What do ghosts, goblins, and little princesses have in common? They come out after dark. You know, when it's hard to get good pictures of them.
Halloween presents a lot of problems for photographers, because by the time all the action starts to happen that magic hour we love so much has already come and gone. But if you're like every other camera-lugging mom, dad or hobbyist in search of a great shot, you don't want to pass up a great night like Halloween just because the light isn't right. There are still plenty of things you can do to get some great Halloween shots, and here's a list to get you started.
Start shooting a few days early
If you have kids, don't pass up any opportunities to photograph them in their costumes, because next year they're going to want to be a whole different kind of ghoul. Most regions have harvest festivals, corn mazes, hay rides and pumpkin patch carnivals up to a few weeks in advance of Halloween, and many of these events invite kids to come in costume. The setting in these places is great and are can't really be easily duplicated at home or even in a decor-crazy neighbor's yard--hay bales, scarecrows, giant pumpkins and haunted barns are just a few of the seasonal props you'll find at these kinds of events. And what's more, Halloween events are generally held during the day or in the late afternoon, when you'll have the opportunity to get some well-lit shots to compliment those tricky shots you'll be taking on the big night itself.
Don't neglect the preparations, and go out a little early
Chances are, your children (or friends) will be getting ready for the festivities before darkness sets in, so use this time to get some shots of them trying on their hats, checking out their reflections in the mirror, or just hamming around with friends and siblings. This may be your best opportunity to get Halloween photos in good light, so don't pass it up. Have your costumed subjects act the part for the camera--ask your little Harry Potter to cast a spell with his battery-powered wand, and see if you can get your werewolf to growl and lunge at you. And while you're shooting a few posed shots, don't forget to zoom in. Made-up faces look particularly cool at close range, and if you fill your frame you won't neglect little details like the whiskers on a lion's face or the sharp teeth of a vampire. You can also focus on other details, like sparkly shoes or witchy fingers. Now zoom out and get a shot of the entire costume, from head to toe.
Your kids probably aren't going to complain if you start trick-or-treating a little earlier, when the light is still good. Try timing it so you're starting the rounds about a half hour before sunset. The light will be warm and autumny, and the shadows will be longer and softer. At this time of day you can still get a few great shots at higher shutter speeds, before you run out of natural light and have to start using some tricks.
Find creative ways to light your image
(and avoid direct flash like a zombie apocalypse)
Photos taken with direct flash are generally undesirable, and this is especially true for Halloween shots. Remember that you want your photos to look creepy and mysterious, and a harsh, bright flash with its washed out results definitely the opposite of creepy and mysterious. But you may be able to get away with using a colored diffuser--red, orange or purple may actually add to that Halloween mood. When going completely sans-flash, turn up your ISO and open up your aperture, and think about where you might find other sources of light. Shining a flashlight on a face from below (ala spooky campfire stories) can make creepy shadows and give you some interesting shots. Depending on how close to full dark it is, a collection of glow sticks may also give you enough light to work with, and fast-moving glow sticks combined with a slower shutter speed can produce some fun results, too. Don't neglect that little bit of fading sky, either, if you position your subject so the sky is directly behind her, you can get some great silhouette images. Shooting from slightly below will get more of that gray sky in the shot, and will also make your little zombie look like she's towering over you.
Use your tripod
You can get some great wide shots of the neighborhood or an evening Halloween party if you use a tripod. Try setting up in a heavily decorated area, and then use a slow shutter speed to capture the lights. Trick-or-treaters or party-goers will show up as ghostly blurs, which will add to the Halloween flavor of the image.
A tripod can also help you take more controlled "ghostly" portraits. Set up your camera up with a long shutter speed (say 8 seconds). Have your subject stand or sit as still as possible for five seconds, and then move slowly out of the frame. This will make him or her look transparent, and will also create a ghostly looking motion blur in the final image.
You'll also need your tripod for those compulsory jack-o-lantern images--a long exposure will give you an image of a glowing pumpkin rather than just blackness with glowing eye, nose and mouth holes. Here's another tip for capturing your jack-o-lanterns--put three candles inside instead of just one. The extra light will make it a lot easier for you to capture the whole pumpkin. Of course if you happen to be home at the right time, a jack-o-lantern will also look great if photographed about 20 minutes after sunset, when the light from the sky is about as bright as the glow from the pumpkin.
Don't seek perfection
Your subject doesn't have to look perfect in her Halloween costume. Masks that don't fit just right, hats that droop over faces and outfits that are a size too big are all part of the charm of Halloween. Try emphasizing or focusing on the imperfections rather than trying to fix them. The same goes for attitude. Let's say you just put your 2-year-old in a bat costume, and he hates it. Don't wait around for him to stop crying. Take some photos of the moment, because a bat in tears may be just as (or more) endearing than one who's smiling. But then take the costume off that poor kid and see if you can get him to pose with the pumpkins instead.
And speaking of imperfection, don't forget about that chocolate-smeared aftermath. When you get home you can get a fun picture of your child sorting through (or hoarding) his loot, or wearing it all over his face.
Most importantly, of course, don't be afraid to go overboard with your pictures. In tricky lighting situations, you will probably get many more bad shots than good ones, but the good ones that you do get are likely to be gems. So click, click, click. Halloween only happens once a year and trick-or-treating isn't something you can go back and do over, unless you really want to annoy your neighbors.
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