9 Tricks to add spookiness, moodiness, & mystery to your photos

9 Tricks to add spookiness, moodiness, & mystery to your photos

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!

Related: 6 Tips for embracing low-light and high ISO photos

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!

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About the Author:

Sarah Wilkerson is the CEO of Click & Company and also provides mentoring services, teaches advanced Click Photo School courses on composition & creativity, and authors the “Why It Works” series in CLICK magazine. She specializes in low light photography, everyday documentary, and tilt-shift work. A former attorney and Duke graduate, Sarah resides in northern Virginia with her Army JAG husband, four children, and three dogs. Visit Sarah Wilkerson online.
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22 Comments

  1. emma Oct 31 2011 at 5:54 am - Reply

    I’m loving these spooky tips Sarah – and your pictures are just fantastic.

  2. Taylor Oct 31 2011 at 6:27 am - Reply

    love this article!

  3. Catherine O'Nei Oct 31 2011 at 6:40 am - Reply

    Great article and very useful. Thanks.

  4. Bethany Oct 31 2011 at 6:50 am - Reply

    These are great. Thank you for sharing!

  5. Stacey Haslem Oct 31 2011 at 7:01 am - Reply

    LOVE! This is full of wonderful tips. Thank you for sharing Sarah!!!

  6. Stephanie Oct 31 2011 at 7:08 am - Reply

    He's more of an old-school photographer, but Ralph Eugene Meatyard was a master at moody, creepy photos.

    http://www.mocp.org/collections/permanent/meatyar

  7. Ashley Spaulding Oct 31 2011 at 8:33 am - Reply

    Such a great article today…thanks for sharing your tips with us, Sarah, and also for sharing your terrific images! I just love the moods you create in your work!

  8. Jenn Jones Oct 31 2011 at 8:43 am - Reply

    Love these tips! Love the spooky photos, Sarah!

  9. Meredith Oct 31 2011 at 8:50 am - Reply

    So perfect for today! Thanks Sarah. I just bought your ebook on CM too.

  10. lisa harrison Oct 31 2011 at 9:02 am - Reply

    Sarah, great article and your images are amazing <3

  11. Celeste Oct 31 2011 at 9:03 am - Reply

    Great article Sarah, just in time for some photo ops tonight!!

  12. Leah Cook Oct 31 2011 at 11:24 am - Reply

    Sarah all of these images are just so COOL. I love the way your brain 'sees' …you can turn anything spooky. Happy Halloween and thanks for sharing your tips 🙂

  13. Lisa (Tout Petit Pix Oct 31 2011 at 12:15 pm - Reply

    Wow Sarah!! This is incredibly inspiring! Thanks so much for sharing!!

  14. Monica Oct 31 2011 at 1:59 pm - Reply

    Great tips..very inspiring and a little bit CREEPY!! 🙂

  15. LaceyMeyers Oct 31 2011 at 9:00 pm - Reply

    These are all amazing… and I guess it goes without saying that your black and white conversions really REALLY add to the effect of the image. Having them in bright vivid color would definitely detract! 🙂

  16. Lisa Benemelis Sep 03 2012 at 1:28 pm - Reply

    Wonderful article, Sarah. You are always so inspiring. Your images are amazing and a wonderful visual. Thank you. 🙂

  17. melissa deakin Oct 31 2012 at 4:19 pm - Reply

    Love this so much, Sarah!
    That last image with the boys by the house is incredible.
    Fabulous! Thanks so much!

  18. DeeR Oct 31 2012 at 10:43 pm - Reply

    I hate taking Halloween pictures at night of my grandkids out trick or treating because I can’t see to focus whether auto or manual, high ISO, exposure compensation, etc etc and 9 times out of 10 they are out of focus and the kids and adults have no patience for “one more time” shots. Any advice? This happens every year and I still haven’t figured out how to get it right.

  19. Sonia Oct 30 2014 at 9:17 am - Reply

    Awesome tips and photos Sarah! Very useful, thank you for sharing these!

  20. Julie Brack Oct 28 2015 at 1:42 pm - Reply

    Great tips Sarah! I’ll have to try some of these! Thanks for sharing.

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