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Create a Spooky High-Contrast Halloween Portrait Look With Just One Light

Halloween is an excellent opportunity for photographers. There's so much to look at! It's also a challenging time to photograph. Lighting conditions are usually poor, and your subjects (especially if they're of the young variety) rocket-fuelled on an overdose of sugar. Even worse, the great visual variety of Halloween actually makes photographing in your own memorable way more challenging. In this tutorial you'll learn a simple, dramatic and unusual approach to Halloween portraiture with just one light.

The black background created by simply controlling the light
The black background created by simply controlling the light is ideal for this kind of work

A Portrait Twist on Event Photography

Last October, the Archaeological Museum of São Miguel de Odrinhas, near Lisbon, had a special night called “Night of the Witches” during Halloween. The museum holds Etruscan sarcophagi, Roman monuments, Visigoth lintels, Medieval tombs, stones, tools, artifacts, coins, glassware, bone and other objects found in the region. The organizers of the event created a link between the roots of Halloween in European tradition and the objects and atmosphere of the museum. They invited people for an in-costume guided visit to the museum, with special emphasis on the rituals of death during the Roman Age.

The guided visit, although interesting, was difficult to photograph. It happened completely under the light of candles and torches. The chance to photograph the costumed participants, though, was too good to pass up! I decided to create a makeshift studio in the museum.

A project like this needs some preparation. I checked with the museum ahead of time figure out when the makeup session would happen. We scheduled to do the portraits before the show, as afterwards the participants would probably have been too tired and frazzled for a photo session. Having all the information you need and a complete understanding of how the action flows is essential. Have a plan, but be ready to improvise.

The one light setup creates some dramatic images
The one light setup creates some dramatic images

Studio Setup on Location

Creating a studio on location does not need to be hard. For this project I relied on a very simple setup consisting of one flash mounted on a light stand placed to the left of and slightly above the subject.

After scouting for locations I decided to use a section in the museum’s library that offered me a good working area with low environmental lighting and enough distance to the background wall to let the light fall off into darkness. No need to setup a background: you just need to find a large-enough space and control your light. This setup also works well outdoors.

A diagram shows how simple the setup for this session is Try it at home
A diagram shows how simple the setup for this session is. Try it at home!

An Extreme Ratio

In portraiture, the lighting ratio is the difference in illumination between the most-illuminated side of the subject's face and the least-illuminated side. Generally speaking, a high ratio creates a more dramatic, dynamic look. This look is also emphasized when the light source is specular, like the small flash used like in this tutorial, and the transition between light and dark is abrupt.

Set up your flash on a stand to one side of subject. Place the flash much further back than a normal portrait setup. You want to rake the light across the front of the subject so that their face is only fully illuminated when they turn directly into the light. There's no need for a diffuser or other means to soften the light. Let the harsh, direct light of the flash play with the texture of the costume and makeup on faces.

To achieve the desired background with this lighting, start with a high shutter speed on your camera (as high as your flash's sync speed will allow), set the flash to manual mode and boost the power. With your light meter or your camera, find an exposure that works with your flash, location, and lens choice to create a black background.

For these pictures, I started with 1/250 on my camera and an aperture of f/8 at 100 ISO. I also used a portrait lens, a 50mm on my APS-C camera. This is a lens I'm comfortable with and works well when I “zoom with my feet”.

If there is something interesting about your location, "drag" your shutter (decrease your shutter speed) to bring in details from the foreground of your surroundings into your exposure. The flash will stop the action, so you are safe using a shutter speed much longer than you might normally use hand-held. I found the location of my shoot added some nice little details without giving too much away.

Because the flash is in manual mode the exposures are not impacted by any changes in the costumes or your distance from the subject. Do watch out, however, that your subjects stay in the sweet spot for your flash and don't drift too close or too far away from your initial setup and become under or over exposed.

The harsh direct light from the flash worked well to enhance the features of each character
The harsh direct light from the flash worked well to enhance the features of each character

If you want to get really fancy you could use a second light to create a rim or hair light effect. For this, set a second flash behind the subject pointing back toward the camera, either down low for a rim light or up high for a hair light. This second light will help separate the subject from the background and create definition. For an even spookier look, consider a dark red or green coloured gel on the second light to add a bit of atmosphere.

Create the Portraits

Makeup tends to melt and get smudged so time is of the essence with these portraits. People want to get out and be scary while they're in costume, not stand around!

Hold the camera in your hands, don't use a tripod. Compose each picture quickly and react to the person in front of you. Don't worry about making each one perfect. These portraits are about action and energy, not contemplation. Strict portrait composition and lighting rules are not part of the equation!

As each person steps into your set, ask them to pose as if they were "in character", looking toward you. Then tell them to stay in character and slowly turn and face towards the light. Everyone will do this turn slightly differently and this will reveal unique compositions.

A 50mm lens on an APS-C was used for all the pictures Zooming was done simply by walking back and forwards
A 50mm lens on an APS-C camera was used for all the pictures. Zooming was done simply by walking back and forwards

Wrap Up

After the event ends, photograph the whole group if you have the chance.

One single flash was used to light the whole group
One single flash was used to light the whole group

The Limit is Your Imagination

A project like this opens some new challenges and perspectives that you may want to explore. Maybe there is, where you live, a museum, a theater group or any other institution that organizes Halloween events which offer visual interest for photographers. Find them, get in touch, explain your idea and you’ll probably be able to go behind the scenes and get some exclusive photos.

People in costume generally love being photographed, but rarely do they get portraits like these. Create a collection of photos to offer the institution and all those involved and you may be a few steps from being able to organize an exhibit of your photography.

Each person photographed was simply asked to pose as if they were in character
Each person photographed was simply asked to pose as if they were "in character"

This can easily transform into a community project, too. That's what I intend to do this Carnival: invite some photographers to photograph such events with me. Being able to have five or six different pairs of eyes seeing the same subject from different angles is a tremendous experience that not only enriches the collection but also widens horizons when it comes to the craft of photography. This setup is easy to replicate, so everyone can use the same basic approach. Comparing results and editing the collective work in the end is an experience that helps all participants to grow, photographically speaking. And probably as human beings too!

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