Lens Guides

Treat Yourself to Cool Halloween Shots With These Tricks and Tips

Halloween can be an amazing time to make all sorts of cool photos. Between the Jack O’Lanterns, people of all ages in silly or scary costumes, and haunted houses, there’s something great to shoot pretty much everywhere you turn.

Jack O’ Lanterns are one of the most popular Halloween photo subjects, and these present several challenges and several different methods for creating a cool image. Here’s a shot exposed for a relatively short (1/4 second) amount of time to showcase the illumination by the candle light, with the rest of the frame going to deep, deep shadow and dark tones. For this type of shot, a tripod is pretty much a must. Sigma 18-250mm F3.5-6.3 DC OS Macro, Canon Rebel T3i, 1/4 second, F5.0, ISO 800.

It’s also a great time of year to throw so many of the hard and fast guidelines of photography aside and have some fun by breaking some rules, and employing some cool photo tricks to make Halloween photos that’ll turn some heads. In this blog posting, we’re going to have some fun and give you some ideas on how to capture the spirit of the season.

Jack O’Lanterns and Pumpkins

If there’s two thing your average Jack O’Lantern likes less than squirrels, it is direct flash and program modes on digital cameras! Here are two example images demonstrating why.

There’s a candle lit inside the carved pumpkin, but with the camera on Program and a shoe-mount flash attached to my Rebel T3i, you can hardly tell, as the camera chose 1/60 at F5.0 ISO 100 for this shot, which completely overpowered the single tea light.
And even if you dial back the Flash Exposure Compensation as far as you can (-3, in this example), that’s still not going to give a proper internally lit feel to the Jack O’ Lantern–just an underexposed variant of the above shot. Again at 1/60 F5.0 ISO 100 Shoe-mounted Flash Exposure E-TTL set to minus three.

And for the most part, you’re going to want to use a tripod. Even with a big candle, you’re still talking about employing candlelight for the main light source in most carved pumpkin images. If there’s absolutely no chance of using a tripod for a very long exposure, you may get lucky by combining Optical Stabilizer, a higher ISO, and some fill-flash from a shoe-mount flash, dialed back, with the diffuser panel lowered. But this is risky. Below is one frame  where I was lucky enough to get this shot sharp at 1/3 second–but I tried thirteen times overall, and this is the only one of all the frames that isn’t showing undesired camera movement or overbearing flash reflections during the exposure.

If you don’t have a tripod, try cranking up the ISO and using a little fill-flash and a shutter speed that’s pushing the envelope of Optical Stabilization. Here at 18mm on the Sigma 18-250mm F3.5-6.3 DC OS Macro, I shot at one third of a second at ISO 800, and lowered the diffusion panel on my shoe-mount strobe, dialed back to -3 for some fill (and you can see some of the reflected flash on the surface of the pumpkin.) I shot this a total of thirteen times, and this is the only frame that was both perfectly sharp-edged and with minimal flash reflection. Pushing up to a higher ISO makes it tougher to pull the exposures, especially the shadows, which can get very noisy.

All in all, a tripod is the best way to go to ensure there’s no camera movement during the exposures, which can get very long at times–upwards of way beyond several second in many cases, depending on the look and feel you’re going for.

For this shot, we went all the way to 30 seconds at F5.0 at ISO 200 on the 18-250mm F3.5-6.3 DC OS Macro at 51mm to really let the candlelight shine through the pumpkin and blow the interior to seriously hot tones. This was shot in RAW mode in the Rebel T3i, and the overall exposure was pulled back to center from mild overexposure. Then we cranked up the luminance values for orange to really bring the glow to another level. We were able to really pull up the shadow tones and keep them clean because we shot at a low ISO. In the higher ISO shots like the lead photo, doing this would lead to horrible noise in the end image.

Overall, the best advice is to experiment, review, and adjust your overall exposures for the look and feel you’re going for. Some may prefer the pure blackness of the first image, some may love the glowing whites and oranges of the above image and many may fall somewhere in between with good glow and deeper shadow tones.  But be sure to study the exposures, adjust, and check again to make sure the raw files are going to give you what you want.

Like their hollowed-out brethren, painted and otherwise non-carved pumpkins also do best with indirect light. The rounded, semi-reflected shapes of these orange squash just never look right in hard direct light. Bounce a strobe off a ceiling, use a diffuser, pretty much do anything but use direct flash for pumpkins whenever you can!

Here’s a composition of decorative pumpkins and gourds in a studio setting made with the Sigma DP2 Merrill. Two studio lights are aimed at the backdrop to give wraparound lighting to the pumpkins for good deep orange and greentones and rich definition of their depths and contours. 1/1600 F11 ISO 100.

Two Ways to Make Ghosts

Halloween is a great time of year to try some trick photography techniques, both on the computer, and in-camera. Let’s look at two ways to turn your friends and family into ghostly apparitions for your Halloween memories, starting with the in-camera method first.

Pretty much every camera and lens combo out there can be used for creating this special drag-flash ghost effect. We used the Sigma 18-250mm F3.5-6.3 DC OS Macro and a Canon EOS Rebel T3i for this demonstration, along with a tripod and a shoe-mount strobe. The secret here is to make sure there is a long enough exposure for your subject to both move through the frame (for the spirit-trail part) then make a good expression and freeze for the sharp element in the frame.  (And do please note my awesome “generic” costume for these illustrations!)

Again, this is a type of photography that is going to require a good deal of trial and error. You’ve got to make many frames to get a perfect mix of ghosted and frozen action. It is very helpful to have a light source apart from the flash to help light the motion segment of the image, too. It can be a floodlight, or a wide-beam flashlight, but something to give a little light helps.

Here’s the nuts and bolts of this:

  • Use a tripod
  • Set a long shutter speed (1-3 seconds, to start)
  • Stop down the aperture, if necessary, to make sure the background is a bit underexposed at the chosen shutter speed.
  • Switch to manual focus
  • If possible, set the strobe to 2nd-curtain sync. This will make the frozen segment of the exposure come at the end of the shot rather than the beginning.
  • Make sure there are clearly defined zones in the image for the sharp and motion elements to fill without too much overlap (Left to right, or top to bottom, for example)
  • Make sure there’s nothing with a high level of reflection in the background.
  • Experiment, adjust, try again, and again, and again and you’ll get some cool results.
I was going for a “got caught sneaking up on the photographer” expression here in this image. Notice how the ghostly trail leads from back right to front left, so there’s not a lot of overlap against the dark background. This was a 1.3 second exposure at 18mm on the Sigma 18-250mm F3.5-63 DC OS Macro at ISO 200, with my shoe-mount strobe set to -2, with the wide-angle diffuser panel over the strobe, on second curtain sync, so the frozen moment is at the end of the frame, which gives the fantastic transparent quality to my “scary costume” generic Halloween costume. And I converted to grayscale, because sometimes ghostly images just feel best in black and white.
Here is another variation on this theme. For this one, the subject is in the midst of reacting to the ghost that it is evidently in the midst of transforming to. This one is in color, and the expressions are different, but again, there’s the clearly predetermined locations of the ghosted/motion and flash-defined sections of the frame, and the overlap is minimal. Again, the exposure is at 1.3 seconds, ISO 200, but this time we stopped down to F9.0 to have more depth of field, but less light in the background.

As a variation on this theme, you may want to skip the tripod and pan/drag the camera along as a subject moves parallel to the focal plane, which will turn the background into a series of blurred trails as well, with the 2nd-curtain flash freezing the subject at the end of the exposure, too.

And again, don’t get discourage if the first or second shot you attempt like this isn’t perfect. This is low-yield. You’ll have to shoot a bunch of frames to get a couple that work well. Just keep having fun and trying new ideas!

Now here is a double-exposure trick image showing what’s apparently a ghost going about its normal day-to-day activities outside this ramshackle house on Officer’s Row on Sandy Hook, quite oblivious to the non-ghost photographer snapping a photo of these decaying structures with a Sigma DP2 Merrill. Keep reading for the low-down on how to quickly and easily make your own ghostly portraits by combining two or more frames!

There’s also a very easy way to make ghostly images in pretty much every video editing program that supports layers, such as Adobe Photoshop Elements, or Photoshop CS6. All you’ve got to do is make two identical frames, one with the person, and one without, and combine the shots into a single layered image.

The nuts and bolts to make this work best:

  • Make sure both exposures are identical in terms of exposure; Manual exposure mode is best for ensuring that the metering doesn’t change between frames.
  • Use a tripod for perfect alignment.
  • All changes or adjustments should be applied identically to both images before combining.
  • Beyond this, the location and subjects are completely up to you. The most important thing is that both frames are as  synced up as possible through every step of the process.

Beyond this, the location and subjects are completely up to you. The most important thing is that both frames are as synced up as possible through every step of the process.

As you can see, these two frames are nearly identical, except in one frame, I’m walking away from these creaky stairs. We’re going to go step-by-step to make the ghostly grayscale final image. We first select both images, as shown here, then open them from Adobe Bridge to Camera RAW to convert both to grayscale (From the Bridge menu, you can select “Camera RAW Preferences” and select “Automatically Open all Supported JPGs) to edit JPG-format files through ACR if you need to.)
Now, in Adobe Camera RAW, we are selecting both these JPGs from the Sigma DP2 Merrill and converting them to grayscale to make sure all image settings are identical. Then we click DONE to return to Adobe Bridge. Remember, we want the images to match as closely as possible through this entire process.
Now back in Bridge, we select both images and select Tools>Photoshop>Load Filesinto Photoshop Layers. (You can also open the images into Photoshop or Elements and then copy-paste one on top of the other if you want here.).
So here we’ve got both images loaded as layers into Photoshop. Make sure the subject layer is atop the blank layer, and adjust the opacity to a level that works to give a good sense of transparency overall, somewhere between 40-65% should work well. We could very easily call it done at this point, but a tiny bit more work is a good idea. First, we select the entire layer, then subtract a loose hand-drawn loop around the subject. Selection>Refine Edge will let us soften up the edge of the selection. Then “Delete” will erase all the pixels in the rest of the frame.
Look at the top layer, and the only area there’s still pixels is around the “ghost.” This helps keep the seamlessness of this effect going by not having minor unwanted variations issues like blowing leaves and shadow length between the two source frames. Layer>Flatten Image completes the process, then it’s a simple matter of saving as a JPG and printing or sharing your own ghostly images!

Now For Some Crazy Perspective Tricks

In photography, a little bit of an effect usually feels accidental or sloppy, for example, if you skew the horizon a touch, or have most of the  verticals in a house just off a good clean line, it looks like a mistake. But if you really go for it, that looks intentional. And Halloween is a great time to create some tension by having buildings fall away or really taking advantage of ultrawide stretch for fun and freaky results!

With ultrawide lenses, like the Sigma 8-16mm F4.5-5.6 DC HSM used here at 8mm, objects in the foreground, (and especially near the edges of the frame) loom large and have much more visual weight in the image. And shooting at a low angle to make the verticals of the house in the background fall seriously away, which adds tension to the image. And there’s one more trick to point out in this image: we set our exposure to ensure blue sky and detail in the house and used high-speed sync to light the foreground subject.
Here’s taking that “a little looks accidental but a lot looks intentional” effect to another level. Generally, it’s a good idea to get down to eye level for photos of people, so for kids, this usually means kneeling down on the ground so you’re shooting from their height and view on the world. But here, we take the ultrawide effect to an even weirder extreme for an unusual Halloween portrait. The Sigma 8-16mm lens is set to 8mm and is inches from my forehead, at eye level, but pointed seriously downwards. While you’d probably never want to use this effect during a wedding, for for Halloween, it can work. And of course, the wider the lens, and the closer the subject, the more intense the effect. Sigma 8-16mm at 8mm 1/5 second, F8.0 ISO 200 on the Canon EOS Rebel T3i. Shoe-mount strobe set to -2, with diffuser panel down.
Here’s one more example where the ultrawide effect is used to create an unsettled feeling, and the bold colors possible with HDRI images are used to intensify the feel of this shot. Normally with architecture, you’d want to ensure that there’s some visual anchoring of the structure, but here, for Halloween, we’ve anchored the small pumpkins in the foreground and seriously skewed the house. Day or night, HDRI or single exposure, this wide-angle effect can be used at Halloween to bring an extra degree of tension and creepiness to a decorated house. Sigma 8-16mm at 8mm on a Rebel T3i. Several source frames merged together in Adobe Photoshop CS6.

A little Light Graffiti

Another fun thing to try around Halloween is Light graffiti. This involves “writing” on the sensor of the camera with a flashlight during a long exposure. Again, it takes a lot of experimenting to get a feel for it, but it can be a lot of fun. You’ll need a tripod, and a pretty long exposure to have time to draw your picture.

I used a penlight that could easily switch on and off to draw this jack o lantern onto the sensor in the Reb T3i through the 18-250mm F3.5-6.3 DC OS macro. Stopping down the F16 for a 13 second exposure at ISO 100 minimized ambient light and gave me the time to draw out the pumpkin. Use the Flashlight to help determine focal distance, then switch to manual focus mode to try this out.

Here’s Even More Halloween Tips and Tricks For Cool Images!

  • Our line of fast primes for both DSLRs and compact mirrorless cameras and constant aperture zooms are great get getting faster shutter speeds in low light for both still and video clips.
  • Twilight is a great time to try to capture decorated houses, as there’s a short window of time when the overall perfect exposures for both the natural and artificial light overlaps.
  • Shooting from ground level as your trick or treaters walk down the sidewalk can give great leading lines, long shadows and a dramatic fall backdrop as the sun gets low in the sky in late afternoon.
  • Most of all, have fun and enjoy every minute of it!

And We’d love to see your Halloween photos! Please share them on our Facebook wall and on our new Google Plus Page, too!

About the Author

Jack Howard is Sigma Corporation of America’s New Media Specialist, where he blogs, builds community, and shares his passion for photography with loyal and future Sigma customers every day.

Comments (2)
  1. Col Mason says:

    I like how you have detailed how and why in the descriptions, its great I will give some of them a try.

  2. kimberly diamond-catazaro says:

    Wow.. can’t wait till i can learn how to do these techniques

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