Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Brain Hack: Tilt-Shift Hows and Whys

More ruminations on scale.
What is it about these tilt shifts that I find them endlessly fascinating.  Really, I will never tire of them.
I spend a significant portion of my day staring at mappy data visualizations.  I’d like to be able to rub my eyes and see them all tilt shifted –by making them look fake, they look more real.  They induce a mesmerizing cocktail of aesthetic charm, a healthy perspective of universal scale, art history, pop-psychology, a cognitive puzzle, a sense of urgency, and warm notions of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.  More on that junk below.
Tilt shift actually refers to the optical technique of the actual photographic process, but you can fake it digitally after the fact using regular old aerial imagery from any online map.  Here’s how…

History Full-Circle
Renaissance painters hijacked our perceptions of scale to make fake things look real.  Tilt shifting hijacks our perceptions of scale to make real things look fake.  You have to love that.
When painters create, on a flat canvas, a convincing landscape by feathering in an atmosphere, you are being tricked into dilating into it a sense of depth where there is none.  By constricting depth in an “actual” scene you bring it’s perceived scale down to the miniature.  Combine that with the very limited ability of our eyes’ ability to focus broadly on things that are close, and you’ve got a recipe for fun.
But how does it work?

Depth of Field: Mimicking Your Biology
One of the more dramatic optical techniques of photography is the crafty use of depth of field.  Macro lenses that enable a small subject to be captured at really short distances have a pretty limited zone of focus.  It looks pretty awesome and it mimics the way our own eyes gather light and project it onto the back of our eyeballs.  The closer an actual object is, the more narrow your range of focus becomes.  Try it out by holding something quite close to your eye and focusing on it.
Our brains have spent a lifetime (or at least youth, for the far-sighted) associating a tight depth of field with closeness.

Atmospheric Perspective: Hacking Your Brain
Painters figured out centuries ago that a really neat way to hack our brains’ perception of scale was to paint items in the distance as increasingly lighter, bluer, and at lowered contrast.  Air is pretty hazy –and blue light is pretty obsessed with haze, scattering all over the place.
Part one of making a tilt shift image is to throw that method into reverse.  Take an actual landscape image (or map aerial screenshot) and really crank up the saturation and contrast.  This makes it appear not so far away because it counteracts the effects of the atmosphere.
Blue-green wavelengths scatter more readily than their red cousins on the other end of the visible spectrum (that’s why the sky is generally blue in the day while the more determined red-orange wavelengths make it through the thick angled atmosphere at sunset).

Existential Crisis Invoked
Tilt shift images appeal to me more than just because they are cute and bizarre.  When I see a huge navy warship bob around on the surface of the water it immediately forces me to think of how I sense time.  That thing is real, but at a slightly different time resolution it looks like a toy.  How thin is the real difference?  With the false veil of time perception widened just a bit in this way, it’s not long trip to start asking myself questions regarding my own time span and its vaporous nature.  Combined with the similar warping of physical scale, I feel like I’m getting a taste of that end of life sensation of floating above myself in a detached manner, getting to watch an illustrated version of the question who we and why are we here?
I know, that’s a lot of baggage tied up into tilt shift, but so far it hasn’t worn off.  Plus they are so pretty.

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