When shooting miniature buildings such as those on a train set, the camera’s close proximity to the subject can create a shallow depth of field. This makes some of the model buildings look sharp, while closer and distant ones are blurred; this narrow plane of focus reveals that the scene is a model. You can take inspiration from this focus effect and apply it to life-size scenes for creative results.
By shooting a city scene from a high vantage point using a tilt-shift lens, you can recreate this narrow plane of focus and make large buildings look like miniatures. This can also produce other eye-catching and surreal effects, such as making people and vehicles look like toys. Specialist tilt-shift lenses are expensive, however, and fiddly to set up and use – and once you’ve captured a particular plane of focus in a photo, you’re stuck with it.
Instead, by applying the blur filter, layers and masks to a cityscape, you can create a shallow depth-of-field effect that only reveals detail in specific areas. As the mask can be fine-tuned using gradients and brush strokes, you can choose exactly which areas to blur or sharpen to produce the most effective tilt-shift effect.
Step 1: Duplicate layer
Open your original image. If the Layers palette isn’t already visible, click Window> Layers to access it. At this stage the ‘Background’ layer is locked.
To make an editable copy of the image, drag the ‘Background’ layer’s thumbnail onto the Create New Layer icon at the bottom of the Layers palette. This creates an identical new layer, ‘Background copy’.
Step 2: Blur layer
Click on the ‘Background copy’ thumbnail to target this layer. To create an out-of-focus version of the shot, go to Filter>Blur>GaussianBlur. In the Gaussian Blur command’s window, drag the Radius slider up to 7.0 pixels. Click OK. You’ll use this filtered layer to create the blurred pixels that will appear in front of and behind the narrow plane of focus.
Step 3: Add a mask
Click the Add Layer Mask icon at the bottom of the Layers palette. Grab the Gradient tool in the Tools palette, click the Edit button to open the Gradient Editor, and pick the Foreground to Background preset. Click the Reflected Gradient icon in the Options bar, and draw a slightly diagonal gradient in the middle of the mask to reveal a band of sharp pixels on the layer below.
Step 4: Modify the mask
Redraw the gradient as many times as you like until the tilt-shift effect looks most effective. To sharpen and reveal interesting buildings, such as the tall church tower at the right, grab the Brush tool. Set the Foreground colour to black, and spray on a building to sharpen it. To blur more foreground or background buildings, spray a white brush on the mask.