The so-called ‘miniature’ or ‘tilt shift’ effect can be very convincing. It makes everyday scenes look like tiny models. You can apply it with lots of different programs and apps, and many cameras now have a ‘miniature’ effect built in.

It’s often referred to as a ‘tilt shift’ effect too, because it’s associated with lenses that have special controls for adjusting the plane of sharp focus. We’re going to call it a ‘miniature’ effect, though, since that describes it much more closely.

So in order for this miniature effect to look convincing, a number of things have to be exactly right. It’s not just about the software, it’s about the image itself and a whole series of visual cues…

First, we’re all used to looking at miniature scenes from above, so if you’re going to try this out on a real-life scene you need one that you’ve photographed from a high viewpoint.

Second, it’s best if your subject is one that people will be used to seeing in little models, so buildings, cars, human figures and trees are all great. Most of us have seen model villages, model railways and little dioramas of famous places, so think of that when selecting or shooting images with this effect in mind.

Third, this effect relies on the very shallow depth of field we’re used to seeing in close-up images – another cue that you’re looking at a tiny model. It’s going to work best if your subject is on a receding plane seen from an angle, and if there aren’t too many tall objects stretching vertically upwards. With this digital technique, the tops of tall objects will go out of focus, which wouldn’t happen with a real close-up.

As long as you can tick all three boxes, though, a few small inconsistencies will go unnoticed and you should get a great ‘miniature’ image. We chose this ‘start’ shot (below) because it met all the criteria.

Miniature effect

The people in the shot are a little smaller than we’re used to seeing in models, which undermines the whole visual trick very slightly, but unless you shoot your images specifically for this effect you often have to accept some small compromises.

To create this miniature effect, we used MacPhun Focus CK, part of the MacPhun Creative Kit, but there are many alternatives, such as the Bokeh filter in Analog Efex Pro and the lens blur tools in Photoshop. So while our annotated screenshot shows Focus CK, the tools are similar across many other programs.

Miniature effect

01: There are two main types of defocusing or ‘bokeh’ tools. This is a ‘planar’ tool which creates a horizontal strip of sharp focus with a gradual defocusing effect above and below. This is the closest match for real lens behaviour, recreating the appearance of shallow depth of field with a progressive defocus effect in the distance and nearer to the camera – the appearance of different distances is created by the angle the picture was taken from. You can adjust the angle of the strip of sharp focus (horizontal is technically most accurate) and the width of this strip by dragging the two lines either side of the gadget further apart or closer together.

02: These outer lines mark the point where the picture is fully defocused – the area between the inner and outer lines is where the sharpness gradually falls away. You can drag these lines closer to the centre of the picture to control how quickly the near and far parts of the scene go fully out of focus.

03: These are the Blur controls. Focus CK can adjust much more than the degree of blur alone, including brightness, contrast and saturation. Close-up shots are often more vivid and saturated than regular outdoor pictures, and these adjustments can help the miniature effect look much more convincing.

So here’s our finished ‘miniature’ picture. It’s an easy technique to apply in software that has these tools, but the tricky part is finding the right picture to apply it to and in fine-tuning the adjustments to make the effect work.

Miniature effect

Essentially, it’s an optical illusion where everything has to be just right for the effect to ‘click’ in the viewer’s mind. If you don’t get it quite right, you just end up with a picture where the top and bottom are blurred for no obvious reason. If you do get it right, however, you can transform a regular picture into a fascinating little miniature world.