the best results.

Creating the effect

We are going use the brush tool with a suitably sized Soft Round brush. Our source image was 1600x1200 for this tutorial and we found a brush size of around 300px adequate for most of the mask selection.

Start off by creating a new layer on top of the source image, and set it's opacity to around 80%

Using a strong colour (we chose red #cc0000) start to paint in the areas of greatest blur you want to render, reducing the opacity down gradually as you get in closer to your focal point

for some of the buildings in the main focal area we  used a reduced brush size to highlight those buildings.

Keep working on the mask until you are happy you have a good even coverage like ours below:

Now you need to make this layer into a mask on your source image layer (make sure your source image is a layer and not a background), with your depth mask layer selected in the layers panel press and hold the right CTRL key and click on the layer in the layers panel this will select a marquee of your layer including transparency.

Now, hide the red depth mask layer, and select your source image layer, apply the marquee selection as a mask to the source image layer:

Disable the newly applied mask by holding SHIFT and clicking on the layer mask to get a red cross on the mask

Click back onto the layer thumbnail of the source image in the layers panel. You are now ready to apply the Len Blur filter.

Now goto Filters » Blur » Lens Blur, you should see the Lens Blur filter window:

The  settings here will vary depending upon your source image dimensions.

Set the mode to “More Accurate” for better rendering quality, although "faster" is useful for larger images to preview before switching back to "More Accurate", and make sure you have “Layer Mask” selected in the “Source” dropdown.

The Blur Focal Distance is set at 255 (to cover the full black to white 8bit colour range).

The “Invert” checkbox is important, depending upon how you applied your mask you may need to invert to correct the focal point.

The “Radius” controls the amount of blur, for our 1600x1200 image we used a radius of 24.

Once you are happy with the preview select “OK” and you will be returned back to normal view with your faked tilt shift miniature:

This is a really cool technique for photogrpahers and designer alike.

If you spend more time on your mask you can start to pick out objects, buildings, people  in more detail foe even better results.

Here are a few other miniatures we produced using this quick technique: