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Create an Eerie Floating Ghost Using Your Camera and Photoshop

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Ever dreamed of stepping into an abandoned house and capturing the perfect picture of a ghost or spirit? Today I'll be teaching you a simple method for becoming an artificial ghost buster. We will be taking a look at lighting, more specifically rim lighting, and also two different post-processing techniques which will appear to make your subject float. Let's get started!


Recommended Equipment

  • Your Digital SLR (I shoot a Canon XTI)
  • A lens (Any will do, I was going to use a 85mm 1.8f but the shot would have been too tightly cropped for my liking, so I switched off to my standard 18-55 kit lens. It worked fine)
  • A flash unit, such as a Canon 580EX II (I used a 430EX for my shot)
  • Wireless transmitter and receiver for your flash (I have a pair of Yongnuo RF-602's)
  • A tripod / light stand for your flash unit
  • You could also bring a tripod for your camera, although I did not do this as I only had one tripod when I took my shot
  • Adobe Photoshop (I have CS5)

Step 1. Location, Location, Location

The first thing we need to do is find a location. I chose this abandoned house because it fits the theme of a floating ghost. If I lived near a canyon I'd set this shot up on the edge of the canyon. If shot correctly it would make your subject appear to be floating out, over the canyon. So go out, find a suitable location to use and get ready to set up your gear.

ghost photography

Step 2. Setting Up the Shot

The idea behind the shot is to create a fairly noticeable rim light on your subject. This rim light will give the illusion of a "halo" or their ghostly body emerging from "the light". First off, figure out the direction you'll be shooting and the required distance to incorporate as much of the scene as you wish.

If you have two tripods, (or a tripod and a light stand) place your camera on your tripod so you don't forget where you were standing. Now place your light stand and flash two feet behind your subject. Raise the stand until the head of the flash is at about the middle of your subject's back and point it slightly upwards.

It is important to note at this time that you should not turn your flash unit on just yet, proceed to the next step first.

ghost photography

Step 3. Perfecting Your Exposure

Have your subject stand where you want them for the shot and ask them to pose while you take a few test shots. Use these test shots to determine your shutter speed and aperture. I recommend shooting in ISO 100 if possible, although if not, it's not a huge deal.

I also recommend shooting with a narrow aperture, f8 to f22, to ensure both your subject and background are in detail. You can either use Manual mode on your camera or Aperture Priority (AV).

Once you have decided on an aperture, choose a shutter speed that will slightly underexpose the frame. Make sure you are shooting fast enough to freeze your (what should be) still subject; but not too fast that when you fire your flash, you are getting half black images.

I recommend anything between 60 and 200, if possible. If for some reason you can't get a decent exposure within that range, adjust your aperture. Once you get your exposure correct without your flash, it's time to light it up!

A Quick Note...

I mentioned in the introduction that there are two different post-processing techniques. One will involve the Clone Stamp tool and the other will be using Layer Masks. Depending on your scene, you will choose either the Clone Stamp method or the Layer Masks method, or even both.

If your scene has an immobile object for your subject to stand on, such as my scene did, you will be using the Clone Stamp tool. If you had to bring a stool or stepladder, your preferred method would be Layer Masks.

When using the stepladder or stool technique, please ensure you take an image of your scene without your subject and ladder, after you have set your exposure. Without this extra picture you will be forced to use the Clone Stamp method.

ghost photography

Step 4. Perfecting the Rim Light

Now that you've got a dark, moody exposure set, we can begin to experiment with the rim lighting. The whole idea behind rim lighting is to give your subject a "halo", so to speak. We do not want to see the flash unit itself; otherwise there will be a blinding white spot on the image. Our subject should be standing between the camera and the flash, in order to have the light radiate from behind him/her.

Turn on your flash and set the mode to Manual. Set your power to 1/16 to begin, ensuring your triggers are on and ready to go as well. Take a picture, and use your LCD screen to check the lighting. Can you see any shine on the edge of your subject? If not, try upping the power on your flash unit to 1/8 or 1/4.

If, when you checked your shot, all you saw was blinding light radiating from your subject, try knocking the power down a step or two to 1/32 maybe even 1/64 (but that'll be pushing it). Always take a few shots with a one-stop power difference in your flash. When you get back home and upload the pictures, you may see something different than you did on your camera's tiny LCD.

ghost photography

Step 5. Go Home!

Alright, you've captured your floating ghost image; but now what? Well let's start off by importing all your pictures onto your computer. I shouldn't have to go into detail on how to do this, so venture down to step six when you're ready.


Step 6. Picking the Best of the Best

Use your photo management application (Adobe Bridge CS5 for me) and go through all your images. Choose the one you like the best, whether it's because of the perfect rim lighting, the crisp detail, or the angle you've chosen, and open it up in Adobe Photoshop.

If you've shot RAW, begin by adjusting your image in Camera RAW. I won't tell you the exact settings for my picture, but I'll give you some pointers. Depending on how well exposed your image came out, I'd adjust your exposure until it looks slightly dark, then I'd decrease the Brightness a little and up the Contrast, in order to bring out some shadows, and create the illusion of the "dark, haunted image".

You can then go through and increase / decrease the Saturation and Vibrancy. Also, if your image as color balance issues at this stage, it'd be a good idea to correct those now.


Step 7. Clone Stamp Method

(Skip to Step 13 for Layer Masks)

We now have the corrected image of our subject in Adobe Photoshop open. It's recommended practice to always start off by duplicating your original image layer. This ensures we will always have our original, corrected version. Let's begin with the Clone Stamp tool. I like to think of this tool as more of a brush, rather than a "stamp", although it works both ways.

Choose the Clone Stamp tool from the tool bar on the left (see image below). If your default brush size is tiny, you can scale it using the [ and ] keys, smaller and larger respectively. Scale it until you can see a reasonable sized circle.

The Clone Stamp tool works by having you select an area of the image you wish to clone, and as you brush, that selected area will be duplicated, continuing on in the same path as your mouse. I know it sounds confusing, but once you try it out, you'll catch on quick.

Alt + Click will select the area you wish to duplicate. Then all you need to do is click or click and drag to begin painting. Go try it out on your image right now, just mess around. Make sure you save first!

ghost photography

Step 8. Time to Get Down to Business

Hopefully you've got a solid understanding of the Clone Stamp tool now. If not, keep practicing. I know I was horrible with it at first - heck, I'm still no expert.

Let's start off with the edge of your subject's standing platform. For me it was either side of the piece of wood she is standing on (see image below). Ensure you have created a new layer and are using the Sample All Layers. This will guarantee you won't ruin pixels on your actual image.

ghost photography

Step 9. Try, and Try Again

Alt + Click the background behind your subject's standing platform to start cloning from that area. If you chose to start on the right side, select the right side of the background, so you will be working towards the left. Position your mouse relatively close to the far right edge and begin painting left.

Note: The key to the Clone Stamp tool is to select a new area of your image very often; also called sourcing or sampling. That way, your cloned areas won't look exactly like their counterparts above or below. It helps to hide the fact you Clone Stamped.

ghost photography

Step 10. All the Way Around

The rest of the Clone Stamping process is quite tedious. Simply put, just keep sourcing your image and brushing over top everything that shouldn't be there (tripod, standing platform). When you get into cramped areas, such as the legs of a tripod, scale your brush down using [ and continue to source and clone.

If you check out the image below, you'll see I finished cloning everything out, but since the lighting isn't perfectly even across my background, I've got the wrong colour cloned into my house. Create a new layer and name it "Fix ups". Go through again with the Clone Stamp tool and try to match as best you can the correct colour and texture.

If you view the image below, you'll notice I've overcorrected my fix ups and now they are too dark, but don't worry, Step 11 will fix that.

ghost photography

Step 11. Fixing Over-Corrections

Lucky for us, we put our fix ups on a new layer, this will help us tremendously. Cmd + Click (Ctrl + Click on PC) the thumbnail of your "Fix ups" layer. This will select the pixels in this layer.

From here, go to Window > Adjustments and your Adjustment Layer toolbox should pop up. Click on the Brightness and Contrast setting, which should create an Adjustment Layer with a layer mask already set to your "Fix ups" layer.

Simply adjust both the Brightness and Contrast until your fix up error starts to merge in. If this doesn't work for you, you can always try different adjustment layers, remembering that these are Adjustment Layers, so you can always go back and re-adjust.

ghost photography
ghost photography

Step 12. Finishing Touches

To add one last darkening touch, we will add a Radial Gradient over top of everything to make the center (where the light radiates from) appear brighter then the edges of the image.

To do this, create a new layer in-between your original, untouched image and your duplicated version, which should also be untouched, and fill it black. Create a layer mask on the duplicated original (which should now be directly above the black filled layer) and select the Gradient tool.

Select a black to white gradient, with black on the left. Next, click on the thumbnail of the layer mask and hold Shift as you click and drag your gradient from the middle of the image to the top. You shouldn't have to drag the gradient all the way to the top, maybe about two-thirds from the center. Experiment a bit until you get it just the way you want.

Now you're all done if you took the Clone Stamp route! If you're scene requires the Layer Masks technique, proceed to the next step.

ghost photography

Step 13. Layer Mask Technique

Luckily for you, this post-processing technique is a lot easier and looks better. Let me explain the basic concept. We'll take our image without anything in it, and open it up in Photoshop. Next we'll take our image with our subject, standing platform, and lights and place it on a new layer on top of our first image. We'll then create a layer mask and paint our subject back into the scene. Let's begin.


Step 14. Adding Images

This first step is rather simple - open up your empty image in Photoshop and do not make any edits. Since we'll be using two photos, edits will need to be exactly the same, otherwise your subject will not merge with the scene.

Open up your second image, the one with your subject and lighting, and again make no edits. Now in Photoshop press Cmd + A (Ctrl + A on PC) to Select All, and go back to the empty image. Press Cmd + V (Ctrl + V on PC) to paste the full image on a new layer on top of the empty image.

ghost photography

Step 15. Layer Masks

You should now have two layers in your document, the bottom one is the empty image and the top one is the full image. Create a layer mask on the top layer by clicking the Add Vector Mask button in the button right, see image below. This will create a vector mask on your top layer, although you won't see a difference.

Press D to switch your colors to black on foreground and white on background and then press Alt + Delete to fill the vector mask with black. You should now see only your empty image.

ghost photography

Step 16. Bring Your Subject Back

Simply click the thumbnail of the black vector mask in the layers pallet. Hit X to swap your foreground and background colors. Select a decent sized brush, depending on how large your subject is. Begin painting on your image where you think your subject is. If you get it right, you'll slowly start to paint your subject back in.

Make sure you go all around your subject, getting every last inch. Once done, you can go back over with a black brush to "erase" the details you don't want to see, such as tripod legs, etc. After you've gone over everything, you can throw on a couple Adjustment Layers, ensuring they aren't masked to a certain layer, and edit your image to your heart's content!

ghost photography
ghost photography

Step 17. All Done!

That's it! If you chose the Layer Masks technique, you'll find it was a lot easier to accomplish. The Clone Stamp method is much harder but if you do it right, you can create some really stunning results.

Anyway, thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoy experimenting with this technique!

ghost photography
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