8 simple photography tricks for capturing soft, dreamy portraits

Chad Verzosa

Soft, dream-like photography can be found all over these days—from the pages of high-fashion publications to the feeds of your favorite Insta-photographer. There is something so mesmerizing about the ethereal world in which they inhabit, that it makes you wonder just how these photos are created.

Photo by Tiko Giorgadze

Capturing portraits in this genre requires a lot of creativity to pull off, but at the same time, what makes it fun is that there aren’t any hard rules to follow.

If you're interested in turning your otherworldly fantasies into tangible works of art, here are eight simple photography tricks that don't require heavy photo-editing—all you need is your camera and your imagination.

01. Choose a shallow depth of field

Photo by Cody Black

Using a shallow depth of field is essential in creating dreamy portraits. Why? Because having a blurry background replicates the same hazy sensation of being in a dream. Apart from that, it also allows you to isolate other visual elements, placing the viewer's focus on your chosen subject.  

Photo by Tiko Giorgadze

Switch your camera to Aperture Priority and choose the widest aperture possible (usually f/1/2 to f/2.8, depending on the lens). Typically, opening up the aperture too wide is a no-no because the shallow depth of field could affect the overall sharpness of the image.

Photo by Bryan Apen

Nevertheless, you can use the narrow focus point to amplify the dream-like effect that you’re after. As long as you make sure your subject's eyes are sharp, then it doesn't matter too much if everything else is slightly hazy. Remember that if you keep everything sharp, you could kill that fairytale illusion you're after.

02. Discover enchanting locations

Finding the perfect location is essential in making people believe they’re in a dream world. You can look for places that people usually associate with dreams, or be creative and build these dreamscapes yourself.

Popular locations for these kinds of portraits include landscapes, theme parks, and old buildings. These places feature a lot of visual elements that you can channel into crafting surreal scenarios.

Photo by Gabriel Matula

For instance, you can use a beautiful landscape filled with trees and overgrown shrubbery to remind people of some long-gone Arcadia. You can also create a playful atmosphere by taking photos at theme parks with plenty of colorful lights and replicas of mythical creatures such as unicorns and dragons. Of course, you can also use old buildings as somber backdrops that transport your viewers to a forgotten place in time.

Photo Jiyad Nassar

If you can't think of any real locations for your portraits, you can create a set in your room or studio, instead. Dreams come from the subconscious, so why not tap into that and turn your visions into reality? You can pretty much do anything that you have in mind. Just avoid props with hard edges and bright colors because these might look too realistic in contrast with the rest of your scene. You want to build a set that is consistently soft and fuzzy—exactly what dreams are made of.   

Photo by Thought Catalog

03. Seek out soft lighting

Soft light is an essential component in creating a dreamy photo. The reason that it's used in most dream sequences in movies is because it makes scenes appear purer and almost heavenly. However, you don’t necessarily need expensive lights in order to illuminate your portraits; all you have to do is wait for the right outdoor conditions.

Photo by George Gvasalia

Believe it or not, it’s best to shoot dreamy portraits when it’s overcast. Since the clouds block the bright sun, they diffuse the light more evenly. This creates an effect similar to a softbox in a studio or the kind of lighting used in movies. On top of that, it also produces low contrast and makes your subject’s skin glow.

However, you don’t have to wait for an overcast day just to achieve the effects you need. All you have to do is use the window as a softbox to disperse the sunlight evenly. Just have your model stand beside it for some studio-quality lighting!

Photo by George Gvasalia

Alternatively, you can ask your subject to stand with their back against a window. Doing so overwhelms them with light and makes them look almost angelic. However, since they're lit from behind, keep in mind that their face will also be in the shadows.

Photo by Zohre Nemati

In this case, you can use the spot meter on your camera (refer to your particular camera’s manual) and point it towards you model’s face to make sure they're not underexposed. Alternatively, you can also use a reflector (or a plain white board) to direct or bounce more light towards them.

04. Illuminate you work with lens flares

Photo by Hunter Newton

Another great way to achieve dreamy effects is by using lens flares. It can be quite challenging to get this technique right at first; simply pointing your lens toward the sun isn’t going to guarantee beautiful flares. However, with the right technique and some practice, you’ll learn to capture them in your photos beautifully.

Photo by Damar Jati Pranandaru

All you have to do is position your lens so that the sun is in the frame and slowly move the camera until concentric circles appear on the screen. Keep adjusting your position until you see the details of your subject's face clearly despite the presence of the flare. Do this with your camera’s live view screen turned on, since using your viewfinder could potentially damage your eye.

Photo by Louis Bourgeois

If you want your sunburst to have well-defined rays, use a small aperture between f/11 to f/22. However, if you’re looking for a more blown-out look, use a wide aperture such as f/1.8 or f/2.8.

Additionally, since your subject is backlit, remember to use a spot meter just like when shooting portraits near windows. You can also use a reflector or whiteboard for extra lighting.

05. Add psychedelic drama with prisms

Photo by Pawel Szvmanski

To make your images look even more dramatic, try using a prism. It's useful in creating kaleidoscopic reflections and refracting light to produce rainbow colors. The effects they create are unpredictable—but that’s what makes them so fun to use.

Photo Dan

All you have to do is hold the prism up in front of your camera, move it around, and try different angles until you see something you like in the frame. It can be difficult to control at times, so you might as well embrace the uncertainty. Just play around with it and let it surprise you with its visual magic.  

Photo Sarah Outeiro

06. Play with long exposures

To add a layer of surrealism to your portraits, try shooting with low shutter speeds. By using long exposure, you can intentionally blur visual elements in your shot to create spellbinding effects.

Photo by Xan Griffin

When playing with long exposures, set up your camera on a tripod, and switch it to Speed Priority Mode. You can start with 1/5th of a second or slower depending on the lighting and the amount of blur you wish to achieve.

Photo by Sarah Moore

After you choose the shutter speed, ask your subject to move any part of their body such as their head or their arms. You can also try playing with lights to create beautiful trails. Have a friend hold a light source and move it around as soon as the shutter opens. Once you're finished taking the photo, you can expect to see long streaks show up in your shot.

Photo by Sam Manns

Remember that if the scene is too bright, you could end up with an overexposed image. Therefore, consider taking photos in a dimly-lit location to get the most out of this effect.

07. Get hazy with freelensing

Photo by Grafixart

Freelensing is a non-traditional way of producing a dreamy atmosphere in your images. It involves taking off the lens of your camera and moving it around to create haze and distortions. This technique relies on bending light to let you redirect the focus point in your frame.

Photo Sarah Diniz Outeiro

To do this, set your camera to Aperture Priority and pick a wide aperture such as f/1.8 or f/2.8. Next, look at the screen and take note of the shutter speed that the camera selected. After that, switch to Manual Mode and choose f/1.8 or f/2.8 for the aperture. Finally, adjust the shutter speed to whatever value the meter gave you while on Aperture Priority.  

Photo by Kilian Baumann

Once you’re done with the settings on Manual Mode, take off the lens and just let it hover on the camera mount ever so slightly. Move it around until your subject is sharp and everything around them is blurry. It’s not an exact science, so feel free to experiment with this technique.

08. Build a connection and sense of intimacy

Dreams are inherently intimate experiences, so your photos should reflect this quality as well. Stay close to your subjects when taking photos so that viewers can almost feel what they’re seeing; allowing them to connect more fully with your subject.

Photo Sarah Diniz Outeiro

Try focusing on your subject’s eyes. They’re often described as the 'windows to the soul' because they affect people on such a psychological level. Take advantage of this form of connection to make your portraits even more potent.

Photo by Xan Griffin

To take beautiful photos of eyes, you first need to look for a catchlight (a.k.a. a light source that makes the eyes sparkle). It can be anything from sunlight in the distance, to a window, or even an external flash unit. Position your subject to where the catchlight is located, then zoom in on their eyes and start taking photos. When the iris is well lit, you should be able to capture beautiful circles that make your subject's eyes look hypnotizing.

Photo by Caju Gomes

Describe to your subject what you want to achieve in the image. Feel free to guide them with their poses and expressions, but when possible, let them express themselves freely. Remember that even though you’re recreating a dream world, capturing genuine emotions are still essential.

Photo by Zohre Nemati

These eight simple tips will not only allow you to flesh out the dreamy concepts that you have in your mind, but also allow you to develop your own techniques and methods that you can carry over into other creative projects.