Guide to surrealist photography: tips, tricks, and techniques.

A delicate hand emerging from a rough snail shell. A torso that looks more like an X-ray. Round oranges sat beside sharp geometric shapes. These are all examples of surrealist photography.

 

Surreal photography is rooted in surrealism – the 20th century art movement that spawned painter Salvador Dali and photographer Man Ray. And, liberated by the creative freedom of digital cameras and photo-editing software, the scene is thriving today.

 

But how do you get started? And what are surrealism photography techniques all about? Get the lowdown from photographers Tina Tryforos and John Spannos.

Rose flower with a woman's body

What you'll learn:

What is surrealist photography?

Tree branches that look like veins in a superimposed hand
Smoke cloud in front of a person's face

Surrealist photography is experimental. Photographers employ manual camera settings, imaginative composition, and unusual photo editing techniques to represent unconscious ideas, dreams, and emotions.

“Surreal images tend to be dreamlike and tap into people’s unconscious. They’re often made of different elements that are put together in unexpected ways.”

Photographer Tina Tryforos

 

 

Surrealist photography can:

 

  • Create a feeling that you’re seeing the image through heightened senses or emotions – throwing sections out of focus.
  • Combine unrelated objects to create thought-provoking juxtapositions – replacing a person’s head with a bunch of flowers.
  • Empower objects to do things we generally think impossible – making cars fly or solid objects seem fluid.

 

Surrealist images almost always contain recognisable elements from real life — human figures, clocks, apples — arranged in strange ways. The clocks might be melting, like in Dali’s Persistence of Memory — or an apple might be floating directly in front of a man’s face, like in Magritte’s The Son of Man.

“Things don’t always make sense from a logical standpoint. Sometimes they can be disturbing or jarring or creepy, but they can also be playful and funny.”

Photographer Tina Tryforos

 

 

Surrealist images might make a kind of sense. But, like abstract images, they are most concerned with expressiveness and making you feel something on a deep level you might not be able to explain.

History of surrealism in photography.

Surrealist photography was one of the first mediums of the surrealist art movement which also covered painting, literature, and drama. It emerged in the early 1920s, after the First World War.

 

Surrealist painters like Dali and Magritte enjoyed the full flexibility of the paintbrush to make objects do whatever they pleased (think about Dali’s melting clocks). But surrealism in photography was harder to achieve. After all, photography is a technical as well as creative medium, and photographers – no matter how imaginative – had to contend with the limitations of the darkroom and their then-primitive cameras.

 

But despite these limitations, a small group of photographers, mostly based in and around Paris in the early 1920s, soon came to define surreal photography. These were:

 

  • Man Ray. A well-known fashion photographer, Man Ray became a trailblazer of surrealist photography in the 1920s when he developed the photogram exposure technique.
     
  • Lee Millar. Former model Lee Millar moved from the US to Paris and embraced surrealism. Working alongside Man Ray, she developed solarisation – a central surrealist photography technique.
     
  • Eugene Atget. While Man Ray and Lee Millar created outrageous surrealist photography, Eugene Atget created gentler, more pastoral work. Yet his photos of Parisian streets are considered key surrealist works.
“Even in the beginning days of photography, photographers started to use their tools in ways that weren’t necessarily representational.”

Photographer Tina Tryforos

Surreal photography or abstract?

Both surrealism and abstraction were a break from art that was strictly representational, but they have different approaches. Abstract photography uses colours, shapes, textures, and other elements to evoke feelings and ideas. Surrealism also uses recognisable images – but often displays them in an unusual way.

 

  • An evocative picture of cubes? Abstract. 
  • A building made entirely of human hands? Surreal.
“Surrealism is always tied into reality in some way. Even though it’s not realistic, it needs to be believable.”

Photographer Tina Tryforos 

Examples of surrealist photography.

Someone opening a filing cabinet as they float above a body of water
Photo of birds flying across a body of water within a photo of birds flying across a body of water
Woman in search of freedom climbs a surreal staircase that descends from the sky
Nocturne surreal dream with clouds big whale hovering in the space night landscape under full moon on background
Abstract art collage of young woman with flowers

Surrealism photography techniques and tips from the experts.

Surrealist photography is as much about the composition and editing as it is the techniques. Here, photographers Tina Tryforos and John Spannos provide some expert tips on shooting and editing.

How to shoot surreal photography images.

Behind the camera there are many surreal photography techniques you can use to create the desired effect before you even get to the editing suite.

Blurring movement and backgrounds.

An artistic dancer in a theater shot with a slow shutter speed in order to achieve the desired motion blur

Blurred faces and backgrounds are a central motif of surrealist photography. And you can create this effect by experimenting with your camera settings such as:

 

  • Shutter speed. Set a slow shutter speed (1/60 to 1/4) to blur movement (a person, light, or car) by keeping the shutter open longer.
     
  • Aperture. Set a wide aperture (f/5.6 to f/2.8) to create a shallow depth of field and blur the background of your image while focusing on the subject.

Double exposure.

Double exposure effects for women

The original surrealists used double exposure when shooting with analogue cameras and film. To make it happen, they’d click the shutter without winding on the film. The effect would see two frames laid over each other to create strange, dreamlike juxtapositions.

 

Budding surrealist photographers today can also create double exposures with their digital camera. Most modern cameras have a double exposure mode, allowing you to superimpose one image over another at the tap of a button or screen.

Creating silhouetes.

Silhouette woman portrait with full moon in city night light bokeh background chiang mai thailand

Surrealists have experimented with silhouettes since the days of Man Ray. Throwing your subjects into complete blackness is an alluring way to build atmosphere and create an abstract vibe. It’s easy to do, too. Simply follow these steps:

step

Find the Exposure Compensation setting on your camera dial.

step

Take a shot of a backlit scene (in front of a window or bright sky).

step

Then scroll towards the – (away from the +).

step

This will underexpose the image.

step

The dark areas (your subject) will become darker – eventually becoming completely black.

Experiment with light.

Elephant with balloon

Light is a useful tool for creating surrealist images and the best photographers know how to use it to their advantage. It’s all about understanding how light changes the mood and atmosphere in a room. Understand the differences between:

 

  • Hard light. Bright shafts of sunlight or spotlights create sharp contrasts – highlighting whatever is in its beam and casting the rest of the frame into darkness. Golden hour can be good for this.
     
  • Soft light. Often best achieved in a studio, soft light creates images that look two-dimensional and flat – with even levels helping generate abstract images.
     

Float your subject.

Seeing a photograph of someone floating in mid-air ticks several surrealist boxes: it subverts convention, appears impossible in real life, and looks bizarre. But this ‘far out’ surrealist photography technique is easy to achieve. And that’s all thanks to your camera’s shutter speed. 

step

Set a fast shutter speed (1/125 is a good start).

step

Ask your subject to jump in the air.

step

Click the shutter as they’re mid air.

step

The camera will freeze their movement.

How to edit surreal photography images.

Surrealism and photo editing go hand in hand. Photomontage and the juxtaposition of dissonant images are hallmarks of surrealism. But to create believable work you must get the technical side right.

Solarization

Perhaps the most famous surrealist photography technique, solarisation was discovered accidentally by Man Ray and Lee Millar in 1920s Paris. Occurring when a partially developed photograph is exposed to light, solarisation is typified by the halo outlines it leave around its subjects.

Today, you can create a similar effect by shooting in RAW and using editing tools in Photoshop:

step

Covert the RAW image to greyscale.

step

Open te photo as a SMART object.

step

Open the Tone Curve panel

step

Use the Point curve editor.

step

Create a solarized look.

Photomontage.

eyes

Photomontage is another surreal photography technique pioneered by Man Ray and the 20th century Paris surrealists. To create photomontage, you blend two separate and contrasting images to create a singular new work.

 

Some of the most iconic surrealist photos are photomontages – for example, Dora Marr’s depiction of a woman’s hand emerging from a snail’s shell. Surrealist photographers deployed the technique to explore the unconscious mind.

 

Editing software like Adobe Photoshop makes creating photomontage much easier than in the days of analogue film. When combining photos:

 

  • Be mindful of shadows, light, colour of light, and other factors.
  • Make sure lights and light temperature match where they need to match.
  • Master the eight tools to create the smoothest possible edit.
“If you can see the edit, you didn’t spend enough time with the edit. Learn your software. Learn how Photoshop works and don’t be afraid of it.”

Photographer John Spannos

Juxtaposition

Giant rocks floating above landscape

Put simply, to juxtapose something is to combine two elements that would not naturally go together. The bigger the difference between the items, the stronger the surreal photo you will create. Some of the most famous surrealist images are juxtapositions.

 

One famous example is Man Ray’s Gift from 1921. The stark black and white image shows an iron stood upright with a bed of nails emerging from its plate. As well as looking unnerving and arresting, the nails render the iron useless.

 

Other common juxtapositions include:

 

  • Framing your subject against their shadow.
  • Placing old and young subjects side by side.
  • Capturing conflicting emotions.
  • Framing activity against still life.

Collage.

Collage in magazine style with female lips on bright mint background smiling mouthes screaming scratching different emotions modern design creative artwork style human emotions concept

The photomontage surreal photography technique can also be used to create collage. Collage is the name given when lots of different elements (such as images, graphics, and text) are combined to create a single piece of work.

 

The 20th century surrealists mostly had to assemble these manually, with scalpels, rulers, and darkroom expertise. Today, editing tools like Adobe Photoshop make collage much easier to assemble. One way to do it is to build the image up with layers.

step

Creating your collage.
Creating the master document in Photoshop which you’ll build your collage upon and then adding each new image to include in the collage as layers.

step

Structuring the composition.
Using the Photoshop editing tool to resize the individual images as well as repositioning and/or rotating to create your desired effect.

Abstract editing.

Though surreal and abstract are different concepts, many surreal photographs use abstract techniques. First generation surrealists had to rely on camera and darkroom mastery to create abstract, distorted images. But modern-day surrealists have a powerful editing suite at their fingertips. 

 

With Adobe Photoshop you can:

  • Tone down distracting colour such as bright reds.
  • Give muted colours more brightness and punch.
  • Colourise a single object in a black and white photo.
  • Lighten or darken an area to create contrast.
  • Blend multiple colours to create psychedelic effects.

 

Learn more about adjusting colour, saturation, and hue

 

Learn more about using Gradients  

How to become a surrealist photographer.

Becoming a surrealist photographer takes a combination of creativity, technical skill and perseverance. Here we have three tips from our surreal photography experts. 

Practise makes perfect.

To improve as a surrealist, do two things: embrace your own strangeness and unconscious, and devote time to practice and study. 

“You’ll never get better if you think everything you do is already perfect. Be open to critique.”

Photographer John Spannos

Keep talking and learning.

Find a community of surrealist photographers and talk. Get their feedback on your work and return the favour. 

“If there are photographers you like, just keep in touch to them.”

Photographer John Spannos

Respect the surrealist greats.

Surrealism dates back to the 1920s, and photographers like Man Ray are considered iconic artists. Learn about the greats. 

“Understand the history (of) surrealism. Both from a hundred years ago and from last week.”

Photographer Tina Tryforos

 

 

Ready to create your own surrealist masterpiece? From behind the camera to your home editing suite, creating surrealist photography has never been more accessible. 

Surreal photography: frequently asked questions.

How do you come up with surrealism ideas?

To develop ideas for surreal photos, you need to draw on your own reserves of weirdness and be comfortable with expressing your unconscious. You also need to understand surrealism and what it means – from Man Ray in the 1920s to Brooke Shade today. 

What is a surreal photo?

A surreal photo will look very different to a traditional photograph. It may look odd or bizarre. Objects could be juxtaposed with landscapes and human subjects. Faces and backgrounds may be blurred or silhouetted. The photo may comprise a collage of random disconnected items. Everything seems off-kilter. 

What are the two types of surrealism?

There are two main types of surrealism: abstract and figurative. Abstract surrealists were committed to rebelling against traditional artistic form to connect with the subconscious mind. Figurative surrealists are rooted in realism – so while something may appear surreal, it uses realistic imagery.

Adobe’s surrealist photography partners.

Tina Tryforos is a New York-based photographer who explores the complicated relationships people have with the natural world. See Tina’s work 

 

John Spannos is an advertising photographer whose work has featured in AdWeek and Wired. He also has a tattooed eyeball. See John’s work 

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