Creative Reality: How to Photograph Worlds That Don’t Look Like Our Own

From documentary film to composite fiction, photography and film allow us to escape our own experience and captivate audiences through visual storytelling. The trends that captivate minds on the screens and pages seldom stay put, as our reality has creators, storytellers and humans changes every day. 

Adobe’s Brenda Milis describes this concept well: “We’re living in a time when there’s so much uncertainty — so much is in flux. Many people are becoming politically active, but there’s also a type of creativity that envisions escape. We’re seeing idealized, alternate worlds — they’re lush, tropical, almost utopic. There’s a reverence for the natural world, but with an intensity — an almost psychedelic twist. These artists are asking us to consider what is beautiful, and what is alive.”

While an utopic fantasy escape sounds wonderful, how do you photograph something that doesn’t exist in real life? How do you give that natural world a psychedelic twist? The answer, for some, is to create amazing images by mixing photography with digital art in Photoshop. But many others use age-old, traditional tricks to create a surreal world in front of the lens and only minimal digital manipulation. Here are a handful of ideas to make that happen to capitalize on the Creative Reality trend and help your image or stock photo sell.

Learn the basics of photography from John Greengo and photograph you own creative realities. Watch now.

Juxtapose props

Hollywood films centered on a fantasy world have elaborate props to create that world — why not apply that idea to photography? Sure, you probably don’t have a budget in the millions to recreate the lightsaber, but what you lack in budget you can make up for in creativity. From costumes to store-bought objects to props you concoct yourself, the options are endless.

The Creative Reality trend thrives on the juxtaposition of the real and the impossible, so focus on that juxtaposition as you brainstorm props. The mix doesn’t have to necessarily be impossible. Look at the image in the Creative Reality gallery by Fortyforks that literally mixes land and sea by using both seafood and flowers in a colorful flat lay.

Another approach is to take a normal object and swap out a part or mix up how that object is being used in the photo, like Jessica Pettway’s image in the Creative Reality Collection where a woman’s braid replaces the string of a balloon.

Try infrared photography

If that viral photo of the blue and gold dress has taught us anything, it’s that our brains expect to see certain colors based on the surroundings. Infrared or IR photography is a way to throw those expectations into upheaval and create a surreal world inside our own without elaborate props. Capturing light that isn’t visible by the human eyes alone exposes a world that’s simply hidden inside our own.

Learn the fundamentals of color from award-winning illustrator Mary Jane Begin. Watch now. 

Infrared photography makes green leaves look white or cream colored and can also give skin a soft, porcelain look. RAW IR photos actually won’t have a lot of color to them originally, but the RAW file serves as a canvas to re-imagine the scene in Photoshop using white balance and color channels.

IR photography doesn’t have to be expensive to experiment with — an IR filter means you don’t have to buy an entirely different camera to try it out. You will, however, need to use long exposures with the filter.

Experiment with double exposure

Capturing images that don’t look like the real world is almost as old as photography itself — just look at the “ghosts” captured from double exposures that probably caused a few nightmares when first developed in photography’s early days. Using the double exposure technique is another way to experiment with the juxtaposition of the Creative Reality trend.

Many interchangeable lens cameras have a built-in double exposure mode, but if you don’t want to take the images one right after the other, you can also create one from two separate images and a few minutes in Photoshop.

Try using double exposure to place an object in one photo where it doesn’t belong, like hovering off the ground. Or mix two juxtapositions together, like overlapping a photo of a cloudy sky over a scene on the ground for a surreal feel.

Learn the fundamentals of color from award-winning illustrator Mary Jane Begin. Watch now. 

Get up close

Sometimes, all it takes to find an entirely different world is a good macro lens. Getting up close is one technique for creating abstract photography, a genre that can sometimes feel like a different reality. Brightly colored patterns make a great close-up abstract, for example, like this Adobe Stock photographers’ shot of peacock feathers.

Experiment with color

Another simple way to create an alternative reality is to play with color in unexpected ways. Capitalize on the idea that our brains expect certain colors and use odd colors and unusual color combos to tease the brain and create a filling of a different world. Something as simple as blue hair is different enough to make the viewer pause and the imagination run wild, but photographing blue hair is just a matter of finding a willing model and some temporary hair dye. Unexpected color can also show up in props, too. And when the scene doesn’t allow for creating that odd color in real life, color manipulation in Photoshop isn’t a crazy advanced digital art technique.

Play with perspective

Ever see that classic, overdone shot of someone that appears to hold the Eiffel Tower, the Leaning Tower of Pisa or another landmark in their hands? Simply manipulating perspective inside a 2D photograph can create surreal images. Avoid that overdone landmark-in-the-palm-of-your-hands and get creative with perspective in new ways. Try using a large space to have plenty of room to work with and avoid the usually positive aspects that help give a photo depth, like leading lines, to really play with the perspective.

Creative reality is a growing trend in imaging — but you don’t have to be a master digital artist to play with the idea. Photography is an artistic genre known for capturing the real world more than a painting, drawing or digital artwork. Using that expectation and a few tricks can turn our world into a fantasy scene.

For more inspiration, browse Adobe Stock’s Creative Reality gallery or view their full 2018 Visual Trends Report.

Learn the fundamentals of color from award-winning illustrator Mary Jane Begin. Watch now. 

Hillary Grigonis FOLLOW >

Hillary K. Grigonis is a web content writer and lifestyle photographer from Michigan. After working as a photojournalist for several years, she made the leap and started her own business and now enjoys sharing tips and tricks with emerging photographers.