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How to Create Optical Illusions in Your Photography

How to Create Optical Illusions in Your Photography

Tap into the imaginations of your viewers with easy tips for creating mind-bending optical illusions next time you’re behind the lens.

Are your eyes playing tricks on you? Perhaps you’ve seen something that makes you look twice? Chances are you’re looking at a mind-bending optical illusion. 

Optical illusions are images or pictures that we perceive differently from how they really are. Put another way, optical illusions occur when our eyes send information to our brain, but our brain tricks us into thinking we perceive something that doesn’t match our reality. 

Scientists believe optical illusions are possible because our brains take shortcuts. We make assumptions by recognizing patterns or familiar objects before piecing them together to make a “whole” image. 

This is where photographers can really tap into the imaginations of their viewers by making the impossible seem possible.

Let’s lean into our creativity to take our viewers on a real trip. 

Woman sitting on a orange block reading a book in two different places at the same time
Optical illusions play tricks on the brain, tricking us into seeing something that doesn’t exist. License this image via Iryna Kuznetsova.

Forced Perspective 

We can’t discuss optical illusions in photography without mentioning forced perspective.

We’ve all seen those photos of tourists seemingly holding the Leaning Tower of Pisa to keep it from falling or pinching the Eiffel Tower.

This is one photography trick that almost everyone gets a kick out of, but not everyone knows how to execute. 

Black and white image of a pair of boots on pavement with shadow of person reflecting from empty boots
License this image via Tanna Alverez.

The technique is called forced perspective photography—an optical illusion that achieves the following:

  • Makes a subject appear larger.
  • Makes a subject appear smaller.
  • Merges subjects together.
  • Bends gravity. 

Here are some examples: 

Merge Subjects 

Photographers can use forced perspective to create striking images where subjects (or objects) appear to interact with objects or people in head-turning, and even impossible, ways.

The composition is the most crucial part when merging subjects together to achieve the optical illusion. The key is to line up your background and foreground to make them look like they’re parallel to each other and interacting.

Your subject will appear closer or further away, depending on how close or far away your subject is in relation to your camera.

If we go back to the Eiffel Tower example, placing your subject close to the camera while keeping the Eiffel Tower in the distance allows you to create the effect of a giant-sized person and tiny tower. 

It’s important to line up the background and foreground elements, so they appear to interact. License these images via Tanya Maryshko and Bisual Photo.

Defy Gravity 

Taking a photo that appears to defy gravity is a fun way to keep your viewers engaged as they try to figure out how you achieved the photo.

In many cases, you can defy gravity by simply changing the orientation of your camera.

Optical illusion of a man dangling from the side of a building
License this image via Amazing Aerial Agency.

Want to turn your world upside-down?

Ask your subject to sit upright on a chair or lay down on the sidewalk with their legs up against a wall. Add another element to the shot by introducing another person who sits upright in the chair or stands on the sidewalk.

All that’s left to do is tilt your camera at a 90-degree angle to achieve the gravity-defying photo. 

Optical illusion of a teenager having a cup of tea on the ceiling
License this image via claudia veja images.

On the flip side, you can create the illusion that appears to show gravity pulling buildings into the ground.

The “Sinking House” in Montmartre, Paris, is a favorite optical illusion among tourists. As the name suggests, the house appears to be sinking, but only when you tilt your camera until the hill is leveled. 

A sinking house in a field in Montmartre, Paris
Defy gravity by changing the orientation of your camera. License this image via fokke baarssen.

Create a Flat Image 

If you want your image to appear two-dimensional, the key here is to make sure everything appears very flat.

Let’s say you want to create the illusion that your subject is flying off a bicycle. Lay the bike flat on its side along the sidewalk, and have your subject lay on their side, too.

Everything needs to line up just so in order to pull off the effect. Once the elements of the shot have been set up, all that’s left to do is capture the shot directly overhead.

Tip: Do not take a photo from the side, as this will give away the real height and depth. 

Aerial view of a girl with an umbrella flying through a garden
Forced perspective is used in photography to create an optical illusion. License this image via Alexandr Vlassyuk.

To pull off forced perspective requires a plan. It’s always a good idea before you start shooting to look at other examples of forced perspective photography for inspiration.

Aerial view of a person on a tennis court
License this image via Amazing Aerial Agency.

Small Aperture 

In forced perspective photography, you’ll notice that there’s a subject in the foreground and background. To ensure the entire frame is in focus, you’ll need a small aperture. The smaller the aperture, the deeper the depth of field.

Remember, the higher the f-stop number (the smaller the opening in the lens), the greater the depth of field to produce a sharper background.

To ensure you maintain the proper depth of field in forced perspective photography, a good place to start is an f-stop number between f/8 and f/16.

Female hand is holding what appears to be a life sized red bicycle near a river
Opting for a small aperture (high f-stop number) is necessary to ensure a deeper depth of field, which is required in forced perspective photography. License this image via kolt_duo.

A Wide-Angle Lens 

You’ll need a wide-angle lens to provide you with enough wiggle room to get close to your subject without cropping your background.

Not only will a wide lens give you a wider field of view but, generally, you can get closer to your subject than you can with a narrower lens.

Using a wide-angle lens with a focal length under 35 millimeters is a good starting point.

Large fake dinosaur on the beach with small real people in the background scared
A wide-angle lens is required to ensure you capture both the foreground and background elements. License this image via R.M. Nunes.

High Zoom 

A high zoom gives you a lot of room to play around with the perspective. Using a high zoom lens allows you to move forward or away from your subject while staying in one place, making it possible to create different sized subjects.

Let’s say you want to capture something at a greater distance, like the sun. A zoom lens will give you the proper perspective as long as your foreground subject is some distance away from your camera. 


Recap

Let’s recap the most essential steps for shooting forced perspective photography: 

  1. Move your subject closer to your camera lens for a bigger, more dramatic effect. 
  2. Place your subject further away from your camera for a smaller effect.
  3. Use a small aperture: Between f/8 and f/16.
  4. Use a wind-angle lens: Under 35mm. 

Are you ready to create some mind-bending optical illusions of your own? Return to this guide whenever you need some pointers and inspiration.

And, don’t be afraid to experiment. Take plenty of test shots with different subjects, props, compositions, and juxtapositions to create an optical illusion that delivers the greatest impact. 


License this cover image via claudia veja images.

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