“Your miniature of the New York skyline is so detailed – it must have taken forever!”
If you want people to react like this to photos that only took you a few minutes (and didn’t involve you having to spend weeks or months creating miniatures!), you really need to learn about the awesomeness and that is tilt-shift photography. You must also know some tips to improve your photography.
What is tilt-shift photography? Essentially, it’s a method that lets you manipulate depth of field in your shots, and by doing so, make the objects in your pictures appear smaller than they really are.
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How does it work?
By using a special tilt-shift lens that rotates against the image plane to make your depth of field shallow… And unless you’re a professional photographer or naturally good at physics, that explanation probably made no sense, so let’s look at how a normal camera works.
The basic set up of every camera in the world puts the glass in your lens (the lens plane) parallel to the film in the camera (the image plane). This is just photography 101, and it’s done this way so that if you’re focusing on something five, 10, or 20 feet away, everything at that distance will be in focus in the picture. Still with me?
Unfortunately, there are practical issues with this set up. For example, if you want to take a picture of a tall building, you either have to stand far away or tilt up. But by tilting up, the parallel planes in your camera will make the top of the building appear skinnier than the bottom.
Who else uses Tilt-Shift Photography?
Now, that’s probably not a big deal to most photographers and can even make for some really cool looking pictures, but ask architects and historians how they feel about it. Not surprisingly, they’d prefer to have pictures of buildings and other structures be representative of the way they actually look in reality – straight and square.
Thus, the tilt-shift lens. Architects love it because it removes perspective and flattens objects out, allowing you to see an entire design from a sort of “omniscient” angle. Because of this, it’s often the go-to lens for shooting architectural scenes.
But of course, that’s only one use for the tilt-shift lens, and by no means the most popular. In fact (to go back to the very beginning of this post), the one that really seems to have caught on is the way that tilt-shift lenses can make it look like normal, everyday objects are miniatures by playing with focus and perspective and causing them to look smaller.
So, how do I get started with Tilt-Shifting?
It is able to do this by breaking one of the fundamental rules of cameras and tilting the lens plane so that it is no longer parallel to the film. This changes the area of focus in an incredibly odd way so that the focal plane isn’t parallel to the film or the lens, but something else entirely. There’s a thing called the Scheimpflug Principle that explains how this works, but you don’t need to understand it to take amazing tilt-shift miniature photos.
What do I need?
What you do need, though, is a tilt-shift lens, and there are two ways you can go about getting one. The first way is simply to buy one. Professional tilt-shift lenses aren’t that hard to find, but they can be pricy – typical models average around $1500!
There are also some cameras that now come with a miniature “mode” such as the Canon S95, and you can get great results using that with a telephoto lens that will cost you around $500 to $600 combined. Of course, most of you interested in learning how to take tilt-shift pictures probably already have a camera, so it’s doubtful you want to shell out your hard-earned money for a new one.
An alternative way of Tilt-Shifting
Luckily, there’s another way if you’re the industrious type: you can make your own tilt-shift lens. I won’t bore you with all of the details (there’s a great guide here), but the easiest way to do it is with a manual focus SLR, a medium format or enlarger lens, a focal length of at least 50 mm, something bendy for tilting, and a way to attach the lens to the camera. Trust me, it’s not as hard as it sounds, and it can be a whole lot cheaper – some people have even been known to use plunger heads as their tilting apparatus!
Once you’ve put it all together and affixed it to your camera, it’s time to start tilt-shifting and getting those great (fake) miniature pics! For beginners, I recommend avoiding people and animals at first. Once you know what you’re doing, you can create some amazing shots of tiny little doll-like creatures walking around, but it’s easiest to start with stationary objects.
The best way to go about getting the shot you want is to seek out a high, distant angle. This gives the impression that the viewer is looking down at a diorama, enhancing the effect.
Once you’re there, simply play around with the tilt. The goal is to flatten the shot as much as possible, so work out where you want your focus to be by trying different things. You might intend to focus on the clock tower and blur the woods behind it only to discover that doing the opposite actually looks cooler.
Examples of Tilt-Shift Photography
Here are some of the best examples of Tilt-Shift Photography that will surely amaze you. See the magnificent art in these photographs.
La Vera Cruz – Efecto Tilt-Shift Digital
Amphitheatrum Tilt-Shift Photography
Tilt-Shift Photography: You Can Tell
Snowdon Mountain Railway Photography
Cliff 3000 Photography
One Final Thought
Generally speaking, most tilt-shift miniature pics keep the focus in the center of the image and blur out the top and bottom. Of course, if you’re focusing on a tall building, it’s far more likely that the left and right should be blurry. It all comes back to finding the right tilt to get the shot you want!