We’ve been talking about creepy photos a lot throughout October. It fits the bill and fits the spirit of Halloween, which caps off the end of the month. But I’ll admit that I’m naturally drawn to creepy. I don’t know why. In person, I’m straight laced. I’m a bit goofy, I’m told I have a lot of energy and I’ve also been told that I don’t look like I would be the type to create the type of creepy photos that I guess I’m known for (though to be fair, I feel my portfolio contains a great many things that aren’t always creepy). Perhaps the draw is simply that creepy is the opposite of what I do for my day job, so it’s a good release. In either case, many have asked, and so I thought I’d end the month with some tips on how you can create some creepy photos.
Let’s start with the obvious: Subject. If your goal is creepy, you’re not going to be shooting flowers and rainbows (unless the flowers are wilted and rotting). So it helps to select something that is inherently creepy. Personally, I like to focus on spaces: A dark and creepy alley, a tiny cramped basement, ruins are my favorite. But you can make almost anything creepy with the right handling (more on that in a few). People can also be creepy subjects with the right makeup, clothing or a maniacal grin.
Light Is Important
It doesn’t matter what your subject is if you aren’t controlling the light. Dramatic, hard light usually works best. If you have flashes, strobes or even very bright spotlights (work lights from the home improvement store work quite well), you can start to shape the light to meet your needs. Pull the light to one side and create some hard contrasts by overpowering the scene. You’ll be exposing for the bright spots, but the shadows are just as important. If you don’t have some extra light, you can use natural light. Look for spaces where the light is very directional and focused, like light pouring through a tiny window or a crack in a room or shed. Experiment with this type of scene in Manual Mode to intentionally underexpose a bit and those beams of light will turn up in your shot. If you’re looking to create a dark theme, I find that when the dark shadows fill more than 50% of the shot, that’s when things start to get a little unnerving. Don’t be afraid to lose some detail in those shadows. The more that’s unknown, the creepier the scene will be. That is the point of introducing light sources…the brighter you can get your subject (or part of your subject), the darker those shadows will be. The trick is contrast: Learn to love the contrast.
Of course darkness is the easy route. You can also create a creepy scene by flooding the space with light. This has the inverse effect by losing details in the brightness. Suppose, for example, you want to photograph a person with some creepy makeup, or a sculpture or what-have-you. You would flood the rest of the space with light. Bounce that light off of the walls, the ceiling…everything except your subject. You will be exposing for your subject so that everything else is washed out, details are lost, and your subject will look ethereal. If you don’t have any flashes, you can still intentionally over-expose the shot. The darkest shapes will likely still hold texture, but the lighter spaces and elements will wash out or disappear.
I’ll admit, the creepy-through-light technique is not one that I personally favor very much, but many photographers use it successfully well. Earlier this month, we featured a photo by Noah Feldklipp where he successfully created a creepy photo with a lot of white space coupled with some selective focus. There’s a bit of a haze in Noah’s shot because of the light bouncing around. Having a subject that is creepy in and of herself, he could afford to go bright. I’m not sure his photograph would have been as creepy if he went to the dark side.
Feature Textures and Grime
If you’re shooting in a scene that is grimy and ugly with paint peeling off the walls, dust everywhere and so on, you better take advantage. I like to focus on these details because they naturally make the scene more creepy. When I happen to be shooting such a space – and let’s face it, I’m drawn to such spaces so this happens a lot – I will intentionally light the scene to capitalize on this. When shooting textures, such as peeling paint, you can make the peels pop by lighting across the surface. Place your light source very close to that surface and graze it. It’ll make the edges pop with bright highlights, but the opposite side will be in stark contrast. If you’re light is too far away or the angle is too steep relative to the surface, the texture will appear flat and we don’t want that. Just make sure that the light isn’t hitting a far wall with a big white spot in your frame.
Dust is tricky. If it’s a thin layer, it really needs to be in focus for it to even be seen. But if that is not going to lend well to your photo, don’t force it. Now if you have a large amount of dust, all you need to do is make sure enough light is bouncing around so that the dust can reflect the light. It creates a nice soft light. If you’re not afraid to get a little dirty, grab a handful of dust and dirt and throw it up in the air before you take the shot. The cloud of dust will really add an ethereal and creepy haze to the scene.
A creepy scene, creepy textures and perfect lighting isn’t going to mean much if you don’t finish off the photo well. Finishing is always a manner of preference, but there are a few things that I’ve learned will add some creepiness to the shot:
- Monochrome - Generally, monochrome (Black & White, Sepia, two tone, etc) tend to be more creepy than full and accurate color. There’s nothing wrong with color, but if we remove all of the color definition, our mind is confused by the unknown.
- If you use color - Accurate color is not going to result in a creepy photo. If you’re going to be using color, exaggerate it or push it so that it’s more surreal. Desaturation is one option. Or you can push one color above all else: Push warmer colors to create an evil look, or push cool colors to create the feeling of loneliness or discomfort.
- Grain – In my opinion, grain is a great way to create tension. Grain makes edges fuzzy and less defined and it obscures some of the sharper details. But it also makes the scene look unrefined. Never underestimate the power of grain.
- Vignetting - Vignetting – the darkened corners around the image – are a great way to create that closed-in feeling. Vignetting triggers a claustrophobic response, cramping the shot into a smaller space.
- Blur - Any way you can obscure details, you are going to create discomfort in your viewer. It’s like those movies where the monster (or the little girl with the long hair) is all static and blur while the rest of the room is tack sharp. Same premise. You’re just doing it in a still shot. Some photographers have introduced a whole lot of blur into their shots, be it motion blur or otherwise, and have had some great success. It’s not a preference of mine in my own work, but I do admire when others have done it well.
Some people have a natural knack for creepy. To those people, creepy photos will come naturally. But if you aren’t a natural, and if it’s something you’d like to do, you may need to practice a bit. Experiment, try to shoot under different conditions or different lighting. You will learn a bit as you go and the experimentation is only going to help. With enough practice, anyone can create some truly creepy photographs.