6 Experts Tell Us How to Bring Fantasy Scenes to Life

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In the mid to late 19th century, a British woman named Julia Margaret Cameron decided to do something unexpected. She read poetry and mythology, and with help from her camera and models, she brought the characters in her favorite stories to life. There was the wizard Merlin and the classical Cupid; she dreamt up angels and nymphs. At the time, it was unusual for an artist to portray these magical tales in such a realistic way, but as decades have passed, Cameron’s influence has remained.

Fantasy-themed photographs and photo collages continue to inspire and delight us. In fact, Shutterstock named fantasy as one of its top creative trends of 2018, and searches for mythical creatures and magical themes soared. Below, we speak to six talented photographers about how they make the impossible seem possible. They use a variety of techniques and software with varying degrees of realism and make-believe, and while some draw inspiration from the past, others look towards the future. However, they’re all bound by their tremendous imaginations.

1. “As someone who is in the business of marketing images, I can tell you that listening to the client and writing notes is essential.”

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6 Expert Photographers Reveal How They Bring Fantasy Scenes to Life — Listen to Your Client

What’s the story behind this photo?

Microstock has to be the best way to transform a hobby into actual paying work. We are a two-person architectural visualization team with two hobbies: science fiction and world travel. While our 3D modeling day job helps with imagining structures and building objects, our travel photography provides the backgrounds and the inspiration.

The “alien invasion” theme in this shot was not an afterthought. We arrived at Grand View Point at Utah’s Canyonlands National Park right after a storm had passed, and there, we witnessed a sense pure, overwhelming awe. I do not remember which one of us was the first to say, “What if…?” But our vision came to life as we worked in 3D Studio MAX and Photoshop.

6 Expert Photographers Reveal How They Bring Fantasy Scenes to Life — Take Notes

Pro Tip

We find inspiration in science fiction literature, general scientific concepts, and the news. It’s more fun to imagine and build original scenes without having a direct visual influence. It’s more lucrative too. As someone who is in the business of marketing images, I can tell you that listening to the client and writing notes is essential.

In terms of technique, it is important to render (we use 3D Studio MAX) with an actual photo as a background or as a reflection map. This increases the realism of the objects placed within the landscape. It also makes it easy to adjust the 3D model, isolated on its own layer, within the original photo, and to add effects or filters in Photoshop or AfterEffects.

2. “Don’t be afraid or intimidated by ambitious productions or complex props.”

Evgeniia Litovchenko

6 Expert Photographers Reveal How They Bring Fantasy Scenes to Life — Build a Plot with Your Images

What’s the story behind this photo?

This idea was born after I saw a fashion photo of a girl with giant white wings. I wanted to do something similar but with black wings and a darker atmosphere. The main problem was that I couldn’t find anywhere in the world to buy wings like these that were already made. I found some options made of synthetic materials, but they looked fake and lifeless. In the end, I decided to make them myself, despite the fact that I had no experience at all.

My living conditions at the time of this shoot were quite modest. The room where I lived and worked was only ten square meters, but nothing could stop me from creating this image. I bought more than 1500 feathers, and after two months of trial and error, I managed to make the wings.

I wanted an unusual location with a desolate atmosphere. Fortunately, I had learned not long before that there was an ash dump in our city. On the day of the shoot, I visited it for the first time. I had a makeup artist and a hair stylist working on this shoot, and after they finished, we arrived at the ash dump. A large space opened before us, its surfaces covered with fine gray dust.

It was almost sunset, and the scene looked apocalyptic; it was as if the earth had been burned to the ground. We were delighted. I worked with an assistant and this model, and we were all knee-deep in ash but excited. Initially, I had planned for the model to be a bird, but in the end, she became an angel of the apocalypse.

One of my favorite shots is this one, where the model is lying on the ground, her arms outstretched, as if fallen. I noticed the cracks on the ground, and they reminded me of the desert, the surface of the moon, or the area near a volcano, and I wanted them in the frame. But since there was no other way for me to shoot the model from above, I had to climb up on an assistant’s shoulders. It was scary and funny, but it was worth it.

Pro Tip

It is important to be totally in love with your business. Don’t be afraid or intimidated by ambitious productions or complex props. Great results require you to invest your time, and that’s something you need to accept. As a rule, the most successful shots are the ones with a plot that has been well thought out. When organizing a shoot, take the time to ask yourself, “Who is this character, and what is he doing? Where is she, and what is she feeling?” The more questions you’re able to answer, the more interesting your photos will be.

3. “First, think about what you want to create, and spend time visualizing the images.”

Fernando Cortes

6 Expert Photographers Reveal How They Bring Fantasy Scenes to Life — Think About What You Want to Create

What’s the story behind this photo?

I’m passionate about fantasy and art in general. In my photos, I try to create a surreal world that is reminiscent of times gone by. For years, I’ve been creating costumes for my models, including helmets, armor, and accessories. I made this photo under a stone bridge in the north of Madrid, Spain. The colored smoke is real, and the suit was made by me with both fabric and 3D printed elements.

6 Expert Photographers Reveal How They Bring Fantasy Scenes to Life — Visualize Before Your Shoot

Pro Tip

First, think about what you want to create, and spend time visualizing the images. My ideas come from everything I see and dream. TV series, movies, and literature all inspire me. Your images should convey some sort of larger message or story beyond being purely visual.

In my case, I look for realism, so I prepare all the materials and costumes beforehand, and then I look for the model that best fits my idea. I always try to do as little Photoshop work as I can so that the final images look as real as possible.

4. “Make sure to gather knowledge about color theory, lighting techniques, and the rules of composition.”

Elena Schweitzer

6 Expert Photographers Reveal How They Bring Fantasy Scenes to Life — Learn the Basics of Photography

What’s the story behind this photo?

You’ll be able to tell from looking at my portfolio that magical forests are a favorite theme of mine. Look closely, and you’ll see a bunch of little fairies, other enchanting creatures, and the houses where they live. Most of my fantasy pictures are composites.

Pro Tip

Technical tools like Photoshop and the Wacom Cintiq Pro 24 will make it easier for you to realize your vision, but remember that it’s your imagination and creativity that will truly bring your ideas to life.

Don’t leave the house without a camera. You don’t need a heavy camera during the day; a small, portable one will work fine. The idea is to collect a huge range of images to use later for composites. Look for everything: backgrounds, architectural elements, different kinds of skies, trees, and so on. You’ll have to create any missing elements yourself in the studio.

In the end, your final collage must have continuity and not look like a bunch of pieces stuck together. Make sure to gather knowledge about color theory, lighting techniques, and the rules of composition. You can teach yourself by reading books and finding articles on the internet.

As adults, we sometimes have trouble seeing magic, so if you’re creatively blocked, try taking inspiration from children and seeing things through their eyes. My children helped to reintroduce me to the world of fantasy.

5. “For great portraits, focus on the eyes and the emotions.”

Boiko Olha

6 Expert Photographers Reveal How They Bring Fantasy Scenes to Life — Focus on Eyes and Emotions

What’s the story behind this photo?

The initial inspiration for this knight-themed photo shoot was my amazing model, Alexandra Girskaya; I just knew she could play this strong character. Another source of inspiration was epic music. When I listened to it, I saw this image in my mind: а portrait of a girl with a beautiful set of eyes and a sword in her hands.

I found a lake with a lot of lilies to use as our location for the shoot. The place just had this mystical atmosphere, and the costume was so realistic that, for a few moments, I thought I had been transported to that historical time long ago. We also had some dogs at that shoot, a lot of heavy armor, and accessories. I remember that day as a big adventure.

Pro Tip

Think through all the details as carefully as possible before you start shooting. That way, you won’t have to do too much post-processing—maybe just some color correction. The most important thing is to consider how everything comes together in the final image: the concept, the model, the wardrobe, the accessories, the location, and the colors. Don’t be afraid to try something new. For great portraits, focus on the eyes and the emotions.

6. “I don’t go looking for inspiration; instead, I let it find me.”

Irina Kozorog

6 Expert Photographers Reveal How They Bring Fantasy Scenes to Life — Be Open to Inspiration

Image by Irina Kozorog. Gear: Olympus OM-D E-M1 camera, Olympus M.Zuiko Digital 30mm 1:3.5 Macro lens. Settings: Focal length 60mm; exposure 1/200 sec; f9; ISO 100. Please note: this is a composite, and this data applies to one component of the final image: the portrait.

What’s the story behind this photo?

My youngest daughter, who likes to invent fairy tales, came up with this project. She used to tell me all these stories in the evenings, and I decided to try to bring them to life. I collaborated with her to create the whole picture, right down to the smallest details: the color of the dress, the flowers, the poses, and gestures. We photographed everything separately and spent time looking for suitable objects and places. Then I put them all together in Photoshop, almost like pieces of a puzzle.

Pro Tip

I don’t go looking for inspiration; instead, I let it find me. Often this inspiration comes from my children. For example, one of my most successful photos was taken almost by accident. I was taking pictures of my daughter doing her homework, and we got tired, so I suggested we take a break. I briefly left the room, and when I came back, I happened to see my daughter and cat gently embracing. The world is full of interesting details; you just need to look carefully to find them.

6 Expert Photographers Reveal How They Bring Fantasy Scenes to Life — Look for Interesting Details

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