How to Create a Surreal Self-Portrait That Shows You Holding Yourself

Here’s a step-by-step tutorial on how to create a photograph of you holding yourself up. I hope it will give you a good idea of how I create this type of image so that you can create a similar image yourself! Obviously, this is not the only way to create this type of image, but it is the way I have found most believable, as the connection between the two subjects actually occurs in real life. Enjoy!

For a composite image of one holding oneself, three images are key to the final product. They include (1) the original pose (me pretending like I’m holding myself, for a base to build off of), (2) the pant shadow piece to composite and (3) the hand/arm connection (me being held up by my friend).

The hand/arm connection is the most important part, as, even more than the shadows, it creates the connection between the duplicated subjects. To create the image the way I do, you’ll have to have someone helping you, and it’ll also be helpful to be wearing the same outfit/shirt.

This will make the image easier to manipulate, as parts can be composited from both bodies/sets of clothes.

To start the process, I simply “quick mask” the piece in which I am being held by my friend with a soft brush around the area, (as to contain surrounding area so that it will blend easier into the image) invert the selection, and drag it on to the base image of me posing as though I’m holding myself.

I add a temporary curves adjustment layer so that I can detail-erase the parts of the image I do not want.

I usually leave parts of the body/sky around the back and head, and erase the rest of the cutout right along the curves of the fabric in the body. I use a combination of soft and hard brushes to achieve a more blended look.

From here, I composite the shadow on my pants from the image of me holding my friend up (shadow from the left side, right leg, gets composited to the other leg). I use the transform and warp tools to spread the shadow across my pant legs more realistically.

It also helps to mess around with the opacity of the shadow being composited, because not all shadows are the same – some soft, some hard, and they always dissipate from the area that is closest to the body.

Think of the way a gradient works – it’s the same idea: dark in the middle, and lighter as it moves away from the middle.

At this point, the image of you holding yourself up should look pretty good – aside from some major details that are easy to miss. This seems to be where images like this fail – many people forget that details like pants, arms, feet, hands, and others get masked over, erased out, and blended in while creating heavily-composited images like this.

The solution, of course, is to add these detail back in. Check your image for signs of over-masking and areas erased out, and then, piece by piece, add them back in. This is what will make the image top-notch and believable. Watch out for overlapping shadows or shadows that spill from the body onto the back ground behind the subject – this is a huge thing to watch out for because it’s easy to notice.

Also, look out for the relative lightness and contrast of each composited piece of the body, and make sure they match. For this image, the feet of the subject that was being “held” and it’s surrounding area didn’t match the rest of the road, so I had to use a curves layer to bring up the brightness, and then dodge and burn selectively until I could get it correctly matched.

The rest is up to you – I decided to expand the frame using the Brenizer Method, and composite in some clouds to make the image darker.

This is just a crash course on how I create this type of image. My hope is that PetaPixel’s readers can use it to create an even better image than this one. I can’t wait to see what you guys produce. Happy shooting (and compositing, masking, etc)! ;)

P.S. Special thanks to my bud Justin for helping out with this, and also for everyone else who helped in creating the other ones that unfortunately didn’t work out, including Joey, Sam, Alex, and Brian!

About the author: David Talley is a 19-year-old fine art photographer based in La Verne, California. His surreal self-portraits have been widely published and praised around the web. Visit his website here.

  • Me

    Easier way: use your twin

  • Me too


  • Mansgame

    It was bad enough when only girls were doing self portraits.

  • wickerprints

    Sexist troll. This guy has more talent in his shutter finger than you have in your entire body.

  • ltrotta

    I would like to thank this guy for the tips. It’s nice that he’s willing to share his knowledge and encourage others to create a better image. It’s not easy doing self-portraits and I think by doing that makes you a better photographer.

  • FlaPapiChulo904

    I did something similar when I cut my hair off. I had my daughter stand behind me as if cutting my hair. Then after I cut my hair off I sat her down and pretended to cut hers. Merged the two photos together to give the impression that I’m cutting my own hair. The resulting image is what you see as my default photo.

  • Mike Beckett

    Seeing is believing, I guess the percentage of ‘true’ / ‘non-played with’ images on the internet is likely to be on a downwards curve. Imagination &/or perception management seem to be more important to the internet world, than showing reality as it truly is…

  • Stan

    This is an interesting tutorial but I’m going to get downvoted for the following…

    Am I the only one who doesn’t quite like Talley’s style? To be honest, the surreal portraits are repetitive and lack substance (square aspect ratio, very little depth of field, center figure most likely interacting with other instances of said figure). I’m going to agree that’s a consistent style and can be useful for a monograph. However…

    Surrealist art is supposed to have some kind of symbolism behind it. Something “a little off” that invokes thought and pictures in your mind, and not just a sense of “Oh wow, that’s not possible in the real world.” There are a few shots that wowed me but when I saw the rest of them they seem boring because I can’t seem to find the story or symbolism behind them.

  • Rachel Kate

    That’s the cool thing about art. It’s subjective. Not everyone likes the same style of music either.

  • bob cooley

    I think you are putting too high of an expectation on this. They are fairly interesting images, the technique he’s exhibited is quite good, and he’s only 19; so for someone in the beginning of their career, his work is quite good (take a look at the link to his other pieces provided in the article).

    I remember when I was starting out almost 30 years ago, I experimented a ton- and came up with a lot of techniques (though I was bound by the darkroom at the time), sometimes the results were fantastic, and often much rougher than Tally’s execution here.

    If this were a widely published (not just the web) commercial photographer, then yeah, 100% of the execution might not be there yet, but he’s showing a lot of innovation and technical prowess for someone so young that will serve him well in the career/journey he has to come…

    Nice work David – keep it up!

  • Stan

    Thanks Bob. You make some very good points.

  • bob cooley

    I made a comment below, but I’ll add this to the mix – I know there will be some out there who will say “Well, if this isn’t a top photographer with perfect technique, why is it being posted here?”

    Something that is all too unfortunate in the culture of artists (and especially in photography) is the tendency to hide our ‘secrets’ and techniques.

    No two image-makers are going to create the same images, even using the same tools and techniques (even trying to exactly copy a technique you have learned from someone else is likely to result in imagery that is your own, because your own personal style will influence the technical aspects of the technique).

    I don’t know David, but its a philosophy I have in common w/ him – Photography has given a lot to me in the last 27 years, and I’m happy to share anything I’ve learned along the way.

    So kudos to David for sharing the things he’s learning on his journey through photography.

  • maria

    too cool…thank you!

  • Nik

    This is not photography. This is digital art.

  • bob cooley

    Don’t be a troll and try to start an off-subject fight. there’s already a recent article to contribute to on that topic.

  • Alfredo Gayou

    sometime artists make images without symbolism behind, and the spectators invent some crazy meanings. Could be either way, art is subjective to even talk about :P

  • Frank Pavone


  • Joey Duncan

    I see your point but this is not one of those things. There is no trickery here in this photo, just an idea being executed. Nothing here that people didn’t try 50 years ago using lighting and doubles….