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How to Shoot Surreal Portrait Photography

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Related course: Wow Factor Photography

Surreal portraits are often thought-provoking, haunting, otherworldly, or a mix of all three.

Want to make your portraits look surreal and feel exciting at the same time? Here are a few important (and easy!) tricks you need to keep in mind.

What Is Surreal Photography?

Surreal portrait photo of a man with painted face
Surreal portraits almost always make you wonder about the story behind the picture. You might end up with more questions than answers. But isn’t it the whole point of surrealism in general?

Surrealism is a form of art that focuses on dream-like elements. These elements can be bizarre, like Dali’s The Elephants, or unbelievably realistic, like Justin Peters’ Cloud Whale.

These two examples are very different. But they share the same characteristics. They aren’t something you’d see in everyday life.

Yet, they’re still capable of making you think from a different perspective. You might even find them relatable on an emotional level. Surreal pictures are often something you could potentially see in a dream.

Recreating dreams is a common technique in various photography genres. But it’s especially popular in surreal portrait photography.

You can shoot stunning surreal portraits if you play around with facial expressions, poses, or props.

Surrealism allows you to express yourself, experiment, and create fine art.

Keep Facial Expressions Serious to Intensify the Surreal Effect

In surreal portrait photography, you’ll notice that models have similar expressions. They might look lost in thought, confused, unaware of the camera, and so on.

The seriousness of their expressions plays an important role. It has the ability to intensify the surreal effect of the portrait.

If they looked cheerful in the middle of an unusual landscape, the image would look out of place. There’s nothing wrong with this mix, but it doesn’t define the surreal portraits genre.

The more serious your model looks, the easier it is to make even simple compositions look surreal.

Here are a few general portrait examples to use as references. Share them with your model before the photoshoot to ensure that you’re both on the same page.

Not every expression will go well with your theme. Be open to your model’s feedback. Don’t hesitate to experiment!

Portrait photo of a woman in brownish hues

Simply looking up will make your model look like they’re lost in thought or looking at something mysterious in the distance.

Black and white portrait photo of a woman

When you shoot profiles, take a few photos where your model looks straight ahead or a little to the side. Like the previous expression, this will create mystery and continuity.

This way, your model’s expression will suggest that there’s more to your photo than meets the eye.

Photo of a woman looking out of a window on a rainy day

One of the best ways to create pure surrealism is to hide your model’s face completely. You can do this by asking them to stand with their back to the camera.

You can also have them cover their faces with masks, hair, or their hands.

Surreal portrait photo of a woman with a blurry effect

This expression is great for emotional or tranquil photographs. All your model has to do is close their eyes and slightly part their lips.

Close-up portrait photo of a woman looking directly into the camera

Last but not least, ask your model to make an intense expression when looking at the camera. This is perfect for close-up portraits, as the viewer can make eye contact with the model.

This way, they will not be distracted by other subjects.

Use Moody Lighting to Enhance Your Story

Photo of a woman running on a field with a bird flying beside her

Moody lighting can also intensify the surreal effect. This setting makes it easier for you to set the mood at the beginning of your photoshoot.

Moody lighting exists in many forms. If you want to use natural light, shoot when it’s cloudy or gloomy outside. You can also shoot indoors when it’s cloudy for an even moodier effect.

You can also use artificial light for a sharper result. This will give you more control over the atmosphere in your images. Artificial light also allows you to shoot as much as you can, without having to worry about unpredictable weather changes.

Keep your artificial light bright but limited. You can use neon lights or cover any light source with colored gel filters.

Portrait photo of a woman in the dark with neon lights

Use Layers to Create Depth and Mystery

Surreal photo of a woman with a textured layer

Surrealism goes hand in hand with unusual ideas. Because of this, you can use cheap but unusual props to enhance your portraits. These can be curtains, transparent sheets of paper, or anything else with texture.

You can use these props to hide parts of your model’s face, make them less visible, or add depth to your photos. The more textured the material you use, the more mysterious your images will look.

Layers are also an easy way to make a dull composition stand out. All you have to do is shoot through them with your model posing somewhere in the distance.

For a softer effect, use a large aperture like f/2.5. This will blur any layers that are out of focus and create even more depth.

A blurry effect will also make it harder for viewers to understand what’s going on in your image. This is perfect for abstract and surreal portraits.

Use Smoke Bombs to Create Dreamlike Atmospheres

Surreal photo of a person standing with an umbrella with the use of a green smoke bomb
It’s likely that the model in this shot posed for a few seconds before putting the smoke bomb away. Concepts like this are inspiring but quite dangerous as well. Don’t try to recreate this unless you know how to handle smoke bombs professionally.

Another easy way to take outstanding surreal portraits is to use colored smoke bombs.

Smoke bombs are affordable and can be used in a variety of settings. You can use them as backgrounds, foregrounds, or props to hide your model’s face.

They can be quite dangerous though, especially when used indoors. Familiarise yourself with smoke bomb hazards to keep yourself and your model safe.

If the risks outweigh the creative benefits, you can use incense or flour instead.

Use a Slow Shutter Speed to Create Eerie Motion Blur

To make motion blur look even more eery, convert your surreal portraits to black & white. You can do this in-camera or in post-editing. Converting your images afterward will give you more control over the tones in your work.

Black and white portrait photo of a man with a motion blur effect on his face

Fast shutter speed is great for capturing movements in detail. Slow shutter speed is ideal for soft and eerie images.

Slow shutter speed is often used in landscape photography to track the natural movements of water or wind. In surreal portrait photography, you can use motion blur to capture ghostly figures or create a more abstract effect.

If you want to capture a specific movement without blurring your entire photo, use a tripod.

Conclusion

Surreal portrait photography can help you leave your comfort zone. Feel free to experiment with fun photography techniques and compositions!

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