Pareidolia: Mystery or Photo Opportunity

Have you ever played look for shapes in the clouds or seen faces where there are none? This phenomenon has a name: pareidolia and it is more common than you imagine.

Today I will explain what it is, why it occurs and, in addition to leaving you with a few example photos, I will tell you about famous pareidolias and I will give you some tips for photographing this phenomenon.

What is pareidolia? (Meaning)

Pareidolia is a psychological phenomenon that causes a vague and imprecise stimulus to be misperceived as a recognizable form. Pareidolias can also be auditory.
Some examples: seeing faces on objects, discovering familiar shapes in the clouds, or hearing animal sounds with the howl of the wind.

What is the psychological explanation of pareidolia?

There are several reasons or theories that explain why we can see faces on objects or any other recognizable shape.

The first has to do with our predisposition to facial recognition. Studies carried out with babies show that, from a very early age, we have a predisposition to observe faces before other objects, something that seems to have to do with our survival and with an adaptive capacity.

In fact we are able to go beyond the recognition of a face, we are able to assign a personality, intention or emotion.

This explanation is behind the pareidolias of faces, but it would not explain why seeing a dragon in a cloud, for example.

This fact is explained, however, because our brain is prepared to simplify the environment. The amount of stimuli is such around us that the mind needs its survival mechanisms . The different laws of perception of Gestalt theory deal with this topic.

The Gestalt affirms, among other things and within the law of good form or law of pregnancy, that there is a tendency of perception to adopt the simplest forms possible. Within this law there are other particular laws, such as the law of proximity, closure, continuity or similarity that would explain quite well the reason for pareidolia.

It is also related to the expectations of each one. This is why someone is able to see, for example, the Virgin Mary in a sandwich or Jesus Christ in the flames of Notre Dame.

Examples of pareidolia photos

Here are a few examples of pareidolia photos to fill you with inspiration and to show that you can find them in the most unexpected places:

You can also take a look on Pinterestl for the word “pareidolia”.

Some famous cases of pareidolia

Probably, one of the famous pareidolias that will most ring a bell, at least in Spain, is that of the faces of Bélmez. In 1971, in a town in Jaén, some faces appeared on the kitchen floor of María Gómez Cámara. These were visited by thousands of people and gave parapsychologists much to talk about.

The face of Mars is a face on the red planet that captured the attention of the media and the world of astronomy. The most recent images of the Mars Express probe make it clear that it is just a mound that resembles a face with the shadows, clearing up all doubt and confirming that it is just one more pareidolia.

And what about the famous elephant rock in Iceland? Did you know her? Impressive, right?


Another of the famous pareidolias is that of diabolical money . It happened in 1954 in Canada, although it was later discovered that it was not accidental. On the Canadian 5 dollar bills featuring Queen Elizabeth, a demon could be seen in her hair. Behind this story is a mint worker, an Irishman who belonged to the IRA and who intentionally dyed his hair to look like an evil figure to whom the devil was whispering in his ear. A rather subliminal message that got them to withdraw the entire series from circulation and reissue said (for some happy ) banknotes.

Finally, let’s talk about orchids. Maybe the baby orchid or the monkey orchid are familiar to you. They are familiar flowers, one because it looks like a baby in a basket, and another because it looks uncannily like the face of a monkey. You can see the monkey in this photo:


How to take pareidolia photos

All these explanations and examples have been to get to the crux of the matter, to what interests us: the photographic theme.

As you have seen, the pareidolias are very striking photographically, so I propose a small exercise, turn on your camera and go look for them, inside and/or outside the house. Some tips for taking photos of pareidolias:

  1. Pay close attention to your surroundings, observation is key to detect them.
  2. It must be interpreted well at a glance, if you have to explain it, it is not a good option.
  3. You can use the camera or the smartphone, although if you are going to photograph with your mobile, these tips will be a great help.
  4. Do not limit yourself to faces, they are the easiest and most recognizable, but there is life beyond the pareidolias of faces.
  1. Homogeneous lighting is better, unless the pareidolia is formed precisely by the play of light and shadow.
  2. All the parts must be well focused, medium apertures or photographing the pareidolia in parallel are two possible solutions.
  3. Do not be afraid to move or change the angle of the shot, a small change in position may give you a magnificent pareidolia.
  4. We are going to focus on pareidolia, but that does not mean that you should not try to find an attractive composition, that this is a photography blog 😉 .
  5. You can also tell a story, it’s not about documentary photography in which you can’t intervene, don’t cut yourself off and add a creative point. Let out the artist inside you.
  6. Where to find pareidolias? As I was saying, the important thing is to pay close attention to the environment because they can be anywhere. That said, it is common to see them in: smoke, clouds, shadows, foam, facades, plugs, taps, back and front of cars, rocks and mountains, knots in wood, tree trunks, tea or coffee grounds , water splashes, etc. And if your thing is to photograph with a drone, you will surely find a lot of pareidolias from the air.