Joel Robison’s photographs are magical. They are full of creativity and whimsy, as if Robison stepped into the worlds of Alice in Wonderland and The Chronicles of Narnia and brought them back into our own. His photographs make us feel like the imaginative possibilities of our childhood never vanished; they are images of real life tweaked to include a sense of wonder. They are, in other words, the kind of work we could use more of.
We spoke with Joel Robison about how he creates his magical images and how fellow creatives can add a bit more whimsy to their work.
1. Rediscover Your Inner Child’s Imagination
Robison’s images aren’t just about showing magic, but also inspiring it. “When we were growing up as kids, we were encouraged to celebrate the imaginary part of us,” Robison says. “But then we hit this point as adults where it’s frowned upon. ‘Now you have to think like a real adult.’ I don’t agree with that.”
His mission is to keep his own—and everyone else’s—inner child from disappearing, so that we can continue to see magic in our world. “I like to show that anything is possible and can be looked at differently,” he says. To create whimsy and magic in your own work, follow Robison’s lead and reconnect with the child you used to be.
2. Don’t Let Photoshop Replace Photography
Because of the effects that elevate Robison’s images into fantasy, many believe his work is mainly created in Photoshop. That’s far from true. “It’s a happy medium between Photoshop and photography,” Robison explains. For those wanting to create similar images, it’s important to ensure both creative methods work together in a complete and complementary process.
“It’s knowing what you’re doing when you’re standing there with the camera in your hand, and having the vision from step one all the way to the last step,” Robison says. “I like to think that my photography is using a camera as if you were drawing the lines of a picture, and Photoshop is just coloring them in. The drawing might look really great as it is, but Photoshop is going to let you color it in as creatively as you want.”
3. But Still Master the Magic of Photo Editing
Obviously, photo editing software is still a key (and thrilling) part of making the impossible possible in an image. “Tweaking it in Photoshop, that magical touch that exists when you can put it into this program and get really creative with it? That’s where the magic ride is for me,” Robison says.
Achieving that magic requires work and mastery of whatever photo editing software you choose, until its tools become second nature. “Once you become familiar with any photo tool or program, you can use it almost instinctively,” he says. “For me, Photoshop is like having this big bucket of paint in front of me that I can just dab into. I instinctively know what’s going to happen before I do it, so I can anticipate what it’s going to look like as I’m working on it.”
4. Use the Emotional Power of Color
Color is a major aspect of Robison’s work, and he says it’s a crucial part of his process. “Emotions and words and feelings are very strongly tied to colors in my mind,” he says. “For me, the colors match the theme of the image. Playing with selective color channels, color balancing, gradients, and making sure that all of the colors are closely aligned to what I want the message to be is really important.” It’s an important reminder of the power of color and how it can be used to create a sense of wonder or delight in an image.
5. Look at Your World Differently
What’s so wonderful about Robison’s images is that, for all their enchantment, they still represent our recognizable world—a world slightly twisted into fantasy.
Appropriately, Robison’s advice to those looking to add a touch of magic to their images is to tilt your world and perspective. “Just start looking at what you’re already doing, but just adjust it. Look at perspective, look at colors, look at little things that are different than what you do now,” he says. It can even help to just physically move around a little during a shoot. “Look at situations, or pictures, from a really low angle, or from a really high angle, or from an angle that’s different than what you see with the eyes. Once you move around and see things through a different perspective you’re starting to see things that you might not have seen before.”