Instagram’s tilt-shift effect is the finishing touch on a work of smartphone art. It can be a masterstroke or a muddy mess, depending on how you use it. Too often, we’ve seen tilt-shift overused, misappropriated or misunderstood. The tilt-shift effect is used by photographers to highlight a plane or exaggerate a minimal depth-of-field. It’s simulated in Instagram with a blur tool that comes in two flavors: linear and circular. Though simplified, the tool can be powerful if used wisely.
1. Look for a vertical or horizontal axis.
The first rule of linear Instagram tilt-shift is to identify a discreet edge — that is, a clear delineation between foreground and background. This will make the object “in focus” pop appropriately.
2. Define the foreground and background.
Tilt-shift can be used to highlight a subject in the foreground or background. Regardless of the position, the goal is to clearly define what the viewer should be looking at.
3. Get as close to the edge without touching it.
You’ll need ginger fingers to align the edge and axis without crossing over. Instagram’s tilt-shift has a fairly sharp gradient. Encroach lightly for a feathered look (a smooth transition from foreground to background), but proceed with caution. Going too far will ruin the illusion of depth.
4. Use circular tilt-shift on circular items.
Circular tilt-shift really works best on circular items, as seen here.
5. Isolate arcs.
Circular tilt-shift is not exclusively for circles. Expand the field to delineate background and foreground along rounded edges. It’s not an exact science. The arc on this fountain doesn’t align perfectly Instagram’s circular tilt-shift, but the colors in the background blend well enough to hold the illusion.
6. Frame a non-circular object on a solid background.
The exception to the “only use the circle on circles” rule is when you are isolating your subject on a uniform background, like a solid color wall or a cloudless sky. In these cases, you won’t see the hard edge left behind by the ring.
7. When in doubt, don’t.
It’s tempting to add that extra pop to every Instagram you take, but often, you just don’t need it. If you’re unable to identify a clear axis, ring, foreground or background, or if you’re struggling to align your edge without breaking the depth of field, just call it off. Your photo is better served without it.
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