Creating the Tilt-Shift Effect in GIMP

The tilt-shift effect has become very popular in recent years, perhaps in large part because many photo filter-type applications include such an effect. Even if you haven’t heard the name tilt-shift, you’ve almost certainly seen examples of such photos. They tend to show scenes that are often taken slightly from above, with a shallow band in focus, while the rest of the image is blurred. Our brains interpret these images as pictures of toy scenes because we are used to pictures with such out-of-focus and blurry areas as actually pictures of toys. However, this is a very easy effect to create in graphical editors like GIMP.

The tilt-shift effect is named after special tilt and offset lenses that allow users to move the front lens element independently of the rest of the lens. Architectural photographers can use these lenses to reduce the visual effect of the vertical lines of buildings growing together. However, because these lenses focus only on a narrow part of the scene, they have also been used to create images that look like photos of toy scenes.

  1. Choose the right photo for the Tilt-Shift effect
  2. Adjust photo color
  3. Duplicate and blur photos
  4. Add a mask to the top layer
  5. Blur areas manually

Choose the right photo for the Tilt-Shift effect

First, you need a photo that you can work on, and as mentioned, a downward-facing photo of a scene usually works best. If you don’t have a suitable photo, you can look online at some free image sites. We’ve uploaded a picture of helicopterjeff from and you can also find something suitable at

With your photo selected, in GIMP go to the section File > Open and navigate to the file before clicking the button Open .

Adjust photo color

Because we’re trying to create an effect that looks like a toy scene rather than a real-world photo, we can make the colors more vibrant and less natural to enhance the overall effect.

The first step is to go to colors > Brightness / Contrast and adjust both sliders. The amount you adjust will depend on the photo you’re using, but we’ve increased the brightness and contrast by 30.

Then go to section colors > Hue saturation and move the Saturation slider to the right. We increased this slider by 70, which would normally be too high, but in this case it met our needs.

Duplicate and blur photos

This is a simple step where we duplicate the background layer and then add a blur to the background.

You can press the button: Duplicate in the bottom panel of the layers palette or go to Low > Double layer . Now in the layers palette (go to Windows > linkable dialog boxes > layers , if it’s not open), click the bottom Background layer to select This. Then go to Filters > fade away > Gaussian Blur to open the Gaussian Blur dialog box. Make sure the thread icon is intact so that your changes affect both input fields – click the thread if necessary to close it. Now increase the horizontal and vertical settings to about 20 and press Okay .

You can’t see the blur effect unless you click the icon eye next to the Background Copy layer in the Layers palette to hide it. You have to click in the empty space where the eye icon was to make the layer visible again.

Add a mask to the top layer

In this step we can add a mask to the top layer, which will allow us to show part of the background, giving us the tilt-shift effect.

Right click on the background copy layer in the layers palette and select Apply a layer of mask in the context menu that opens. In the Add Layer Mask dialog box, select the radio button white (full coverage) and click the button To add . Now you will see a simple white mask icon in the layers palette. Click the icon to make sure it is selected, then go to the Tools palette and click the tool to blend to make it active.

The options for the Blend tool are now visible under the Tools palette, make sure the Opacity slider is set to 100, the gradient from FG is to Transparent and the Shape is set to Linear. If the foreground color at the bottom of the Tools palette is not set to black, press the d on your keyboard to set the default colors to black and white.

Now that the Blend tool is set up correctly, you need to draw a gradient at the top and bottom of the mask exposing the background, leaving the band of the top image visible. Hold down a key ctrl on your keyboard, to limit the angle of the overlay tool to 15 degrees, click the photo about a quarter from the top down and hold the left key while dragging the photo down just above the center and press the left button let go. You also need to add another similar gradient to the bottom of the image, this time at the top.

You should now have a decent tilt-shift effect, but you may need to clean up the image a bit if you have objects in the foreground or background that are also in focus.

Blur areas manually

The last step is to manually blur the areas that are still sharp, but shouldn’t be. In this photo, the wall to the right of the image is in the foreground, so it should be blurry.

Click brush in the Tools palette and in the Tool Options palette, make sure the Mode is set to normal , select a soft brush (we chose 2,050 hardness) and set the size to the area you will be working on. Also make sure the foreground color is set to black.

Now click the icon layer mask to make sure it’s still active and just paint over the area you want to blur. When you draw the mask, the top layer is hidden, revealing the faded layer below.

This is the last step in creating your own tilt-and-shift photo that looks like a miniature scene.

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