The tilt-shift effect is a visual style which simulates two photographic techniques: rotating a lens relative to the image plane, and shifting it parallel to that plane. Hard to achieve in camera, tilt-shift is one of the batch of filters found in Photoshop’s Blur Gallery.
The purpose of tilt-shift is to make a distant scene look as if it has been miniaturized. It’s all an optical illusion, based on our perception of distance. When we photograph a scene that’s far off, we can expect the entire scene to be in focus. But when we photograph an object close up, both the foreground and background can be out of focus. Simulating this experience is what makes the illusion work.
1. The starting image
It’s important to choose an appropriate image for this filter. You’re best off with a landscape viewed from high up, and you need to have some objects of interested in the middle foreground, since that’s what you’ll focus on. This array of boats is perfect for the job.
CREDIT: Swimmerguy269 under Creative Commons
2. Open the filter
Choose Filter > Blur Gallery > Tilt-Shift to get started. You’ll see the default starting position of the filter, which places the focus area right in the middle of the image. Even without making any changes, you can see how the soft focus at the top and bottom does indeed make the scene look miniature.
3. Move the focus
In an image like this you want to focus on the area of interest, not right in the center of the frame. Click on each of the solid gray lines and drag them down to move the effect: here, the focus is firmly on that group of boats around the jetty.
4. Adjust the blur
You can change the focus area to tighten it up, by dragging on the dashed gray lines. You can move each one independently, to produce an asymmetric blur. Or, if you prefer, click the Symmetric Distortion checkbox in the Blur Tools panel to make them both the same.
5. Change the blur amount
As with all the Blur Gallery filters, you can change the amount of the blur by dragging on the circular control in the center. If you prefer, you can drag the Blur slider in the Blur Tools panel, or enter an amount into the numerical field for more precise control.
6. Add some Bokeh
The Bokeh controls reproduce the effect of light flaring in the lens, which can make an image look more like it has really been photographed. As you drag the Light Bokeh slider in the Blur Effects panel, you can see how the bright areas in the blurred region start to burn out to pure white.
7. Increase the light
You can control how much of the bright area burns out by dragging the Light Range sliders in the Blur Effects panel. If you drag the dark slider to the left, a greater range of highlights is now burned out. This brightens the whole image, and helps to focus attention on the unblurred portion.
8. The finished image
This is the result of applying the tilt-shift blur. The image now looks very much as if it’s part of a model town setup, as the eye is fooled by the extreme focus blur.
Finally, a bit of advice. Before you rush off to miniaturize all your landscapes, it’s worth bearing in mind that nowadays tilt-shift images might be a bit passé. There are even iOS and Android apps that will create a similar effect for any smartphone user. So experiment with tilt-shift, have fun with it, but be careful to pick the right context, and don’t overuse it.