Comparing Photoshop’s Lens Blur Filter to a Real Tilt-Shift Lens

By now, many of us are aware that you can replicate the characteristics of a tilt-shift lens with Photoshop. But I’ve always been curious about just how closely Photoshop can recreate the complex bokeh (image blur) that results from a real tilt-shift lens. So with this burning question in my head, I rented a tilt-shift lens and went to work…

Here’s where I started. Using the Canon TS-E 24mm 3.5L at full tilt (maximum blurriness), I took the shot below.

Tilt-Shift Lens (Click to Enlarge):

Then I swapped lenses with the Canon 24mm 1.4L and took the following shot.

Regular Lens (Click to Enlarge):

Then I brought the party into Photoshop. In Quick Mask Mode, I used the gradient tool to select the portions of the image I wanted to blur. Check out the screenshot below.

Selecting the Area to Blur in Photoshop:

Then, after I was pretty confident that the red areas I’d selected in this photo matched the blurry areas from the tilt-shift photo, I exited Quick Mask Mode and used the Lens Blur filter (located in Filter > Blur > Lens Blur…). It took a few tries to get everything looking as close as possible to the tilt-shift photo, but below are the final settings I used.

Lens Blur Settings (Click to View Settings Large):


As a side note, here’s a quick and easy way to find out the iris shape of the lens you’re shooting with. Set your camera to Manual mode (or Aperture priority) and dial in an aperture setting of about 11. Then look into the front of the lens and press the depth-of-field preview button. Bingo. Here’s an example on the left – roll over that bitch.

Below you can see the image both before and after the Photoshop blur by rolling over it. (I couldn’t get any of the rollover images to preload, so you’ll just have to deal.)

After the Blur (Rollover to View Non-Blurred)

Bitchin. So now let’s compare our freshly-created tilt-shift wannabe with the real deal. (Note that the tilt-shift lens messed with the perspective a little bit so the photos don’t line up perfectly, but you get the idea.)

Photoshop Blur (Rollover to See Tilt-Shift Blur):

At first glance they’re pretty similar, but what type of geeky comparison article would this be without some pixel peeping? Let’s zoom in and have a look…

Photoshop Blur, 100% Crop. (Touch to See Original Photo):

Tilt-Shift Blur, 100% Crop. (Touch to See Photoshop Blur):

Photoshop Blur, 100% Crop. (Touch to See Original Photo):

Tilt-Shift Blur, 100% Crop. (Touch to See Photoshop Blur):


I’ve really got to hand it to Adobe here. While the real tilt-shift blur clearly has a more organic and melty quality to it, it’s pretty damn amazing what Photoshop’s Lens Blur was able to achieve. I’m most impressed with Photoshop’s ability to make the highlights ball up into those iris-shaped bokeh-balls. (Insert hilarious joke here.) True, compared side-by-side to the tilt-shift’s bokeh-balls, Adobe’s bokeh-balls fall a little short. But when you compare Adobe’s bokeh-balls to the points of light in the original photo (by rolling over), it’s pretty amazing what Photoshop was able to do with those original highlights.

So can Photoshop cut it as a de-facto tilt-shift lens replacement? The answer is, of course, subjective. So I think an appropriate conclusion is this: if you can’t tell which of the two photos below is the real thing, you’ll probably be ok without a tilt-shift lens.

Photo 1: TS or PS?

Photo 2: TS or PS?


UPDATE: Here’s another comparison…

Tilt-Shift Lens (Click to Enlarge):

Regular Lens + Photoshop (Click to Enlarge):

Photoshop Blur (Rollover to See Tilt-Shift Blur):

Photoshop Blur, 100% Crop. (Touch to See Original Photo):

Tilt-Shift Blur, 100% Crop. (Touch to See Photoshop Blur):

Photoshop Blur, 100% Crop. (Touch to See Original Photo):

Tilt-Shift Blur, 100% Crop. (Touch to See Photoshop Blur):


Comments (31)

  1.  Rate Comment Up Rate Comment Down  error|1

    And before anyone cries foul in the comments… Yes, I’m aware that I completely ignored the “shift” functionality of this lens in this comparison. Maybe in the future I’ll do a “shift” comparison with the “Lens Correction” filter in Photoshop, but not today. Also, the one area where a tilt-shift lens has a definite advantage over Photoshop is the ability of the TS lens to keep near and distant subjects on the same focal plane. Try doing that in Photoshop with just one exposure.

  2.  Rate Comment Up Rate Comment Down  error|1

    #1 or #2.
    My guess, #2 is Photoshop.
    I had a great explanation why I thought that but I accidentally closed the tab after writing it, and I don’t feel like writing it again.
    At any rate, I prefer blurring in Photoshop just because you can always keep the original non-blurred photo.
    BTW… +25 geek points for setting this up.

  3.  Rate Comment Up Rate Comment Down  error|1

    yeah #2 is pshop?
    Word up on the comparison. Nicely done.

    totally do the shift tilt comparison. da would be lovely.

  4.  Rate Comment Up Rate Comment Down  error|1

    IMO #1 is Photoshop, in #2 you can see grain/noise in the blurred area. Hard to tell the difference though. Nice job on both anyway.

  5.  Rate Comment Up Rate Comment Down  error|1

    For me it’s pretty obvious that the first picture is Photoshop and the second is the real deal. Especially the blurry areas near you (right corner) don’t look natural, because the differecies between the blurry areas and the clear areas are too intense. And in the first picture, the water tower AND the left edge of the building left to it are blurry, but the rest of the building isn’t! That doesn’t look like Tilt-Shift lens to me.

  6.  Rate Comment Up Rate Comment Down  error|1

    Hi – I really enjoyed this comparison. I shoot extensively with tilted lenses and found it hard to pick which one was which in your examples. When subject distances are greater I think you’ll find you can easily blur the tops and bottom of images to achieve this effect, but when a subject contains a series of close and far subject, it would be very difficult to reliably simulate the plane of focus that cuts through near and far objects. Again good job and you may be interested in some of my tilt shift movies.

  7.  Rate Comment Up Rate Comment Down  error|1

    Damn Keith – that’s some pretty impressive stuff. Thanks for sharing!

  8.  Rate Comment Up Rate Comment Down  error|1

    Instead of a single lens blur with a gradient quickmask, try using a depth map to control the lens blur.

    It seems to do a better job accommodating what Keith mentioned, namely simulating the plane of focus that cuts through both far and near objects.

    I have a sample of doing this (with the gimp – but applicable with ps too, just the map is different… I think white is focused and black is completely out of focus…)

    -Rob A>

  9.  Rate Comment Up Rate Comment Down  error|1

    oops -
    Sorry link to the example:

  10.  Rate Comment Up Rate Comment Down  error|1

    I’m impressed with what Photoshop can do, but it’s very obvious that first is PS, second is real. The bookeh of the real ts-lense is much nicer, softer and the transitions from blurred to sharp are smoother than in PS. PS bookeh is too mushy. Sure, you only notice the differences why you look closely but that’s what it’s all about, right?

  11.  Rate Comment Up Rate Comment Down  error|1

    It’s actually quite easy to tell the bokeh from a TS – it is completely blurred in one direction, and razor shape in the other perpendicular direction.

  12.  Rate Comment Up Rate Comment Down  error|1

    You are a very smart person!

  13.  Rate Comment Up Rate Comment Down  error|1

    #1 is ts, look at the building up to the left/middle, the tallest. It has straight lines compared to #2, which have lines that seems as they will cross paths if you continue them. Not parallell that is

  14.  Rate Comment Up Rate Comment Down  error|1

    Right guys. for what it’s worth here’s my take!
    price of PS versus price of TS – about even,that’s if you can pick up a TS lens 2nd hand.
    I would go for PS as it is much more versatile overall. However…in an ideal world I’d like both.As Mike says Where the TS scores over PS is when you want to keep foreground AND background in focus. Try taking a blurred image and sharpen it in PS to the same extent that you can blur a sharp one!
    I’m a simple person. I like simple solutions. I don’t care if it’s done PS or TS.
    If it works….it works
    It’s a question of personal choice.

  15.  Rate Comment Up Rate Comment Down  error|1

    photoshop is a good at simulating tilted photography. when it comes to shifting, you have to have the lens.

  16.  Rate Comment Up Rate Comment Down  error|1

    You asked for …
    Picture No. 1 is not done by TS, but pic 1 and 2 can be done by using PS :))

    Regards, Soeren

  17.  Rate Comment Up Rate Comment Down  error|1

    Fantastic comparison. So glad you made this.

  18.  Rate Comment Up Rate Comment Down  error|1

    Cool article. I suspect the reason the bokeh circles are darker using photoshop could be that by that point the image has had its dynamic range compressed by going through the “exposure curve”. If it were possible to apply the lens blur to a raw image image before exposure, the bokeh circles might be brighter.

  19.  Rate Comment Up Rate Comment Down  error|1

    Maybe you could edit the webpage title Comparing Photoshop’s Lens Blur Filter to a Real Tilt-Shift Lens | The Cleverest to more suited for your webpage you make. I liked the the writing nevertheless.

  20.  Rate Comment Up Rate Comment Down  error|1

    Photo manipulation is as old as photography itself, contrary to the idea of a photo having inherent verisimilitude. Though not obviously visible to human eyes, image manipulation can be detected by some sophisticated tools, like Photoshopped Image Killer. Which tells you whether your image has been Photoshopped given the image or the image’s URL.

  21.  Rate Comment Up Rate Comment Down  error|1

    Photo manipulation is too broad… lots of things to study… also having a great lens is an advantage…

  22.  Rate Comment Up Rate Comment Down  error|1

    #1 is PS – the transition from sharp building to blurred water tower is far too abrupt. And although the bokeh balls in the most distant building are amazingly distinct, those on the shorter building in front of it are not. To do a really realistic depth of field simulation, PS would need a Z-plane (distance from the camera to every point in the image), not just a hand-generated mask. I suppose you could go to great effort to hand-create a realistic mask, but that would be art, not photography :-). Does PS have a filter to compute distance from parallax in a stereo image?

  23.  Rate Comment Up Rate Comment Down  error|1

    If your are talking about photo manipulation, then you are talking in a general way. As what other people said, photo manipulation is too broad. There are a lot of thing to study if you want to become a good photographer. I would also say that if you have great lens, then that’s an advantage.

  24.  Rate Comment Up Rate Comment Down  error|1

    This is so dumb. You are missing the sweetest point. You can always use photoshop to simulate the blur but you will never be able to put extra sharpness in. On the other hand, you are only writing about how TS lens can be used to selectively focus a part of the scene. But what about the magic? TS can extend the depth of view to keep everything in focus. That is why people get TS lenses. Normal lenses will never be able to do that. TS will always win. You better go out and keep taking pictures rather writing these nonsense blog.

  25.  Rate Comment Up Rate Comment Down  error|1

    nice read there…. just bookmarked it…

  26.  Rate Comment Up Rate Comment Down  error|1

    Can I still guess? I guess #1 is the real deal, because of the perspective – the buildings are straight-up, and not on a slant, which is why people taking photos of architecture use this lens.

  27.  Rate Comment Up Rate Comment Down  error|1

    Interesting stuff! All the miniature effect I ever applied was done with a tilting lens. I like to think that a lens beats photoshop simulation but your comparison proofs that it can be hard to tell the difference.

    My guess:
    #1 Photoshop
    #2 TiltShift

    Here’s two videos that I made with a tilting lens:

  28.  Rate Comment Up Rate Comment Down  error|1

    2 Questions:

    1. When you have the quickmask gradient on the area you want do you release the mask by pressing Q or do you leave it on and take it through the lens blur?

    2. WordPress: Your site is nice, informative and big, what template are you using?

  29.  Rate Comment Up Rate Comment Down  error|1

    For me, #1 is the Photoshop one… You can notice it lacks detail/grain in the blurry area…

  30.  Rate Comment Up Rate Comment Down  error|1

    Thanks so much for this!!!!!!! Your description of the difference is spot on. Real tilt-shift is more melty. I’ve gotten the same results as you with photoshop or lightroom….it’s just not melty enough.

    I am very interested in getting a real tilt shift…maybe lens-baby Edge 80…or maybe some adapter (Arax, Arsat, etc).. But it’s more for people photos that I want it. Wider angle. I love the look of the melted away legs and sky/trees for engagement/wedding photos.

    While looking at your comparison photos, I noticed something…. The real tilt shift blurred areas look less blurred and have more contrast. As if the clarity has been raised. I’m going to try to do the effect in PS and add clarity to the blurred areas and see if it looks more melty :D

    Thanks again.

  31.  Rate Comment Up Rate Comment Down  error|1

    Thanks for this post, I have been trying to find something similar for ages since I wasn’t sure if I could tell the difference between real and fake tilt effect. I think it makes a strong argument that faking it for that particular effect is a great solution. However in defense of the real tilt shift lens (for this effect), there is some creative quality to tilting and seeing exactly where in the frame will be out of focus and composing the shot while in the moment.

Leave a Reply