How to Shoot Surreal Photos Without Post-Processing :: Digital Photo Secrets

How to Shoot Surreal Photos Without Post-Processing

by David Peterson 1 comment

The cool thing about photography is that people have certain expectations about it. Why is that cool? Because when people have certain expectations, you can really make a big impact when you do things that shatter those expectations. Keep reading to find out how.

Here’s what I mean: it’s sort of a given, for most people, that photographs are an exact, two-dimensional recreation of reality. This idea stems from childhood, when our parents used cameras to document family life, vacations, holidays and school days. Our old family albums are full of images that do exactly that: they give us an exact, two-dimensional record of our lives and our own personal histories.

    Awkward Family Photo (Not my family!) by Flickr user sea turtle

    Most of the pro photos we see do that, too—or at least we assume that they do. All photographers take some liberties, whether it’s cloning a trash can out of an otherwise beautiful landscape, or picking up a few pieces of litter before taking a shot, or brushing a messy head of hair before putting a child in front of the camera. These are the little things we do that change a scene ever so slightly, and make our “exact recreation of reality” images just a little bit inexact.

    Nevertheless, most people just automatically assume that the images they see are exactly as they appeared in real life. So what happens when we shake up people’s expectations with a shot like this one:

    • Nikon Coolpix L5
    • 118
    • f/2.9
    • 0.25 sec (1/4)
    • 6.3 mm

    Deliberate motion blur 21 by Flickr user april-mo

    When you take a photograph that looks just a little bit off, or even a lot off, you are shattering most people’s basic expectations about reality. We expect a photograph to be an exact copy of a small part of the real world, so when we are confronted with an image that contains unrealistic elements, it’s jarring. It makes us stop and look, and it makes our minds work. We might wonder how the photographer accomplished the image. Or we might let our minds slip into fiction—what sort of world is it that we’re looking at, and what sort of strange creatures might live there?

    To create very extreme surrealistic images, you need to use post-processing software. But this isn’t going to be a post-processing tutorial. In this tutorial, I’m going to discuss ways that you can manipulate reality in camera, without any knowledge of post processing whatsoever.

    Forced perspective

    Photography is by its nature a two-dimensional medium. We view photos on a computer screen, or on a flat piece of paper, so it’s up to our brains to fill in those details that make us “see” a photographic scene as three dimensional. Most photographers go to great lengths to include clues in their images that help our brains make that interpretation, but not everyone considers the ways in which we can use that two-dimensional medium to our advantage.

    • Canon EOS 7D
    • 100
    • f/9.0
    • 0.002 sec (1/500)
    • 24 mm

    A Good Grip! - Salar de Uyuni, Boliva by Flickr user Geee Kay

    In a photograph, distant objects are literally on the same plane as objects in the foreground—at least as far as that piece of paper it’s printed on is concerned. So it’s actually a fairly simple matter to trick your viewer into thinking that your subject is interacting with a distant object. With a simple trick of camera and subject positioning, you can create an image that looks really surreal and weird—without the help of any post-processing software.

    To use this technique, it can be helpful (though not necessary) to mount your camera on a tripod. That’s because in order to make the technique convincing you have to align your subject pretty precisely with the background object she’s supposed to be interacting with. You don’t want that alignment to be thrown off by a shaky hand, so mount your camera on a tripod and then make fine adjustments after it is in place. Once you have your subject lined up with the background, be sure to shoot several versions of the image—people aren’t very good at keeping perfectly still, so you’re going to want to maximize your chances of capturing just the right shot.

    Light painting

    When you think light painting, you probably think of that classic look—words painted in the sky with a sparkler or a glow stick, for example. These images are really cool and fun to look at, but are very obviously manipulated. What you may not really think of when someone mentions light painting is the more subtle variety, like this:

    • Canon EOS REBEL T2i
    • 400
    • f/6.3
    • 20
    • 18 mm

    Lightning Love by Flickr user Andrew Nourse

    In this image, the photographer has “painted” the tree with a flashlight. The result is a strange and surreal looking depiction of the tree and the landscape around it. Why does it look so strange?

    The obvious answer is the color—we’re not used to seeing trees that are colored like that. But more subtly, it comes down to the light itself. Most things are lit by one or two directional light sources. We expect the shadows and highlights behave a certain way based on where that light comes from. When the object is lit from multiple directions by a flashlight, it starts to look a little bit odd. Add to that the fact that the object itself is in a dark environment with no discernible light source present, and our brains just don't know what to do with that information.

    You can create wonderful light paintings by painting the sky with that glow stick if you like, and you're still going to have a surreal image. But the real challenge is using this subtler form of light painting to create something that really makes your viewer scratch his head.

    Double exposures

    The double exposure is a time-honored way of creating surreal images that harkens back to the days of film. It was actually a little bit easier in the days of film because any camera could do it — you just had it to prevent the film from advancing between exposures. Getting everything lined up the right way, however, was a bit trickier, because film photographers didn't have LCDs to help them out. To make this work with your modern camera, you will need to have a DSLR camera that has this ability built-in. Not all cameras do. Most Nikon DSLRs can do it, and so can many of Canon’s consumer-grade DSLRs. Olympus and Fujifilm also make models that are capable of taking double exposures. If your camera does have this ability, you're in luck. And the trick itself is not actually that difficult once you understand how to use this feature on your camera.

    • Canon EOS 5D Mark III
    • 125
    • f/4.0
    • 0.004 sec (1/250)
    • 200 mm

    Tre Glass by Flickr user Liam Higgins Photography

    The first step is a capturing a silhouette of your subject. The reason why this needs to be a silhouette is because your camera is going to place the details from the second exposure into the black areas of the original exposure. It is also Important to shoot your silhouette against a white background or a blown out sky. The right conditions can usually be found about an hour before sunset. Place your subject against the sky, and underexpose so that he or she becomes a silhouette. Now find a texture to use in the second image. Remember that you're going to be replacing that silhouette with this texture, so try to find something cool. A lot of photographers like to use natural textures such as flowers or leaves, but anything can work. This texture is also going to need to be shot against a white background, and you need to make sure that there are no additional elements cluttering up the frame, or you will end up creating an image that also looks a little bit too cluttered.

    Depending on how your individual camera works, you should be able to go back to that original image in multi-exposure mode, select it, and view it in live view as an underlay for the texture shot. This is going to help you line it all up and get it to look exactly the way you've envisioned.

    Now it’s a simple matter of just making the second exposure. Once you've taken that second shot, your camera will merge it with the first, and you'll end up with a really cool, surreal double exposure.

    Motion blur

    Motion blur is one of the more obvious ways to create a surreal image in camera without the use of post processing software. You've probably already done some experimentation with motion blur, but now I want you to think about ways that you can make a motion blurred image look really bizarre or surreal. One way that you can do this is by using an extremely long exposure, long enough that your viewer is no longer able to identify the object that created that motion blurred streak. Or, you can take the opposite tack. Try shooting a natural setting on a windy day using a very slightly slower shutter speed. If you can capture that bend in the grass or in the branches of a tree using a slower shutter speed, then you're adding a surreal quality to what would otherwise be a very realistic scene.

    Fun with white balance

    Another really simple way to create a surreal quality in your photos is to use your white balance setting in a way for which it was not intended. What I mean by that is, instead of setting your white balance for daylight, maybe you want to create an image that seems a lot cooler or a lot warmer than it appears to your eyes. Cooler scenes have a lot more blue in them, while warmer scenes have tones like orange and yellow. If you wanted to make a brilliant sunset even more brilliant, you could do this by simply setting your white balance to “cloudy.” The reason why this works is because when you're shooting a subject under cloudy skies, there's naturally going to be a lot of blue in the light. When you set your white balance to “cloudy,” your camera will adjust for those blues by adding red. But if you aren't under cloudy skies, those added reds are going to have the effect of making other reds in the scene more brilliant. So you'll get an almost unnaturally red and orange looking sunset.

    • Canon EOS 40D
    • 100
    • f/16.0
    • 0.8
    • 10 mm

    Coogee Sunrise - Sun Up by Flickr user blentley

    Staging and props

    One final way you can create surreal looking images in camera is to use props. This is going to require a lot of creative thinking on your part—some very successful photographers will actually spend hours of building elaborate sets in their home studios and then shooting them up close, to give the viewer the impression that the scene is life-sized. When you use this technique, you can create any just about any surreal weirdness that you can imagine. Of course, you have to have the time, the means, and the talent to pull this off—so this may or may not be something that you can do. If not, that's okay. You can just use simple props with an ordinary subject in order to create surreal weirdness. Your success is going to depend on what props and setting you choose, how your subject is dressed, and the way in which you photograph her. If you need a couple of examples it to spark your imagination, have a look at these:

    • Nikon D300
    • 200
    • f/8.0
    • 0.006 sec (1/160)
    • 24.5 mm

    the passion of the plushie ape by Flickr user mugley


    If you once thought you had to buy an expensive software package or take a class in basic Photoshopping in order to do this, I hope that you’re feeling pleasantly reassured. You can get some really amazing, really weird and surreal looking images with a little creativity and some knowledge of the built-in features that your camera has. Now, it’s going to require some practice, and lots of failed experiments before you finally hit on that one image that really makes you say “wow,” but don’t get discouraged. The more you try different things, the closer you’re going to come to consistently producing those fun and weird images just like the ones that you always thought were Photoshopped.

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    1. Dawn Attewell says:

      This is truly awesome David I just can't wait to try these suggestions ...Thanks you for the creative ideas.

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