How to Photograph the Zombie Apocalypse :: Digital Photo Secrets

How to Photograph the Zombie Apocalypse

by David Peterson 0 comments

You know it’s true. You are a human being, and that means you love a good zombie apocalypse.

OK, so maybe I exaggerate, maybe not everyone loves zombies. But there's no question that as the Halloween season approaches, ghouls and goblins are on everyone's mind. And for some reason, zombies are at the top of everyone's list of favorite monsters. People love zombies, zombie movies, and seasonal zombie paraphernalia. I even have some friends who had a zombie wedding. So let's have a little fun this month and take some pictures not just of those cute little trick-or-treaters, but of those decidedly less-cute zombies that are going to start wandering the streets in the days to come. Does that sound like a challenge? I hope so!

[ Top image zombie wants flesh by Flickr user digital-dreams]

  • Nikon D90
  • 1000
  • f/8.0
  • 0.033 sec (1/30)
  • 44 mm

Walking Dead Warning by Flickr user r_bowley

How to stage an apocalypse

Hey, did you know that the military sometimes drills for the zombie apocalypse? It's true! Now that doesn't necessarily mean that the military thinks there's going to be a zombie apocalypse, it just means that even soldiers like to have a little fun sometimes. So for this exercise I want you to adopt that same attitude—just because there isn't a zombie apocalypse doesn't mean you can't pretend like there is.

  • Nikon D90
  • 800
  • f/8.0
  • 0.005 sec (1/200)
  • 10.5 mm

Zombie by Flickr user EvanManphis

Taking pictures of the zombie apocalypse is, of course, going to require some creativity—unless you are lucky enough to live in a place where there’s a real zombie apocalypse. If that happens, I hesitate to tell you to leave the safety of your home and go out in the streets with your camera, although I'm pretty sure that's what I would do. Just remember that if you do want to brave the horde, make sure you take steps to protect your camera and your brains.

Of course, if the undead don’t happen to be roaming your neighborhood right now, you're going to have to be creative. First start thinking about how you might be able to convince your viewer that you were on site at the real zombie apocalypse.

Your subject

Now, Hollywood has access to the world’s best makeup artists, costume designers, computer animators and special effects departments. You, on the other hand, are not so lucky (or well-funded). Fortunately, though, it's October. This means that you do have access to the very best costume and makeup department that your local Target or Halloween Super-Store has to offer. Depending on how much time, effort, and money you want to put into this, you can create graphic, horror-movie style portraits or you can take a minimalist approach.

What you do need at bare minimum is a friend or family member who is willing to be your undead subject. You could go all out and purchase a super-scary, super-gory zombie mask for him to wear, but when I'm shooting the zombie apocalypse I prefer my subject to be less obvious (I think it's scarier that way). For the more minimalist approach, start with three different colors of costume makeup. White with a slightly greenish tint will give your zombie that undead look, while blacks or grays will make the eyes and cheekbones appear sunken.

If you're not the sort of person who has much experience with costume makeup (or a desire to learn such things), you can skip the makeup altogether in favor of a trip to your local thrift store. Don’t plan on spending a lot of money because your purchases are as doomed as the undead soul who wears them. Buy some basic clothing—if you want your zombie to be a former businessman-turned-brain-eater, for example, you can just buy a pair of slacks and a collared shirt and tie. When you get home, take some scissors to your new acquisitions—remember that your goal is to make your subject to look like death has been a pretty rough time for him. His clothes need to be tattered, and you also want them to be pretty dirty, so when you're done with the scissors give them a good roll in the dirt.

  • Canon EOS 1100D
  • 100
  • f/11.0
  • 0.003 sec (1/320)
  • 41 mm

Zombie by Flickr user D Simmonds

Your setting

Now that you have your zombie decked out for his photo shoot, you need to find a suitable setting. Let's start with the obvious—if you have an old graveyard in your area, that's always going to be a great place to shoot zombies. Find some particularly character-filled headstones and set up your camera nearby. Have your subject adopt a zombie-like amble—again, I don't like to be too obvious, so outstretched arms and brain-eating mouth ajar is probably going a little too far. Try photographing him from behind, ambling away from the tombstones. Or give your viewer just a suggestion that he’s there—a glimpse through the trees, for example, or an arm entering the frame from somewhere in the distance. Another creepy way to get a zombie photo is to disturb some dirt (though not in the cemetery, please), and snap a photo your zombie from the perspective of the dirt, moving off into the distance. If you want the meaning of your photograph to be a little clearer, you could try the hand-emerging-from-the-dirt approach, or you could zoom in on a pair of battered shoes standing next to a hole in the ground.

  • Canon EOS 5D Mark II
  • 100
  • f/8.0
  • 0.3
  • 135 mm

Shallow Grave by Flickr user jcoterhals

For a spookier photo, try shooting with a slower shutter speed. Remember not to go too slow or your zombie will look more like a ghost—but some slight motion blur will give the image a more surreal quality.

Some special effects techniques

Everyone knows that the zombie apocalypse will lead to abandoned cities and empty streets. But how can you capture that sense of eerie emptiness in the time before the actual zombie apocalypse? You don’t have the power to shut down an entire neighborhood (the way a movie studio can) so again, creativity is the only way you’re going to solve this problem.

Using a technique called “multiplicity”, you can actually simulate those empty streets and then fill them up again with zombies, but you’ll need a few extra pieces of equipment.

First, you’ll need a tripod. You’re going to take two images—one of them with a very long exposure, and one of them with your zombie(s) on set. Between exposures you’ll need to make sure that your camera doesn’t move—that’s what will give you the ability to successfully combine the two exposures.

You will also need a very dark neutral density (ND) filter. Your goal for this image is to achieve a very long shutter speed, that way you can “blur out” any people or vehicles that might move through the frame while you’re taking the picture. You may need an exposure time that’s measured in minutes in order to do this—try one minute to start, and make adjustments depending on your results. During the day, a dark ND filter will allow you to do this—provided you aren’t working at high noon on a sunny day. Remember that the less ambient light there is in the scene the easier it will be to achieve a long shutter speed, so you may need to choose an overcast day. Pick a time later in the day but keep in mind that if there are passing cars, you’ll get light trails once they turn on their headlights. City lights can also detract from that “abandoned streets” feeling, so this is really something you need to be doing in daylight. If you can’t get an exposure long enough to blur out all those passing people, try “stacking” neutral density filters (screwing one over the top of another) until you’ve darkened the scene enough to achieve that long exposure.

  • Nikon D90
  • 100
  • f/22.0
  • 30
  • 10 mm

Just add zombies.Surreal City by Flickr user Bakar_88

An ND exposure time calculator is going to be handy here, too, because you’ll want your next shot to be a lot shorter, yet as close to the same brightness as the first one. So guesswork isn’t going to give you the same results as a calculator will—you want the exposure to be “correct.” Once you’ve captured the first image, bring your zombies into the scene and shoot them doing whatever it is that zombies do. You can take as many shots as you like and combine them all later on, or pick and choose amongst the best ones. But try to bracket all of these shots in increments of 1/3rd stop. Your goal is to get as close to the exposure of the original as possible, which will make it easier to combine the images.

Now it’s time to combine the shots—here’s how to do it in Photoshop Elements.

Open up all the shots and make sure you're in "Expert" mode. Click on the "Photo Bin" icon in the bottom left corner of the screen. Now click on the first shot so that it appears in the main window above. Then, click and drag the second shot and drop it on the master shot in the main window. You have just created a layer over the first image. Make sure you can see the layers palette—if not, choose Window > Layers. Repeat with all the images, until they all show up in that layers palette.

Now you need to create masks. To do that, select the top layer and then click on the circle-in-square icon at the top of the layers palette. Repeat until you have a layer mask for each layer (note that if your first layer is named "Background," you will need to convert it by right clicking on it and then selecting "Layer from Background.")

Choose the paintbrush tool from the tools palette on the left side of the screen, and select "black" as your color. Make sure the top layer mask (the white square) is selected, then carefully paint over your zombie. Your subject will seem to disappear (but don’t worry, we’ll bring him back in the next step).

Keep in mind that because your two exposures are probably not going to be exactly the same, you’ll need to take more care with the edges of your subject than you would if you had two exposures that were exact. That’s because if you cross the outline of your subject you may end up darkening or lightening the scenery behind him, and the result will be a fake looking image. That’s also another reason why it’s important to try matching the exposure as close as you can.

Now press "control i" (or "command i" if you're using a Mac). The subject you just erased will reappear, but so will the subject in the layer below. Now switch to that layer and select that white layer mask again, and repeat by erasing the second subject. Hit "control i" again, and the subject in the third layer should appear, along with the one you just erased. Keep going until all you've completed all the layers. Now go to the little arrow next to the four lines on the top right corner of your layers palette, and select "flatten image." Call your file something creepy, like “brains.” Instant zombie apocalypse!

This is not the only way to achieve weird zombie images, of course, it’s just kind of fun to experiment with special effects—and what better reason than when you’re photographing zombies?

lil zombie by Flickr user derek raugh


Have fun with this and remember, you don’t need to go modern Hollywood to create super-scary zombie images. Try shooting in black and white for an image that looks like an old horror film. You could also try shooting from a distance, misfocusing on your subject or shooting in a high-contrast situation—these techniques will help to obscure your subject somewhat and create a question in your viewer’s mind: is that just a slightly blurry shot of an innocent human? Or is it a zombie headed my way?

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

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

16 minutes
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+.