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The Tilt-Shift Effect

Captured in-camera or generated with software, this technique can make your images jump off the page—if you use it right
tilt-shift photography

Lofoten Islands, Norway. This image of a fishing village shows the miniaturization effect using a Nikon PC-E Micro-NIKKOR 45mm ƒ/2.8D tilt-shift lens. Nikon D810 at ƒ/4, 1/30 sec., ISO 200

My first commercial assignments landed me in a kaleidoscope of interiors. From kitchen remodels to spacious hotel suites, I was hired to photograph interiors. At first, photographing room interiors sounded pretty simple—go in, set up a few lights, put on the wide-angle, and blaze away. But reviewing my images after a few shoots, I realized I had a big problem. All the room walls were bowing inward; presenting warped hotel room images to clients didn’t go over so well. To correct this keystone effect, I needed to keep my lens parallel to the wall. And to easily change my perspective without bending the walls, I needed a tilt-shift lens.

Soon after getting my first tilt-shift lens, I realized that keeping vertical lines straight was only the beginning of what this lens could do. A variety of creative effects were also possible. And as creative tilt-shift photography became popular, editing software like Photoshop added tilt-shift blur filters. But could post-processing create the same effect? And did I need to buy an expensive tilt-shift lens, or were there less expensive options? Let’s look at what tilt-shift photography is all about, and how it might improve your photography.

What Is A Tilt-Shift Lens?

Tilt-shift lenses are unique in that you can adjust the angle of the lens plane. Standard lenses have all their glass elements fixed parallel to the film plane. But tilt-shift lenses have special construction allowing the front of the lens to be moved in different directions. First, shift movements allow the lens to be moved up and down to change perspective, but the lens elements always stay parallel to the film plane. Next, tilt movements enable the front of the lens to be tilted forward or upward, changing the angle of the front of the lens to the film plane. Finally, swing movements swing the lens barrel to the left or right of the lens axis.

tilt-shift photography
Canon TS-E 24mm ƒ/3.5L II tilt-shift lens

Tilt-shift lenses look awkward since the front part of the lens can change positions. Small gears and knobs are placed on the lens, allowing very precise and controlled movements. This precision, combined with high-quality glass, makes tilt-shift lenses expensive. But why pay big bucks for this specialty lens? What can it do?

Photographing Architecture

Probably the biggest reason a photographer buys a tilt-shift lens is for architectural photography. A cardinal rule with architectural photography is keeping perspective and vertical lines true and straight. Using the shift movement of a tilt-shift lens, you can move your perspective up or down and still keep vertical lines vertical. You can also rotate the lens barrel and apply shift movements left and right.

tilt-shift photography
Shooting a wide-angle interior image like this architectural shot results in converging vertical lines. This image wasn’t captured with a tilt-shift lens, but was fixed in software.

A big challenge with interiors is including too much of the room ceiling. By shifting your lens lower, you can eliminate more of the ceiling and keep those doorframes straight. Since interiors, especially hotel rooms, are usually small, I like to use a 28mm or wider tilt-shift lens.

Improving Depth Of Field

Another popular reason to use a tilt-shift lens is to improve depth of field. With standard lenses, you point your lens slightly downward toward your foreground. This orients your film plane at an angle toward your subject, but still not close to being parallel to the subject. Since we get better depth of field when our film plane is parallel to the subject, anything we can do to orient our lens front more parallel to the subject will help. Using a tilt-shift lens, you can tilt the front of your lens toward the foreground and attain more depth of field.

Imagine this scenario. You’re in Glacier National Park in July, and your timing is perfect for the wildflower bloom. Purple and yellow fields of lupine and sunflowers stretch out for miles, leading to the towering snowcapped peaks in the distance. You want everything in focus, from the yellow sunflowers right in front of your lens to the mountains in the distance. Using a tilt-shift lens, you can set your aperture at ƒ/16 and tilt your lens forward, establishing better depth of field throughout the shot.

Create Dramatic Selective Focus

One of my favorite uses of a tilt-shift lens is creating dramatic selective focus. To accomplish this, I swing the lens to the left or right and use a wide-open aperture like ƒ/2.8. Swinging the lens to one side creates dramatic blur in the image with one narrow band of sharp focus. This blurry effect adds mood and mystery to an image. The difference in shooting a standard lens at ƒ/2.8 is where the blur occurs in the shot. With a normal lens, your subject is in the center, with blurry out-of-focus elements on either side in equal parts. Using a tilt-shift lens, you can put your subject on the far side of your image and have them tack-sharp with radical blur to one side or the other. This technique is great for isolating your subject from busy backgrounds.

tilt-shift photography
Shooting a portrait with a tilt-shift lens, like the Nikon PC-E Micro-NIKKOR 45mm ƒ/2.8D used here, can really draw focus to the subject.

One unexpected use I’ve found for my tilt-shift lens is portraits. Being able to isolate a subject off-center with dramatic blur offers great creative options. If you shoot video, try shooting an interview using a swing movement. Your subject will be off-center and sharp, bordered by creamy background elements.

Miniaturize The Scene

This effect is just plain cool. One result of using dramatic tilt-shift movements is that certain subjects will transform into miniature versions. To create this effect, try maximum swing or tilt movements with large scenes like cityscapes or distant landscapes. Put your main subject off-center, and focus there. With distant scenes, your subject will look toylike and miniature compared to the rest of the scene.

tilt-shift photography
Barn in the Tetons, Jackson, Wyoming. The image was taken with a Lensbaby. Nikon D200 at 1/100 sec., ISO 100

When would you use this effect? I was recently in Norway in the Lofoten Islands photographing small fishing villages and massive fjords. The landscape was often cloudy and moody, so I decided to use the Nikon PC-E Micro-NIKKOR 45mm ƒ/2.8D tilt-shift lens. Using the lens at maximum tilt, I was able to miniaturize some red fishing buildings in the foreground, which made the background mountains even more tall and dramatic.

Other Options For Creating Tilt-Shift Images

As useful as a tilt-shift lens is, not everyone is going to go spend a couple grand and buy one. But there’s another lens option that’s much more affordable: the Lensbaby, a specialty lens that comes in a variety of mounts to match your brand of camera. It allows the front of the lens to be moved in any direction, creating similar effects to a tilt-shift lens. The biggest difference is that a tilt-shift lens has very controllable movements and uses very high-quality glass. If you’re shooting a high-end architecture job, you’re using a tilt-shift lens.

But at a fraction of the cost, the Lensbaby is a great photographic tool. I use the Composer II, which has a movable front piece that allows lens movements in any direction. And unlike a tilt-shift lens, a Lensbaby also allows you to use different lens inserts for different effects. Some optics create a center point of focus similar to a standard lens, while the Edge optics create a slice of focus. Using a Lensbaby is very liberating and creative. You can create miniaturized scenes or just go for dramatic selective-focus shots. The Lensbaby is small and lightweight, so I frequently carry one on shoots.

Using Filters In Photoshop

Photoshop CS6 introduced a set of new blur filters, including a tilt-shift blur filter. This handy filter is simple to use and can accomplish many of the same effects as using a tilt-shift lens. If you want to create a miniature effect or selective focus, the tilt-shift filter can do the trick. What this filter can’t do is duplicate lens shifts as they would occur in-camera. And even though you can get a similar look as using a tilt-shift lens, I still feel like I get better results in-camera than in Photoshop. But try the tilt-shift filter out; you won’t be disappointed.

tilt-shift photography

tilt-shift photography
ABOVE: San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. These images weren’t captured with a tilt-shift lens, but instead were created using the tilt-shift/blur filter in Photoshop. 
tilt-shift photography
ABOVE: San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Adjusting the blur parameters using the tilt-shift blur filter in Photoshop.

With your image open in Photoshop, choose Filter from the menu bar, and choose Blur Gallery. In Blur Gallery, choose Tilt-Shift. Next, you’ll see a small target circle appear. This is your focus point. Grab this and place it over your subject. You’ll see two sets of lines, one solid white line and one dashed line. Grab the white dot on the white line and rotate the line to vertical to create a vertical slice of focus similar to a tilt-shift lens.

Next, you need to choose what’s sharp. Grab the white lines and move them to adjust focus. The area in between the white lines will be sharp. Now, grab the dashed line. These lines control the feathering of the blur effect. For the best results, and similar to what a real lens would create, I like to feather my blur a fair bit so the transition between sharp and blurry is smooth, not abrupt.

Finally, to increase or decrease the blur effect, grab the white circular line near the focus point. Pulling it further around to complete the circle will increase the blur in the image.

No matter what technique or lens you choose, adding tilt-shift effects to your image can transform your shot. Imagine the creative possibilities—tilt-shift portraits, miniature urban street scenes and moody landscapes. Or maybe you use a tilt-shift to keep your European cathedral shots perfectly vertical and increase your depth of field in a grand landscape. Whatever you choose, chances are good that you can use the tilt-shift effect to improve your photography.

To see more of Tom Bol’s photography and get workshop information, visit

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