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7 Tips to Shoot Surreal Portrait Photography

Last updated: November 12, 2023 - 8 min read
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Surreal portrait photography is thought-provoking, haunting, otherworldly, or a mix of all three. You can see this in the work of the best surreal portrait artists.

Today, we’ll inspire you to make your surreal portraits look and feel exciting! Here are a few essential and easy tricks you need to keep in mind.

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What is Surreal Portrait Photography?

Surrealism is a form of art that allows you to express yourself, experiment, and create fine art. It focuses on dreamlike elements.

These elements can be bizarre, like Dali’s The Elephants. Or they can be unbelievably realistic, like Justin Peters’ Cloud Whale.

These two examples are very different. But they share the same characteristics. They aren’t something you’d see in everyday life.

Recreating dreams is a common technique in various photography genres. But it’s most popular in surreal portrait photography. Surreal pictures are images you could potentially see in a dream.

What is Surreal Portrait Photography?

Naturally, surreal portrait photography combines surrealism and portraiture. Photos of people are stretched to test the bounds of realism.

Surreal portraits should make you wonder about the story behind the picture. Viewers might end up with more questions than answers. But that’s the whole point of surrealism in general!

They make you think from a different perspective. You might even find surreal portraits relatable on an emotional level.

Girl standing in pink smoke bomb with face mask on as an idea for surreal photography

7 Ideas for Surreal Portrait Photography

Shoot stunning surreal portraits by playing with facial expressions, poses, and props. You can also enhance surreal portrait effects in post-production using editing software. Your imagination is your best tool!

1. Use Serious Facial Expressions to Enhance Surrealism

In surreal portrait photography, you’ll notice that models have similar expressions. They might look lost in thought, confused, or unaware of the camera.

The seriousness of their expressions plays an important role. It intensifies the surreal effect of the portrait.

If the model looked cheerful in the middle of an unusual landscape, they would look out of place. There’s nothing wrong with this mix in general. But it doesn’t reflect the surreal portrait genre.

But not all severe expressions will go well with your theme. Be open to your model’s feedback and experiment!

Facial Expressions and Poses to Try

Ask your model to make an intense expression when looking at the camera. It’s perfect for close-up portraits. The viewer makes eye contact with the model and will not be distracted by other subjects.

Simply having your model look upwards will make them look like they’re lost in thought or looking at something mysterious in the distance.

Or, all your model has to do is close their eyes and slightly part their lips. This expression is great for emotional or tranquil photographs.

One of the best ways to create pure surrealism is to hide your model’s face completely. You can do this by asking them to stand with their back to the camera. Or, you can also have them cover their faces with a mask, their hair, or their hands.

Surreal portrait photo of a man with painted face

2. Use Environmental Elements for Surreal Portraits

The atmosphere of your photograph is key to surreal portrait photography. By putting yourself and your model in different locations, you set the scene for the narrative you are trying to achieve. 
Look at the example of Jovana Rikalo’s beautiful picture of a model in water. She uses water and foliage to create a surreal portrait.
The way she places flowers makes the model look as if she is floating. Jovana then creates a scene where the model appears to be stepping through from another dimension. She does this simply by rotating the image in post-production.
Elements can be natural, like trees in a forest, or artificial, like shopping carts in an alleyway. Think about how locations look. Determine how you can use the space and its objects to help you create surreal portraits.

surreal portrait photography of a woman in water surrounded by flowers
© Jovana Rikalo

3. Use Lighting to Enhance Surreal Stories

Lighting can also amplify surreal portrait effects. Different lighting setups set the mood at the beginning of your photoshoot.

Moody lighting exists in many forms. If you want to use natural light, shoot when it’s cloudy or gloomy outside. You can also shoot indoors when it’s cloudy for a moodier effect.

You can also use artificial light for sharper results. This gives you more control over the look of your surreal images.

Setting up a studio with artificial light is another option. It also allows you to shoot without worrying about unpredictable weather changes.

Keep your artificial light bright but limited. You can use neon lights or cover any light source with colored gel filters.

Surreal portrait of a woman in the dark with neon lights

4. Use Photoshop to Create Unreal Scenes

Photoshop allows you to construct surreal photographs easily. You can create new worlds through collages. Or you can even make daytime look nighttime by using color and lighting adjustments.
The best aspect of Photoshop is the level of detail you can add or subtract from the frame. I like this image as it looks more surreal the longer you look at it.

I thought the model was lying on top of a mirror at first. But now I see Jovana Rikalo has played with layers, perspective, and rotation to subtly contrast the model’s closed and open eyes.
When you match Photoshops tools with a creative mind, there’s no limit to the number of fantastic, surreal images you can make.

Surreal portrait photography of a woman and her reflection with eyes open and closed
© Jovana Rikalo

5. Use Transparent and Textured Material to Create Depth and Mystery

Surrealism goes hand in hand with unusual ideas. Because of this, you can use cheap but unusual props to enhance your portraits. Use draping materials like transparent curtains, sheets, and scaffolding with texture.

You can use these coverings to hide parts of your model’s face, make them less visible, or add depth to your photos. The more textured the material is, the more mysterious your surreal images will look.

Using transparent material is also an easy way to make a dull composition stand out. All you have to do is shoot through them with your model posing somewhere in the distance.

For softer effects, use a large aperture like f/2.5. This will blur any out-of-focus layers and create even more depth.

Surreal photo of a woman with a textured layer of scaffolding draped over her

6. Use Smoke Bombs to Create Dreamlike Atmospheres

Another easy way to take outstanding surreal portraits is to use colored smoke bombs.

Smoke bombs are affordable and can be used in a variety of settings. You can use them as backgrounds, foregrounds, or props to hide your model’s face.

They can be pretty dangerous, though, primarily when used indoors. So familiarize yourself with smoke bomb safety precautions to keep yourself and your model safe.

It’s likely that the model in this shot posed for a few seconds before putting the smoke bomb away. Concepts like this are inspiring but have their hazards.

Don’t recreate this unless you know how to handle smoke bombs professionally. If the risks outweigh the creative benefits, you can use incense instead.

Surreal portrait of a woman in white smoke
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7. Use a Slow Shutter Speed to Create Eerie Motion Blur

Fast shutter speeds are great for capturing movements in detail. Slow shutter speeds are ideal for soft and eerie images.

A slow shutter speed is often used in landscape photography to show the natural movements of water or the effects of the wind. In surreal portrait photography, you can use a slow shutter speed to show motion blur. You can capture ghostly figures or create a more abstract effect.

Alternatively, you can pan your camera with a moving subject to blur your background. Either way, a blurry effect will also make it harder for viewers to understand what’s going on in your image. This is perfect for abstract and surreal portraits.

To make motion blur look even eerier, convert your surreal portraits to black and white. You can do this while shooting or later with editing software.

Black and white portrait photo of a man with a motion blur effect on his face


Surreal portrait photography forces you out of your comfort zone. You have to take out-of-the-box approaches to achieve these otherworldly, surreal images. So, get a friend or family member to model for you and get creative!

Experiment with these photography techniques and compositions. And let your imagination run wild! Surreal portrait photography is more successful the more experimental you get.

Try out our Digital Dreamworlds e-book to create stunning, surreal collages!

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