Capture the Spirit of Halloween in Pictures

Create spooky special effects with your digital camera, a photo editor, a flashlight--and a lot of imagination.

The Season for Spookiness

It's the season for spookiness. And virtually since the beginning of photography, people have used cameras to capture glimpses of the supernatural--both intentionally and unintentionally. Back in 1917, for example, little girls posed with magical fairies. These days, quaint old photos featuring paranormal juxtapositions look obviously fake, but that doesn't stop people today from investigating creepy photos of supernatural phenomena as avidly as ever.

Why not celebrate Halloween by making your own "spirited" photos? It's easy. All you need is your digital camera, a tripod, some candles or flashlights, and the patience to wait until nightfall. If you want to take your photos to the next level, pick up some pumpkin carving tips from ExtremePumpkins. And when you're ready, follow along for some tips on taking spooky photos this Halloween.

Shoot a Jack-o'-Lantern

Jack-o'-lanterns are the epitome of Halloween. But how do you get a great photo of one? The key is to take your picture in the dark and let the candlelight inside the pumpkin provide most of the illumination.

As with all low-light photos, your shutter speed must be pretty slow, so you'll get better results if you mount the camera on a tripod. Automatic exposure will work, but for best results you should set your camera to manual exposure and set the shutter speed to about a second.

If you rely exclusively on the candles inside for lighting, your pumpkin will appear in silhouette. To provide more uniform illumination--and at least a hint of pumpkin orange--set up a few candles in front of it. Or take the photo early enough in the evening that the crepuscular light will help illuminate your scene. Another effective trick: Instead of using a single candle inside the jack-o'-lantern, pack several of them into it to make the face glow more strongly. Alternatively, you can use a larger aperture--like f/4 instead of f/8--on your camera so that the light in the will pumpkin have a greater effect on the exposure.

When you get your photos onto your PC, feel free to tweak the brightness, contrast, and sharpness. But don't change the white balance: Your image editor will probably try to "fix" the color in the scene by shifting the spooky orange glow to an ordinary white.

DIY Haunting

Tired of hanging out in cemeteries for hours without catching even a glimpse of ectoplasm? You might consider making your own ghost instead. In the old days, performing this kind of trick involved rigging up your camera to create a double exposure. Now it's as easy as using the opacity control and layers in your favorite image editing program.

Consider, for instance, this terrifying photo of the infamous Jackson Hotel Ghost (which looks suspiciously like a Happy Meal toy). Scared? Don't worry: It's just a layered composite of two photos: A close-up shot of Lisa Simpson in a Halloween costume taken from my aren't-you-too-old-for-that toy? collection, and a shot of a hotel near Salt Lake City. You can accomplish much the same effect with a photo of your own "ghost" and a shot of your backyard at night, for example.

Create Spectral Layers

To create this fright fest, start by opening the picture of your ghost in an image editor. (Incidentally, did you ever notice how similar Lisa Simpson in a ghost costume looks to Garfield in a ghost costume?)

I'll explain how to proceed using Adobe Photoshop Elements. If you're following along, choose the Magnetic Lasso Tool from the sixth cubby in the toolbar on the left side of the screen. In the Tool Options palette atop the screen, make sure that Feather is set to a small number, like 3 pixels.

Next, click on an edge of the ghost and then carefully drag your way around the entire outline, little by little. Double-click on the starting point to complete the selection. When you're done, choose Edit•Copy to copy the ghost to the clipboard. Open the photo you want to use as a background. Choose Edit•Paste. Use the Move Tool (it lives in the topmost cubby of the toolbar) to position the ghost to your liking. You can also resize the ghost by grabbing one of the corners of the selection box.

For the finishing touch, go to the Layers palette on the right side of the screen and drag the Opacity slider until it has just the right amount of transparency--probably around 40 percent.

Fake an Alien Invasion

When I was in college, I took my geeky love of Star Trek, added a dose of night photography, and came up with the perfect 3:00 a.m. hobby: creating special-effect photos of my roommates shooting and disintegrating each other with phasers. Though it didn't help my grades, it was a lot of fun. Back then, I achieved all of those cool effects "in the lens," using flashlights, very long exposures, and a healthy dose of luck. These days, you can get similar--but far better--effects in an image editor.

You'll need to start with a photo that poses two people in a dramatic scene, preferably (in honor of the season) in sci-fi Halloween consumes. Once the photo is in your image editor (I'll demonstrate with Photoshop Elements), immediately copy it to a new layer by choosing Layer•Duplicate Layer from the menu; then click OK.

Next you need to make the unfortunate target disintegrate. As a first step toward making him glow with phaser energy, carefully create a selection region. Start by clicking the Magnetic Lasso Tool from the sixth cubby in the toolbar on the left side of the screen. Next, click on an edge of the subject and carefully drag your way around the subject, a small amount at a time, until you've worked your way all the way around to the starting point. Double-click there to close the selection.

Disintegrate the Target

Next, we need to make the selection bigger than the subject's body. To do that, choose Select•Refine Edge, and then increase both the Expand/Contract and Feather values. As with many aspects of photo editing, this step is more art than science; move the sliders around until the expanded selection looks about right to you. If you need a better view of the expanded selection, click the Custom Overlay Color button to see what the selection looks like against a solid red background. When you're happy with the result, click OK.

It's time to add some glow. Choose Enhance•Adjust Lighting•Levels and jack the brightness all the way up to maximum by dragging the white point (the arrow under the right edge of the histogram) all the way to the left. Click OK, and you should see a glowing, pure white region where the subject used to be.

Now we can take advantage of layers to adjust the overall effect. In the Layers palette on the right side of the screen, change the layer's opacity until you get the effect you like--if you have the same taste in glowing effects as me, it'll probably be in the neighborhood of 40 percent.

Add a Phaser Blast

We now have a pretty convincing disintegration scene, but what about the phaser beam? This is a lot easier to create on the PC than it was to mock up back in 1985, since most image editors let you draw a perfectly straight line by holding down the Shift key.

In Photoshop Elements, start by removing the selection: Choose Selections•Deselect. Next, click the Brush tool in the tool palette's seventh cubby from the bottom. Check the brush size in the Tool Options palette; I went with a size of 20. You'll probably want a white beam. To get one, double-click the foreground color at the very bottom of the toolbar on the left side of the screen, and then choose white from the color selector. Click OK. To paint a phaser beam, position the brush where you want the beam to start, and then click and release. Hold down Shift and click on the end point. The program will draw a perfectly straight line between the two points.

Make Some Magic

Sure, it's fun to create special effects with software. But did you know that you can draw your own pictures by adding light in a controlled way? That's how I got this spooky shot of my daughter shooting beams of light from her hands--and you can use the same technique to create your own magical photos.

You'll need to use a digital camera that has some sort of long exposure mode. Ideally, you'll be able to set the shutter speed to at least 16 seconds. I've found that 8 seconds is a bare minimum amount of time to do anything, and you'll get more-satisfying results if your camera has a 16- or 30-second exposure setting. You'll also need to set the camera on a stable surface. A tripod is ideal, or you could set it on a desk, table, chair, or similar surface. Finally, you'll need a flashlight or two.

Now that you have your supplies ready, wait for nightfall and position your camera for a photo. Your surroundings should be as dark as possible--in a room with the lights turned off, for example, or outdoors away from street lights. Press the shutter release to start your long exposure, and then use your flashlight to "inject" light directly into the scene.

Experimentation Pays Off

Since this technique relies on moving a flashlight around in the dark, you have to experiment--and you won't get perfect results every time. Still, you can stack the deck in your favor by choosing your camera settings wisely.

Since the shutter needs to be open for so long, the only aspect of your camera that you can control is the aperture. If you use a small aperture (which equates to a large number like f/18), the effect of the light will be diminished. A large aperture (that is, a small number like f/4) will admit a lot more light, which means that any ambient light will illuminate the entire scene; however, it also means the flashlight's beam will appear brighter. Start with an intermediate aperture like f/8, and vary it to see how different values affect your photos.

Finally, the way you point your flashlight can produce dramatically different effects. I recommend pointing the flashlight directly into the camera lens, because that will give you the most immediate and dramatic result. But as an alternative, you could try shining the flashlight at objects in the scene instead. In a perfectly dark room, for example, you might experiment with selectively illuminating subjects.

For more ways to get in to the spirit of Halloween, see these items:

Scary Fonts

Halloween Games for the iPhone

The 15 Freakiest Web Sites

Costume Ideas - Halloween [iPhone app]