Do you have a design project or a website that needs a beautifully captured Jack-O-Lantern on a clean black background? This tutorial is for the amateur and semi-professional photographer. Beginners will have a hard time with this, but are encouraged to read on and learn more about studio photography as well as harnessing the full potential of a DSLR camera. This tutorial includes its share of photography terminology and may cause nausea in those not accustomed to it. You have been warned!
- Camera capable of manual aperture and shutter settings with a timer
- Studio strobe light with umbrella (Not the kind of strobe used in haunted houses)
- Table (Surface for the Jack-O-Lantern)
- 4′ Wide x 6′ Long black fleece fabric
- White reflector (Optional)
- The white reflector can be substituted with one or two pieces of white foam poster board.
Assuming that you have already carved your Jack-O-Lantern, lets go over why we are using each of the items listed in the requirements above.
Camera: Your camera needs to have a manual setting so that we can specify an exact shutter speed and aperture rather then allow the camera to control these. The shutter speed is the setting that tells the camera how long it should leave the shutter open. The aperture is the setting that tells the camera how big or small the aperture ring on the lens should be. Both of these settings play a role in determining how much light is going to enter the camera’s sensor. Most point and shoot cameras do not allow for manual aperture and shutter settings and are basically useless when it comes to this type of shot. I will not go into detail about what aperture and shutter speed is, but if you would like to learn more about these topics, here is a link!
Tripod: Since this shoot requires that we leave the shutter open on the camera for about 4-5 seconds, it is crucial that the camera be supported on a tripod so to avoid camera shake. If the camera moves at all during the exposure, the end result will be blurry.
Studio strobe with umbrella: A strobe light is special light used in photography studios. This light is triggered by the camera using various methods. The strobe light that I use (Alien Bee 800) fires whenever it “sees” a flash from another source. So when I click the shutter release button, the flash on my camera fires, and since the speed of light is, well…the speed of light, the studio strobe light fires at the exact same time! The strobe light is our main source of light for this image (also called the key light).
Table: The table will be the base for the Jack-O-Lantern. I used a small coffee table, you can use any surface (other then the floor).
4′ Wide x 6′ Long black fleece fabric: This is the backdrop for our photo. The reason I like fleece for this type of shoot is because of its ability to absorb light. If we used black paper instead of fleece, the light from our strobe would reflect off of the paper making it visible in our photograph. Fleece helps us create a pure black background.
White reflector: This is used as an additional source of light. Since our key light is slightly to the left of the Jack-O-Lantern, the left side will be slightly more exposed then the right side, the white reflector helps expose the right side of the Jack-O-Lantern. (This is optional, the end result will not be that much different)
1. Place the table about 3-5 inches from a wall. Hang the fleece from a few nails and drape it over the table to create a nice seemless background and base for the Jack-O-Lantern. Leave a little bit of slack between the table and the wall to create a smooth background. You don’t want the fleece to create an exact 90 degree angle. It should curve from the wall to the table. If you want a more professional setup, you can get a backdrop support system to hang the fleece from. Click here for an example. Place your Jack-O-Lantern on the table. Make sure it is lit and that the candle is illuminating it well! Depending on the size of the pumpkin, you may need to use more then one tea light to get it to illuminate optimally. Also, when carving the Jack-O-Lantern, make sure you carve the mouth high enough to hide the candle. Alternatively, you can just lower the tripod and shoot slightly below the line of the candle.
2. Place the camera on the tripod. You need to frame the Jack-O-Lantern in your camera’s viewfinder. Be sure to leave some headroom above and below the Jack-0-Lantern. You can frame the shot vertically or horizontally..
3. Set the strobe to the left of the camera at the same height as the Jack-O-Lantern, pointing directly at the Jack-O-Lantern (see diagram above). The center of the inner umbrella should be about 2-4 inches from the light on the strobe. Turn on the strobe light and make sure to turn the modeling lamp off. (We only want the strobe to expose the Jack-O-Lantern once, the modeling lamp will cause it to overexpose. Studio strobes have two different bulbs, the strobe and the modeling lamp. The strobe only fires for a split second and is the main part of the strobe unit, the modeling lamp is a constant source of light, usually a regular light bulb, that is used to help show where the light and
shadows will fall on the subject.)
4. Optionally, place the white reflector on the right side of the Jack-O-Lantern to help evenly distribute the light. This step is optional and the exact location and angle may create a different end result, so be creative and experiment!
5. Its now time to configure your camera, it may be a good idea to get the manual out if you are not familiar with the different settings. First make sure that your camera’s ISO is at its lowest possible setting to reduce the amount of noise. I set mine to ISO 100. Next set your camera’s aperture (also called f-stop) to f/10 and the shutter speed to 4.0 seconds. Make sure that your built in flash or hot shoe flash is ready. If you are shooting the built in flash on your camera, tape a business card or index card in front of the flash to bounce it backwards so that it fires the strobe, but doesn’t impact the exposure. If you are shooting a hot shoe mounted flash, point it at the ceiling as it will help illuminate the top of the Jack-O-Lantern in addition to firing the main strobe.
6. Set the auto timer on your camera so it takes the picture a few seconds after hit the shutter release. This will prevent additional camera shake. As an alternative, you can purchase a wired or wireless remote camera trigger that allows you to take picture without having to actually touch the camera. I use the Nikon ML-L3 Wireless Remote.
7. Take a test shot with your strobe at 1/2 power and look at your camera’s histogram and viewfinder to see if the exposure it correct. Adjust the strobe until the Jack-O-Lantern looks properly exposed on the viewfinder and the historgram. The inside of the Jack-O-Lantern should be nicely illuminated. You can increase or decrease the exposure time from 4.0 seconds to create a more or less intense glow.
Here is an example of the final product. This is one of my top selling images on iStock.com and is one of the most popular Halloween stock images that the site sells!
Happy Shooting and Happy Halloween!