Trick #1: Shadows, shadows, and more shadows
The dark, dank basement. The windowless attic. The deep woods. These are the settings that scary movies depend on. There’s just something about shadows that we universally associate with mystery and spookiness.
Seek out the shadows, especially those that create interesting patterns or overlap to create varying depths of darkness. This doesn’t necessarily mean shooting after sundown, but nighttime certainly presents a bevy of opportunities to find shadows dancing across the scene. Take it head on, and don’t be afraid to increase your ISO … the raw grittiness can actually enhance the mood of your image!
Trick #2: Find the brightest spot in the room/yard
It doesn’t sound creepy (and it’s not to the naked eye), but if you use your camera to expose significantly darker than what you see, the atmosphere will be completely transformed.
The key is to find a glaringly bright spot that would normally show up as a hot spot in your image (or that you’d otherwise avoid). Place your subject right in this area of intense illumination (or wait for the subject to pass through it), and spot meter to expose for the bright area between 0 and +2/3.
Your subject will be properly exposed in the blinding brightness, and the surrounding area will fall away in deep shadow.
Trick #3: Skew your white balance
Color manipulation can be a powerful way to influence mood and atmosphere, and we see this used often in filmmaking.
For a spooky or supernatural feel, infusing the shadows with otherworldly greens and spellbound purples is powerfully surreal. But smaller shifts can be effective, too: cool tones can call to mind shadowy nighttime hues, and an overly warm white balance (especially with hot, orangey skies) might connote an apocalyptic vibe.
Trick #4: Block the eyes
They say that the eyes are the window to the soul and when you can’t see those eyes – well, it can be a bit unsettling. There are a number of ways to block the eyes: shoot from the back (no face in view), crop at the neck, or physically block the eyes with the subject’s hands, hair, hat or another element in the scene.
Remember, of course, that excluding the eyes doesn’t always result in spookiness, so take context into account. Are there other elements or an atmosphere that contribute to a chilling sense of beauty? Can your processing enhance this?
Trick #5: Add a little tilt
How many times have you read a critique in which the critic advised the photographer to straighten the horizon? A crooked horizon can make the viewer feel very uneasy, unbalanced, and unnatural.
In many circumstances, we don’t want to make the viewer feel that way … but if you’re going for spookiness or mystery, it can be very effective. Don’t overdo it … you don’t want your viewer to be distracted or tilting her head to the side to view the image … the best way is usually to tilt it ever so slightly … just enough that something doesn’t “feel right.”
Go for subtlety; when your viewer can’t put her finger on what it is about an image that is so compelling, you’re more likely to draw her in and keep her studying the image.
Trick #6: Have the subject look out of the frame
For extra creepiness, compose the image so that the subject is looking right at something beyond the edge of the frame. Basic rules of composition suggest having a subject look INTO the frame, not out of it, largely because it’s jarring to pull the eye right out.
By having a subject look at something immediately beyond the edges of the image, you create a fantastic sense of the unknown (which is often a bit spine tingling!)
Trick #7: Remove an important element
Similar to trick #6, removing an important element creates a sense of mystery and forces the viewer’s imagination to account for the elements necessary to complete the story. It could be just showing a shadow and excluding the subject; it could be showing a subject looking scared, anxious, or upset without providing enough context to show why.
Please don’t actually traumatize your subject just to get a certain expression. Children in particular often go through a million expressions in a short period of time (I don’t advocate actually upsetting your subject for the sake of an image) … be patient, and watch for the right opportunity to make it fit into your final vision.
Trick #8: Be a peeping tom
Suspense and horror movies often put the camera in the position of the ominous observer watching an unsuspecting target. Find yourself a good “hiding spot,” and shoot from there, using foreground elements such as the branches of bushes, a gap in a fence, edge of the window frame, or a crack in the doorway to make it clear that you’re shooting from a hidden or otherwise unnoticed position.
Note: Don’t peep where you don’t actually have permission! We’re going for artistic creepiness – not criminal behavior! Don’t go taking pics through the neighbor’s window with your telephoto lens.
Trick #9: Break other rules
Rules are rules for a reason. In most cases, they promote aesthetics that we associate with artistic harmony and a pleasant viewing experience. When you break them, there’s a good chance that you’re introducing an element of discord … and if spookiness/mystery is what you want, that discord can really strengthen the overall viewing experience.
Remember, though, to be deliberate and use finesse – don’t go overboard. As with the tilt (trick #5), doing something that just feels a little “off” draws the viewer in and lets her imagination run wild; breaking a dozen rules at once just feels careless and chaotic.
Do you have any favorite photographers that have mastered the art of moodiness, spookiness, or goosebump-eliciting beauty? Share them with me in the comments!