Tilt-Shift Photography and the Miniature Effect

A miniature effect or tilt-shift, is a photography technique aimed at making the photography of, for instance, a landscape look like a scale model. Tilt-shifts change the focal plane and depth of field in a photograph. A focal plane is the plane that the focus perpendicular to the axis of the lens on a camera. The tilt defines what part of the photo is sharp, whereas the shift determines the framing of the photo. With a dedicated tilt-shift lens, the focal plane is affected by the tilt of the camera, and the perspective of the image is determined by the shift without having to move the camera body at all. Tilt-shift lenses are also used in architecture photography when you want to straighten vertical lines (now more commonly done with software editing).

The Miniature Effect, aka Tilt-Shift Photography

Tilt-shift lenses tend to be quite expensive. Besides, most photographers will not need that kind of lens on an everyday basis. Fortunately, you do not need to spend $3,000 on a tilt-shift lens. Software works wonders and can help you achieve a miniature effect at no extra cost. Your camera may even be equipped with this gratifying feature, as is the case with my Nikon cameras. Here is an example per below.

Chevreuse. May 2014 – Nikon D600 – Nikkor 35 mm 2.0 manual lens —  f/8.0, ISO 100 – I obtained the miniature effect directly within my camera.

Without a tilt-shift lens, a miniature effect is achieved by adding a lens-blur effect in both the foreground and the background of your picture, leaving only the main subject in focus. As a result, the depth of field of your picture will be very narrow hence giving the impression that you were taking a picture of a scale model of a town rather than the real thing. The process will also make your colours look more vibrant as in the above picture where the greenery in the foreground appears very vivid and almost unnatural. One can either apply the tilt-shift filter directly within the camera or via the editing process of your favourite photo-editing software (e.g. Photoshop or Dark Table).

Hey presto! You’ve just saved $3,000.

Miniature Effect Aside, Why Would you need a Tilt-Shift Effect?

The port of Ouistreham from the lighthouse. The miniature effect is most impressive when taking pictures from above.

Tilt-shifts can be used for many kinds of photography. Beyond the miniature effect, it can be helpful when photographing architecture, a mirror, landscapes and portraits. You may also use the tilt-shift effect to minimise distortion specifically when taking pictures of tall buildings.

In landscape photography, tilt-shifts can also help you make scenes look like scale models, as if you were taking a photo from the sky. Tilt-shift lenses are also very useful when taking panoramic shots as the lens can move from side to side and up and down, therefore saving you the trouble of moving physically. Besides you may use a tilt-shift to take pictures of people in order to emphasise your main subject. Of course, not all portraits are done in this way, nor need to be.

Lyon. December 2014.

In the above photo, you can clearly see the blurring of the foreground and background surrounding the subject. This miniature makes the main subject — the lady carrying her suitcase — appear as if we were looking at a diorama. Thank God, the garden gnomes on the steps aren’t in focus! Tilt shifts aren’t for everyone nor every day. One should use this effect sparingly. Ironically enough, the above picture was taken from the Cinematic and Miniature Museum in Lyon… Keep reading for pictures of this museum’s scale models and dioramas.

The Post-Production Miniature Effect

Luckily, within Adobe Photoshop there is a tilt-shift filter that will do most of the work for you if you don’t have a dedicated tilt-shift lens. Adobe Photoshop isn’t the only piece of software that can help you with that. There are many applications devoted to tilt shifts such as TiltShiftMaker. Not all the magic is in the post-production process, though, there are also some rules you should follow to create a successful miniature effect. To start with, miniature effects are most successful with wide-angle lenses or when shooting pictures from the top of high buildings as in the picture of the port of Ouistreham above.

Before and after Tilt-Shift Editing – For reference, this photo was taken in Cannes of a duck fishing game back in 2016. The colours of the ducks unfortunately were faded from being in the sun all the time. Tilt Shift-Editing performed  with TiltShiftMaker using the ‘miniature’ effect.

The Lyon Cinematic and Miniature Museum

Tilt shift aside, let’s take a look at some real miniature models.

Located in Lyon, the Cinema and Miniature Museum is a must see. Dan Ohlmann, the founder of the museum, and most of the artists involved in the museum composed 120 miniature models for over 450 different cinematic uses. Founded in 2005, this museum is home to props, costumes, and secrets from cinematic masterpieces such as Batman, Spiderman, Star Wars, Stuart Little and many more. Directly after filming has ended, these pieces were brought to the museum and restored by the artists if needed to keep them in pristine conditions. The props used in these movies are life-size. There aren’t any pictures in this article about them, I found more enjoyment in the miniature collections.

Miniature subway inn
Alan Wolfson’s views of an imaginary 1950s NYC.

Dan Ohlmann’s miniature museum

Museum founder Dan Ohlmann often created these miniature sets before he went on to create life-size versions for his work in theatres. His time in this realm didn’t last long as he fell to the obsession of creating these miniature sets.

miniature kitchen

Alan Wolfson’s views of an imaginary 1950s NYC.

These sets, as most miniature models, are created using a 1:12 ratio. This means that an object that is one centimetre within the model, is 12 centimetres in real-life. miniature restaurantThough these models are not real, I feel a sense of fondness and amiability looking into them. The attention to detail is incredible, and all on a centimetre scale, the scene is exceedingly convincing.

miniature office roomBefore I knew these were miniature models, I was genuinely convinced these were just various locations being photographed.

Alan Wolfson’s views of an imaginary 1950s NYC.

Some are more convincing than others, though…

miniature burgers
Alan Wolfson’s views of an imaginary 1950s NYC.

The toilets in the NYC subway. Don’t spit on the ground!

If you ever find yourself in Lyon, I recommend you visit this museum (it’s accessible to all). Even for those who don’t love cinema, the miniature part of the museum will keep you entertained. What miniature model was most convincing to you?

Yann Gourvennec
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  1. I’ve never considered Tilt & Shift fot anything other than Architectural photograpy with a view camera. My old Minolta Macro Bellows allows Tilt & Shift… I must reconsider it for miniatures.
    Great article, my only complaint, translation. There are a couple of errors but reading through was quite understandable.

    • Thank you kindly. Sorry about the quality of our text. Emilie is American and the post wasn’t translated. Thanks for the heads up and your comment. I’ve had a look at it and made quite a few changes. Thank you so much for letting us know.

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