If you’re looking to master dreamy & ethereal photography techniques and editing, you’re in the right place.
As photographers, we sometimes feel the urge to go beyond realistic images and unleash our creative side.
One way to do that is to create an ethereal atmosphere in our photos.
In this guide, I’ll cover everything you need to know to start creating beautiful ethereal photos, including lighting, camera settings, and post-processing techniques.
So let’s get started.
Table of Contents
What is Ethereal Photography?
Ethereal photography is a style that focuses on capturing photos with a dream-like, elusive, and otherworldly atmosphere.
The term “ethereal” refers to something that is extremely delicate and beautiful that appears from out of this world, and this genre of photography aims to encapsulate these qualities in an image.
Ethereal photos usually have a soft, hazy look, creating a dreamy atmosphere that is achieved with various lighting techniques, including natural and artificial lights.
Another characteristic of such photos is a soft focus often created with a large aperture lens.
When working with natural lighting, weather conditions such as fog, haze, and overcast days are often helpful in achieving such a style.
In many shots, the choice of the model, outfit, and props play an essential role in creating the overall look of the photo.
However, many post-processing techniques, such as the Orton effect, help achieve a soft glow in the pictures. We’ll discuss them in detail in the following sections.
What is an ethereal photoshoot?
An ethereal photoshoot is where you use natural and artificial elements, such as weather conditions or flash, to create a dreamy atmosphere in your photos.
This style is often used in genres like fashion photography, wedding photography, and portrait photography.
In an ethereal photoshoot, the photographer might also play with lighting, clothes, and the expression of the model to achieve a delicate and dreamy mood in the photos.
However, one of the challenges of such photography is not knowing where to look for ideas and how to implement them.
Let’s look at the platforms where you can find inspiration for ethereal photography.
Where to Find Inspiration for an Ethereal Photoshoot
Finding inspiration for ethereal and dreamy photography can be challenging, especially when you’re new to photography.
However, if you know where to look, you can find a treasure of resources.
Let’s look at a few top sources to find inspiration for an ethereal photoshoot.
1. Social Media
Social media platforms like Instagram and Pinterest are among the best places to find references for dreamy photography.
Pinterest is often called a visual search engine, where users have saved thousands of photos on just about everything.
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On the other hand, Instagram is very popular among photographers and can also be a great resource.
2. Art and Literature
No one can beat the creative process of painters and authors when it comes to imagination.
You can browse through the works of master painters such as Gustav Klimt and Edvard Munch or fantasy and magical realism authors such as Haruki Murakami.
Overall, books and art can be a great source of inspiration for ethereal photography.
Cinema can be a great source of inspiration for all kinds of photography. Movies combine storytelling and stunning visuals in each frame that can be reflected well into photography.
Some great films that can be treasure troves of inspiration are The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, The Shape of Water, Alice in Wonderland, Her, Black Swan, etc.
With movies, you not only get visual ideas but also composition and lighting techniques that you can apply to photography as well.
4. Fashion Magazines
Fashion photographers have an approach to photography that’s full of creativity, and they often explore ethereal themes in their photos.
They offer a glimpse into the visual aesthetics of the industry as well as cover creative and conceptual photo shoot ideas.
You can find the work of such photographers in some of the top fashion magazines.
For that reason, magazines can be a great resource when you’re searching for ideas for your next dreamy, ethereal photoshoot.
Nature can offer a lot of inspiration when it comes to ethereal photography.
Watch out for locations that can look dreamy and ethereal in the right weather conditions, such as fog or haze.
Forests, beaches, and mountains can be great places to shoot ethereal photos. However, the time of the day and the time of the year can significantly impact the final result.
10 Ethereal Photography Techniques and Dreamy Photo Ideas
Want to know how to shoot ethereal photos? Here are some tips, techniques, and ideas:
1. Take advantage of the moody weather
If you prefer shooting with natural light, certain weather conditions, such as overcast sky, fog, and haze, can make for a moody atmosphere for photography.
These weather conditions usually offer a soft, diffused light that is the main ingredient for creating dreamy & ethereal photos.
2. Use a shallow depth of field
Depth of field is another crucial factor to consider when creating a dreamy atmosphere in your photos.
A shallow depth of field is when the distance between the nearest focus area and the farthest focus area is very short.
You can achieve it with lenses with a large aperture, such as f/1.4 or f/0.95, etc.
Opening up the aperture results in a soft, blurred background, also known as bokeh, and creates a sense of separation of the subject from the background.
3. Experiment with light diffusion lens filters
Light diffusion filters can be a great way to create a dreamy look in your photos.
They work by creating a soft glow where there are highlights and bright spots.
Most digital cameras render the subjects super-sharp, which is not the look we’re going for when shooting ethereal photos; that’s where filters such as Black Pro Mist and Cine Bloom can help soften the image overall.
4. Use soft light sources
Soft light sources such as octa softbox, deep parabolic umbrella, or a large diffused window are some of the large sources of gentle illumination.
Using one of these light modifiers can be a great starting point for your ethereal photoshoot, as soft lighting is one of the prerequisites for such photos.
However, if you prefer shooting outdoors, you can time your shoot around golden or blue hour for a soft glow in the sky.
Using diffusers is another way to further enhance the outdoor photos.
5. Experiment with a fog machine
Fog machines are one of the most popular ways to create a moody atmosphere for photography and cinema.
These devices release smoke that encompasses a large area quickly and acts like a man-made haze.
Ethereal and dreamy photographers can benefit significantly from a fog machine as it can eliminate the need to rely on weather conditions for such photoshoots.
Colorkey Dazzler, smokeGENIE, and Chauvet Hurricane are some of the popular fog machine models used by pro photographers.
6. Explore double-exposure technique
Most modern cameras come with a built-in double exposure feature that allows you to overlay one photo over another using various blending modes.
With this technique, you can take your ethereal and dreamy images to the next level by combining elements of nature textures with portraits of your subject.
However, if your current camera doesn’t offer a multiple exposure feature, you can achieve a similar look using editing software such as Lightroom and Photoshop.
7. Use colored gels
Get creative with your ethereal and dreamy photography by adding a punch of colors using colored gels.
These are colored filters made of thin plastic, which are placed in front of the light source to change the color of the emitting light.
You can use them in a variety of ways to partially or evenly light your subject or create an atmosphere.
Colored gels allow you to strategically color your images and can be an excellent tool for storytelling.
8. Experiment with exposure blending
Exposure blending involves combining multiple photos of the same scene, each focused on correctly capturing a zone of light- highlights, midtones, and shadows.
These exposures are then exported into post-processing software, blended together, and merged into a single photo with enhanced dynamic range.
However, you can dramatically reduce the contrast in an image and introduce softness with exposure blending, which can work greatly in combination with moody weather or fog machines.
9. Try long exposure and ND filters
Long exposure, along with the use of neutral density filters, is another technique that can add an ethereal mood to your photos.
Shutter speeds longer than 1 second and up to several minutes smooth out all kinds of movement, especially when working around a water body such as a lake, sea, or waterfall.
Neutral Density filters cut the light coming through the lens to allow for a very long exposure time.
10. Use see-through fabrics
There are times when weather conditions aren’t suitable for a dreamy or ethereal shoot, and you might not have a budget for a fog machine.
In such situations, one of the best DIY solutions is to use a see-through cloth such as muslin cloth or stocking on the front of your lens.
Adding such a thin layer of clothing introduces a dreamy softness to the photos. It works best for natural light portraits and conceptual shoots.
How Do I Make My Photos Look Dreamy and Ethereal?
Capturing the dreamy and ethereal aesthetic is not always possible in-camera due to many reasons, including unfavorable lighting conditions, lack of gear, and more.
However, you can achieve that soft and dreamy ‘ethereal’ look in post-processing using a few easy-to-follow steps.
Here are my few post-processing tips and workflow steps to create dreamy photos:
Create softness with Lightroom
With professional editing tools such as Lightroom, getting a soft overall look is quite simple.
Below are a few of the sliders I always adjust when aiming for such an effect:
- Clarity Slider: This slider adds punchiness in details when moved to positive values. However, in our case, a negative value would yield softer details.
- Contrast Slider: Ethereal photos are characterized by an even tone and lighting. Reducing contrast would be helpful when you’re looking for a dreamy effect.
- Dehaze Slider: This slider removes haze from photos; however, when going negative, it can create a haze-like effect in the picture.
- Texture Slider: The positive value on this slider enhances and amplifies the texture in foliage and other areas of detail in a photo. However, reducing it works oppositely and softens the texture.
- Sharpness Slider: When going for an ethereal look, reducing sharpness is a good idea as it would be ideal for the overall mood of the photo.
Play with HSL and Color-Grading panel
When shooting in hard light situations, you may end up with a high color contrast in your images.
That’s where HSL and Color Grading panels can be useful in adjusting the colors.
HSL (Hue, Saturation, Luminance): When it comes to color correction, HSL is the most versatile tool at your disposal. You can make the following adjustments to enhance the dreamy look:
- Luminance Sliders: With this slider, you can control the brightness of specific colors. Reducing luminance for high-contrast colors can further add to the ‘dreaminess.
- Saturation Sliders: Reducing the value of highly-saturated colors makes them less vivid, adding to the ethereal look.
Color Grading panel: This panel allows you to selectively add colors to particular tones in the photos, like midtones, highlights, and shadows.
Subtle color adjustments can give definition to photos. For example, adding a warm tone in highlights can suggest a morning shoot. On the other hand, using blue tones can create a feeling of mystery or tranquility.
Try Gaussian Blur in Photoshop
Gaussian blur is used to create blurriness in the photo, which smudges all the details in a picture.
Even though that is not the effect we’d want for our ethereal images, we can use Gaussian blur with masks and opacity to create the desired effect.
- Start by duplicating the photo layer by using Ctrl+J or Cmd+J
- Apply Gaussian blur by choosing it in the menu Filter >Blur > Gaussian Blur
- Select a desired value in the Gaussian Blur dialog box
- Reduce the opacity to the desired value on the layer with Gaussian Blur applied
- Create a layer mask on the same layer
- Select the brush tool and mask out the areas where the effect is not needed
So, this is how you can add a touch of magic to your photography.
Using these post-processing techniques, you can transform any photo into a dreamy, ethereal work of art.
Who are some Famous Ethereal Photography Artists?
Over the years, ethereal, dreamy photography has gained popularity among photographers of all genres.
Here are some of the famous ethereal photography artists of today.
Taysa Jorge (@taysajorge)
Taysa is a photographer and a visual artist based in the Canary Islands.
She explores the connection between nature and human beings in her work.
Her photos feature various landscapes, including deserts, mountains, and forests, and have a soft, ethereal look.
Inge Uiterwijk (@ingefotografie)
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Inge is a photographer based in the Netherlands who focuses on ethereal and dreamy compositions.
Her photos feature beautiful landscapes and foliage, which she uses creatively to create otherworldly pictures.
She’s creative not just at the photography level but also with the post-processing techniques that shine in her excellent images.
Sotiris Lamprou (@sotblindlamp)
Sotiris is a black-and-white photographer who explores life in his work in a unique way.
His photos revolve around people and nature and are captured in an ethereal, black-and-white tone.
You’ll find dramatic skies, birds, forests, and beaches featured in his work, which is often a combination of natural light photography and creative post-processing.
Thaddaus, also known as hozzography on Insta, is a photographer based in Austria.
He is known for his out-of-focus, dreamy storytelling with his photos.
You’ll find various nature-related themes in his work, featuring fields of flowers, beaches, forests, and animals.
His style involves intentional camera movement and post-processing, resulting in beautiful, almost poetic, and ethereal compositions.
Suji Park (@mooncrystalight)
Suji is a Korean photographer based in the United States who creates dreamy and ethereal portraits featuring various elements of nature, including water bodies, flowers, skies, and more.
Even though her photos have a soft, almost dreamy look, she adds a considerable amount of grain that gives them a unique character.
If you’re new to ethereal photography, this article can serve as your starting point in this world of beautiful and magical photos.
We covered some of the valuable techniques, lighting recommendations, and post-processing tips that would be useful for beginners.
However, there is nothing hard and fast, so make sure you experiment.
Let me know what you think about this guide to ethereal photography in the comments below.