Creating customized tilt-shift effects in Photoshop

You’ve probably seen this effect used before, hell, you’ve probably seen the effect boiled down to a simple to use filter or effect add-on for one of your favorite photo apps on your mobile device, but today I’m going to explain how I create tilt=shift images using Photoshop. This isn’t limited to the full version of Photoshop either, you don’t need any fancy filters, expensive plugins and you can create this in Photoshop Elements just as easy as you can in the full version of Photoshop CC. But first, you’ll have to indulge me a little as I explain a little bit about where this effect comes from.

If you’ve ever used or seen people use large format cameras, you might have noticed that the front standard (the part of the camera where the lens is attached) has movements to it allowing you to change how the image is framed and also how the image is focused. The front standard will typically allow adjustments like rise (up), fall (down), swing (pivot right & left on the center point of the lens), shift (slide left & right) and tilt (angle forward and back). All of these movements have a different result and affect the image differently. Since the focal plane is determined by the lens, which is attached to the front standard, any of these movements can have a dramatic effect on the image. This is where the effect of tilt-shift comes from, adjust the tilt and/or shift of the focal plane to achieve selective focus. Now that’s a pretty broad description, but that’s where the term comes from. There are also tilt-shift, or perspective control lenses available for 35mm cameras, as well as specialized cameras that use similar adjustments. These lenses and cameras are generally used by architectural photographers since these adjustments allow the photographer to make corrections for perspective, giving the image a more symmetrical feel to it with straight, level lines as opposed to off-kilter lines and angles that can happen when using wide angle lenses while photographing architecture. But enough of that, let’s get down to it.

Toronto street scene - uneditedI chose to use an image I shot while at a conference in Toronto several years ago. This image is an excellent example since the subjects are in the distance, and the existing perspective of the image lends itself to being tilt-shifted. You can see the final image in my photostream on Flickr. Off to the right you can see what the image looks like raw and unedited. To explain a little as to why this image is a good choice you can see the people and the cars are pretty well grouped together, at a distance, and the angles of the scene aren’t terribly complex, so adding a couple of simple masks with a feather applied to the inner edges (or the outer edges) will yield good results and won’t really add any odd perspective problems to the image.

With the image open in Photoshop, click the Quick mask button   to edit the image in quick mask mode. Once you’re in quick-mask mode, you’ll want to make sure that you’re using black as the mask color, so click on the small color swatch icon to reset the colors back to default. After that is set, click on the gradient tool to create a new mask that has a gradient at one edge. Now that the tools are setup, it’s time to create the masks used to create the tilt-shift effect. First, make sure that the gradient you are using is black fading to transparent (or white if you prefer), if it isn’t, use the gradient dropdown to select the correct style for your new mask. Okay, now we are all set.

final image maskThe important thing here is that you don’t want to create a gradient that couldn’t actually occur. The idea is to create an image that could be real, and have the subject of the image come out looking like they are miniatures. So the lines that the gradient follows should also align with the angles and existing perspective of the image, if ti doesn’t you will have an image that most likely won’t look quite right and won’t end up being a believable rendition of the original. For this image, I am going to make my gradiant run along the same paths and align with the road and the crosswalk. So if the road was straight up and down, the gradient would be at a 90 degree  angle to the sidewalk, and run parallel to the crosswalk, just like it would normally. Since your vantage point as the viewer is pretty far away from the desired subject, or focal point of the image, the gradient can be pretty small, or short. Take a look at the example image (image 1.1) to the right, and look at how the gradient I added mirrors the existing lines of the image. If you’re not familiar with quick-mask you’re probably wondering why the gradient didn’t come out as black on the image. Quick-mask renders the black as the mask, and transparent areas will be left out of the selected area to apply the blurring effect. As a side note, the gradient doesn’t have to be black to transparent, it could also be black to white. Photoshop will treat white the same way it treats the transparent color, the black areas will always be the part of the mask that is included in the selection.

In order to create a mask where both edges are gradiated, you need to use the gradient tool twice. The first mask will be created using black as the foreground color, and will cover almost the entire image and the second mask will be added to the first using transparent as the foreground color, or more appropriately, the second step is actually subtracting from the first mask. See image 1.2 to see what the first mask will look like in comparison to what the final mask will look like in image 1.1.

image mask step 1

This is where things go a little sideways. This probably isn’t going to end up like you thought it would, but that’s okay. While in quick-mask mode the red mask represents the parts of the images that are masked, as in the parts of the images that will not be affected by the blur. Maybe this is how you thought it would work, maybe not. When I first used it, I expected the red to represent the portion of the image that would be selected, not the other way around. That’s entirely wrong, and I’ll tell you why. Remember way back in the day, when people used airbrushes for real and used actual acetate masks? No? Well, I do, because I’m old. No really (I am), but I used to do manual paste-up in a print shop fully equipped with my non-repo blue pencil and everything. See, if this were a real mask, the red part represents the solid part of the mask, the part that blocks the canvas from getting paint applied to it. So it’s a hold-over from the days of real design work, hehehe… At any rate, make sense now? Good.

Now that you clicked on the quick-mask icon again, and you have your selection marquee (or dancing ants) you can go ahead and apply your filter. This part is important too as there are a couple of options here for you to choose from. It really boils down to preference here, and what you think looks better. Some folks use Gaussian Blur, while other folks use Lens Blur. I use Lens Blur of Gaussian Blur because I like the additional control that I have in the filter options to adjust contrast, grain, etc… I won’t bore you with a long-winded explanation of what all of the options do, you can Google that on your own. Make sure to select Preview and More Accurate and fidget away with the settings until you get something that looks good.

That’s it. You’re all set. Thanks for taking the time to read this post, and enjoy making images.

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