There are so many different styles of photography to try that it’s no wonder if you aren’t familiar with one of the niches. Surrealism has been around for a very long time, longer than photography itself, and is a genre of art that is now easier to achieve than ever with the advent of modern photo editing tools.
If you’ve ever been tempted to try something a little bit different with your photography, read on. You’ll be reaching for Photoshop in no time at all once you understand what surrealism is about!
What is surrealist photography?
Surrealism is the creation of a piece of art that is weird, odd, uncomfortable, unnerving, or so on. Usually this is attained through fantasy or nonsensical elements, and not meant to be realistic. If this all sounds a bit vague, that’s because there are no real hard and fast rules in surrealism.
Often, surrealist artists try to make a statement about the world and how odd or nonsensical it really is through their work. This doesn’t have to be your motive, however. You might just want to create something that really catches the eye, and surrealism certainly does that.
Your subject can really be anything, too, although portraits are always one of the most appealing forms of image because our eyes are drawn to human forms – especially faces and eyes.
How can you express yourself through surrealism?
There are lots of ways in which you can use surrealism to express yourself as a photographic artist. Some artists like to try a kind of visual diary – they might attempt to recreate scenes or feelings from their dreams, for example. Others want to make a political statement. Having two models sitting inside a house that is slowly filling with water could be quirky, if you don’t stress any particular element and leave the viewer to interpret it for themselves. Put a donkey mask on one and an elephant mask on the other instantly gives it a strong political message, however!
The message or story behind your shot doesn’t even have to be immediately evident to the viewer. That’s what’s great about surrealism. Maybe they look at your shot and just see a child with a strangely enlarged head and smooth skin. Maybe you have a different interpretation, but it doesn’t totally matter.
The real core of surrealism is being silly and having fun. It is often by poking fun at ourselves that we can make the most meaningful statements, after all!
How can I achieve surrealist photographs in post-production?
One of the most exciting things you can do with post-production tools like Photoshop or Lightroom is to really go wild and allow the original image to take on whole new dimensions. There are so many things you can do with editing to create surreal images, but here are a few ideas:
- Create seamless composites which make things appear in improbable locations or times
- Cut things out and put them elsewhere to achieve affects that wouldn’t be possible in real life – like a man holding his own head under his arm
- Enlarge, stretch, and swell objects using tools like liquify to change their dimensions, but keeping other elements intact so that it seems somehow ‘realistic’ at the same time
- Smoothing skin
- Overlaying one image on another – for example, to make it appear as though someone’s chest is occupied by the branches of a tree or that their dress is made from the stars of the night sky
- Changing tones and colours to create a stranger atmosphere
- Creating a painterly feel from the starting point of a real image, to an end result which feels both real and not real – so confusing and startling for viewers!
- Enhancing real elements – you can always shoot images which are surreal in nature, such as the concept of people wearing cutlery as accessories, then use a mixture of techniques from above to make what you have already captured look all the more surreal
What are the commercial possibilities of surrealism photography?
You might be wondering whether there is a way to make money from this style, or whether it’s all just a bit of fun. Of course, there are a number of ways that surrealism could end up becoming an income stream for you!
Consider these career paths which could all pay well:
- Surrealism in advertising, creating images which distort reality in order to bring in unusual juxtapositions and compositions to grab the eye
- Illustrations for children’s books in particular – image the Series of Unfortunate Events books, illustrated with photographs instead of drawings!
- Portrait sessions which really have something different compared to other photographers in your area
- Fine art: surrealism is recognised as a branch of fine art, which means that you could end up showing your work in galleries, selling prints and photobooks
- Wearable or usable art, such as selling your photographs to be printed on items from RedBubble, Teespring, or so on
There are a lot of possibilities with surrealism, and it can definitely be a way to get your work noticed on Instagram. Which are you going to be more likely to click from the Discover page – a pretty but average portrait, or one that seems so bizarre, distorted, and unnerving that you just need a closer look?
You can experiment with this yourself by taking a photograph that you posted at some point in the last few months, using our Photoshop tools to tweak it into a surrealism style, and then posting it again. It’s a good bet that you will get more attention, exposure, and even likes and comments from the surrealist shot.
Surrealism photography has always been a kind of underground genre, in the sense that it is not probably as well-known as others or as widely talked about. When you do see an image in this style, however, it’s unlikely that you will forget about it any time soon – and that makes it a great thing to have in your toolkit when you want to stand out.
Want to learn how to edit a surrealist image in Photoshop?
Learn from Summerana’s guest instructor Kelly Robitaille (famous for her whimsical waifs series) and Summerana’s resident instructor Shannon Squires and watch as they edit all of the images featured on this page in Photoshop from start to finish in the Summerana Membership here!