May 23, 2024

How to create a spooky Halloween still life

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Learn how to photograph a ghostly Halloween still life with this tutorial from 500px Brand Ambassador Dina Belenko.

Autumn is my favorite season. Everything turns bright and colorful; every leaf and tiny pumpkin is just asking to be a part of a still-life story. And when it gets closer to Halloween, those stories turn into spooky tales: slightly eerie, but really fun to tell.

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1. Gather your props and gear

The list of props for this project is pretty simple. You’ll need:

  • Dark, thick paper. That’s the key ingredient — we’re going to make a moon out of it, as well as a haunted castle and a couple of bats. If you’re not used to cutting tiny figures out of paper, just buy some pre-cut paper silhouettes at a local scrapbook store in Halloween-themed designs;
  • Something to make smoke or steam: aromatic sticks, dry ice or a hand steamer;
  • A dark background;
  • Spooky items for your still life, like crooked tree branches, wooden boxes, scrolls, tiny pumpkins (I’m more of a persimmon person);
  • A light source — one to make your moon shine and another to lift the shadows. If you have only one, use a reflector instead of a second light source;
  • A camera and a tripod.

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2. Light up the moon

Cut a circle out of your sheet of black paper so it has a hole in it. Place the black sheet directly in front of your key light source, making sure that the light comes only through the circle, and doesn’t creep through the perimeter. This is your moon!

In my case, the key light was a speedlight inside a small strip box, so I didn’t have much trouble covering everything with black flags to leave only a circle of light visible.

To make the shadows a bit softer, I put another speedlight behind a large diffuser on the left side of the scene. A reflector would also work pretty well in this case, but another speedlight is easier to control, in my opinion.

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3. Arrange a composition

Start with the largest objects and move to the smallest details when arranging your Halloween still life. Place your haunted castle or another Halloween-ish silhouette inside the light circle of the moon to create a nice contrast, and make the silhouette the centre of your composition.

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If you don’t want your silhouette to be placed on branches, but instead want to make it fly in the night sky, use a string of wire to hold a paper silhouette in the air. I did it with my bats, you could do it with a witch or a flying vampire. (Also fun to try with Santa’s sled at Christmas!)

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4. Add some smoke

When you’re happy with your composition, it’s time to add some action! Smoke or steam, which will be lit from the back, makes the scene just glorious.

To create smoke, I used three burning aromatic sticks. You can try using dry ice, a clothes steamer or a special smoke machine, if you’re lucky enough to have one. I’m not that lucky, so I use incense. Aroma sticks are cheaper than a fog machine, more accessible than dry ice and safer than an open flame. You just have to be careful with ashes and smoke; make sure to do it in a well-ventilated room.

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5. Shooting

Time to dive in: Take a sequence of shots with the full moon and smoke!

My camera settings at the time looked like this: f/6.3 (rather open in my opinion, to make the moon a bit blurry), 1/160s (which is a sync shutter speed for my light sources), ISO 100.

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6. Post-processing

Take the shot that looks the most spooky and Halloween-esque to you and give it a little polish. I adjusted the contrast slightly, deleted a dark spot on a persimmon, fixed a dark horizontal line on the bottom (it was the edge of my backdrop) and made boxes a bit lighter. Voila! My still life with a full moon is ready. Time to try a similar one with a crescent moon, or stars.

Stay inspired and good luck!

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