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Transforming Camera Images into Surreal Fine Art

Solstacia II (30x60) fine art by Sam Dobrow

“Solstacia II”

Most people agree that photography is a fine art even though it has not always been thought of as such. Even in the early days of photography, images were manipulated by the available technology to create a “picture” that reflected the photographer’s vision. From darkroom techniques to digital photography the options have continuously expanded. My photographic work pushes the limits of photography into the world of surreal digital art and I often receive questions of “How did you do that?” and “Is that a photograph?” This article will highlight some of the visioning and techniques I used to create a surreal work of art, “Solstacia II” (above), from a camera image.


To create large detailed wall art, I use a 50MP full frame camera and produce a panorama from several images. I prefer to shoot with a “normal” to “short telephoto” (50mm, 85mm or 100mm) lens which minimizes distortions. I position the camera in the portrait position to maximize the height of the final image (30″ using the 50MP sensor). The width is determined by how many images I seam together. The image below shows the uncropped and unedited panorama created from approximately eight shots. Panoramas are best shot using a leveled tripod with 50% overlap for each image. This panorama shows what happens when the camera is handheld and not completely level frame to frame. I’m fairly good at holding the camera level but even small deviations require cropping the height of the panorama.

South Miami Beach Panorama

Once the panorama is created the image must be “developed”. Generally this means adjusting color temperature, exposure, contrast and sharpness to achieve an optimal photograph. This is the stage where I fix “things” in the image that are distracting. I may remove power lines, traffic signs, and even people from the image. In my situation, I begin pushing individual color luminosity and saturation to achieve a specific mood. I may also apply filters such as those that simulate cross-processing of color film, HDR images, and edge sharpening. The image below shows the “developed image” with final crop.

Surreal Photographic Art

This is the point my imagination comes into play. I look at the image and imagine things that would tell a story. The story may have a narrative or it may be purely conceptual. In this image I decided to melt the landscape using the liquify filter in Photoshop to create a surreal feeling. Since birds are always around fishermen hoping to catch some bait, I chose to add two birds standing next to the fishing pole almost as if they were the fisherman. This was my stopping point for the first version of Solstacia; a light, airy, and somewhat whimsical waterscape.

Surreal Photographic Art

For nearly a year I kept looking at this image feeling as if the scene fell short of telling the story of fishing from the pier. I decided to add a large fish to the scene. I went into my photography archives and found a picture of a large grouper shot from behind a glass wall at an aquarium. I cut it out from the background and placed it in the scene. It looked too realistic in a surreal picture so my next task was to create “Mr. Grouper”, a surreal version of the grouper (see before and after image below).

Surreal Grouper

Once Mr. Grouper was placed in the picture, I partially submerged his tail and fins to provide the effect of coming out of the water. To complete the story, I drew a fishing line from the pole to his mouth. The story was about catching the big fish but that dark mood was not what I wanted to convey. The scene was whimsical so I decided the story should be about the big one that got away. I redrew the fishing line flying in the wind as Mr. Grouper laughingly mocked the fisherman from the water. I removed the red buoy from the water because it became a distraction in the final rendition (top).

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