Everyone should tilt-shift at least once. It’s easy. You see people doing it on Flickr, Facebook, Twitter—and, of course, Instagram, where it’s practically de rigueur for selfies. But don’t be scared off by the weird name; tilt-shift is not another impossible contortion conjured up by your Lululemon-wearing, Ashtanga Yoga instructor. No “Namaste” required here. Rather, it’s a really cool photo technique that will make your already great photos shine, and has the potential to re-make your somewhat lame photos into something memorable.
Simply put, tilt-shift is a post-production technique that defines an area of focus within your photo, while applying blur to other areas of the image. This sort of selective focusing produces interesting—and sometimes surprising—results. In the extreme, it gives photos a miniaturizing effect. This works best if you shoot down at your subject, from high to low. You can see an example of this in the photo I took from an archer’s turret in the castle ramparts above a little town in the Czech Republic. Boosting the saturation, as I did here, adds to the deception.
But you don’t have to shoot from extreme heights to make use of this tool. For images shot on a plane, more or less, level with your subject, tilt-shift adds a dreamy, atmospheric feel to images. In the iPhone shot of my kids running through a sprinkler, I love the way the band of focus that runs through their faces and on the water spray contrasts with the blurry band at the edges of the photo. It was an incredibly hot day, but that didn’t really come through in the original photo. Adding blur caused the trees and fence to shimmer and glow the way things do on a scorching summer day. For me, this gave the shot an idyllic, “endless summer” kind of quality that you wouldn’t get without tilt-shift.
Tilt-shift can also be used to focus directly on a specific person or element within your photo. Applying a circle of focus around a subject in a busy shot, with lots of competing elements, directs attention to the portion you want to highlight. In the shot of the boy in the swim cap (below, also an iPhone shot), the swimmers in the foreground and background are blurred, but the boy is in sharp focus. The image is now about the anticipation he’s experiencing while waiting to be called for his race. It becomes a powerful moment caught in time.
But tilt-shift is not all fun and games. It can add solemnity to an event or location. The shot I snapped at the Vietnam War Memorial in DC of the sky and trees reflected in the wall (see below) was decent but didn’t capture the emotion of being there in person. With the tilt-shift technique applied, the focus is now on a small sampling of names in the center of the wall, which helps to personalize the experience. The wall blurs into the background, as if it goes on forever. So many names… which is precisely how you feel standing at the wall.
So how do you do it? The good news is that this is all ridiculously easy to do. I use the tilt-shift tool in the free Photoshop Express app for iPhone. There are also versions for Android, and for desktop computers (see list below). Some are free; some are .99 cents, or a bit more. Instagram recently added a tilt-shift tool. They all work more or less the same way. Here’s the basic workflow: open your tilt-shift app, select a photo, use a slider or your finger to adjust the degree of blur, maybe increase the saturation, and hit save. That’s it. The better apps let you move and expand the band of focus and the degree of blurriness.
Full disclosure: I know there will be some photo geeks—I’m one of them—out there who are saying, “That’s not real tilt-shift.” And that’s true. This is fake tilt-shift. Real tilt-shift can only be accomplished by using an expensive tilt-shift lens. Unless you’re a purist, the fake tilt-shift will do.
Lastly, a word of caution: like any photo technique, overusing tilt-shift will quickly cast it and your photos into cliché status. Avoid that: use it sparingly and only when you want to achieve a specific result. Do that, and I think you’ll find that tilt-shift is a brilliantly easy-to-use tool that can add value to your shots.