Surreal Portraits Photography Using Non-Professional Artificial Light

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  By Taya Ivanova
Surreal Portraits Photography Using Non-Professional Artificial Light

In my previous article, I focused on using artificial light to create classical portraits. In this article, I’ll focus on something that involves more thinking: surreal photography.

Surreal portrait photography is a genre that revolves around unusual themes that we don’t see in everyday life. These themes might require either a knowledge of advanced editing skills or just a strong imagination. Either way, diving into this genre will make your work stand out like a gripping fairytale.

The beautiful thing about this genre is that it’s limitless. There are no rules when it comes to lighting, posing, and inventing. You can be as dramatic or as subtle as you like.

If you want to challenge yourself, try out these 5 ideas that involve simple, non-professional artificial lights.


#1 Ceiling Light and a Simple Light Diffuser

In the image above, the diffused light helped me create a melancholic atmosphere.

Light diffusers don’t have to be expensive or professional. Oftentimes, they can be found in your own home.

Explore your home or studio and find items that might help you soften a light source. Silk curtains, paper, and other see-through materials can easily help you achieve this look.

surreal portrait light diffused


#2 A Torch and Coloured Cellophane

Hold a sheet (or two) of colored cellophane in front of a torch. This will create soft, neon-like light.

In the photo above, there are two sources of light in front of the model. You can recreate this with the help of two torches.

If you want to take this technique to the next level, experiment with different colors, even ones that might not look appealing at first. This challenge might lead you to new discoveries that could significantly improve your work.

#3 A Subject, a Foreground, and Backlight

Surreal photography often features subjects whose faces aren’t that visible. Inspired by this concept, I created the photograph above. I used the following things:

  • A kitchen cabinet door for the foreground
  • Warm kitchen light (right above the oven) for the backlight
  • An unfocused subject

Using only three items, I was able to create a mysterious self-portrait. The backlight allowed me to light up the subject’s face without making it stand out too much, and the foreground let me frame the image and add a layer of depth to it.

Photos with one light source and several layers will resemble some of the greatest fine art portraits out there.

surreal portrait backlight

#4 Soft Toplight

Toplight can be anything, from the direct ceiling light to a lamp. In my opinion, the most practical toplight is a torch, whose intensity can be controlled with the help of DIY diffusers like paper.

Hold your source of light above your subject and voila! You’ll get a mysterious effect that’s ideal for movements, double exposures, and fine art portraits.

surreal portrait toplight

#5 A Torch and a CD

If you don’t have a prism to create a rainbow effect, use a CD! Pointing your torch at a CD will create a very vibrant rainbow.

Make sure you experiment with all kinds of angles. What works the best for me is getting as close to the CD as possible. The farther the torch is from it, the less colorful the rainbow will be. This technique will work best in a completely dark room.

Rainbow lights are great for those who want to include more close-ups and/or minimalistic shots in their portfolio.

It’s possible to create both surreal and classical portraits with the help of one light source. The more you experiment with practical, everyday items, the easier it will be to work with professional lighting equipment in the future.

In the meantime, sharpen those observation, imagination, and lighting skills and show me your results! I’d love to see what you come up with.

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I'm an admirer of nature, a photographer, and a curious reader. Writing about photography and helping others improve is a growing passion of mine. My constant wish is to inspire others to be creatively fearless and endlessly curious. "Always dream bigger is my advice to you, because you can have whatever your heart desires" - Ashley Graham

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