Shhhhh! Did you hear that? Is it the moans of the undead? The groans of trapped souls? Or is it just you looking in disappointment at last year's Halloween photos?
[ Top image Halloween by Flickr user Mitchell Askelson]
There's no question that Halloween is one of the best photo opportunities of the year. How often do we get to capture images of our friends and family dressed up in crazy costumes, getting into character, and having fun in elaborately decorated, sometimes-scary places like haunted houses, zombie walks and spooky neighborhoods? But the scary truth about Halloween is that it is a dark holiday. And I don't just mean that the theme is dark (although it tends to be), I mean that it’s literally dark. All the good stuff happens after the sun goes down, when it's difficult or challenging to take photographs. Keep reading for some ideas on how to capture great photos even after the sun has gone down.
Don’t forget those pre-dusk photos
So there are really a couple of ways that you can approach Halloween photography. The first is to do most of your Halloween photography in good light. I've discussed how to do this at length in some of my previous years’ Halloween tips, and I still think it’s a good idea to start shooting well before the sun goes down, because you're going to want to have a selection of clear, sharp (in other words perfect) images of the event. But what if you also want to capture some of those spooky after-dark images? How can you do that effectively?
Now, if you have kids you’ve almost certainly already tried to do this—most trick-or-treating begins before dusk but ends in the in full darkness. If you've noticed that your before-dusk photos are infinitely superior to the ones you shot after dark, you need a new strategy.
Trick or Treat - # 31 of 113 in 2013 "Halloween" by Flickr user Au Kirk
Again, don't wait until darkness falls, because most of what we're going to be talking about will require experimentation and trial and error, and you're likely to come away with fewer great looking photographs shot after dark than you will other great looking photographs shot before dark. Once you have that collection of sharp, well-exposed images, you can start really having fun with after-dark techniques.
First of all, forget relying on your flash. Now, there are some scenarios when your flash is going to work very well, and we’ll get to those, but generally speaking don't just pop up that onboard flash and keep on shooting just as you did before the sun went down.
There are couple of reasons why using pop-up flash is generally a bad idea. The primary one is this: your subjects just don't look great when lit by that onboard flash. Onboard flash is direct, which means it has a tendency to wash out your subjects, create ugly black shadows, and cause red-eye. Now I know what you're thinking, red-eye and washed out faces kind of go with Halloween, don't they? Well I suppose so—you could tell people that the photos are of a little pale, red-eyed undead vampire, but this only works if your subject is actually dressed as a pale, red-eyed undead vampire. For all of those princesses, Minions, robots etc., not so much. And let's face it, even if your subject is a vampire, you really want photos that portray him as being cute/scary and not just scary.
Jack-o-lanterns and things that don’t move
Let's start with some simple stuff. The easiest subjects to capture after dark are subjects that don't move. One great example of this is the jack-o'-lantern sitting on your front porch. Jack-o'-lanterns make a great subjects because they are challenging, but they also don't have a tendency to go anywhere (if they do you'd probably better think about getting to the end of that covered bridge, and fast). Like all after-dark photos, it's a good idea to have a tripod or at the very least something else that's very stable that you can put your camera on for the length of the exposure. A cable or remote release is not necessary because you can also use your camera’s self-timer function, but I like to recommend getting one because they're inexpensive and because they don't add additional seconds to your photo shoot—that is, you can get a lot more done if you don't have to wait 10 seconds between every exposure.
You're going to want to capture the pumpkin as well as the carving. What I mean by that is you don't want an image that looks like this one:
This Year's Jack by Flickr user Dead Air
You want an image that looks like this one:
Happy halloween by Flickr user kern.justin
The difference here is that in the first photograph the only thing the photographer was able to capture was the light inside of the pumpkin, shining through the carved features. Looking at that image, we know it's a jack-o'-lantern, but it would be much more effective if we could see the shape of the pumpkin as well as the carved face. So how do you accomplish that after the sun has gone down? The answer is two-fold: first, you don't shoot in full darkness. If there’s still a little light in the sky, that’s a great time to shoot—if not, try adding a secondary light source such as your porch light. If your porch light is too bright, you could try turning on some interior lights (that is, if the interior lights shine through the windows down onto the porch).
Another option is to use a less-bright light inside the pumpkin itself—instead of a couple of bright candles, choose a much dimmer electric tea light. That’s going to create an image with less dynamic range, so you’ll be able to use a longer shutter speed to capture the shape of the pumpkin without fear that the features will completely burn out. And go for a flame or a light that doesn't flicker. Flickering candlelight may give you inconsistent images, as it tends it tends to get brighter or darker on its own terms. A light with a consistent burn will work a lot better for this photo.
You're probably not going to get great results in auto mode, so if you're not used to shooting in manual now is a good time to step outside of your comfort zone. I strongly recommend bracketing your photos so that you'll have the best chance of getting a shot that's exactly the way you've envisioned it. Start with a photo shot at your meter’s recommended settings. Now take a photo that's a half stop overexposed, and another that’s a full stop overexposed. Check the results on your camera’s screen and keep changing the exposure until you have an image that looks the way you want it to. Go for plenty of shadow in the shot and a bit more than a suggestion of a pumpkin shape, as in the example above.
If you have to, err on the side of a little too bright versus a little too dark. You can always add shadow in post-processing—this is done with the levels tool, by dragging the shadows slider over to the right until you have increased the amount of shadow in the photo, but not so much that you use lose that pumpkin shape.
You can use these same techniques when photographing any creepy Halloween decorations—just make sure there is a little bit of ambient light in the room or add some light of your own—a flashlight works great for this type of photography because it’s a single light source, which can create a really dramatic look, especially if it’s used to illuminate an object from the side.
The undead and other things that move
Now what about living subjects (or undead subjects, as the case may be). With things that move you need a different approach. When there's still a little bit of light in the sky, you might be able to get away with simply turning up your ISO. Your ISO is what makes your camera more sensitive to light, so the higher the ISO, the longer you'll be able to keep shooting. Don't be afraid to turn up your ISO as high as 3200, 6400 or even higher—it’s OK to get a little bit of noise in your photo, because that’s actually going to support the mood. Noise in a photograph has a kind of gritty and photojournalistic look (think frightened journalist snapping a few photos of the zombie apocalypse before running away in terror).
Bat Boy. by Flickr user AMERICANVIRUS
High ISOs can only go so far with living subjects, however. You can increase the amount of time after sunset that you can continue to take photographs by also using a lens with a high maximum aperture. A good lens for this purpose is a 50mm prime—this is a relatively inexpensive lens with a typical maximum available aperture of around f/1.8.
Combined with a high ISO, a 50mm prime lens will allow you to continue taking photos for quite a while after sunset, but it's some point even that high ISO and aperture combination are not going to be enough. When this moment comes, there are a few things you can do to increase your odds of capturing a great photo even in darkness. First, wait until your trick-or-treaters are standing on a well-lit porch, and seize that opportunity to shoot. Second, consider using an off-camera flash. Now one of the problems with flash is that you can completely change the ambience or mood of a scene if you apply too much of it, so I recommend not using your flash at maximum strength. Instead, try half power or even one quarter power, just enough to illuminate your subject but not so much that you illuminate too much of the background. Remember that a subject who appears to be emerging from the darkness can look pretty scary, so that should be the look you’re going for. Try holding the flash to one side, so that the light is not direct. And if the light seems too harsh in the photos, use a diffuser, or reduce the power even more.
As with those pumpkin or décor shots, you can also use a single direct light source such as a flashlight to partially illuminate your subject and some of his environment. Light that comes from below can give your subject a really creepy appearance, which can be fun—so definitely play around with light and direction, and keep checking your screen until you hone in on a look that you really like. For fun, you could also try diffusing your flash or flashlight with a red or orange gel just to keep with the Halloween theme—anything lit by a red light is going to have a creepy feel to it. And if your kids are carrying glow sticks, you could even set up a long exposure shot (you’ll need a tripod for this) and try outlining each one of them with a glow stick for a unique take on a ghostly photo.
Tricks at night by Flickr user Praveen M Tomy
Finally, try using rear curtain sync for a scary effect—on a point-and-shoot camera you can just use “night” mode. When you use rear curtain sync, your camera selects a slower shutter speed so that the background is well-exposed, but it also fires the flash at the end of the exposure so that your subject will be sharp. A side effect of this technique is that you’ll often get a ghostly looking trail behind your subject—and that’s perfect for a Halloween photo! If your camera doesn't have scene modes just check your manual to see how to turn on rear curtain sync. Select a shutter speed in the 1/15 to 1/30 at the range and then alter the settings as needed according to what your photos look like on screen. Use a tripod for these images if you can—that way you'll get a tack sharp background along with a sharp subject and that ghostly trail that looks so cool.
You can also do away with the flash altogether, meter the scene and take slow shutter speed photographs of your subjects. As long as you’re using a tripod, you’ll get a sharp environment with ghostly blurs moving through it—again, a wonderful addition to your collection of Halloween shots.
DSC_7111.jpg by Flickr user oz_lang
Like I said, don't neglect the daylight and dusk photos because those are likely to be your most successful or consistent shots of the evening. Save those after-dark photos for experimenting—not all of them are going to be as cool as you'd hoped, and it's likely that even most of them will be somewhat disappointing. But you're almost certain to get one or two gems that look nothing like the photos you've captured in years gone by. So have fun, don't be afraid to experiment and don't be afraid to fail—you'll always have those wonderful photos from early in the evening to fall back on, and to complement those awesome few photos you'll almost certainly get after the sun goes down.
- Don’t forget those pre-dusk photos
- After sunset
- Jack-o-lanterns and things that don’t move
- Use a tripod
- Bracket your shots
- The undead and other things that move
- High ISO and aperture
- Off camera flash and flashlights
- Rear curtain sync
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