Have you ever seen a photograph that makes the world look tiny? Even through you know it’s real, you can’t help but see it as a close-up of a miniature model train village in a retired-person’s basement. Have a look at this video of my city, Calgary, to see the illusion in action.
“Moving Calgary” video by Charlie Su. Watch on YouTube
Pretty neat, yeah? Charlie is not a retired man painting plastic people in his basement… not yet anyways… but a photographer who likes spending time on rooftops. All that footage is the real deal. So what makes it all look so cute and tiny?
That’s the diorama illusion, and it’s your brain playing tricks on you. Sometimes this illusion is mis-called the “tilt shift” effect, as a tilt-shift lens (a special moving lens for a camera) is one of the tools that can be used to create the illusion. However, most of the videos and photos you see with this illusion are created with digital effects. It’s surprisingly simple!
The key to the whole illusion is the blurry parts of the image. Watch the video closely. Notice how the edges of the screen are always blurry, and only a small area of the picture is in sharp focus. Photographers call this the depth of field. Whenever you look at something, any objects that are closer or farther from your eye will be slightly blurred. The further from your area of focus, the more blurred they are.
If you look out the window at things far away pretty much everything appears more or less in focus. You can see the whole landscape at once. Now, hold something up near your face and focus on that. Suddenly everything behind it becomes very blurry in your peripheral vision.
Your brain has a good understanding of the connection between blurriness of objects and their relative size and position to you. Far away, everything is in focus. Up close only small parts are in focus. It’s this understanding, or set of assumptions, that your brain has that is being forcefully manipulated to create the illusion.
When the edges of the photo or video are blurred just right, so that the area near the focus spot is blurred a little, and the outer edges are blurred a lot, it tricks your brain into thinking it’s looking at something very close-up.
Add that with the high angle of the photo, looking down from above, and it creates a very strong perception of being miniature. In the video the high-speed movement is just another layer of trickery, making the people look like scurrying ants.
Your brain means well, but it can always be manipulated.