Woman underwater surrealistic image

Surreal Photography

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Surreal photography was born as a result of the artistic movement of surrealism. It is all about the pictorial representation of strangeness and bizarreness. Everything challenging “normal” in photography falls directly or directly in the category of surreal photography.

What is surreal photography?

Surreal photography gives life to the ideas of the subconscious and dreams. What it shows to the viewers is so far from reality that it is almost “surreal.” It embraces everything unconventional and considered out-worldly while presenting exciting challenges to the photographer’s creativity.

Surrealism came into being almost at the end of world war I and became popular after World war II. People with a different and unique perception of sanity are still keeping it alive.

The niche of surreal photography leans on the principles of surrealism. Before getting into the depth of this niche, it is essential to know about the movement of surrealism for better understanding.

What is Surrealism?

Surrealism roots go back to the trauma people had to witness or experience during World War I. It started in 1917 but gained attention among the photography community in 1924 when two rival groups claimed to be the founders and wrote their manifestos.

French writer André Breton, who published the first Surrealist Manifesto in 1924, is considered one of the prominent figures who brought the moment of surrealism under the limelight.

This manifesto was all about embracing what’s considered unconventional. He believed that “creativity had been weighed down by the drudgery of the day-to-day and sought to release the subconscious power of the dream-like state.”

The movement of surrealism was about practicing the distant realities in artwork to activate the unconscious mind. It emerged as a reaction to “normal” social and political norms.

Breton defines surrealism as a means of joining conscious and unconscious worlds. This “anti-art” platform emerged to join the everyday rational world with the unlimited world of fantasy. Soon it was being practiced in drama, literature, poetry, photography, and paintings.

Demonstrating surrealism via photography is more interesting than practicing it as a painter. When a brush is in the hand of a painter, he can draw whatever is in his mind.

But a photographer is also doing what’s in his mind, but he has to draw inspiration from the real world. He has to use regular, day-to-day stuff making the experience of surreal photography a thrilling one.

Surreal pavilion on the sea

What makes an image surrealist?

If you see an image far-flung from the reasoning, giving a dream-like feeling, yet has the elements of reality, it is a surrealist photograph.

Surrealist images are easily distinguishable. These images always have elements of the real world. For example, a surreal idea where a person is floating in the air and starry light is emerging from his body and going upwards.

This image is far from reality, but elements are from the real world i.e., person, background, sky. Hence, the conjunction of consciousness and subconsciousness.

Surreal Photography and Abstract Photography are the same things?


Abstract and surreal photography are often confused mainly because both are against the “normal” of photography.

These two genres emerged almost at the same time in the 20th century. There is an iota of overlapping, but both are contrasting styles.

The critical difference between the two is the idea behind them. Abstract images don’t necessarily need to represent anything, while surreal photographs must represent surrealism.

Abstract photography uses angles, patterns, shapes, contrast, and several akin things while allowing open interpretation to the viewer. There isn’t anything objective in abstract art. How a viewer perceives it depends totally upon its imagination. Abstract photographs may or may not feature any object from the real world.

Surrealist photography liberates the photographer from rationalism. His end goal is tapping into subconsciousness. Surrealist images give viewers dreamlike feelings, but they still feature elements of the natural world or day-to-day life, unlike most abstract photography.

Photographers manipulate these real-life elements using photography techniques and editing processes that these simple, realistic elements start appearing far from reality in the final image.

Surreal foggy mountains

Surreal photography as a career/freelancing option

Many famous photographers in history pursued surreal photography as a career. Some of these are Lee Miller, Dora Maar, Claude Cahun, and Florence Henri. Their work is displayed in some of the most significant art galleries in the world.

Because this niche is not very popular, you won’t find any cutthroat experience here as a professional. But to gain recognition as a full-time professional, one has to put in a lot of hard work.

If you are interested in this niche and want to make money using it, we strongly recommend pursuing it as a freelance photographer. This way, you can generate a good stream of passive income without giving full-time to it.

You can land projects on freelancer.com, Fiverr, Upwork, or by starting your surreal photography website. You can also sell or license your images on stock photography sites, i.e., Shutterstock, Getty Images, Alamy, SmugMug Pro, Etsy, iStock Photo, Stocksy. Surreal photos are in high demand on these platforms.

Surrealism photography is also in demand in the form of wearable or usable art. You can sell this art on websites like Redbubble and Teespring. Many SMEs and other brands need such artists, i.e., for surrealism in advertising, to draw specific illustrations, for photo books, etc.

You can hunt down such businesses or relevant social media forums, or online.

Starting with Surreal Photography:

Anyone can shoot surreal images, but to make your image capable of making an impact, it is necessary to know some of the basic concepts of this genre.

Understanding surrealism

This guide could’ve started directly with the principles and techniques of surreal photography. Then why all these details about the movement of surrealism? Because understanding surrealism is the key to surreal photography.

To delve into the world of surrealism, learn about surrealism, starting from early history to recent developments. Research the work of surrealist photographers and get in touch with people who are practicing it. All this demands time but will polish your skills and give you plenty of ideas for your work.


A surreal photograph cannot come into benign randomly. It always requires an idea or theme. The idea is where a photographer’s mind envisages what a surreal picture will look like.

Before doing anything remotely relating to shooting, work on ideas thoroughly. Consider every element of the photograph in accordance with your picture. Brainstorm and draw a rough sketch so you don’t miss anything when you shoot and process it.

Surreal downsized man at the bottom of an open door

Clicking Image

The more time you will spend on the former step, the easier this step will be for you. Likewise, the more care and effort you put into this step, the more time you can save in the post-production/editing step.

Try to capture maximum information in your images. Surreal photography involves a lot of cutting and manipulation using the software. Complete information will eliminate the chances of reshooting because something is missing.

Because surreal photographs involve multiple objects or layers, the best strategy is to start with the background and move towards the foreground. First, shoot the location of your image as it is usually the simplest element of an image in this niche. Once the background is done, move towards finer details.

Avoid JPEG format. Shoot in RAW mode for maximum image details,

Always consider lighting. Factors associated with light, i.e., overexposure, underexposure, tone of light, angle of light, light’s color temperature (cooler/warmer), can change the total look.

Avoid using Auto modes. Manual mode gives a lot of control over the look of the image.

Just consider these essential points and enjoy shooting.

Surreal photography is forgiving in nature, as anything can be altered or corrected in the later step.


The editing process is the soul of surreal photography. While practicing other genres is an accessory to polish the work, but in surreal photography, it is almost impossible to bring ideas to life without post-production.

Essential tools required for surreal photography

Surreal photography doesn’t require any long list of gadgets or photography equipment. One can practice by just using their smartphone only. A primary digital camera and sound editing software can do a job of professional level.

As a beginner, Lightroom or Adobe Photoshop will work just fine.

Just make sure that you take your image in the dimensions of surrealism, and you are all good.

Long exposure surreal with an island at sunset

Standard techniques of surreal photography:


This one is the most commonly used method in surreal photography. It is also referred to as photoshopping, images stitching, or digital image mosaic.

Using this method, multiple pictures are layered onto one another to make one single picture. Image editing software is heavily involved in this technique.

Commonly, there are three ways used to create surreal photography using photomontage. It can be by pasting together individual images or certain parts of images, successfully exposing unique photos onto a single sheet of paper, or simultaneously exposing the component images through superimposed negatives.

As a beginner photographer, the easiest way is to shoot background and foreground separately and then combine them with simple editing software such as Adobe Photoshop.

Multiple Exposures

Again, this technique can be achieved either using photoshop or a digital camera.

Modern digital cameras come with built-in options for multiple exposures. If your digital camera does not have this option, expose your same frame multiple times. This will open the camera shutter multiple times while exposing the sensor every time for different images.

The result is a single image that contains the subsequent image/s superimposed over the original.


Blurs can ruin a perfect image in everyday photography. In surreal photography, blurs are intentionally used by photographers.

While using this technique, one has to be very careful. With too much blur, instead of conveying a message, the image can lose all the details. To get the best results, focus on the subject as much as possible. Once it is in focus, then add blur either using camera effects or in post-production.

Low aperture and low shutter speed are the best camera settings for blurring.

Sabattier Effect

The pseudo-sabattier/sabattier effect is commonly referred to as solarization.

It is done by exposing partially developed film to light. It wholly or partially reverses the tone of the image, giving a surreal effect.

Size manipulation

This technique is used to create an optical illusion. Just changing the size of the subject can make it contradictory to reality.

Move the subject very far or closer to the lens or use editing techniques, i.e., cropping an object from the actual image, increasing/decreasing its size, and pasting it on another image to create a bizarre, surreal image.

Perception manipulation

If we think about it, surreal photography is nothing but perception manipulation.

Changing how things are perceived in general is a popular technique to create surrealistic artwork.

Easy surreal by rotation

Motion Blur

Motion blur is a very effective way to create a dream-like effect.

It can be practiced when you are shooting with a moving effect. Shutter speed plays the leading role in creating it. Faster shutter speed can freeze a moving subject, whereas slower shutter speeds can depict movement in a photograph of a moving subject leaving a trail that gives a dreamy effect.

Five Tips for Surreal Photography:

Follow work of fellow artists

Following the work of surrealist photographers is the best way to get inspiration and learn something about this niche. How one photographer perceives and represents unconsciousness will vary from the other one.

By observing the work of various photographers, you will go through so much diversity of ideas and skills that by the end, you will have your unique ideas for surrealist photography.

Go through the work of pioneers of this niche such as Man Ray, Andre Breton, Dora Maar, Hans Bellmer. With that, you can also follow the creation of modern, Instagram-famous surrealist photographers: Monica Carvalho, Bara Prasilova, Joel Robinson, Aydin Büyüktas, Lara Zankoul, Kyle Thompson, and Brooke Shaden.

Polish your editing skills

Either you are using Photoshop, Lightroom, or any other top-notch editing software, there is no way forward if you are not good at editing. Modern surreal photography relies heavily on these editing software. If you want to pursue this niche, learning editing is a must.

Practice is the answer for anyone who wants to polish their editing skills. Explore different settings and effects of these software. You will learn as you go along with this exploration. No one is born perfect, but practice is the one thing that can make anyone perfect.

Always shoot RAW

RAW images contain the most data. Surrealist photography involves a lot of cropping, cutting, layering, and picture manipulation. If the image is already in JPEG (it contains fewer image details/data) or any such format, by the end of the process, your surrealist image will have a lot fewer details resulting in a loss of picture quality.

Benefit from what your camera has to offer

This tip is specifically for people who are just looking to start with this niche.

Using a camera solely to add surrealism is sometimes referred to as easy surrealism. That’s literally because it is easy.

For example, you can change the color temperature of an image to very warm or very cool. It will give a surrealist look, use shutter speed and akin manual settings to add motion blur, reverse shadows and highlights, zoom in/out to manipulate the viewers’ perception, or use HDR for the surrealistic theme.

You don’t always have to go through complex processes if you have a clear theme in mind. Your surreal photograph can be just you messing with some of your camera’s settings.

Make it “unrealistically” real

Sloppy photoshop and lack of theme or statement in your work will instantly make your audience aware that you are not good at your job.

Give attention to all the details of an image. Retouch it again and again until you find it perfect. But most importantly, give time to the idea phase of your shooting process. Only a good idea can lead you to a good surrealist photograph.

Last but not least, when you publish your surreal image, do not get disheartened when everyone doesn’t approve of your idea. This niche isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.


Surreal photography is a fascinating world to explore. It frees you from the rationality of this world. If you haven’t tried this niche yet, we highly recommend that you go for it. Let your unconscious run wild!

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