Thirteen Spookactular Halloween Photography Tips
On this horrifying Thursday the 13th of October, let's prepare ourselves for the terrors that await us at the end of the month. I want to arm you with 13 utterly spooky (or, you know, helpful) tips for taking great Halloween photographs. Are you ready? There's still time to turn back if you don't think you can stomach it! Okay good, let's start with pumpkins.
Pumpkins are challenging subjects for photos. They look odd in most settings, their exteriors reflect a camera flash, and – for a number of reasons – they’re not always photogenic, especially when they’re made into jack-o-lanterns. They rarely look in a photo as they do in real life. So, let’s start this list with a few tips for getting the most out of your pumpkin photography.
The Dark Pumpkin
Even though the pumpkin itself is the medium into which we carve a jack-o-lantern, we all know the real attraction is the face (or whatever figure you’ve produced in the rind). Tell yourself it’s okay to forget about the exterior of the pumpkin, and to focus instead on the artwork. Head to a windowless room, turn the lights out completely, and place a candle – or better yet a small but powerful flashlight – inside the jack-o-lantern. Take a long-exposure shot your of subject, gathering as much light as your camera will allow. If you do it right, you’ll get a bright horror surrounded by darkness – which is just the right kind of spooky for the season.
The Twilit Pumpkin(s)
The same long-exposure technique will work in faint light – and this is especially useful if you want to show off a family of jack-o-lanterns. Wait until the early evening, when the setting sun provides about as much natural light as the light emanating from inside your pumpkins. Ideally, you should end up with something like the above – a not-terribly-spooky but sufficiently moody shot.
Pumpkin in The Woods
As I said, pumpkins look awkward in most of the places you’re likely to find them outside of an actual pumpkin farm. You carve them in a kitchen, you display them on your porch, sometimes you hold them up while you wear your costume – but none of these settings allow the pumpkin itself to shine as a singular subject. If you have the time and live in reasonable proximity to a wooded area, take your jack-o-lantern there, and scout out a spooky setting. Since it’s much harder to control the lighting in this situation, especially with tree cover, I recommend leaving in the late afternoon in the hope of finding a great spot by twilight or near-dark. Here again, long-exposure is recommended.
People in a Natural Setting
You know what they say: if it’s true of pumpkins, it’s true of people. Okay, no one says that – but I have some good advice for you anyway. Be honest, you’ve got dozens of photos in your collection that feature Wolverine standing between Spock and Bigfoot... and they're hanging out in your living room, of all places. Not only would such a picture infuriate Star Trek purists, it fails on its own merits as a photograph because it’s boring. Seek out the right settings for your little monsters. Find a dirty street and brick wall for Wolverine to act menacing in front of; put your Bigfoot in the woods where she belongs; wait until you can see the stars, and foreground an intrepid-looking Spock as he gazes into the distance. Hard work, yes – but you will appreciate these photos years from now because you turned your child into the living subject of their own imagination.
Here’s a related concept: the silhouette. If your child (or your spouse, or even you) is sporting a costume of obvious and recognizable features, then you can't go wrong accentuating them in silhouette. A witch looks a little more magical; a zombie, more horrifying; and a ninja, far more stealth. As with many of these recommendations, I suggest you should wait until twilight, when you can develop a satisfying contrast between the orange or purple of the horizon and the blackness of your subject.
The Manufactured Setting
If you’re lucky enough to have everyone’s costumes ready a few days in advance of Halloween, don’t wait to take photos! The holiday itself is hectic, with kids running around everywhere, talking excitedly with their friends, impatient to get and eat their candy. Experiment while you have the actual time to do so – before all the madness. If you’re feeling particularly ambitious, take the initiative to create an appropriate setting for your little monster. It’s more challenging than snapping a candid shot of Bigfoot in the woods, but it’s that much more rewarding.
The Best Part of the Costume
Unless you’re one of those hardcore Halloween enthusiasts whose get-up goes viral on Pinterest every year, there’s a good chance your costume design has a few… flaws. Sneakers that peek out from under the ghost’s fabric, a pair of glasses on Dracula’s face, Han Solo in blue jeans, and so on – these shortcomings, while perfectly ordinary, will diminish the quality of your photography. Resist the temptation to take a picture of the whole individual (again, unless your costume execution is without error). Focus instead on the most interesting part of the costume – yes, even if that means your subject’s face is out of the frame.
This advice is almost redundant by now: twilight sets the right tone for your Halloween photos. There’s usually just enough light that your subject stands out in in the foreground, but the background is dark enough to be moody, mysterious, or frightening. But keep in mind there’s a difference between the kind of twilit photos you’ll take on the calm evenings before Halloween, and those you’ll take the night of the holiday. On Halloween night, your subject will most likely be active – either celebrating at a party or running around, trick-or-treating. Increase your shutter speed dramatically so that you can capture a detailed image without blur. While your photos may be dimmer, your subjects will look fantastic.
The Eye-Level-or-Lower Photo
This is good advice for folks taking pictures of their children. Chances are, your child is dressed up as either a figure they admire greatly or a monster that terrifies them. Do not infantilize your child by taking a photo from a high angle: they will look small, cute, and altogether unworthy of your fear. Take a shot from eye-level or lower - careful to allow their features to fill up most of the frame – and encourage them to act the part of their costume. The finished project should satisfy parent and child – as both will enjoy a memento that captures visually the way the child felt when she was making believe.
The Behind-the-Shoulder Photo
Or you can choose to totally disregard the advice I just gave you, and go ahead infantilizing your subject. They are, after all, children – and are therefore small, cute, and altogether unworthy of your fear. I recommend taking such a shot over the shoulder of an adult (possibly your spouse) as they distribute candy to your child and their friends. This shot will do a number of very wonderful things: it will capture your child in a moment of pure joy, it will allow her personality to shine through her costume, and it will foreground her relationship to adulthood in a moment of adolescence. Trust me – this is the photo of the bunch that you will most appreciate 20 years from now.
The Action Shot
I’ve already offered a bit of advice on this topic: head out a little early so that there’s enough light to work with, set your camera to a very quick shutter speed, and let your subjects loose. I particularly enjoy these shots from behind. They preserve your child, at once in-character and out-of-character, running toward an adventure.
Of course, if all the above recommendations fail, you can always take a photo of your dog dressed as a taco…
….or a baby next to a pumpkin. No one’s ever complained about the photo quality of a taco dog or a pumpkin baby.
And don't forget: once you've perfected your Halloween photos, head to Forever™, and give them the safe, permanent home they deserve.