If you enjoy pushing the boundaries of what’s physically possible and composing photos that are unique and unexpected, then surreal photography is worth exploring. The art form is all about taking unexpected but everyday objects and adding them to a photograph in a unique way. The viewer should look at the photo and know that the image isn’t possible yet still find it fascinating.
Surreal photography stems from surrealism in the art world, which rose to its height in the 1920s. You’ve likely seen some famous surreal paintings, such as Salvador Dali’s “The Persistence of Memory” or Rene Magritte’s “The Son of Man.”
Surreal photography takes multiple images and meshes them with graphic design to create a fun, unique photo which triggers the imagination. The base of good surrealism in the photo world is a unique idea that adds unexpected elements. One of the best ways to figure out how to create your own compositions is through studying amazing surreal photography by other professionals.
1. Layer Elements
Photo Credit: Giuseppe Mastromatteo
Italian photography Giuseppe Mastromatte has worked in advertising and is known for taking the human form and adding elements to the hands and face with digital editing tools. Illusionary concepts give his compositions a hard, otherworldly edge. To repeat this style of photography, think about how you might take a natural form (not necessarily human) and bring in hard, geometric elements, such as blocks.
2. Collide Two Worlds
Photo Credit: Martin Stranka
Martin Stranka is a Czech born photographer who uses muted colors and puts together images of humanity and nature colliding. His work might show a man walking through the middle of a storm or, as in the image on his homepage, a wild animal checking out an overturned automobile. When coming up with a concept for your next photo session, think about two worlds that don’t typically come together and how you might make them collide.
3. Create Unusual Configurations
Photo Credit: Philippe Halsman
To fully understand the concept of surreal photography, one must look at some of the greats from the 20th century, such as Latvian-born American photographer Philippe Halsman. The photo above, dubbed “Dali Atomicus,” shows cats leaping through the air in water, a chair floating and other unusual happenings that surprise and delight at the same time. When creating surreal photography, think about what flows well but is still surprising. For example, you normally wouldn’t expect to see cats leaping toward a stream of water.
4. Enhance Reality
Photo Credit: Ronen Goldman
Ronen Goldman is known for his stunning commercial photography and uses surreal elements in many of his photographs. He takes what is already there and enhances it, pushing past the boundaries of what’s physically possible. Notice in the photo above, called “The Magician,” that a deck of cards leaps into motion in a way that isn’t possible in the real world. Think about your photos and how you can heighten what’s already there to create something breathtaking.
5. Add Strange Juxtapositions
Photo Credit: Platon Yurich
Platon Yurich is a Russian photographer who adds surrealism to his photos through the use of strange juxtapositions or adding seemingly unrelated elements in a startling new way. In the image above, the sky is reflected through puzzle pieces as a man stands in a field pondering life. The impact is one that makes the viewer think about the meaning of the photograph, and it stays with you long after you walk away. Think about how you can tie the different textures in your images together through special add-ons used during the editing process. It’s best to plan out your ideas before taking photos so you don’t miss any important shots you need to piece the final look together.
6. Feature Minimalistic Montages
Photo Credit: Tommy Ingberg
Tommy Ingberg is famous for his surreal black and white photography. He uses traditional surreal elements with the placement of balloons or umbrellas in the location where the human subject’s head would usually be. However, he digs even deeper to add additional meaning to his photographs. For example, an umbrella is unlikely to protect you from the weight of the world as seen in his photo titled “Stone Part 1.” He does all this with minimalistic design, using a lot of negative space, so the focus is on the subject as he sticks with black and white montages. Repeat this type of surreal photography by taking images in black and white and then piecing them together in a montage that says something to you personally.
7. Blur the Lines
Photo Credit: Bintang Andhika Marta
Bintang Andhika Marta created this stunning photograph of blurred motion on an interstate. Blur gets associated with those moments in life when you feel faint or are dizzy. It also shows movement. Unlike flat two-dimensional photographs, blurred photos hint at constant motion. To create this type of effect, you can take a photo while spinning, panning or slowing down your shutter speed. You might also try opening your aperture up and adding a blur filter in your image editing software. To enhance the image, try different filters and see which one gives you the result you want.
8. Pop the Color
Photo Credit: Sarah Ann Loreth
Sarah Ann Loreth takes vivid photographs and adds a touch of surrealism by making the colors more vivid than they’d ever appear in the natural world. Flowers appear so bright and red that they immediately draw the eye. To create this type of effect in your own photos, first, take pictures with one or two colors as the main focal point. Then, use photo editing software and enhance the depth of the colors, making them a tad brighter and coloring in any faded areas.
9. Freeze a Moment
Photo Credit: Lucie Illésová
Frozen movement is another element in surrealism that captures our attention. Lucie Illésová manages to freeze people in unusual positions and capture the imagination through intensely personal positions. These images are captured using sports mode and breakneck shutter speeds. The trick is catching unusual moments. For instance, you might try to capture that single drop of water as it falls from a leaf or snap a photo of people in motion looking as though they’re frozen in time.
10. Distort Reality
Photo Credit: Anka Zhuravleva
Anka Zhuravleva distorts reality in several ways in her surreal photography. For example, she places people in positions they couldn’t possibly be in, such as floating through the air or swinging from two tall buildings. She also softens the overall image in many of her photos so her pictures appear to have an almost dreamlike quality. You can start by softening your focus when taking photographs, but most of her work is done through layering images and blurring in photo editing software.
11. Use Bokeh Technique
Photo Credit: Mike Unger
The bokeh lens effect softens the outer edges of an image as in this image of bottles by Mike Unger. Note how the image looks almost dreamlike with a focus on the center part of the image. Find a small light source and put your camera on aperture priority mode or full manual. Use the widest aperture you have, focus on your light source and shoot the image. Alternately, you can use a bokeh filter to blur any image, although the effect looks slightly more blurred around the edges when you use that method. The lighting will also be different.
12. Capture Unusual Texture
Photo Credit: Bjorn E
Photographer Bjorn E utilizes an extreme closeup of a plant to capture the texture of the leaves. While the focus remains on the beauty of the flower petals, even the blades come into crisp relief in this image. To create a similar look, use micro-photography and zoom in on the subject. You may want to swap out the lens on your camera for a wider one to capture all the elements but experiment with different lenses until you find the one which works for your needs.
13. Paint in Effects
Photo Credit: Berli Mike
Berli Mike takes an image and adds paint effects to make it look more like a painting than a photograph. Paint tools allow him to put surreal photography touches on his images, such as replacing the head of the subject with bursts of color and altering the background to look otherworldly. To recreate this look, take a photo of your subject and then play around with paint tools until your photo has a watercolor look to it. You may need to layer different elements in the background and then put the subject in the foreground.
14. Place an Image Within an Image
Photo Credit: Claudia Dea
Claudia Dea places images within other images to give her photos a surreal look. Take notice of how the image of the old man riding his bike through the grayness becomes even more unique when it’s placed inside a bubble. It looks almost as though someone’s having a vision of a future event. It adds an otherworldly look to the entire photograph. Repeat this type of look by first drawing your bubble and shading and then placing the image inside the bubble. You’ll need to blend the colors so the piece looks natural.
15. Stretch & Layer
Photo Credit: Godino
Godina captures the surrealistic trait of melting and stretching perfectly. It looks as though the subjects in the piece are locked in time but a bit out of step with it as well. Notice how he highlights the couple kissing but stretches the top of their heads up into pouring pots. Other elements are layered in and manipulated so the focus is on the couple but the eye is still drawn to how unusual the photo is. The only way to create this type of image is with digital manipulation. Choose your main image and then stretch and contort it. Enhance it by layering in other elements.
16. Photograph a Real Subject with Surreal Background
Photo Credit: Eugenio Recuenco
Eugenio Recuenco adds touches of surrealism to his photographs without making the entire piece surrealistic. This creates a striking image which focuses on the figure posing for the portrait. Note the elements which seem to melt while the subject remains solid. To capture this effect, replace some elements in the photo with surreal ones while keeping the subject sharp.
17. Float Your Subject
Photo Credit: Nikolay Tikhomirov
Nikolay Tikhomirov is a master at floating photography. His collection of prints called Zero Gravity takes images of women and makes it look as though they are floating despite earth’s gravity. Creating floating photography isn’t as difficult as you might think. You simply place the subject on a chair or other piece of furniture. You’ll need to layer several images, remove the object holding them in place and add in a few other effects, such as adding motion to a skirt.
18. Shock Your Viewer
Photo Credit: Hüseyin Åžahin
Turkish artist Hüseyin Åžahin is an art director who puts his creativity to work and creates amazing images based on his dreams. He layers different images together, making them blend almost seamlessly so what seems impossible becomes possible. To master this type of surreal photo, you must think through your finished image before you begin taking photos. Multiple images must be layered to create just the right three-dimensional look.
19. Conceptualize Unique Photos
Photo Credit: Logan Zilmer
Logan Zilmer is known for his conceptual photography, which is a bit different than surreal photography, yet his images also capture a bit of surreal whimsy from time to time. The above image of cars in the place of clouds is an example of this. The only way to create such unique looks is by creating an overall concept and then meshing different photographic elements together.
20. Blur Parts of Your Photo
Photo Credit: Claudia Dea
This second example from photographer Claudia Dea shows an image of horses. The artist blurred only part of the image, so it looks as though the horses are moving so fast you can’t yet make out their back ends. Use paint tools to create these types of effects, you can try watercoloring only part of the image or try blur effects until you get the type of melting motion you want.
21. Animate Your Photos
Photo Credit: AbstractArtAngel77
AbstractArtAngel77 is known for her abstract photographs combined with art. She uses vivid colors and layering non-photographic elements to create a unique, almost psychedelic look to her photographs. Photo editing tools and animations techniques help create this type of image.
22. Make a Powerful Statement
Photo Credit: Erik Johansson
Erik Johansson nails the surreal art movement perfectly with a giant clock floating on water. If you look closely at the face of the clock, there is a man on the minute hand. The image makes a powerful statement about the passage of time and how little control humans have over it. Obviously, Johansson layered different images to create an overall effect here. You must use photo editing software to create this type of surreal photography.
23. Go for the Unexpected
Photo Credit: Flora Borsi
Flora Borsi surprises you with a whale’s tale in the middle of a forest. In reality, we don’t see trees out in the middle of the ocean or an ocean in the middle of a forest, so the combination grabs us and makes us ponder why the artist combined the two. To create this type of unexpected photograph, combine two very different landscapes into one image with layering.
Try Your Hand at Surreal Photography
If the images above inspired you, try some of the techniques and create surreal elements in your own photography. All surrealism requires is a bit of imagination and determination to mesh all the elements together into one cohesive whole. The best photos tell a story and evoke some type of emotion in the public.
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About The Author
Eleanor Hecks is the Editor-in-Chief of Designerly Magazine, an online publication dedicated to providing in-depth content from the design and marketing industries. When she's not designing or writing code, you can find her re-reading the Harry Potter series, burning calories at a local Zumba class, or hanging out with her dogs, Bear and Lucy.