Cool Optical Illusions That Make You Look Twice

Believe it: These photographs of cool optical illusions and perspective definitely aren't what they seem to be at first.

By Dawn Raffel
Also published in Reader's Digest Magazine January 2014
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    Getty Images

    What is it?

    Getty Images

    ...a field of tulips.

    Spring has clearly sprung in Zuid-Holland, as these vast tulip beds attest. Although the flowers originated in Central Asia, they’re big business—and a major tourist draw—in the Netherlands from April until early May. Some three billion bulbs (red, white, yellow, green, purple, and more­) pop up there each year. But a tulip, like spring, is fleeting; it blooms for only a few weeks.

    Mike Powles/Corbis

    What is it?

    Animal Press

    ...hungry baby birds!

    These newborn skylarks and their mama were snapped in Norfolk, England. The eye-catching pattern of the babies' throats is a key stimulus for the parent to feed the chicks.

    Fyodor Borisov

    What is it?

    Kent Miller

    ...a thrilling close encounter.

    Most people go to the beach to chill, but tourists who flock to Maho Beach on the Caribbean island of St. Maarten go for thrills. Low-flying planes heading for the adjacent airport can actually blow sunbathers into the water (at least that’s what local government signs warn).

    Tommaso Rada/Redux

    What is it?

    Rob Griffith/AP Photo

    ... the "Color Run"

    The latest sporting craze is called the Color Run, also known as the happiest 5K on the planet. Runners don white clothes and are doused in different hues of powder at each kilometer, culminating in a rainbow “finish festival.”

    What is it?

    ... all the rivers in the United States.

    They look like veins, and in a way, they are. Google software engineer Nelson Minar created this digital map showing all the rivers in the United States, along with dry stream and creek beds. The previous close-up shows the Mississippi River in New Orleans. Minar's goal was to demo new technology, "but it's also kind of pretty," he says modestly.

    Joanna Pecha/Getty Images

    What is it?

    Joanna Pecha/Getty Images

    ... car rust.

    Rust by any other name can be beautiful. But when water, air, and steel get together and do their thing on your car door, you might not view it so kindly! Metals corrode in damp conditions, but only iron and iron alloys (like steel) rust. Most people consider rust to be reddish, but it comes in a panoply of hues.

    Joel Sartore/National Geographic Stock

    What is it?

    Frans Lanting/National Geographic Stock

    ... millions of monarch butterflies.

    Every fall, millions of monarch butterflies head south from Canada and the United States to their winter digs in Michoacán, Mexico; here they make strange shapes on the trees in the region's Sierra Chincua preserve. Scientists didn't discover the monarchs' wintering grounds until 1975—and they still don't understand how the winged things know where to go. Sadly, they're in decline, occupying a record low 2.9 acres, down from some 22 acres a decade ago.

    Levi Brown for Reader's Digest

    What is it?

    Levi Brown for Reader's Digest

    ... pencil shavings.

    Some people chew on pencils; others turn them into art. “I saw that I could make long, undulating shavings with a sharpener, and I started gluing them to a surface,” says photographer Levi Brown. “Initially, I was going to make a pattern with them, but they started to take on a life of their own and formed a topography.” Attention, students: Don’t try this at school.

    Barry Makariou

    What is it?

    Barry Makariou

    ... icy cold soda.

    Photographer Barry Makariou mixed different flavors of the fizzy stuff and froze the concoction for a color explosion. The image is delicious, especially when it's 99 degrees in the shade.

    What is it?

    ... a llama's eye.

    If you ever happen to look a llama straight in the eye, you'll see an unusual pupil: a horizontal oval that might be sky blue. The squiggly frills surrounding it are called iridic granules, and they're believed to provide shade in bright sunlight. The close-up on the previous slide was photographed by Suren Manvelyan, who has shot the peepers of creatures from pythons to people.

    What is it?

    ... salt.

    Using a plastic bottle filled with salt, Japanese artist Motoi Yamamoto painstakingly draws massive, lacy labyrinths on museum floors. Salt—symbolizing the transience of life—is used in Japanese funeral rituals. Yamamoto was moved to make his saltscapes in honor of his sister, who died at a young age. After each creation is displayed, the salt is thrown into the ocean.

    What is it?

    ... crayons.

    Inspired by a sale at an office-supply store (five cents a box!), photographer Levi Brown assembled 5,000 crayons, playing with color, depth, and pattern to make a mysterious image: a reminder that beauty and possibility can be found in the simplest objects.

    What is it?

    ... fish traps in water.

    From high above, the fish traps in Kosi Bay, South Africa, form a mysteriously lovely pattern on water rich with algae. Generations of fishermen have worked in the bay—really a series of four interlinking lakes surrounded by a nature preserve. The area is known for biodiversity: In addition to abundant spotted grunter, rock salmon, and bream, it's home to 250 species of birds, plus crocodiles and hippos. Happily, trap fishing is both successful and sustainable.

    What is it?

    ... a man, hiding in plain sight.

    Hint: The shoes are the giveaway. Chinese artist Liu Bolin camouflaged himself for a series of photos called Hiding in the City. They're metaphors for government suppression of art, he says. Other scenes he's painted himself into include the rubble of earthquakes in the countryside and a wall with text from The Communist Manifesto scrawled on it.

    What is it?

    ... a house of worship.

    The Bahá'í House of Worship in New Delhi, India, is known as the Lotus Temple: It's composed of 27 marble "petals" surrounded by nine ponds. Designed by Iranian-born architect Fariborz Sahba (who now lives in Canada), the temple has attracted tens of millions of visitors since opening in 1986. Photographer Nicolas Chorier shot these images from a camera affixed to a remote-controlled kite.

    Your Comments

    • MARIANNEm2

      It’s a scene from the audience watching
      a concert…

    • Guest

      #3 looks like the edge of an oil spill on a wet surface.

    • Cashewnutty

      Rivers streaming down from mountain peaks to the valleys below.

    • MA Var

      a dragon mom’s face kissing her sleeping baby dragon

    • Avatar1st

      i figured out some of them

    • Cookie Dae Krunchcrunch

      wood shreds from sharpened pencils.

    • Rajath Dm

      Bats or some kind of insects

    • betong


    • ianix


    • Mike Newhard

      a cluster of really small sea shells