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18 Optical Illusion Photos That Aren’t What They Seem

There's more to these optical illusion photos than you can see at first glance!

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PARIS, FRANCE - MAY 19: A giant artwork by French street artist and photographer Jean Rene Aka JR Is displayed at Esplanade Des Droits De L'homme, at Trocadero on May 19, 2021 in Paris, France.
Edward Berthelot/Getty Images

These optical illusion photos will make you do a double-take

You definitely know about the phenomenon of optical illusions: pictures that turn into something else when you squint, or images that have two meanings at once. However, optical illusion photos are another thing entirely. These are real-life photographs of optical illusions that require a second look! Some even go viral on the Internet. Do you remember the white and gold (or was it blue and black?) dress, or the pink and white / teal and gray Nike shoe? Debates raged, but it all comes down to a trick of the eye, lighting, or perspective. Can you figure out what these photographs are really showing you? Or will you be fooled by the illusion?

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Old Residential building in Hong Kong that looks like a motherboard
Ratnakorn Piyasirisorost/Getty Images

Computer motherboard?

Or simply jam-packed apartment buildings from an unusual angle? Viewed straight up from the street level, this old residential building on Hong Kong island becomes a canyon of glass and concrete, jagged with balconies and window-mounted AC units. Lose yourself in the details of this optical illusion photo—just try not to lose your footing.

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North America, USA, Utah, Texas Flat Road, Mule Canyon Ruins, House of Fire that looks like flames
Education Images/Getty Images

Four alarm fire?

Or geological magic? The rising sun lights up the fiery sandstone walls of Utah’s Mule Canyon, a real-life optical illusion above these Anasazi ruins. Visitors have named the site House on Fire, and it’s easy to see why. These dwellings are estimated to be more than 800 years old. Take a look inside, and you’ll get a sense of the human history of the place: Smoke stains on the roof tell the story of evenings in, long ago.

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Deep blue iceberg floating near entrance to Holkham Bay on summer evening that looks like blue clay
Paul Souders/Getty Images

Blue clay?

Or a big, cold reason to turn your boat around? This stunning blue piece of Arctic ice has broken off a glacier and drifted down into the North Sea, off the coast of England to pose for this optical illusion photo. With up to 90 percent of an iceberg’s mass hidden underwater, it’s best to take a wide berth. One of the largest bergs ever reported was more than 12,000 square miles—that’s larger than Belgium!

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An aerial view of a section of Grand Prismatic Spring, Yellowstone National Park that looks like lava on another planet
Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

Lava on another planet?

Or an amazing natural optical illusion phenomenon on ours? At 370 feet wide, Yellowstone’s Grand Prismatic Spring is the largest hot spring in America, piping nearly 200-degree water out of the earth at the clear blue center and cooling it to about 131°F in those reddish-brown rivulets. The cooler the water, the greater the variety of light-reflecting bacteria that live there, creating a stunning rainbow effect explorer Ferdinand Hayden called “a privilege and a blessing” to behold.

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Aerial view of Mauritius island panorama and famous Le Morne Brabant mountain, beautiful blue lagoon and underwater waterfall
Myroslava Bozhko/Shutterstock

Underwater waterfall?

Or just a natural phenomenon in the super-clear water surrounding Mauritius Island? This eye-bending optical illusion photo is actually just sand being pushed off an underwater shelf in the Indian Ocean, called the Mascarene Plateau.

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Traelanipa cliff is seen rising over the ocean next to lake Sorvagsvatn in the Faroe Islands
Sky Cinema/Shutterstock

Penthouse pool?

Or coastal lake? This optical illusion photo of Lake Sørvágsvatn in the Faroe Islands (between Iceland and Norway) appears as though it sits hundreds of feet above the ocean. In reality, the lake only sits about 90 feet above the sea! A waterfall at one end tumbles dramatically into the ocean, but when capturing this amazing view from the right angle the lake seems like a natural infinity pool, hovering above the North Sea.

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Optical Illusion Of Man Walking On Road In City
Elaine Collins/EyeEm/Getty Images

Road to nowhere?

Or clever mural? At first glance, this person looks like he’s heading straight down the road towards a city of towering skyscrapers… until you notice that it’s nighttime at his destination! This is one of those perspective tricks that can really fool the eye.

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Cherry Grove Pier that looks like it goes on forever
Zack Wilson/500px/Getty Images

Infinity pier?

Or just a long one? The Cherry Grove Pier juts out 985 feet into the water off North Myrtle Beach in South Carolina, but this optical illusion photo makes it look like it goes on forever. The pier was built in the 1950s but was lengthened in 1999 after surviving Hurricane Floyd. Now, it’s a popular fishing and tourist attraction.  

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Two zebras standing next to each other such that it looks like one zebra with two heads
Cherry Grove Pier/Getty Images

Two-headed zebra?

Or just two zebras standing shoulder-to-shoulder? These stripy pals disappear into one another when they stand side-by-side—except for the extra legs. Did you know that zebras are thought to have black coats with white stripes, rather than the other way around? That’s because the black fur gets its color from melanin, while the white fur is white because of an absence of melanin. Therefore, black is considered to be the zebra’s default color. They also have black skin underneath their fur!

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Optical illusion. This building in Paris, close to the Church of the Sacred Earth, seems to be skew, while in fact it is the green lawn that goes up hill.
Busà Photography/Getty Images

Sinking building?

Or dastardly optical illusion photo? This beautiful building in Paris seems to be sinking, but it’s a trick: It’s actually the green lawn that goes uphill. Just tilt the picture to line up the building straight, and you’ll see the French pigeons in the foreground making their way up a grassy green slope. Mon Dieu!

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Optical illusion, eroded holes in the rock, Little Wild Horse Canyon, Slot Canyon, San Rafael Swell, Utah, USA
Christian Heinrich/Getty Images

Cheese fondue?

Or strange erosion in a slot canyon in Utah? These holes in the rock of Little Wild Horse Canyon look a lot like delicious melting Swiss cheese, but this funny optical illusion is just a product of wind, water, and time. Fondue, on the other hand, is a product of the 1970s, cheese, and heat. Is anyone else hungry now?

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Optical Illusion Of Couple Walking On Shoelaces At Salt Flat
Kirsten Boos/EyeEm/Getty Images

Tightrope walkers in the snow?

Or another of the mind-bending optical illusion photos you can take at the Bolivian salt flats? The world’s largest salt flats, Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia, are so incredibly flat and level for miles and miles that the horizon line seems to go on forever. Without any depth perception, the eye is tricked into falling for amazing optical illusion photos like this one!

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Two cows standing across from each other making it look like there is two cows with one conjoined head.
Rafael Granados/EyeEm/Getty Images

Headless cow?

Or two curious bovines? There probably isn’t a zombie cow problem in the mountains of Northern Spain, but if there were, it might look a little like this. Watch out, brown cow! Or maybe it’s one cow head, two bodies? Either way, we’ll leave them to it.

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Low Angle View Of Building that is incredibly wide but almost no depth Against Sky
Fabienne Company/EyeEm/Getty Images

Film set building facade?

Or just a low angle making this slim building look like a front? If you’re familiar with the Flatiron Building in Manhattan, New York City, then you know how an oddly shaped building (in this case, a weird, triangular one) can appear flat or fake from different angles. These cute apartments in Marseille, France, look like they’re one-room deep, but it’s just the angle!

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Underside of a stone arch bridge with reflections and sunlight in the Manzanares river at dusk, Madrid, Spain, Europe
By Eve Livesey/Getty Images

Stairs to Atlantis?

Or a perfectly mirrored bridge? The staggered construction of this beautiful bridge over the Manzanares River in Madrid, Spain, makes its reflection look like stairs leading up from the still water.

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Looking up wooden stairwell creating an optical illusion
photo by iain mcnally/Getty Images

Witch’s tower?

Or wooden stairwell? Viewed from the ground floor, the wooden planks of this staircase and the landing roofs create an optical illusion photo that messes with your eyes, seeming to go up and up. How many stories can you see?

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Optical Illusion Of Bird Flying Over Woman Against Clear Sky where the bird looks gigantic
Daisy De Los Angeles/EyeEm/Getty Images

World’s biggest bird?

Or is he simply flying in the foreground? Relative to the size of the woman in this optical illusion photo, the bird passing over her head appears enormous. But he’s probably just closer to the camera than she is. We hope.

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Human hand holding a sink plug, appearing to be pulled from a lake at Ladybower reservoir spillway.
Alexander W Helin/Getty Images

Giant’s bathtub?

Or a trick of perspective at Scotland’s Ladybower Reservoir? This clever picture might be the ultimate in optical illusion photos. A human hand holding a plug over the reservoir spillway, which appears to be draining fast. It does look like a lovely place for a dip though if a bit cold.

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Chloë Nannestad
Chloë writes about quirky facts, trivia and humor for Reader's Digest. She loves to put her research skills to use to discover the meaning behind everyday objects or the right way to interpret a pet’s behavior—and as an enthusiastic pub-quiz team member, her favorite topic to write about is trivia. Chloë has been covering lifestyle topics for Reader's Digest since 2020 and has also had work published in Mashed and Tasting Table. When she's not writing, you can find her knitting, jogging or adding another houseplant to the jungle in her apartment.