Ethereal literally means something light or tenuous, but when we think about the word in terms of photographs, it indicates images that feel magical, timeless, and otherworldly.
Most people latch on to the “realism” of photos. After all, in a number of different ways you are documenting the real world in photographs and freezing a moment in time so that people can always remember it just as it was.
But just because you’re taking a picture doesn’t mean that it has to look ultra-realistic; when photographers know what they’re doing, it’s easy to make the real world feel like the dreamscape of your mind or some far off fantasy realm. Rather than freezing a moment in time, it feels like you’re creating a new one that could have happened at any point. Ethereal photographs are all about invoking emotions and a sense of wonder.
The best part about them? Pretty much anyone can make them with a little forethought and some simple photo editing tools. What you can do is limited to only one thing – your imagination!
Photo by Ferina Santos
Embrace nature. While there are good ethereal photographs out there that live in a very modern, human, technological realm, a surefire way to make a picture feel ethereal is to go out into nature. Something about the Earth just conveys an immediate timelessness that human structures can’t match.
Photo by Ferina Santos
Solar energy. Natural lighting has an amazing quality that we still can’t replicate perfectly. It gives everything a soft, gorgeous glow that can really make every part of your photograph feel like a living, breathing thing.
Photo by Horia Varian
By moonlight. Like the sun, lighting your pictures by the moon creates an interesting glow and hue that can really help in creating photos that feel like they are out of a dream.
Shadows cast by moonlight also have a completely different quality than the ones you get in the sun or with artificial light and can give the impression that you’re looking at another world.
Photo by Bossco
Smoke monster. As you can see here, mist, fog, and smoke are quite conducive to giving a photo an ethereal quality since they themselves come and go so quickly. Nothing feels quite so dreamlike and haunting as capturing something as it emerges or is swallowed up into mist, fog, or smoke.
Photo by Parker Michael Knight
Costuming is key. A big part of that ethereal feeling for many people is the fantasy, fairytale nature often present in this kind of photography. Something that can go a long way toward projecting that tone and message is costuming. Vintage clothes, light, airy, billowy dresses, and designs inspired by nature all work really well in this regard.
Photo by Ferina Santos
Keep your focus soft. Ever watched an old black and white Hollywood movie where the lead actress just seems to glow every time she’s on screen? It’s because directors were often made to use a soft focus and soft lighting on them to make them look as good as possible. The side effect of shooting this way is that all the harsh lines and edges in the shot sort of smooth out and drift into the background. As you can see here, you can get the same effect in still photography on most decent cameras.
Photo by Sarabbit
Use blur. Now we’re getting into the editing stage, and this is where programs like Photoshop can really be handy. The blur effect is one of the simplest and most important things you can do to really amp up that ethereal quality. Essentially, you’re removing pixels from the photo so that part or all of the photo starts to become muddier and melt together.
Photo by K.Hurley
Make it glow. One amazing effect is to decrease the opacity of your picture so that light can travel through objects. This creates the illusion that objects are actually glowing, which can feel like you’ve captured some amazing magic being performed.
Photo by Shock264
Fade it away. It’s easy to fade colors in Photoshop so that it seems like a picture was taken years ago, even if you got the shot that morning. This not only allows you to create some instant and unique “antique” pictures; by fading, you soften what’s going on in the image, too.
Photo by Samantha-Nightsky
Draw focus with layers. Blurring is only one part of the equation. What if you only want some parts of your picture to appear soft and out of focus? That’s where layers come in. You can choose a specific part or object in the photo and put it on a separate layer than everything else so that changes won’t affect it. For example, you could blur out the background, but keep a person in focus – or create a “ghost” effect by doing the opposite!