Practical magic: exploring mythical lighting and ethereal photography

Fantasy portrait expert Rosie Hardy shares her top tips for creating stunning fairytale imagery.
A woman with long blonde hair wearing a red gown sits in a castle window on a misty day. Taken by Rosie Hardy.

Cascading ball gowns, whimsical archways and bountiful flowers are the hallmarks of Rosie Hardy's ethereal images. But behind every photograph you'll also find a story – either a delicately woven narrative revealed within the elements of the image, or a carefully chosen accompanying quote which sets the work in a new light.

"I've always been really drawn to human stories," says Rosie. The creative portrait photographer began her journey online documenting her experience of alopecia as a teenager and grappling with discovering her identity without leaning on her appearance. "I became very interested in what other people were feeling, human psychology and behaviour. I'm always drawn to that emotional aspect in my work and in other people's. That's why I'm so drawn to portraits."

From her creative self-portraiture to her wedding photography and commercial projects, Rosie's portraiture has a striking, otherworldly aesthetic. "The work that I am doing is definitely evolving but I'm still trying to achieve the same style – the fantasy, surreal, fairytale work that I've always done," she says.

Here, she shares her top 10 tips for enthusiasts wanting to explore this magical field.

1. Capture appealing bokeh

A woman with long blonde hair wearing an elaborate white brocade dress leans against a stone pillar in a forest, resting her head on one arm. Taken by Rosie Hardy.

The cool tones and muted colours here set an ethereal tone as a model poses in the forest. Rosie often shoots on an 85mm lens, which is perfect for a "magical, creamy bokeh", separating the subject from the background, and for softening skin tones. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM lens at 1/640 sec, f/2.2 and ISO 250. © Rosie Hardy

A portrait of a seated woman in a strapless grey gown with a crown of orange flowers in her long red hair. Behind her is a plant covered in the same orange flowers. Taken by Rosie Hardy.

"Exploring humanity through any art form is a really wonderful thing to do," says creative portrait photographer Rosie Hardy, whose images have seen her develop a following of more than 180,000 on social media. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 85mm F1.2L USM lens at 1/1600 sec, f/1.2 and ISO 100. © Rosie Hardy

Playing with bokeh can help conjure up a magical atmosphere, particularly when using a large aperture and small f-number to create a shallow depth of field which softens the background.

"Bokeh is very dreamy," says Rosie. "If I was shooting somewhere where I really wanted to show the location, then I would shoot with a narrower aperture to show the environment. But if I wanted to focus on a dress, then I would veer towards taking out the background and bringing all the focus onto the model."

2. Shoot backlit for a dreamy aesthetic

"Shooting in the shade, with light filtering through trees and backlighting, is a really great way to create soft, flattering, mystical lighting if you don't have any lighting kit," says Rosie. By placing the light source behind the subject, you can create halo or rim effects and soft images which feel intimate. "To me, that creates less chaos in the picture and it makes it a lot more like a fairytale."

Pairing her Canon EOS R5 or Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with natural light forms the basis of her whimsical photography. "I love natural lighting, and I think if you can master it, as a beginner, it will set you up as a photographer," she adds.

3. Explore props and costumes

A woman in a flowing pink dress sits on a sumptuous sofa leaning against the arm, with flowers piled up around the side. By Rosie Hardy.

Rosie teams homemade props with ornate dresses to create a whimsical look. "Renting things is another really good option for beginners, especially if you're at university and you have any kind of theatre department," she says. Taken on a Canon EOS R5 with a Canon RF 35mm F1.8 MACRO IS STM lens. © Rosie Hardy

A woman wearing a blue dress appears to crawl through the broken screen of a giant smartphone standing unaided in a field. Taken by Rosie Hardy.

Rosie often uses props in her portraits – many of which she makes herself and then enhances further in post-production, such as this giant smartphone, which is actually a broken mirror with the frame of a phone added digitally. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM lens at 1/640 sec, f/4.5 and ISO 100. © Rosie Hardy

Rosie's photography often employs joyful props and her signature ball gowns, bringing otherworldly scenes to life through handmade elements which she further customises in post-production. "Sets, props and costumes are worth exploring," she says. "They are what set me apart."

To keep costs down, she recommends scouring online auctions and local second-hand sellers for bargains, renting from prop warehouses and costume hire shops, or even making your own props – as she did with one of her favourite pictures showing her crawling through a giant phone. "I just took a mirror out of a frame, crawled through it, and then edited a picture of my phone onto that frame," she says. "I cut out pieces of cardboard in the shape of notification hearts and painted them with nail varnish because I didn't have paint available at the time."

4. Play with soft lighting

Flattering lighting plays a big role in creating a gentle aesthetic. "Diffused, soft lighting which doesn't have harsh shadows softens the skin," says Rosie.

Although she tries to choose her locations based on what the lighting offers, sometimes you need to manipulate natural light and there are plenty of accessible ways to do so. "If you were taking a headshot portrait in the sun, you could hang a sheet to diffuse the light a bit," she says. "If I were to use a reflector, I'd probably go for a gold reflector over a colder silver to warm up the skin tone."

5. Get creative in post-processing

A model in a feathery white dress looks at the camera, while fake snow falls down on her

Editing software gives you the opportunity to shift colours and soften images to increase the dream-like atmosphere. "Being able to edit also helps your work look a lot higher budget than it might have been," says Rosie, who often augments her props and set design in the edit, from compositing to designing expert surreal worlds.

Canon's Digital Photo Professional (DPP) software is an ideal starting tool, she says. "DPP has been really good for me because it's a way to both process my RAW files to get them to their absolute best quality, and also go through the pictures and see them in a really useful format." The software can also be used to adjust elements like white balance, saturation and basic curves. "If I wanted to warm up or cool down a picture before exporting it, that's the best software to do it with as it keeps the integrity of the file together," she adds.

6. Build a colour palette

Ethereal photos often fall into a soft, muted colour palette filled with pastel and cool tones. "Colours have a huge impact on the overall image," says Rosie. "As a viewer, I tend to be put off by pictures that have too many different colours, unless that's the specific theme. I am drawn towards pictures that have an overall tone to them."

Rosie prefers simplicity and balance when it comes to colour. "If you go through my social channels or website, you'll see every picture has an overall tone or two colours," she continues. "When I am shooting, I'm either trying to find out what my two colours are going to be, or how I can edit that picture later to make it really cohesive as a shot."

7. Explore different locations

Photographer Rosie Hardy stands in front of a lake using a camera to take a photograph of a small electric light she is holding in her other hand.

Heading to the countryside can provide many fantastical backdrops to your portraits, such as this dreamlike lake at dusk.

A portrait of a woman wearing a flowing pink gown and fairy wings. She is seated on a crescent moon in a forest setting with smoke billowing all around her. Taken by Rosie Hardy.

The cool tones and muted colours here set an ethereal tone as a model poses in the forest. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM lens at 1/1000 sec, f/2.2 and ISO 125. © Rosie Hardy

When you think of mythical images, the location often takes centre stage. Rosie and her models often pose amid striking architecture or dense forests to help give an ethereal atmosphere to the photos. "I'm drawn to abandoned places, castles, and any kind of archway," she says. "Starting off in places which are publicly available, such as parks, forests and big open reservoirs and lakes is a really nice way to get used to shooting in public without the pressure of people watching you or getting into trouble for not having the correct permissions."

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8. Choose the right lens

"As a portrait photographer, I don't want to distort the people in my pictures," says Rosie. "Shooting on a super wide angle would warp the face a bit so I stay away from them for portraiture."

Her go-to lenses are the Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM, the Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM and the Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM. All three lenses offer wide apertures for soft focus while retaining realistic proportions and detail. Her preferred prime lenses offer her another advantage too. "I'm also thinking about interacting with the people in front of me," says Rosie. "If I was using a longer lens, I wouldn't be able to interact very well with my client because I'd be shouting from far away."

Other lens options for these types of images include the Canon RF 35mm F1.8 MACRO IS STM, the Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM and the Canon RF 85mm F2 MACRO IS STM.

9. Use longer exposure times

Contrary to conventional opinion, Rosie likes to overexpose her pictures. "I know that will make a lot of people shudder at the idea of losing detail and having overblown highlights, but I find it just gives that almost film look when you overexpose a little," she says.

Using longer exposure times can also create a sense of motion in imagery, particularly when applied to moving elements like water or clouds. Rosie has increasingly been experimenting with artificial intelligence (AI) in her edits, and it comes in handy when playing with exposure. "Now if I have, for example, an overexposed part of a white dress, I can just circle that area and type 'add detail' into the prompt and it will analyse the rest of the dress and add the same detail, which blows my mind."

10. Form a narrative

A portrait of a young woman with freckled features, bright blue eyes and long blonde hair. She is looking directly at the camera and is surrounded by pink flowers. Taken by Rosie Hardy.

Bringing narrative elements into your imagery, along with costumes and sets, can enhance their mythical dimensions – and impact. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 85mm F1.2L USM at 1/1000 sec, f/2 and ISO 250. © Rosie Hardy

Stories sit at the heart of Rosie's work, elevating them far beyond regular portraits, and she encourages enthusiasts to bring narrative elements into their imagery. "A lot of people think the ability to tell stories is innate, but I think you can learn it," says Rosie. "I don't think there should be shame in being inspired by other people. You just have to be respectful in how you interpret that inspiration. I recommend deconstructing the imagery that you like, and then trying those elements out yourself in a different way."

She suggests looking within for inspiration too. Some of her most powerful work came from processing grief at the death of someone close to her through photography.

"Ultimately, what you really should be aiming to do is to tell your own story, be inspired by your emotions – both positive and negative. You should look inward and ask, 'What do I want to say? What's my commentary on being alive?'"

For more inspiration and advice from photographers, check out Rosie's creative editing videos and the rest of the Canon Europe Learning Series playlist on YouTube.

Written by Lucy Fulford

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