How To Photograph A Ghost :: Digital Photo Secrets

How To Photograph A Ghost

by David Peterson 4 comments

Confession: I have never photographed a real ghost. So this tutorial is not going to help you stake out a haunted house or a cemetery, or advise you on which expensive piece of equipment you'll need to buy in order to detect subtle changes in the inter-dimensional paranormal space-time continuum other-side.

The good news is, fake ghosts are a lot more agreeable than real ones. You don't have to worry that your fake ghost is going to go floating off through a wall, leaving nothing but a puddle of ecto-plasmic goo behind for you to slip in. Fake ghosts do what you tell them to do, because they're fake. That makes photographing them infinitely more enjoyable, and a lot less scary.

[ Top image Ghost bride by Flickr user jinterwas]

There are a lot of different techniques for faking a ghost photo. Remember that a "ghost" doesn't have to appear on camera as an identifiable, person-shaped specter. A floating orb, a streak of light or just a vaguely human-shaped shadow can also create a scary effect. So it follows that there are a lot of different ways you can create ghost photos, and therefore there really isn't any one specific camera you will need to do it.

The See-Through Ghost

Let's start with the classic transparent, person-shaped ghost. With a little knowledge and a couple of pieces of equipment you probably already own, this is a pretty easy photo to create.

  • Nikon D40
  • 1600
  • f/5.6
  • 15
  • 18.3 mm

Titania is in the garden by Flickr user Sundust_L

The first thing you'll need is a camera that allows you to adjust the shutter speed. Some point and shoots will let you do this, but a DSLR is probably going to be the best choice. You will also need a tripod and either a cable/remote release or a built-in self-timer setting.
The next thing you need is a person. Remember that your ghost photo is going to be a lot more convincing if you have your person dress in period costume or, at the very least, in an outfit that does not scream "I am a modern person pretending to be a ghost!" If your model is wearing an Angry Birds T-shirt, for example, that's going to be a whole lot less scary than a model who is wearing a renaissance-era dress.

  • Canon EOS 5D
  • 500
  • f/20.0
  • 0.6
  • 32 mm

symphony rising by Flickr user stumayhew

Now you need to find a setting. Two things are important here: spookiness and light. Once again, modern stuff in modern rooms does not inspire fear in the average person. So don't choose your office with its brand new computer, complete library of programming books and family photos all over the wall. I know, your great Uncle Frank was kind of scary, but his portrait hanging in your very modern office is still going to detract from the spookiness of your photo. Instead, choose an outdoor setting such as a wooded area or a field beside a run-down old building, or a room that is kind of naturally spooky such as a wine cellar or attic.

Now make sure the light is right. You will need dim or fading light (eek!), not just because it's spookier but also because it allows you to take a long exposure. If you don't want to go anywhere near that spooky cemetery at nightfall (and who could blame you) you can also use a neutral density filter to help cut back on the existing light.

Now choose shutter priority mode and set the exposure for at least 10 seconds. You may need to use a very small aperture as well - try f/22 for a start - and adjust your ISO to a lower setting in order to get the shutter speed slow enough to take the photo.

Set up the shot. Have your model stand or sit wherever you want the ghost to appear. Release the shutter and then have her keep still for a count of five. Then ask her to exit the scene quickly, either left stage or right. Wait until the camera completes the shot (should be another five seconds). Because your 'ghost' is in the frame for only half of the exposure, they will look see-through.

Check your results and then adjust your shutter speed to be a little longer or shorter, depending on how you want the image to look. You can also ask your model to leave the frame sooner, or to stay a little longer. Try having her walk slowly through the frame, then quickly. Experiment until you have a photo that makes you want to go hide under your bed.

Orbs, streaks and other non-person-shaped ghosts

Cameras are really good at photographing things that the human eye can't see. That's why people have been using photos as "proof" of ghostly apparitions for as long as there have been cameras. Sometimes, you just can't explain that strange anomaly in your photo. That's where the fun comes in.

  • Kodak DX4530 Zoom
  • 141
  • 2.91
  • 1/32
  • 8 mm

Snow? Or Spirit Orbs? by Flickr user Mattman4698

Try spraying a little water into the air a few inches in front of your camera, then take a flash photo. You'll see little floating orbs that could be mistaken for ghosts. You can achieve the same effect with snow or a handful of dust, but take care - dust and water, as you know, are both bad for your camera.

  • Bencini Koroll 120
  • 400
  • 80 mm

dance of the microghosts by Flickr user mugley

You can also try deliberately smudging your lens, and then positioning the smudge over your model or in a location where you think a ghost might look good. Holding a piece of celophane over the lens can give a similar effect. Smoke can look spooky, too, when paired with a flash - try blowing out a match right in front of your lens before you take the shot, or use a lit cigarette (but seriously, don't smoke, it's bad for you). And light streaks of any kind can be spooky, too, especially when combined with a scary setting.

When all else fails, Photoshop

If you have Photoshop skills, it's pretty easy to combine two photos to create a ghostly image. Start with a shot of that spooky forest or wine cellar. Now place your model against a plain, black backdrop and snap a picture. Open both files up in Photoshop.

Select your model so that she's separated from the background. You don't need to go for perfection here because you're going to be adding effects to her once you drop her into that other scene. Now copy her and paste her into the spooky setting. Resize her so she fits in with her background.

    Untitled by Flickr user Missy Vix™

    Adjust the transparency on the layer containing your model. You want her to look ghostly, so you should be able to see some of the setting through your model. What you do next is up to you. Adding some blur will make her seem very spooky indeed; so will smudging around her outline. Desaturating both images will also add a more convincing quality to them (ghosts are rarely thought of as being colorful). Adding a filter such as "glowing edges" or "solarize" can also create creepy effects. Not every technique is going to work for every image, so experiment until you have something you like.


    What now? Well, that's up to you. If you have a mean streak, pass the photo around to your friends and family and see if you can scare them. Stick them in Halloween cards or blow them up and use them for spooky Halloween decor. The possibilities are endless. Just promise me that you won't distribute them to the neighborhood kids in their trick-or-treat baskets, because that really would be mean.

    [Also checkout these outstandingly spooky images]

    Most people think this post is Awesome. What do you think?


    1. Bob says:

      I like your tips, Informative and very helpful. Thank You for your caring to aid others.

    2. Hari Rastogi says:

      This is unusual. Love your inputs on photography. I really like this "Ghost" concept.
      I just started my tuition on photography. And you seem to be my "ghostly" tutor.
      Thanks a lot man!

    3. Nikkei Rowenhorst says:

      Lots of interesting and helpful information. Thank you!!

    4. Linda Bonskowski says:

      What no replies??? I think this sounds like the most fun yet!!!! I have this 16 year old granddaughter who is quite the prankster and I'm thinking she and her Nana could have a lot of fun with this one! Additionally, she is quite good with a camera!! Much better than me. LOVE this idea!!! Thanks!

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    About David Peterson
    David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.