The Art of Surreal Photography: Ideas and Examples

If you’re a fine art lover, you’re surely familiar with surrealism. But did you know it’s also a popular photography genre? That’s right, many photographers are using their craft to create images that defy reality, challenge logic, and encourage the viewer to think outside the box.

This guide will explain what surreal photography is; show lots of examples; tell you some contemporary surrealist photographers to follow. We’ll also give you several tips to get you started as a surreal photographer. 

Surreal photography
Photo by Oscar Keys on Unsplash


What is surreal photography?

Surrealism as an art movement was a means of uniting fantasy and reality; the juxtaposition of the rational and the irrational. According to the creator of the movement, Surrealism was a means of reuniting conscious and unconscious realms of experience so completely that the world of dream and fantasy would be joined to the everyday rational world in “an absolute reality, a surreality.”

Surreal photography is a genre that challenges the viewer in the same way that surrealist art, literature, and cinema do. It uses photographic methods to represent the movement. 

Not to be confused with abstract photography, surreal photography almost always contains recognizable objects. However, it arranges them in unique and unexpected ways. It takes the real world and turns it into a dream world.

surrealism in photography
Photo by Elia Pellegrini on Unsplash

History of surreal photography

The word Surrealism was coined in 1917, but the movement was officially established in 1924 when the French poet Andre Bretib published his Surrealist Manifesto. From the 1920s on, the movement spread around the world, affecting literature, music, movies, and of course, visual arts — including photography. 

The most famous surrealist artists from the time were painters, most notably Salvador Dali. However, photographers were practicing surrealism, too. Perhaps the most famous photograph from that era is Man Ray’s Le Violin d’Ingres, which features a naked woman’s back with the markings of a violin.


Examples of surreal photography

By its very nature, surreal photography encourages you to let your imagination run wild. For that reason, the opportunities are endless. Here are some examples of the different styles of surreal photography:

Conceptual self-portraits

surreal self portrait
Photo by Christopher Campbell on Unsplash

Fantasy

surreal fantasy
Photo by Hofmann Natalia on Unsplash

Underwater

surreal underwater
By Vincent Anderson on Unsplash

Photo manipulation

Photo by Sarah Trummer from Pexels

Surreal portraiture

surreal portraiture
Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash

Horror

horror
Photo by Farzad Sedaghat from Pexels

Still life

surreal still life
Photo by davisuko on Unsplash

Surreal photo composite

surreal composite
Photo by Lacie Slezak on Unsplash

Multiple exposures

multiple exposures
Photo by Rhalf Ryan Gejon from Pexels

Tips for surreal photographers

Surrealism, especially in its infancy, was all about breaking the rules. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t a few guidelines that you, as a surrealist photographer, shouldn’t keep in your back pocket if you want your photos to be successful. On the other hand, when it comes to surreal photography, rules are meant to be broken. So use these tips as you will.

Challenge logic

The whole concept of surrealism is to question the rationale. So, things that don’t make any sense, like an upside-down image or an unusual angle, work perfectly well in surreal photography.

challenge logic
Photo by Pauline Loroy on Unsplash

Shoot things out of their element

Subject matter that contrasts with its surroundings is another way to challenge reality in your images. 

Photo by Jeffrey Czum from Pexels

Go for the unexpected

At its very core, the goal is to surprise your viewers and give them a reason to think about what they’re looking at. Show them something they’ve never seen before.

surreal photography
Photo by Velizar Ivanov on Unsplash

Use motion blur

Use a slow shutter speed when shooting objects in motion to capture motion blur. This is one simple way to create a dreamlike effect in your images. Or, try moving the camera while you shoot. Remember, you can bend the rules with surrealism.

surreal motion blur
Photo by Jr Korpa on Unsplash

Use creative editing

Normally when editing photos, you try to keep your images as close to reality as possible. That’s not necessarily the case with surreal photography. You are free to change the colors to anything you want. For example, you want a green sky and purple grass? Go for it. Remember, this is your world! Or, flip a photo upside-down or on its side, if it helps tell your story.

surreal photography
Photo by Simon Berger on Unsplash

Make sure lighting is consistent across composites

One of the most important factors for achieving a believable look for composite images is to make sure you have consistent lighting across your image. That means all your light sources and shadows match. Nothing will ruin a composite faster than a shadow facing the wrong direction. When it comes to composites, the devil is in the details.

Photo by Tim Grundtner from Pexels

Use reflections

You may have noticed, reflections and mirrors are a recurring theme in surreal photography. That’s because they hide your subject and bend reality. There are so many creative ways to incorporate reflections and mirrors into your photography. Try it!

reflections in surrealism
Photo by Noah Buscher on Unsplash

Surreal photographers to follow

Get ready to be inspired! Surreal photography is a thriving genre. Here are some artists that are absolutely killing it.


Final thoughts

For the photographers who consider themselves true artists, surreal photography will really appeal to your artistic sensibilities. It allows you to freely express yourself creatively. You are only limited by your imagination, so let it run wild!

Brooke Arnold

Brooke Arnold is a writer and award-winning photographer specializing in cat portraits. She is an advocate for rescue animals and is best known for dressing up her cats as famous people like Bob Ross and Evel Knievel. Her biggest claim to fame, however, is being child #2 in an orange juice ad that hung in a mall in Miami at age 8.

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