Learn how to make your own realistic tilt-shift toy town effect in Photoshop CC with this simple edit of an aerial city view.
The toy town effect is a powerful edit that transforms standard photos into what appear to be miniature worlds. The easiest way to achieve this look is with a tilt-shift lens where the photographer can alter the plane of focus using the lens’ ability to shift the glass and thereby either extending the depth of field or drastically reducing it. For the toy town effect we would reduce the depth of field to a small sliver of focus to make a large scene appear very small.
But what if you don’t have a tilt-shift lens? Though they’re versatile and usually fantastic lenses, they’re rather expensive and not many photographers carry one in their kit bag at all times. Well, you can make the same effect surprisingly easily in Photoshop CC. By using image editing software to create the effect you can even revisit old photos that weren’t taken on a tilt-shift lens and apply the effect there, too. But you have to choose the right photo.
A huge vista makes it difficult to control the toy town look. Often that small slice of focus ends up disappearing in the menagerie of a wider view, so a relatively close crop will let this effect stand out more. You don’t want to get too close to your scene either. Preferably, a top-down or aerial view onto a street or two will make for the best tilt-shift effect because it’ll look like toys on a tabletop, displaying a good amount of blur and a strong section of in-focus parts. Here, I wanted to effect this night scene of Japan, so I’ve taken a relatively close crop to start work on it. To get a realistic effect you shouldn’t just apply a blur filter and be done with it, there are a few more steps that you can complete relatively quickly, to make your photo stand out from the crowd. So let’s get started.
Duplicate the Layer
Start by opening your image in Photoshop and duplicating the layer. By having two layers of the image we’re going to make our tilt-shift blur on the top layer and then mask out any unwanted blur on the image to reveal the unedited, unblurred photo beneath. This will make it seem more realistic as a true tilt-shift lens will not add a blur across the whole image, but rather affect the scene based on distance in front of the camera. You’ll see what I mean in a minute.
Add the Tilt-Shift Blur
With the upper layer selected head to Filter>Blur Gallery>Tilt-Shift. From here a new window pops up with the blur tool controls to the right-hand side. Under Tilt-Shift we have some options. You’ll first notice the anchor control point and four dotted lines. The innermost lines indicate the point at which the blur starts to take effect, followed by two outer lines that indicate the end of transition into the full blur. Line up the filter with the area on the photo you want to keep sharp, here I’ve rotated it slightly to keep in-line with the central street.
Next, adjust the amount of blur you want. The blur slider allows us to control the blur, by sliding it to the right for a more intense effect. Don’t overdo it here but also don’t skimp on blur as this is the crucial step in making our toy town effect. You can leave it at that if you want to speed the process up a bit, but if you’re willing to spend a few more minutes here then you can create an even more realistic tilt-shift effect.
Use the distortion slider to introduce a stretched distortion to the blurred areas which mimics the effect you’d achieve with a real tilt-shift lens. Then, if your photo has it, go down to the effects tab and increase the light bokeh slider (I’ve punched mine up to 31%). This will allow the specular highlights in the photo to bloom into a gorgeous bokeh, shining out in the blurred areas, again emulating the effect a real lens would give. Initially, the light bokeh slider just adds brightness to the spots of light, so increase the bokeh color slider to introduce some saturation to the lights – I found this gave a wonderful glow to the street lights and car headlights.
Mask Tall Buildings
Now, remember earlier I mentioned that simply applying a blur filter will not make the tilt-shift effect look realistic? Well, that’s because a tilt-shift lens doesn’t just blur everything above and below a certain line, it’ll actually affect the photo based on the subject’s distance to the lens. So in order to approximate this process we’re going to mask some of the taller buildings that sit along the in-focus slice in our shot.
Here you can see two buildings that are in focus at the bottom but weren’t in focus at the top, so I’ve added a layer mask and used the brush tool (B) to paint black over the buildings. This reveals the layer underneath where the buildings are not blurred and as such it emulates the effect of a real tilt-shift lens.
In this shot, you can see two buildings that I haven’t masked and it immediately looks like I’ve just applied a blur filter on top of the image (which I have). So in order to make this scene look better, I’ll take some time and mask out the tall buildings that sit along the in-focus, unaffected, part of the photo.
Zoom Out and Look
After spending some time zoomed in to the photo masking precise buildings it’s good to take a step back and see what you’ve achieved. Zoom out to view the whole photo and even make it thumbnail size to check on the overall aesthetic. I noticed that there are a few distracting lights along the bottom edge of the frame which take my eye away from the center of the image, so it’s time to take those out.
Remove Edge Distractions
I decided to make a new layer using Ctrl, Shift, and N (Cmd, Shift, and N on Mac) and then merged all visible using Ctrl, Shift, and E (Cmd, Shift, and E on Mac) to make a new finished layer on which to make adjustments. I like to do this to toggle between the different edit versions I have. I’ve used the patch tool (J) to encircle the offending distraction, then clicked and dragged it to another point on the photo where the texture roughly matches the surrounding environment, then let go to have Photoshop automatically fill it in. I continued this all the way around the edge of the frame until there were no more distracting lights. This technique also works for any spot within the image, so if there’s a pole or wire that you want gone, give it a go with the patch tool.
The tilt-shift effect is now complete, so we can polish up the photo ready for publishing. I decided that the glow from the street lights at the top and bottom of this shot were forcing my eye away from the in-focus street that I worked so hard to draw attention to, so I’ve added a new layer and painted it black with the brush tool over the top and bottom of the photo. I then reduced the layer opacity to 30% so that I could still see the buildings behind.
Finish With a Flourish
The last step is to add a little contrast to the shot. I like to do this with the Levels adjustment layer by bringing the shadows arrow up the histogram and the highlights arrow down. This deepens the blacks and sharpens the whites. You could also do this with the curves adjustment layer if you prefer.