Surreal Portrait Photography

Last Updated on March 16, 2021

Portrait photography is an incredibly powerful style that invokes strong feelings in the viewer. Surreal portraiture can provide and otherworldly and though provoking feeling that is not easily forgotten.

If you are looking for improving your ability to shoot in this awesome style then you came to the right place.

women in red in field of purple

What Is Surreal Photography?

Surrealism in it’s largest sense is the art form where the subject expresses an otherworldly and a dream like impression. Surrealism takes on elements of the strange and bizarre.

When done well this art form can bring the viewer to see something in a very unique way which can invoke powerful reactions and emotions. I think the best way I have heard it described is that surreal art is what would normally only be seen in a dream.

And because of this, surreal art often takes on the role of visually interpreting actual dreams. And this is also true in surreal portrait photography.

girl in the woods with fog

This is often accomplished through the use of using poses, props, and facial expressions in a unique manner.

This style of photography is one sub genre of fine art photography.

How to Use Facial Expressions For Surrealism

When looking at surreal portraits you will discover that most models show a serious facial expression. This is very common in the style. The most common expressions used are confusion, unaware, and lost in thought.

Using a serious expression is intentional as it adds a heightened level of intensity to the image.

While there may be times where you will desire a less serious expression, it should only be done with a very good reason. The mixing of a less serious expression combined with a serious background, which is common in surreal photography, creates a jarring effect on the viewer.

woman against mural of surreal mask

Another reason for the use of a serious facial look is that it lends strength to the overall surreal emotion of the image.

Take some time to study as many images as you can and take note of how often you see a serious expression. What different emotions can you identify within these looks?

It is important to note that which expression you use should not be random. A confused look creates a specific effect on the viewer and you should be intentionally invoking emotions in your audience. Experiment with expressions to ensure you achieve the emotion you are seeking.

A look of worry is very powerful and coupled with other image elements can impact the viewer in a significant way. By having your model staring upward it can invoke thought and a disconnect with the rest of the image and what is going on around them.

Experiment with how your model is positioned while using the same expression. A profile will invoke a very different feel than a straight on shot will. That profile shot can lend a real air of mystery.

This can lead the viewer to know that there is more going on than what they can see in the frame. This is a great way to add complexity to your images.

You can also hide the face of the subject. This can be by having the face obscured by another element or by simply having your subject turn their back to the shot.

Props are another excellent way to hide the model’s face. Use hats, their own hair, and even their arms or hands.

Even having the eyes closed can make a powerful statement that will be felt by the viewer.

On the other of the spectrum, you can have your subject look directly into the lens, and when shooting this closeup it allows the subject to stare directly into the eyes of the viewer.

surreal cityscape

Employ Moody Lighting

The lighting you use plays a huge role in the tone of your image. And moody lighting is an excellent way to add intensity to your image. The lighting you use can also help your model get in the right state of mind for the photo shoot.

When referring to moody lighting we can be talking about natural light such as out on a cloudy day. You can even take the shoot indoors on a cloudy day as this creates a particularly gloomy vibe.

Artificial light is another popular way to get the right lighting. It allows for greater control and takes out the unpredictability of shooting in natural light.

Some photographers will use colored filters or even neon lights. The key is to keep your light bright but limited and under control.

Produce Depth and Mystery With Layers

Surreal portraits are the perfect medium for the use of props. Props can be inexpensive, because the key is invoking the right mood. Popular props include everything from curtains to transparent paper.

As stated above, one common use of props is to obscure the models face. This is an excellent way to create greater depth to your images. One great tip I learned early on was to use props with texture. This will really boost the mysterious feel of your shots.

Creating layers within your shot are a great way to increase how interesting your photos are. They improve your composition and are an easy win. Place props and other image elements at different distances from the model. Be careful not to go overboard. Each element should be thoughtful and there for a reason.

Another great way to increase the interest level of your image is to shoot with a large aperture. Somewhere around f/2.5 is a good place to start. This will create a bokeh effect. This is an awesome way to create more depth to your image. The blurry effect adds a tremendous amount of mystery to your image.

Create a Dream Like Scene

While you do not want to over do it. Using colored smoke bombs will create an eerie dream like image. Smoke bombs are a very affordable prop that can add so much to a surreal portrait. The smoke can be used to obscure your subjects face or other elements within the image.

It is important to use extreme care when using smoke bombs. Make sure to follow all instructions, especially if you decide to use them indoors.

Other great alternatives are using incense or even flour. Be creative.

Shutter Speed and Motion

Surreal photography is the perfect medium for using motion and blur effects. This movement can create a very eerie vibe when used well. I particularly like using this technique when shooting in black and white. But it is also well suited for color shots.

To achieve this effect you will have to use a slower shutter speed. The slower shutter speed allows the camera to capture the movement of your subject. One great way to use this is for the model to keep their body completely still while just moving their head. This can create a clear image of the body with a blurred face. Try it! And to see my recommendations for portrait photography cameras read the article.

Wrap Up

Shooting surrealism is a lot of fun and a great way to let your creativity rule. It offers so much room for artistic expression while stretching you outside of your comfort zone. I would love to see some of your shots, so drop them in the comments below. And as always, Happy shooting!

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