© Paul Conrad/Pablo Conrad Photography

Making Your Photos Look Like Miniatures

© Paul Conrad/Pablo Conrad Photography

Using simple Photoshop techniques, I took a photo I shot from a hot air balloon and attempted to make it look like a miniature.

Have you ever seen those photos that look like they’re photos of model train sets? Or how about the opening credits of “Gulliver’s Travels” with Jack Black?

Wouldn’t it be nice if you could afford one of these $2000 lenses? But there is a much cheaper way. It’s a cool effect that fun and easy to do: Making your photos look like models.

These are usually shot with a perspective control (PC) lens. But as most of us can’t really afford purchasing one of these lenses, there’s a simple technique in Photoshop which produces an effect similar to what the lens does.

But, by following this simple technique, you can create a few of these yourself, and even shoot photos that you can use this technique with.

I will say this, I am not the originator of this technique, I learned it from several sites on the internet.

*** I was asked if you can do this in Lightroom 3, but I wouldn’t know as I use Photoshop.

*** These images were manipulated using Adobe CS Photoshop 5 Extended on a MacBook Pro 13″. I thought this was necessary to alleviate those questions.

First thing to do is chose a good photo. Better yet, plan this ahead and photograph a scene you think would look good this way. Something from up above shot with a telephoto works really well.

Here’s an image from my archives I shot while Jeeping above Aspen, Colo.:

© Paul Conrad/Pablo Conrad Photography

With the sun breaking through the clouds and lighting a tree line dusted in powder, Aspen, Colo., remains in shadow as passing snow squalls continue to dust the valley.

First, chose an image shot with a telephoto. Telephoto lenses compress the perspective and give a sense of small.Wide angles don’t work as well as the perspective distortion they create does not work with this technique.

Images that work well have cars, trains, buildings, etc. Items one would normally see if you went to a model store. Scenic images don’t work so well as it’s hard to visualize them in model form.

Second, the photo should be shot, or has been shot, from above. A good angle is about 45°. Avoid direct, overhead photos. You can’t really get the perspective needed as everything looks the same size.

Third, chose one with a definite focus point. If your depth-of-field is the whole frame, that’s OK. Think about pictures you’ve seen of model trains or cars, or a model of a town. The DOF is relatively narrow.

Once you decide the image you want, open it in Photoshop. After it’s open, chose what you’d like to see as the main focus point.

Create a new layer of the image. Duplicate the image into a new layer. all the adjustments will be applied to this new layer to prevent you from destroying your original photo. Now save the new image. Photoshop will force you to save it as a .psd (Photoshop document). This is good as now you have a new file and the original will not be altered.

For example, I started with SnowDustedTreesAndAspen.jpg and with the new layer now have SnowDustedTreesAndAspen.psd which keeps me from overwriting the original Jpeg.

Please make sure you are on the proper layer by checking your Layers palette during this process. The layer will be called “Background Copy.”

Now, using the tool bar, enter Quick Mask mode. It’s the icon at the bottom of the tool bar. You can also enter this mode by pressing the letter “Q.” You’ll know as the icon will turn red, the default color for quick mask.

Enter quick mask by clicking on the icon, or pressing the letter "Q." The icon will change to red.

When you are in quick mask, choose the Gradient gradient tool. You can access this from the tool bar or hitting “G” on your keyboard.

After entering quick mask, choose the gradient too by selecting the tool bar icon or pressing the "G" key.

Now select the “reflected gradient” in the upper part of the top control panel. That’s the panel that runs across from left to right at the top of the Photoshop workspace. It is here that gives the options for the selected tool.

In the control panel, click on the reflected gradient option.

Once you are in this tool, select what you want in focus, and what you want out. Click on the portion of the frame and then drag upward to the top. Release. What you then will have is your selection that we will apply the lens blur filter to.

What you get is what appears to be a red (if your default quick mask color is set to default) streak across your picture.

The selected gradient. Once here, you can exit the quick mask mode and the running ants outline appears.

Now exit quick mask. (click icon or press the Q key). What will appear is an outline “marching ants.” This is your selection in which we will apply the “lens blur” filter.

You can use any method to blur the selection, but remember, it blurs from nothing at your start point to very blurry at the ends. Lens blur has a lot of control, and if you are using a night shot with lights, you can get a star pattern from those pinpoints of light

The lens blur filter has a lot of control over the amount of blur you can introduce, whether to apply 5,6, or 8-blades (shape), and how curved they are.

To get to the “lens blur” filter: Filter > Blur > Lens Blur.  Your image will open in a new window with the above panel.

For radius, begin with a modest radius of 20. From there, work your way up or down the slider to notice the effect the filter has on the image. Notice that the higher you go, the more is out of focus? If you have  pinpoints of light in your image, zoom into one and play with the shape option, brightness, threshold, curvature and rotation options.

When you get the desired effect, hit enter to apply the filter. Depending on the size of the image, it can take from a minute for a small photo to 10 minutes for a large. I had a 105 mb image and it took about 10 minutes. So working with smaller images is beneficial, but limiting.

When it is done, double-check to make sure this is the desired effect you want. If it is, then deselect (command-D on a Mac) the gradient tool or you can go to Select > Deselect.

Now add a touch of saturation to add that “shiny new model” effect, and add some contrast using curves. Bring down your shadow areas and bring up your highlights.

© Paul Conrad/Pablo Conrad Photography

Voilá! The finished product. Again, work with images shot from above to get the perspective like you are looking at a model.

Use adjustment layers when applying saturation and curves. This saves you time as you can go back and make changes if needed. For example, you think there needs to be more saturation, then you can select the saturation layer and readjust it.

Save the file. What you have is the file in a PSD format. If later you decide to change anything on the image, you can open this file to make those changes.

Now all you have to do is flatten the image and size it to what you’d like. Then save this by using the Save As command under the File menu. Save it as a j-peg with a new name. I saved mine as TreesAndAspen-Miniature.jpg.

© Paul Conrad/Pablo Conrad Photography

This technique does not work very well with wide angled photographs.

There you have it. And all without the use of an expensive perspective control lens. However, there is one major flaw with this technique: you can’t control what’s already in focus. With a perspective control lens, you can control the plane of focus much better. Therefore, the image will look more like a model than using this technique.

Take a look at the photo at the beginning of the blog. If you look close at the reflection of the balloon in the lake, it’s in focus, but the balloon is not. A minor flaw with the technique, but liveable.

© Paul Conrad/Pablo Conrad Photography

The "Colorado High" hot air balloon floats above the Snowmass Golf course.

For me, this is just something to tool around with on a rainy day. Wait, I live in the Pacific Northwest, we have lots of those here.

Thank you for stopping by and reading. All comments are appreciated.

Paul Conrad

Pablo Conrad Photography

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  1. Hey Paul! I’ve been using a free editing system called “Photoscape” and they have what they call a “Tilt Shift Filter” that I have used TONS lately! I totally dig it!

    Hope you are doing well 🙂


    1. Thanks Heather for stopping by.

      There are more ways to do this than one can images. Lightroom, Photoscape, Aperture, etc. But these are software fixes with flaws.

      I’ve seen this effect with PC (TS) lenses and they look sooo much better. You actually have a true focal point, the out of focus area don’t look so manipulated, and it just more real.

      Have you seen the opening credits of Gulliver’s Travels w/Jack Black? Shot with a PC lens. Very cool.

      Thanks again.


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