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For a fantasy photo project I would like to create a ghostly atmosphere. What I have in mind is a scene with 2 characters, one of them is "real", so will be completely visible, and the other is a ghost or phantom, and would be more of a shadowy figure on the picture, coming from one side behind the other character and leaving on the other side.

Shall I try a long exposure time, with one character staying still and the other quickly passing through? I'm just afraid it will all be blurry, since my main character will be wearing light colors while the ghostly figure will be wearing dark clothes (possibly a long black cloak or something similar).

I'm working with a Sony A33, a basic 18-55mm and a 50mm 1.8.

Thanks for your help!

  • All in camera..? – ElendilTheTall Aug 12 '14 at 9:58
  • Yes! I would like to avoid any photoshop as far as the effect is concernet. I'm ok with postprocessing for the rest though – okmidnight Aug 12 '14 at 10:59
  • How about combining two exposures? – Michael C Aug 12 '14 at 23:20
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Exactly as you say, a long exposure will do the trick... You should use a filter if you are shooting at daytime, otherwise you will perhaps need to compensate the exposure in postprocessing... Your subject (the real one) needs to be very steady so it is sharp while the ghost who is moving will be blurred... Good luck! P.S.: tripod is a must!

  • Thanks for your answer, I'm glad I was right I must say. And I agree for the tripod being essential in this case. I can't wait to try! – okmidnight Aug 12 '14 at 11:01
  • To make it a bit more interesting try shooting with a wide apperture focusing on the subject, you would get a nice bokeh there – Javier Mendonça Aug 12 '14 at 11:05
  • I would add that you might get an interesting effect if your ghost character stops for a short pause at a few points across the room. This would make multiple slightly heavier exposures along the blurred trail of the ghost. It would make it easier to make out details since it will otherwise just be a blur across the background. – AJ Henderson Aug 12 '14 at 13:38
  • Yes, that's what I intend to do. I want the character to go fast towards the "real" person, then stop behind him/her, and then leave on the other side of the picture. But I'll also try other patterns. Thanks for the suggestions :) – okmidnight Aug 12 '14 at 14:08
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To achieve what you describe requires 3 separate exposures - these can all be achieved within the same frame with due care.

  • To get a clear but ghostly image the ghost either needs to remain in one place for part of the exposure or be flash-lit at the point where it needs to be clear.

  • To get a blurred moving ghosts image the ghost needs to move through the frame.

  • The background is usually lit throughout the frame.
    The super enthused could use "bulb" and turn lighting on and off and move the ghosts etc in dark periods. This would allow eg ghosts to move to a location, position themselves steadily and then have lights turned on.

    The background will also be lit by any flash used to highlight the stationary ghost and/or the background can be lit with a flash when the ghost is absent to increase background contrast. Having an independently operated flash able to be used as and when required would greatly ease creating desired effects. If camera controlled std flash is used then (usual) front curtain synchronised flash will lead to trails in front of the ghost and rear curtain flash will lead to trails behind the ghost.

In the images below various effects are noted. Some of these were intentional and some were happenstance. Ghost shooting often requires both trail and error AND intelligent planning and analysis of what you see and why to achieve a desired effect. The various effects on the left hand character in the right half of the final image below [I resemble that] were largely not planned and some were somewhat unexpected (eg variations in shirt transperancy and variation in 'tatoo' effects on arms. While these are obviously explicable in terms of relative lighting levels, being aware that such things happen will (hopefully) help in achieving the desired effects.


The image below demonstrates some of these concepts and also shows some potential problems which need to be addressed. This was taken at ISO100 f/3.5, 15 seconds with no flash. It can be seen that the smoothness of motion of the moving ghost affects how distinct the character is. If the left hand character had walked slowly across the scene, paused for say 20% of the time at some point and then walked on, you'd have both a trail and a distinct ghost. If the pause was at the last portion of the exposure you'd have a trail leading up to the ghost.

For 'extra points' and with enough exposure time a single ghost could run from point to point and then pause at various points (rock steady ptm] of course and then more on. Slow motion would leave a trail between several more distinct ghosts. Fast motion would leave no trail (see sitting ghosts).

enter image description here

Ghosts of Escondido. Larger version here

The two sitting 'ghosts' simply stood up and walked away part way through the exposure. Do this rapidly enough and it is not obvious that the 'ghost' has moved. I've had a peer at the larger version and there is no readily apparent image from the departing ghosts.

The ghost at left simply moved slightly in a series of 'jerks' during the exposure - steady motion would leave a blur.

enter image description here

Closer-up of 3 seated figures. Figure at right is NOT a ghost but relative lighting has washed out contrast. Ghostiness" can be adjusted by percent of time that ghost is present.

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I'm the right hand of the two seated ghosts.


Ghost with flash

This is a 2 second exposure with rear curtain flash.
The Police car almost didn't get included (when the flash is synced to a long shutter speed it tales luck and practice to get things right).
They didn't come back :-)

enter image description here

The top portion is a blowup of the left hand middle edge.
Larger version here


Walking Ghost, rear curtain flash

Same location.
My excuse for looking like that is it's 2:40am in a cold wet winter morning :-).
4 seconds, f/5.,6, ISO 100, rear curtain sync.
No obvious ghost motion. Note car tail-light - a ghost vehicle has transited the picture but left no impression of the actual car.
Service station lighting serves to vary the degree of ghostliness.
Flash at end of frame highlights ghost.
Larger versioin hgere

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Without a flash the ghost is almost unseen in the same conditions (at far right)

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Ghost trails:

Here the ghost has moved slowly enough toi leave a atrail behgind, but the effectis hardly pleasing. More frontr lighting would make the moving ghost more distinct relative to the background and make the trail more solid for a given speed of movement.
Note the dotted lines of right at rear - these are from indicators od cars turning into (out of) the street behind. They were not driving on the grass despite appearances.

enter image description here Larger version


Background / foreground lighting:

The variation between background and foreground at each point in the picture can make an immense difference to what is seen. Image below is 1.5 seconds, f/16, ISo 400 in each case.

In the left half image below the left side of the left hand character has (not surprisingly) no apparent ghost effect as the flash lit character is set off against an essentially black background. The rh side of the character is nicely ghosted in the white shirt area while the black trousers essentially vanish due to the illuminated doorpanels behind. The young woman has variable bands of ghostly effect with a "running man" fire exit logo tastefully stamped on her head (there's no accounting for what ghosts will do) and various other light / dark and dark / light combinations leading to a range of effects.

In the right half image the left side character (which happens to be me) displays a range of interesting variations. The shirt which is flash illuminated varies from almost wholly opaque to about 50% transparent in a manner which is non-intuitive and the carpet pattern tattoos on the arms are seen through the arm (left of image) and on the arm (right of image).

enter image description here

  • I think combining multiple exposures is much simpler. You don't even necessarily need to use a flash. You can control the amount of transparency by what percentage each frame contributes to the combined image. Alternately, if using layers, you place the frame that contains the ghosts on top and adjust the amount of transparency for that layer. – Michael C Aug 13 '14 at 23:03
  • @MichaelClark - Simpler? Simpler !!!? We don't need no... er Probably :-) - I was addressing his apparent leaning towards actually have the camera do the work. Once you can add bits of light together out of the camera you have it made. My last two were towards the end of a wedding reception 'just for fun'. The rainy 2am ones just to see what I could achieve 'out of camera'. Photoshop offers a much drier warmer more predictable route :-). – Russell McMahon Aug 14 '14 at 9:41
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I'd suggest combining a long exposure with flash/strobe if you have access to it. This will give you a sharp exposure of the non-ghostly subject. You'll still need to get them to sit still but the result will be much sharper than just using ambient light.

Alternatively if your camera supports it you might be able to double expose a frame. A long exposure for the ghost (using a ND filter if needed) and then a short second exposure with the subject in the frame. If you set up the camera on a tripod (or some sort of support - a table, beanbag, etc.) you should be able to get good results using a double exposure.

  • For a double exposure you would need the subject in both shots and the ghost in only one, not the other way around. – Michael C Aug 12 '14 at 23:23
  • Thanks, thinking about it again given a scene with fairly constant lighting what you are saying makes sense. I had originally envisioned doing two exposures with vastly different lighting but the same background. Something along the lines of a very dark exposure (heavy ND filter) for the "ghost" with the "ghost" being brought out with light painting or lights attached to the subjects body and a normal shot for the second exposure. I'll have to try it out and see what it looks like. – Richard Smith Aug 13 '14 at 7:38
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It depends on whether you want the ghost to appear as if it's moving or is still. If you want it to look like it's moving then use long exposure & let the ghost move and use a flash on the normal person so they would get propper exposure. If you want the ghost to appear as if it's just standing there then you can either have soft edges & ghostly transparency by using long exposure & a flash on the human & have the ghost try to stand still during the exposure but not too still or if you want to have a ghost with sharp edges yet ghost transparency you can use two bursts of flash, the first one you'd fire on the ghost & remove the ghost from the scene & then fire the second flash on the human when the exposure is about to end. You can experiment with the last idea depending on the area of the set, for example you might need to fire the flash for the ghost when the human is not on the set, then bring in the human & remove the ghost & then fire the flash on the human. There are several ways that you can try that would produce several outcomes depending on your exact needs, but for this set up just get the ghost to move slowly, then bring in the human fast enough so they don't show, especially if you want the ghost to appear as if it's passing behind the human, & then trigger the flash when the ghost is out of the frame.

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two ghosts

This is two exposures combined. Both the "ghost" walking across the street and the "ghost" sitting on the bench are the same person in different costuming.
larger size

If you want one person to be a "non-ghost", they would need to sit perfectly still in the same pose for both exposures.

enter image description here

In this one the "ghost" behind the bar was in only one exposure of a two exposure HDR shot. It really needs to be viewed at full size to see the transparency of the bartender.
larger size

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