Drawing By John Thatch / April 23, 2017 Share 230 Tweet Pin 5 Photo manipulation can make anything real. Now that you no longer have to be a darkroom chemical wizard to create literally whatever you can think of, anyone can produce stunning pieces of art. With an increasing pool of stock photos available for little money, you don’t even really need to be a great photographer. The tools are virtually everyone’s.Still, most of what comes out of this technological free-for-all is either a bunch of clever advertisements, or a rehash of the same tired themes. Count yourself lucky if you find quality photo manipulation without having to slog through endless fairies and half-nude pixies with unicorns. And surrealism can be fun, but at times a little obvious for the medium.Lucky for you, here are 40 amazing photo manipulations that defy convention and stretch the imagination. Most of these artists have huge catalogues, so be sure to check out the ones who are doing the things you love.1. Christophe GilbertChristophe Gilbert’s “People” photos take mundane moments and twist them into something more disconcerting. This image’s eerie woman as (and in) a bathtub contains itself, eschewing eroticism for something more interior and less simple to explain.2. Christophe GilbertOften his subjects are given a light touch, just enough for reality to shed away. This image’s face paint and washed out color give it an intentionally overworked look that brings it to life.3. Ionuţ Caraş Though “animals where they shouldn’t be” is a common theme in the photo manipulation scene, it doesn’t make it any less fun when it’s done well. Here in “Pretending to Fit in Any Life,” the rhinoceros makes a grand descent through ruins of a fantasy city.4. Ionuţ Caraş Ionuţ Caraş’s “Counting the Dust” uses color to make a peaceful, lounging cow into something that appears violent and strange. Add in a parrot and a dust storm, and somehow it all comes together.5. Erik Johansson Erik Johansson’s “Imminent” at first seems to represent the precariousness with which our lives hang in the balance—things out of control hovering over us. But then a closer look reveals another sphere in the distance, making the threat more ubiquitous and interesting.6. Erik Johansson. “Expecting Winter” works so well because the stitched-on landscape and the snowy world in the background blend absolutely seamlessly. That is, except for the giant seam.7. Erik JohanssonIn “Soundscapes,” the phonograph may seem a little obvious—the photo manipulation world has an odd obsession with the late 19th century—but the sound waves as landscape and reflection does enormous work. Sometimes cleverness can go far.8. Jan OliehoekJan Oliehoek’s animal hybrid is certainly not singular—many photo artists love to blur reality and crossbreed strange beasts. But come on—how can you not love this adorable zebra frog?9. Jan OliehoekPrecariousness is another theme here—particularly because the manipulated world is allowed to be as visually unstable as our perceptions. This image looks like a wonderful place to visit, and that little ladder ties it all together.10. Mariano VillalbaIf you ignore the wings here, the stubborn Trojan-esque horse will surely delight. Photorealistic myths, stories, and fairy tales allow photo manipulations to fluidly cross media in ways traditional photos struggle to.11. Gabriel NardelliZen by Gabriel NardelliGabriel Nardelli’s “zen” uses humor to great effect. While not masterful in its image alteration, this totally-not-at-peace meditation is easy to relate to.12. Sarah DeRemer Sarah DeRemer’s “Animal Foods” are exactly what they sound like. Whether an interesting appeal to vegetarianism or just a clever mash up, these have garnered a lot of attention for their playfulness.13. Sarah DeRemer Her Surreal Explorations series, animals shift even further, becoming both the means of travel and the destination themselves. Living landscapes fit the surrealist motifs well without just rehashing what was done last century.14. Alberto Seveso Alberto Seveso’s “Woman Souvenir” adds through subtraction. The dripping and erased lines build layers like strips of muscle, making the title unsettling.15. Elnaz Abedi Floating or hovering women appear a lot in photo manipulation, but something about the simplicity of Elnaz Abedi’s image makes it more magical. The softness of the light and the mundane forest creates remarkable realism.16. Magdalena Russocka Magdalena Russocka’s floating woman separates itself from other similar shots for two reasons. There’s the clarity of the water, which makes it hard to tell what was in the original shot. And then there’s the troubling, subtle scratches on the ice far above.17. Mrs. WhiteThe tongue-in-cheek humor of the title (“Pioneers in Aviation”) makes this amazing shot equal parts scary and funny. Mrs. White—the German photographer whose pseudonym appears to be their preferred moniker—blurs the old and the new, the comic and the disturbing.18. Mrs. WhiteI’ll admit I’m a sucker for hairless cats, but Mrs. White’s odd sense of humor shines in this one as well. Though many of the artist’s other photos remain dark or strange, this use of the medium and its absurdity works fantastically.19. Erik AlmasErik Almas’s contrasting tree, compositing photo and CGI, makes each part equally real and unreal. A simple concept in a busy photo that’s fun to look at closely.20. Leszek BujnowskiPosting on deviantart as “alshain4,” Leszek Bujnowski takes the vintage trope to a whole new level. With heavy vignette and barely-there colors, these images ooze with tone and style.21. Leszek BujnowskiMany of alshain4’s images are merely clusters of buildings against surreal skies. You’d think it would need more than that, but the familiar and unfamiliar balance each other so well.22. Evan LawrenceProof that great photo manipulation does not require a very heavy hand, Evan Lawrence, an Indonesian artist with a unique style, works here in erasure and clone-stamping. With a title drawing from that empty, meaningless designer text, he takes away the timelessness of a photo in such an interesting way.23. Evan LawrenceIn “Red Velvet,” two children stand on a floating dock, and a red door sits neatly on the horizon. The two-way symmetry makes those simple pieces pop, sharply defying that “rule of thirds” photo students often have pounded into them.24. Norvz AustriaNorva Austria’s “The Observer” does sci-fi to the extreme, with a planet-sized subject ripped far from realism. The abundance of moons in the clouds and the rod that composes some kind of crown helps make exploring this world even more fun.25. Norvz Austria“The Bridge II” screams of magic in detail remaining in the koi. Photo manipulating works best when the difference between the altered shot and the new one is blurred into something better than real.26. Lukasz WiktorzakLukasz Wiktorzak has composited a fantastic landscape in “The Subsidence.” Rather than going far into the impossible, sometimes man-made nature is just strange enough to be unsettling.27. Lukasz WiktorzakIt’s hard to tell precisely what is happening in this swamp scene, but the details are what makes it spectacular—the boatsman’s hat, the piles of moss, the casualness of the moment.28. Darryl HansI love the way Darryl Hans’s “Dreamland” looks, at first glance, only mildly altered. There’s a tendency for digital artists to hide in the darkness, but this tiny villa proudly shows the artists’ skill.29. Ahmed Fares“Phobia” works so well because it doesn’t invoke fear but rather the physical powerlessness associated with it. Also, that’s a white and red alligator with a skateboard wheel wedged in its mouth—it’s hard to argue with that level of awesome.30. Ahmed FaresThe staging in “Forrest Girl” (that spelling was the artist’s choice) is impeccable. The dress outshines even the foxes, and her expression is perfect.31. Karim GalalKarim Galal’s “Autumn” is another excellent example of the wonder of simplicity. The title does a lot of work—the very dead-looking tree seems to be fooling no one.32. Anka Zhuravleva Anka Zhuravleva almost doesn’t fit this list—so much of the mastery in her photographs are in her own makeup and staging. But that doesn’t make them less bizarre. The face of the subject in “Snowing” burns a lasting impression.33. Anka Zhuravleva To an even greater degree here, Zhuravleva manipulates with choices during, instead of post, production. The colors of the dress and blanket in “Stair Romance” are paired with incredible skill.34. Michael Klimzak Good sci-fi makes the familiar feel unfamiliar. Michaeł Klimzak’s landscape with its lone astronaut does this well.35. Michaeł KlimzakBetween the distance of the titular “last ship” in “Last Ship Departed II,” and the stark transition above the cloudline, the artist achieved immense world-building in a single image that many novelists can’t achieve in an entire text.36. Alina SliwinskaWith only the washed out grass and a frightening wound for color, Alina Sliwinksa’s “Red Dinner” tells a vivid story with very little information. That complacent expression contrasts the violent gash, leading to a lot of (good) questions.37. Michał Karcz Michał Karcz’s “Canaveral Doom” paints an alternative history with a climate change warning during the shuttle era. The image deftly melds the advancement of space travel and the immobility of leaders to act on the problem here on Earth.38. Helga Sable Helga Sable’s “Russia” captures an chilling, unknowable landscape. The tiny orange light should be welcoming, but with great color choices, it’s foreboding instead.39. Jamshed JurabaevThis untitled matte painting looks like a single photograph of a particularly photogenic river bend. But in reality, it’s digitally imagined scenery from the artist Jamshed Jurabaev that was covered with layers of actual photographs to create this breathtaking composite.40. Karim Fakhoury Karim Fakhoury’s blending of old and not-yet-new of a Halong Bay-type scene is full of surprises. The motion blur of the bird on the boat, way the light and reflections meld with the lantern—“New Era” truly stuns.Which one was your favorite?