8 Magical Photo Effects You Can Accomplish Easily

by Stephen Harker
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magical photo effects photos

Photography can be magical. We can create special effects and conditions by manipulating the elements of a photoshoot, employing special lighting techniques, and by means of creative post processing.

Let’s take a look at some magical photo effects and a few short ideas of how to make them work for us. Specific techniques for these can be found in other articles on our website or will soon be coming.

Magical Photo Effects

Some of the magical effects are very simple to do, others are a bit more involved. I will discuss extreme depth of field, selective focus, levitation, motion blur, HDR, panoramas, ghosting, and lighting effects.

Several of these are done entirely in camera, without any additional lighting or post processing needed. I’ll discuss those first. A few of the other magical effects require some advanced lighting or post processing. All of these 8 can be achieved with the skills you already possess.

Extreme Depth of Field

Our mind sees things from our eyes differently than a camera sensor sees the image projected by our lens. As an example, when we are enjoying a beautiful scenic vista, say at a mountain resort or a tropical paradise, our eyes focus on the variou elements and our brain puts it all together as one scene.

depth of focus magical photo effects

Photographically, though, we have to jump through some hoops to get that as an end result in an image. Having a foreground object in sharp focus with the background also in focus isn’t terribly hard, though.

Using an ultra wide angle lens, find the hyperfocal distance for your specific lens and the  aperture you’re going to use. Hyperfocal distance is the focusing distance you set on the lens to get the largest range of in focus possible. You can find the hyperfocal distance by using online depth of field charts (click here for the link) or a smartphone app. 

Hyperfocal distance changes depending on sensor size, lens focal length, and aperture. As an example, if you are using an APS-C format camera and a 12mm lens at f/16, focusing the lens at 3 feet will give you a zone of focus from 1 foot all the way to infinity. 

So, you could have a foreground object and the background all in sharp focus. Depending on the subject, this effect can be quite striking.

Selective Focus

At the other end of the focus and depth of field effect is selective focus. Again, this effect is a response to how our brain interprets what our eyes tell it. When we’re concentrating on a subject, we tend to zone out everything else in our field of view.

Photographically, we have to choose the proper settings to accomplish this result. Otherwise, our image may have multiple subject elements competing for attention. This is easily done by choosing the right lens and settings.

If we go to our depth of field calculator we used for extreme depth of field, we can find out what lens and settings will give us this effect. A helpful hint, it’s easier to get selective focus effects with larger camera formats. 

Here’s an example: on a full frame format camera with an 85mm lens, if the subject is 10 feet away, using an aperture of f/2.8 will give us a depth of field of about 8 inches. If we’re shooting a portrait, that combination of settings will give us an image with the person’s face as the only thing in focus.

Levitation Photography

Levitation photography is a magical effect that requires some planning and advanced post processing work. With this effect, you can either make people look as though they’re floating, or you can make objects appear to float. 

Making people float is much more involved than levitating small objects. A lot of planning is required to have it go smoothly. Using a storyboard, an idea borrowed from videography and animation, plan out each part of the photoshoot needed for the final composited image.

levitation photography magical photo effects

Composited is the important word here. For levitating people, you need to combine multiple images and use masking and cloning tools to finish the image. 

Levitating small objects can be made with single images as opposed to compositing multiple images. Lighting and post processing is the key. And fishing line or black thread. Hang the objects with the fishing line or dark thread.The choice of what to use to hang the objects will depend on the background.

Adjust the lighting to minimize seeing the thread or line. Then, using your favorite post processing program, find any spots where you can still see it and use the clone or repair tools to remove it. 

This is probably one of the most difficult of our magical photo effects, but it’s not out of reach for anyone familiar with tripod use, lighting techniques, and post processing. Try it out, you’ll enjoy your creations.

Motion Blur

This another magical photo effect that can be done with minimal equipment and a simple technique. Depending on the depth of the effect you are attempting, you can do this with just your camera and a good, steady stance. Many motion blur images concentrate on water, but clouds or wind blown foliage also works. 

This effect is dependent on shutter speed. The slower the shutter speed, the more any subject motion will blur. At its simplest, you can make a rushing stream, waterfall, or crashing wave blur a little bit with a slower than normal shutter speed. A Nifty Fifty lens  or a slight wide angle on full frame can let you comfortably hand hold for water blur at speeds of 1/30th, 1/15th, or even 1/8th if you’ve really got good technique.

In order to capture extreme motion blur effects, you’ll definitely need a tripod or other stable camera mount. A neutral density (ND) filter makes the job easier. What you want is the longest shutter speed possible. Making good use of the Exposure Triangle, we will use a low ISO, small f-stop, and then the ND filter to give the longest shutter speed possible.

With some ND filters, we can attenuate the light reaching the sensor so much that an exposure time measured in full minutes is possible. With an ultra long exposure time, you can turn wind blown grass into a surreal carpet, or turn waves into a glowing or dark fog of textureless  light or shadow surrounding other objects. Clouds can streak across an otherworldly sky.

While water is probably the most common moving image element to get the motion blur treatment, anything in your image that moves can be blurred. 

HDR Photography

High dynamic range (HDR) photography is a fascinating effect made possible by digital photography. Again we go back to our eye to mind connection. When looking at most scenes, our brain immediately compensates between light and dark areas. Photographically, we have limits in how big of a difference from lightest to darkest in the scene can be recorded. That’s a simple definition of dynamic range.

hdr photography magical photo effects

What HDR photography does is gives us a way to extend that range up, down, or both ways. A great example is a Golden Hour or Blue Hour scene that has extremes in the bright sky and a darker land based element of the image. Using HDR, we can see detail in the bright sky, any bright reflections, and in the dark foreground or background, as well as the main subject.

You take multiple exposures at different settings and then use a post processing program to blend them together. Most of the programs have the capability to do this, but some are better at it than others. Using a tripod is a good idea to keep the multiple exposures in proper registration. Changing shutter speed instead of aperture is also a good practice, unless you’re attempting a specific effect.

This can be made to look natural, as it is in most real estate photography, or we can take it to an extreme for a very artsy feel. Either way, this makes HDR a magical photo effect.

Panoramas

When you have a wide scene to record but don’t want the wide angle lens effect, shooting a panorama can be the magical photo effect you need. 

The best way to shoot a panorama is with some sort of nodal point rotator on a tripod, but some cameras have a built in panorama setting for basic use. A panorama is made with multiple images stitched together. Having some overlap in the images is good practice in order to give the camera mode or stitching program a way to combine the images.

A truly magical photo effect is the virtual tour interactive image you can make with ptgui or other special programs. This is a fairly involved method but the results are absolutely amazing. Though it’s a lot of work, it’s well within the reach of any photographer familiar with meticulous shooting and post processing.

Ghosting

There are two methods used for most ghosting effects. Ghosting is how you can remove people from an image in order to have an unobstructed view of popular landmarks.

The idea is that you use either a very long exposure so that anyone walking through the scene won’t be in any one spot long enough to record on the image, or take multiple images and blend them together, removing whatever isn’t in each frame, again they’re moving.

The motion blur method can be employed for the first way, and the HDR or panorama processing can do the second method. When shooting either method, a tripod is pretty much essential.

What you end up with is an image of a busy place, such as a landmark or tourist attraction, without any people showing up in the image. So, you have magically beamed everyone out of your image. It’s really pretty cool when you see it in action.

Lighting Effects

Lighting effects are really basic lighting methods and techniques that you use for a specific purpose. Some examples are high key and low key photography, Rembrandt lighting, shooting in silhouette, creating a halo effect with bright rim lighting, and so on.  

rembrandt lighting effect for magical photography

The best part of this is that you are already using the lighting configurations for your portraits or small product or still life photography. Just take it a step further. Make the contrast ratios super high or low. Make it magical by how you pose subjects, how you expose, or what camera position you use. 

Magical Photo Effects

All of these 8 magical photo effects are available to digital photographers with a decent understanding of basic photographic methods, techniques, and principles. There are other magical photo effects, some of which can become very complicated. Play around with these 8 and let us see the results.

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