TEDSalon London Fall 2011

Erik Johansson: Impossible photography

Filmed:

Erik Johansson creates realistic photos of impossible scenes -- capturing ideas, not moments. In this witty how-to, the Photoshop wizard describes the principles he uses to make these fantastical scenarios come to life, while keeping them visually plausible.

- Photographer and retoucher
Photographer Erik Johansson creates impossible but photorealistic images that capture an idea, not a moment. Full bio

I'm here to share my photography.
00:15
Or is it photography?
00:19
Because, of course, this is a photograph
00:22
that you can't take with your camera.
00:24
Yet, my interest in photography started
00:26
as I got my first digital camera
00:28
at the age of 15.
00:30
It mixed with my earlier passion for drawing,
00:33
but it was a bit different,
00:35
because using the camera,
00:37
the process was in the planning instead.
00:39
And when you take a photograph with a camera,
00:42
the process ends when you press the trigger.
00:45
So to me it felt like photography was more about
00:49
being at the right place and the right time.
00:51
I felt like anyone could do that.
00:54
So I wanted to create something different,
00:57
something where the process starts
01:00
when you press the trigger.
01:02
Photos like this:
01:05
construction going on along a busy road.
01:07
But it has an unexpected twist.
01:09
And despite that,
01:12
it retains a level of realism.
01:14
Or photos like these --
01:17
both dark and colorful,
01:20
but all with a common goal
01:23
of retaining the level of realism.
01:25
When I say realism,
01:27
I mean photo-realism.
01:29
Because, of course,
01:31
it's not something you can capture really,
01:33
but I always want it to look like it could have been captured somehow
01:36
as a photograph.
01:39
Photos where you will need a brief moment to think
01:41
to figure out the trick.
01:44
So it's more about capturing an idea
01:46
than about capturing a moment really.
01:48
But what's the trick
01:51
that makes it look realistic?
01:53
Is it something about the details
01:55
or the colors?
01:57
Is it something about the light?
01:59
What creates the illusion?
02:02
Sometimes the perspective is the illusion.
02:06
But in the end, it comes down to how we interpret the world
02:09
and how it can be realized on a two-dimensional surface.
02:12
It's not really what is realistic,
02:15
it's what we think looks realistic really.
02:17
So I think the basics
02:21
are quite simple.
02:23
I just see it as a puzzle of reality
02:25
where you can take different pieces of reality and put it together
02:28
to create alternate reality.
02:31
And let me show you a simple example.
02:34
Here we have three perfectly imaginable physical objects,
02:37
something we all can relate to living in a three-dimensional world.
02:41
But combined in a certain way,
02:44
they can create something that still looks three-dimensional,
02:47
like it could exist.
02:51
But at the same time, we know it can't.
02:53
So we trick our brains,
02:56
because our brain simply doesn't accept the fact
02:58
that it doesn't really make sense.
03:00
And I see the same process
03:02
with combining photographs.
03:05
It's just really about combining different realities.
03:08
So the things that make a photograph look realistic,
03:12
I think it's the things that we don't even think about,
03:16
the things all around us in our daily lives.
03:19
But when combining photographs,
03:23
this is really important to consider,
03:25
because otherwise it just looks wrong somehow.
03:27
So I would like to say that there are three simple rules to follow
03:31
to achieve a realistic result.
03:34
As you can see, these images aren't really special.
03:37
But combined, they can create something like this.
03:40
So the first rule is that photos combined
03:47
should have the same perspective.
03:49
Secondly, photos combined
03:51
should have the same type of light.
03:53
And these two images both fulfill these two requirements --
03:56
shot at the same height and in the same type of light.
03:59
The third one is about making it impossible to distinguish
04:03
where the different images begin and end
04:06
by making it seamless.
04:09
Make it impossible to say
04:12
how the image actually was composed.
04:14
So by matching color, contrast and brightness
04:16
in the borders between the different images,
04:20
adding photographic defects
04:22
like depth of field,
04:24
desaturated colors and noise,
04:26
we erase the borders between the different images
04:29
and make it look like one single image,
04:31
despite the fact that one image
04:34
can contain hundreds of layers basically.
04:36
So here's another example.
04:40
(Laughter)
04:43
One might think that this is just an image of a landscape
04:45
and the lower part is what's manipulated.
04:48
But this image is actually entirely composed
04:51
of photographs from different locations.
04:54
I personally think that it's easier to actually create a place
04:57
than to find a place,
05:00
because then you don't need to compromise
05:02
with the ideas in your head.
05:04
But it does require a lot of planning.
05:06
And getting this idea during winter,
05:09
I knew that I had several months to plan it,
05:11
to find the different locations
05:13
for the pieces of the puzzle basically.
05:15
So for example,
05:18
the fish was captured on a fishing trip.
05:20
The shores are from a different location.
05:23
The underwater part was captured in a stone pit.
05:25
And yeah, I even turned the house on top of the island red
05:28
to make it look more Swedish.
05:31
So to achieve a realistic result,
05:34
I think it comes down to planning.
05:36
It always starts with a sketch, an idea.
05:39
Then it's about combining the different photographs.
05:43
And here every piece is very well planned.
05:46
And if you do a good job capturing the photos,
05:49
the result can be quite beautiful
05:52
and also quite realistic.
05:54
So all the tools are out there,
05:58
and the only thing that limits us
06:02
is our imagination.
06:05
Thank you.
06:09
(Applause)
06:11

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About the Speaker:

Erik Johansson - Photographer and retoucher
Photographer Erik Johansson creates impossible but photorealistic images that capture an idea, not a moment.

Why you should listen

Erik Johansson is a self-taught photograher who learned how to retouch photos to make impossible and extraordinary images. Growing up with a grandmother who painted and a penchant for escaping into the other worlds of video games, he naturally blended the two into a technique using computers to generate images that couldn't be captured by a camera.