Are you suffering from the Halloween doldrums? Does the thought of taking yet another series of photographs of your kids trick-or-treating, visiting the same pumpkin patch, and putting up the same old Halloween decorations make you want to crawl back into bed and stay there until Thanksgiving? If so, you are clearly in need of some inspiration. Check out my Halloween shot list for some fun and unique photo ideas.
Kids playing in piles of leaves
The best way to come up with some new approaches for Halloween photography is to consider some of the natural elements that help create a sense of the season. We all know that kids wear costumes on Halloween, but if you're just photographing them standing in front of your plain kitchen door or in your yard, you're not really capturing the entire spirit of the Halloween season. They might as well just be dressed up for a summer party, or just because (as kids like to do).
Autumn and Halloween are closely tied to each other, so why not dress your kids up in those brand-new Halloween costumes and then let them jump around in a pile of leaves? When you do this you're combining that ubiquitous Halloween activity with that ubiquitous autumn activity, and the result is an image that has a very strong sense of the season.
Now I do, of course, want to add that you should be cautious—wet piles of leaves can harbor dirt, sticks and other things that might damage those brand new costumes, so be careful. If you're at all concerned about the longevity of Elsa, Spiderman, or Daryl from the Walking Dead, you might want to micromanage the shoot a little by making sure the leaves are dry and stick-free, or by having your kids wear other costumes that can stand up to a little abuse. Don't risk your $40 Halloween costume investment on a fun photo shoot—there are safer ways to get this picture, too. At the very least, you could have your kids just sit in the leaves, or throw handfuls of leaves at each other. That definitely makes for some fun photos without the added risk of costume damage.
The cool thing about Halloween shops is that they're full of Halloween decorations, they're often creepily lit, and they are just fun place for kids to explore. Most people don't think too much about photographing costume shopping because it's really just the costume-wearing that gets all the attention. But costume shopping is a wonderful part of the Halloween tradition, so don't miss the opportunity to photograph it.
Remember that taking photographs indoors requires higher ISOs and wider apertures, so be prepared. Bring your fastest lens and don't be afraid of ISO 3200 if that's what it takes. A little bit of noise in your image can actually add to the Halloween mood—noise has a kind of gritty appearance to it, so your images could take on the look of a photojournalist who dared to go out with his camera during the zombie apocalypse.
Consider the time of the day before you go shopping—there's going to be some natural light entering the room to help fill in the shadows, so think about how the shop is oriented compared to the sun and plan accordingly. You could also bring along a flash, but try to use it off-camera or bounce it off of a wall or ceiling, especially if it's a white wall or ceiling. If not (which is pretty likely because most Halloween shops abhor white), attach a diffuser or aftermarket reflector to your flash to help soften the light. Now I will add that you should use flash as a last resort after you've tried using a wide aperture and high ISO, because you don't want to get rid of that creepy ambience altogether. If you do need to use flash, turn it down to half power. You just want to add enough additional light to illuminate your subjects in the event that a wide aperture or high ISO doesn't do the trick.
Getting ready for trick or treating
Another important photo that most parents tend to forget is that "getting ready" image. And the older your kids get, the more intricate those preparations are likely to be—your kids may want to wear a lot of elaborate make up, give themselves a wild hairstyle or put on a wig, so make sure you're there to photograph them while they fight over the bathroom mirror. Again, the light indoors at this time is often pretty low, especially if the kids are going out for a later trick-or-treat, so make sure you're using that high ISO and wide aperture combination so you can capture photos without a flash. If you're having a hard time getting enough light in the scene, try bringing in some mood lighting such as one of those orange pumpkin lamps or some candles, which will not only help add light to the scene and make it possible for you to shoot without a flash, but also create some Halloween ambiance.
Kids in character
If your teenage son decided to dress up like Jon Snow from Game of Thrones, don't just take a picture of him standing in the living room in his Jon Snow costume. That's kind of boring and typical. Instead, think about how you might be able to create an appropriate environment for Jon Snow. Everyone knows that Jon Snow is nothing without actual snow, so try hanging a white sheet up behind him. Now while it's probably going to be hard to find actual show in October, you can be pretty creative—try using the incandescent white balance setting outdoors to create a chilly blue feeling in the image. If you want to really help him get into character, take him to a setting that resembles an old medieval village. This is actually easier than you might think, even if you don't live in Westeros. A cemetery is bound to have some old stone buildings that could serve as a backdrop, or find some crumbling stone walls or fences. Bring along wads of quilt batting to place on top of those stone walls to simulate snow, and consider adding a few flakes of artificial snow in post processing. Remember that your props don't even have to be convincing—the idea is to create a whimsical image, not to film the next season of Game of Thrones.
And of course, encourage your child to get into character. Simply standing around in a Jon Snow costume isn't enough (although having said that, Jon Snow probably isn't the best example since he really is best when he's standing around looking moody). If your child is Harry Potter, have him wave his wand and shout "Wingardium Leviosa!" and channel the spirit of Harry Potter to the best of his ability. If he's having a hard time getting getting into character, have someone help out. You could ask your husband to temporarily play Voldemort so that he has another actor to play off of.
The neighborhood at dusk
Sometimes we spend so much time photographing our own Halloween decorations that we forget how many cool Halloween scenes get set up in our own neighborhood. The night before Halloween is usually just as festive as far as those decorations are concerned, so have a wander around your neighborhood starting just before dusk. The best time to shoot house decorations is after sunset but before full darkness. That ambient light remaining in the sky will help you capture detail on the unlit decorations as well as the lit decorations. If there's a little bit of golden hour light remaining in the sky, that can add a warm, autumn a feeling to your photos–if you wait a little longer until blue hour, the cool tones that naturally exist in that twilight light will help create an eerie, creepy mood.
There's nothing sadder or, let's face it, funnier than a wiener dog dressed up like a hotdog, or better yet a schnauzer version of Jon Snow to go with the child a version of Jon Snow. Even if you aren't so cruel as to put a witch hat on your kitty or dress up your parrot like a pirate, you can still get some fun pictures of your animals enjoying the Halloween decorations or cowering under the bed because your daughter dressed up like a zombie. If you can, use window light for indoor animals and golden hour light for outdoor animals.
How about dressing your kids up in old-timey costumes and then taking ghostly photos of them? Kids love this activity and you will, too—start by choosing a background that doesn't scream "modern day" (a graveyard would do nicely, or a part of the interior of an old house that doesn't include any TVs, modern appliances, or iPhone chargers). Set your camera up on a tripod and select a slow shutter speed—you may have to use a narrow aperture and low ISO to accomplish this. Have your kids enter the frame and strike a creepy pose. Open the shutter and then wait a few seconds. You should aim for a total exposure of around 30 seconds—you’ll want them to stand in the frame for a few seconds, then ask them to move slowly out of the picture. If your shutter speed is slow enough, you’ll capture a transparent image of your child standing in the scene, along with a ghostly trail as he exits. If you don’t want the ghostly trail, have your child exit the scene quickly. Play around with shutter speed and composition until you have something you really enjoy and that your kids really enjoy, too.
Some final thoughts
Of course I don't want to leave out the obvious stuff—you should never let a Halloween pass without taking some of those same-old photographs of your kids trick-or-treating at the same-old houses and visiting the same-old pumpkin patch. But try to come up with some new and original ways to capture those photos. For example, try shooting through the Halloween decorations outside of those homes. Shoot silhouettes of your kids framed against the doorways after dark. Have them carry glow sticks and capture some motion trail shots of them. Bring along a tripod. Have them do some light painting with those glow sticks. In short, think about all the things you usually do when you're shooting trick-or-treating photographs and try to do something different instead.
The entire month of October is great for Halloween photographs, so you have some time to experiment with these ideas and brainstorm some new ideas. Make your own shot list of unique Halloween images you want to capture, and then treat it as your October bucket list. Go down the list every day and take a new photo, and resolve to do it in the most creative way possible. If you make a habit of creating this a shot list every Halloween starting October 1, your Halloween photo albums are going to look unique and interesting from year to year, which will certainly get you out of that Halloween photography rut you were in before you started reading this article.
- Kids playing in piles of leaves
- Dress them in their costumes
- Make sure the leaves won't damage the costumes
- Costume shopping
- Choose a time of day when there's ambient light
- Use wide apertures and high ISOs
- Add a little flash if you have to, but don't ruin the ambiance
- Getting ready for Trick or Treating
- Photograph them putting on their makeup
- Use high ISOs and wide apertures
- Kids in character
- Take your costumed child to an appropriate setting
- Encourage him to get into character
- The neighborhood at dusk
- Take photos of the neighbors' Halloween decor
- Go out at dusk when there is still some ambient light
- Dress up your pets, or pose them with the creepy decor
- Use a slow shutter speed to capture your kids as "ghosts"
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