Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Photographing Spooky Places: Contrasts, Mood

I'm about to embark on going to abandoned places again now that the season is chilly--I despise the heat and rattlesnakes. That being said, I've reviewed some of my photos to find a theme in the way I photograph creepy places and I realized I have a wellspring of examples of ways to bring out hidden messages, mood, and contrasts that I'd love to share with others who want to photograph dark, spooky places and even places not meant to be spooky, but are!

In the first shot, it's one of my obsessions--naked trees. We have a lot of twisted, dead ones here in Arizona and with a background of gray sky they give a very dismal sensation, but this one against the contrast of very blue sky seemed almost crystallized and reaching. Trees are generally great to photograph upwards. Lean your belly against the trunk and prop your elbows on it and take a shot upwards. You'll be amazed what you get. Sometimes, I just zoom in on the bark for some cool texture. Other times, it's that one branch that holds the last leaf that has my fascination.

This cemetery was filled with cats. An old lady came at sunset to feed them. Apparently, they thought I might be the feeding lady, as they crept into the shadows of the post-twilight cemetery. I got a shot of the one atop a headstone and the other behind a tree, the light from the flash reflected on their eyes and made it even more creepy. Wildlife in a place of death is pretty interesting as contrasts go. Don't forget reflectivity too. Glass and metal can create interesting disturbances when flashes are used at night.

My ghost hunting buddy and I always take shots on trips. This one was done into the setting sun. My friend, an artist, said, "no, no! You don't want to do that." I said, "because I'm not supposed to, you know I'm going to have to." (she's quite used to my contrary nature--thank goodness). I love the way it came out. That's me on the left.

This cemetery was bleak. They buried all the prisoners and patients from the asylum in basically graves with markers but no names. It went on forever. It was really pronounced how horrible it was when you see the flat desert and endless sky going on for...eternity. I told my friend right there--do not bury me in the desert!

This cell door is opened, it draw the eye in to the mystery within. The peeled paint on the wall creates a man-shaped shadow. That actually fooled a few ghost hunters that night as we were locked into the abandoned prison for an entire night! Sometimes, it's the dark shadowy corners that creep you out the most. Keep that in mind when setting up a shot. There's the shot that says "here's the whole room" and there's the shot that says "what part of the room am I not seeing?"

This statue was pretty depressing looking, but it became even more so as a monsoon storm was about to hit and the sky turned indigo. Suddenly it took on a sort of end-of-world attitude. I suppose if I shot it at sunrise, it might have had a pinkish pleasant hue, but religion is serious business, so I gave it the appropriate amount of ominous tone.

Lastly, this one shocked me. It was really a shot that almost didn't happen. I was inside of a prison cell decorated by a neo-nazi with disgusting messages and poems. I was going to just leave the place all together, but I realized that the most disturbed person in the prison surely stayed in that cell. People took pictures of it nonstop all night--another prison we were locked in for the night. However, at one point during the night, I got up and went back to the cell, feeling like I forgot something. I looked around and thought, well, I'll just take one more picture. When I looked on my screen, I found this amazing cross shadow falling right over the wording. Apparently, it was caught in just that instant. No one else had a cross on their shots. Sometimes, the gut instinct is the one to go with. I know in ghost hunting, if you want a shot of action, you have to take them when you feel it in your bones or when a place calls to you to go back.

Hope you learned a few things about looking at the world as potentially spooky. Even the most mundane things looks scarier if you do them in black and white, get below them looking up to show proportions that look enormous, capturing deep shadows, and letting the scene be obscured by tree limbs, or even letting a human shadow cast over a scene. Just like in a haunted house, it isn't what you can see that scares you, it's what you can't see that might be lurking... keep that in mind.


  1. Really spooky! I loved the pictures with the cats(what did you expect?).

  2. I'd actually love to go back there and photograph the cats--they were very friendly and curious.

  3. I finally saw the program last night, and now the name escapes me. It was at Alcatraz and they put the blonde girl in the basement by herself for awhile. (This I could talk about for hours in a heated discussion.)Was this a good idea or a bad idea... hard call as there is a solid argument for both sides.

    Anyway, they kept going back to the same cells where the most mentally disturbed prisoners had been housed.

    This whole thing made me think to ask you a question or two to get your take on it.

    What do you think is the likelihood of people haunting a place while they are still alive?

    As in a traumatic haunting where the incident is looped and just keeps playing over and over.

  4. @eloh;
    You saw Ghost Lab, huh? I love the idea of the show--I just hate the executors of it! You asked a good question. Where I grew up, I'd say about 85% of the haunting activity were clearly "residual" playbacks of past events. They were voices, footsteps, shadowy figures in the same places. Those were almost like clockwork. In the world of ghost hunting, that only conclusion I've absolutely arrived at is that residual hauntings definitely exist. I am not of the variety that believes they are the spirit reenacting something over and over again--jeez, I don't want the afterlife if I have to keep going to my work desk every freakin' day. I do, however, think that sounds and visuals, scents, and sensations can all be caught in a spot and replay. What triggers replays, why they become imprinted...still up in the air, but I do think they could involve one or several of these features:
    1. Repeated activity for long periods of time.
    2. Strong emotions.
    3. Geomagnetic activity.
    4. Geology.
    I believe this can actually happen within a person's lifetime. As a kid, I did hear my sister pounding on the walls and screaming years after she'd moved out. It was something she used to do during particularly bad fights with mom.