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A Guide to Create Magical Fantasy Photography

10 min read

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Quick summary

This guide to fantasy photography will show you how to take your surreal shots to the next level. In it we provide comprehensive tips to help you choose a genre, pick a concept for your photography shoot, and unlock even more potential with post-processing.

Fantasy photography, a visual art genre that celebrates creativity and imagination, transports us to a different world, a realm where anything is possible. It intertwines the abstract with reality, creating a mesmerizing canvas of visual storytelling.

The allure of fantasy photography lies in its ability to break the shackles of mundanity. It can whisk us away into a fantastical world, a place where the ordinary is replaced by the extraordinary.

It’s an art form that truly embodies the phrase, “A picture is worth a thousand words”.

What is Fantasy Photography?

Fantasy photography is a distinctive genre of the visual arts, defined by its focus on creating whimsical and imaginative photos. Alternatively, you may have heard it referred to as surreal photography as well.

A fantasy photographer crafts scenes that blend reality and illusion, often incorporating elements of myth, folklore, and magic. They use their camera as a creative tool to express their vision, transforming everyday scenes into surreal, dreamlike tableaux.

Here are the common characteristics of good fantasy photo:

  • Exaggerated colors
  • Fantastical themes
  • Elaborate costumes or props
  • Post-production editing to enhance surreal quality
  • Range from ethereal and whimsical to dark and dystopian, depending on the artist’s intention

This style of photography offers an escape from the ordinary, inviting viewers to lose themselves in a world of the fantasy photographer’s creation. It engages the viewer’s imagination and emotions, encouraging them to see beyond what’s immediately apparent in the deeper narrative.

A woman in a flowing tutu is underwater touching the surface of the water from below.

Why Choose Fantasy Photography?

Unlike traditional photography genres that strive to capture reality as accurately as possible, fantasy photographers let their imagination run wild. This approach creates unique scenes that blur the line between the real and the surreal.

This genre allows artists to push the boundaries of the possible, crafting stunning, one-of-a-kind images that challenge viewer perceptions.

The allure of fantasy photography lies not just in its capacity to conjure up fantastical worlds. The use of exaggerated colors, fantastical themes, and elaborate props and costumes, coupled with post-production editing, results in striking images with a strong visual impact.

Choosing fantasy gives artists the chance to explore and express their creativity in ways that no other genre can. It’s an opportunity to create not just photographs but narratives, emotions, and experiences—a chance to tell a story, paint a picture, and share a piece of their world through their lens.

Getting Started: Planning Your Fantasy Photoshoot

A fantasy photoshoot is a creative endeavor that requires careful planning and preparation. Both choosing your concept and selecting the right location play a vital role in the final image.

A woman in steampunk style attire holds a crystal ball up to her face which is illuminated.

Choosing Your Concept or Theme

The heart of fantasy pictures lies in their concept or theme. This could be as simple as recreating a scene from your favorite fairy tale or devising an entirely original narrative.

Consequently, the theme sets the tone for your shoot, guiding your choice of location, props, costumes, and post-production techniques. Fantasy photographers need to consider what story they want to tell and what emotions they want to evoke.

At any rate, the more clearly you can envision your concept, the easier it will be to bring it to life.

To help you envision your next photoshoot, here are some common themes that are associated with this genre:

  • Fairy Tales: These classic stories are a goldmine for fantasy themes. You could recreate iconic scenes or reimagine the tale in a contemporary context.
  • Mythical Creatures: Be it dragons, unicorns, or mermaids, magical creatures add a fantastical element to your photographs.
  • Enchanted Forests: This theme evokes a sense of mystery and magic, perfect for creating photographs with a surreal, otherworldly feel.
  • Dreamscapes: Transform dreams into reality by recreating dream sequences, symbolizing the thin line between reality and fantasy.
  • Historical Eras: Transport viewers to a different period, like the Victorian era or ancient Greece, using appropriate costumes and settings. A dream for a fine art photographer.
  • Steampunk: Combines elements of science fiction, fantasy, and industrial machinery in real life costumes.
  • Celestial Bodies: Elements such as stars or the moon can add a cosmic touch to your images.
  • Supernatural Elements: Ghosts, witches, or wizards can set the scene for a truly captivating fantasy photograph.
  • Elements of Nature: Use the elements—fire, water, earth, air—to create stunning, elemental-themed fantasy photographs.

Finding Inspiration and Creating Mood Boards

Inspiration for your fantasy shoot can come from anywhere – books, movies, paintings, or even your dreams and imagination. Once you have a general idea of your concept, creating a mood board can be a helpful tool for refining your vision and communicating it to your team.

Gather images that resonate with your theme, considering elements such as color palette, lighting, composition, and mood. By presenting your ideas visually, a mood board can serve as a guide and source of inspiration throughout your planning process and actual shoot.

Selecting Your Location and Props

The right location and props can make or break your fantasy photograph. Whether you’re shooting in a studio or on location, your setting should enhance your theme and contribute to the overall mood.

Consider the practical aspects, such as accessibility and safety, as well as how well the location fits your concept. Props, meanwhile, should add depth and detail to your scene without overpowering the main subjects.

Fantasy photography is all about creating a balance between the real and the surreal, so choose elements that support your narrative while maintaining that sense of wonder and otherworldliness.

A headless person wearing a turtleneck sits holding a balloon in their hand.

Creating the Perfect Fantasy Shot: Techniques and Tips

With your concept and location in place, it’s time to delve into the specifics of producing a magical, eye-catching fantasy photograph. Let’s explore some valuable techniques and tips that can elevate your fantasy photography to new heights.

Camera Settings

Choosing the right camera settings and equipment is crucial in capturing the essence of your fantasy photographs.

  • Aperture: Playing with depth of field can help create a sense of mystique or focus the viewer’s attention. A wide aperture (low f-number) blurs the background and foreground, highlighting the subject. Consequently, a narrow aperture (high f-number) keeps more elements in focus.
  • Shutter Speed: Prolonged shutter speeds can bring a dream-like quality to moving elements like water or wind-blown fabric, imbuing your images with a fantasy feel. Fast shutter speeds, however, can capture dynamic action or fleeting moments in crisp detail.
  • ISO: This controls your camera’s sensitivity to light. A lower ISO results in less noise but requires more light, while a higher ISO allows shooting in lower light situations but may introduce more noise. In fantasy photography, a lower ISO could be used to ensure a cleaner, higher-quality image, particularly in well-lit or studio conditions.
  • White Balance: Adjusting white balance can dramatically change the mood of your fantasy photographs. Warmer tones might suggest a magical sunset or fiery landscape, while cooler tones could evoke moonlight or a mystical, frosty environment.
  • Focus: Manual focus is particularly useful. It gives the fantasy photographer a greater degree of control over the image’s focus points, which can be a valuable tool in creating a particular mood or drawing attention to specific elements in the frame.
Three glowing mushrooms are coming out the side of a tree.

Equipment Recommendations

Creating magical images doesn’t need the fanciest equipment and a simple setup.

  • Lens: A prime lens, such as a 50mm or 85mm, can produce high-quality images with beautiful bokeh, ideal for fantasy portrait photography.
  • Lighting: A softbox or reflector can help to diffuse light and soften shadows, enhancing the ethereal quality of your shots.
  • Tripod: A sturdy tripod ensures stability, particularly useful when working with slower shutter speeds or in low light scenarios.

Every fantasy photographer has a unique style, and experimenting with settings and equipment can help you discover what works best for your vision.

The Importance of Composition

In fantasy photography, the power of a compelling narrative is paramount, and the composition of your photo plays a significant role in this. The arrangement of elements within your frame can evoke emotions and create a sense of balance and harmony.

Here are five composition ideas to inspire your fantasy photography:

  • Leading Lines: Utilize natural or artificial lines to guide the viewer’s eye toward a focal point. Roads, paths, streams, or rays of light can serve as effective leading lines.
  • Rule of Thirds: Another key point is to position your subjects off-center for a more dynamic and visually interesting composition with the rule of thirds. Imagine your frame divided into nine equal squares and place the key elements along these lines or intersections.
  • Frames within Frames: Use elements in your scene, such as arches, windows, or tree branches, to frame your subject within a frame. This technique helps focus attention on your subject and adds depth to your image.
  • Symmetry and Patterns: Incorporating symmetry and patterns can create a visually pleasing balance. Reflective surfaces like water or mirrors can be used to achieve symmetry. Patterns can occur naturally or be arranged in your scene.
  • Depth of Field: Manipulating the depth of field can help isolate your subject from the background, enhancing the dreamlike quality of your fantasy photographs. A shallow depth of field (wide aperture) can create a blurred effect. A large depth of field (narrow aperture) can keep the entire scene in focus.

As a fantasy photographer, taking time to thoughtfully compose your images can significantly elevate the narrative and visual appeal of your fantasy photographs. Experiment with these techniques and see which best aligns with your unique storytelling style.

Two female fairies are holding a glowing flower together in the middle of a forest path for fantasy photography.

Lighting Techniques for Creating a Fantastical Atmosphere

Lighting is a key element in fantasy photography, capable of transforming an ordinary scene into something magical. A combination of natural and artificial light often works best – golden hour (the hour after sunrise or before sunset) provides soft, warm light that can create an ethereal effect.

Additionally, consider using off-camera flashes or LED panels for fill light or to highlight specific elements in your scene.

Colored gels can add a dreamlike hue to your lighting, contributing to the otherworldly atmosphere. The goal is to create a lighting setup that enhances your theme and mood, so don’t be afraid to experiment to find what works best for your concept.

Post-Production: Editing Your Fantasy Photos

After the shoot, the fantasy photograph journey doesn’t stop there. Post-production editing is crucial to elevate your imagery to the next level, and software tools like Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop are industry standards for these post processing techniques.

Basic Editing Techniques for Enhancing Fantasy Elements:

  • Color Grading: Enhance the mood of your fantasy photographs by adjusting the colors. You can create a sense of otherworldliness by pushing the tones to the cooler or warmer extremes.
  • Sharpness and Clarity: Increase the sharpness and clarity to highlight essential elements in your image and add depth to the scene.
  • Vignette: Add a vignette for a more focused and dramatic look. It helps draw the viewer’s eye towards the photo’s main subject.

Advanced Techniques for Creating Surreal Effects:

  • Layer Blending: Use Photoshop’s layer blending modes to combine different images or create complex effects, adding an extra layer of surrealism to your fantasy photos.
  • Texture Overlays: Add texture overlays to give your photos a dreamlike appearance. These can be anything from bokeh effects to light leaks or foggy effects.
  • Manipulating Reality: Use tools like the warp or puppet warp tool to distort reality, creating fantasy scenes only limited by your imagination.
A field of various sized pumpkins and flowers fade off into the distance.

Learning from the Best: Top Fantasy Photographers to Follow

Fantasy photography is a vast and flourishing genre, encompassing a myriad of styles, themes, and techniques that offer endless possibilities for creative expression.

Among this vastness, there are standout acts, the best fantasy photographers who have carved out a definitive niche with their distinctive aesthetic and innovative approach.

1. Stanislav Istratov

Stanislav is an extraordinary fantasy photographer known for his seamless blend of reality and fairytale elements. His breathtaking images transport viewers into a whimsical world filled with magic and mystery. Stanislav Istratov has a distinctive style with a high fashion focus in his costume designs.

2. Brooke Shaden

Brooke is a prominent fantasy photographer who captivates audiences with her surreal fantasy portraits, often set in eerie, magical landscapes. The dark tones and dramatic themes in her work evoke a sense of otherworldly beauty that transports you to an alternate reality.

3. Kirsty Mitchell

Kirsty is an award winning British photographer who enchants with her elaborate, detail-filled compositions, each a masterful blend of fashion and fantasy. Mitchell’s work stands out for its meticulous attention to detail and its powerful storytelling elements.

This list is just the beginning, and many other fantasy photographers can blur the line between the real and fantasy worlds.

A person stands on a dock holding an image of the rest of the dock lined up perfectly.

Conclusion

In the journey to mastering fantasy photography, embracing lessons from portrait and nature photography can enrich your creative repertoire. Generally, key photography skills such as manipulating lighting, understanding composition, and creating dreamlike effects can transform your photographs into fantasy masterpieces.

Above all, fantasy photos require your unique vision combined with these other elements to push the boundaries of the fantasy genre, creating compelling narratives within each frame.

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Perrin lives as a nomad in Canada and spends his time shooting landscape photography while exploring the wilderness. Throughout his career, Perrin has been a wedding, portrait, and product photographer. However, his passion always leads him back to the outdoors, where he teaches people how to photograph and interact with the natural world.
Perrin lives as a nomad in Canada and spends his time shooting landscape photography while exploring the wilderness. Throughout his career, Perrin has been a wedding, portrait, and product photographer. However, his passion always leads him back to the outdoors, where he teaches people how to photograph and interact with the natural world.
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