Wednesday, October 8, 2014

How to Photograph "Ghosts" in a Single Exposure

The weather is getting cooler, the leaves are getting yellower, and the conversations at school revolve around Halloween and costumes. Why not have some fun with a Halloween-inspired photo shoot this year and learn how to photograph ghosts? (Even better, this technique requires no Photoshop or post-processing know how.)

Techniques for Photographing Ghosts

In order to properly photograph ghosts, it helps to be prepared. For the best results, you will need your camera, a sturdy tripod, and a remote shutter release. An atmospheric location is an additional benefit, but you can be creative about where you want your ghost to appear.

The trick to creating a ghostly image is using a long shutter speed. (This is one reason why most ghosts more often appear at night.) A few to several seconds ought to be sufficient. Night or early evening lighting works very well, but dim interior light can also work.

Begin by shooting in shutter priority mode (Tv for Canon or S for Nikon). Dial in a shutter speed of a few seconds and take a practice exposure. Most likely, your camera will capture a photograph that is far brighter than the gloomy look you will want. In that case, you can either switch into manual mode and dial in the same shutter speed with a narrower aperture, or you can use exposure compensation and choose a negative value (like -2 or -3) to get a darker overall image.

Once you have established the right mood with your background, you are ready to find your ghosts. The trick for capturing a ghost in a single exposure is only having your ghost visible in the frame for less than half of the overall length of the exposure (shutter speed). It is usually much easier to begin with your ghost in the photograph and have them hide halfway through.

This ghost photograph was captured at ISO 100, f/4, and a shutter speed of 20 seconds. My ghost took his position in the photograph, and I used the remote shutter release to trigger the camera. He stood as still as possible while counting to 10 and then ducked down and stepped quickly out of the field of view. (In darkened conditions like these, a moving subject will not be visible, so the camera only recorded his shadow when he was standing still.) The only lighting in this scene came from the glowing cabin, so the ghost is recorded without definition as only a silhouette.

This ghostly effort was a little less successful, because the details in the porch overwhelm the arms of the left-hand ghost, which are reaching out for the right-hand ghost. Experiment!

Defined Ghosts and Moving Ghosts

If you want more visibility with your ghost, then you will need to find a setting where some light is falling on your ghostly subject.

This ghostly shot was done in mid-afternoon with the aid of a circular polarizer and a narrow aperture. The circular polarizer blocks an additional stop or two of light, requiring an even longer shutter speed. With the overhead shade and polarizer, I was able to get a shutter speed of 8 seconds at f/22 and ISO 100. (You could also use a neutral density filter to get a longer shutter speed. Read more in Introduction to Filters.) For this ghostly selfie, I had the camera on a tripod with a 10-second countdown timer. After triggering the shutter, I raced to my location and froze. Once I heard the camera shutter I mentally counted to three and then rushed out of the frame for the rest of the exposure. (I also covered up my legs with my black jacket, which made my feet disappear entirely from the image.)

Moving ghosts are a bit of a trial-and-error effort. Your ghost will need to move slowly enough that the camera can capture their movement but yet quickly enough to have moved a good distance during the time the photograph is being taken.

This particular ghost shot, below, happened as a bit of a fluke. The local photography group had organized a behind-the-scene photography tour of our local performing arts center. We were a large group of about 40 photographers, so it was inevitable that other photographers would end up in your final images.

This photograph was taken at ISO 100, f/3.5, and 4 seconds. It was part of a series of bracketed shots I was taking of the interior of the concert hall. (This shot was taken at -2 exposure compensation.) My ghost was a fellow photographer in a white hooded sweatshirt who was moving at a very even pace up the staircase. He happened to pause just before the end of the photograph, which makes his head and body a bit more visible in relationship to his ghostly flowing movement.

To recreate a shot like this one, you would want to set-up and determine your settings beforehand, like with the shots above. Then, have your ghost start moving slowly before you trigger the shot. (If your ghost waits until you start shooting to move, then that standing position will be recorded more strongly than the later movement.) Have your ghost take slow but deliberate steps, which will help create more of an impression than steady movement. (Steady movement will create an undifferentiated blur, while start-stop steps will create a more herky-jerky ghost like the one above.)

Experiment! This kind of ghost requires a bit of trial-and-error, but the results are always interesting and a bit unpredictable. If you want your ghost to pause and freeze near the end of your exposure, you might want to consider shooting in Bulb mode. That way, you simple hold down the trigger to start the exposure, and the photograph ends when you lift up on the button. So, you can have your ghost begin moving, hold down the button to start the picture, ask your ghost to hold still after a time, count an additional second or so, and release.

Ghosts Everywhere

Have fun with it! Think about interesting or unusual costumes for your ghostly character. Get a few more friends in on the act and capture a whole group of ghosts doing something spooky or unusual.

Share your successful ghost shots with us in the comments below!

Boost Your Photography: Learn Your DSLR is now available from Amazon. Get the most out of your camera with practical advice about the technical and creative aspects of DSLR photography that will have you taking beautiful pictures right away.

This post is also linked up at Social Media Sunday, hosted by the IBA.
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