How to Create a Halloween Village: Chapter 9
Photographing Your Village
Every year I create a new village with a new foam base so photographing my work is essential. However, taking pictures in low light conditions that truly capture that spooky vibe is challenging. Luckily, today’s cameras – even phone cameras – feature advanced settings to capture fantastic images. I recommend investing in a good camera and sturdy tripod. It may be arduous but invest the time to learn how to use that camera in the “manual” mode. You can find YouTube tutorials to help you with the settings. I can’t give you specific advice about your camera, but I can share some of the tips that I’ve learned through trial and error about photographing a village.
Use a tripod and timer
All low-light pictures will absolutely require a tripod to achieve success – there is no other way for the amateur photographer. Tripods come in all sizes. Make sure yours is as tall as your display. Don’t try propping the tripod on books, chairs, or ottomans. And use a remote or timer feature to make sure the camera is not even slightly shaking. Simply pressing the button to take the picture caused the blurriness above.
Don't use the flash
This may seem counter intuitive to trying to capture the details but the flash on most cameras is too bright and useless. The flash also guarantees to remove all aesthetic ambience from your display, flooding your village with intense white light and harsh shadows. The pictures below illustrate how a bright flash creates harsh shadows, like the one behind the figurine, and washes out all the interesting softer shades of color.
Add special lighting
Just because you should avoid the flash, doesn't mean you should avoid all light. First, plan to take pictures at night when you can control ambient lighting, such as sunlight. Then use filtered, low wattage lights from lamps fitted with colored light bulbs (amber, blue, green, red or even blacklight). Set these up a good distance from the display to provide subtle lighting. You'll need to experiment as to how much light to use. Think about the backgrounds as well. If your village is set up against a white wall, much light will be reflected and may confuse your camera’s sensors.
In the pictures to the above, I set up a cool blue light to contrast the warm reds, yellows and oranges of the buildings and background. The cool vs. warm lights create a tension, enhance different details, and makes everything pop.
Leave “Auto” setting behind
Most digital cameras have a variety of settings (night mode, slow synchro, slow shutter) and while it’s tempting to keep it on “auto” all the time, experiment with low-light settings to best capture the intricate light details. Using the "manual" setting will give you the most control but you should understand the basics of aperture, exposure, and ISO. Use aperture control (f1.8 - f8) to control how much light gets through the lens. Use a longer exposure (5-10 seconds) to get the most detail in low-light situations. Use a low ISO (100-200) to avoid graininess in the final picture.
The richness of this picture featuring Zelda's Museum of Wax was captured by a very slow exposure and a black light on the left. The neon-glow results were such a surprise to me! Who could know that Department 56 used so many black light-ready paints!
Experiment with focus and zoom
With your camera set on a tripod, use the zoom in conjunction with the focus lock to capture the best details. Focus is usually set as “evaluative” which forces the camera to put all objects in focus. Try using “center-weighted” or “spot” focus to capture very specific details while slightly blurring the background, foreground, or edges. When elements in the background are out of focus, it gives your picture a sense of depth.
Find the small details
The pictures of a complete village display are certainly impressive, but don’t forget that the details are what make Halloween villages so unique. Select a few pieces throughout your collection and focus on those special details, like the Hauntsville name plaque to the above.
Compose your pictures thoughtfully
You often see photographers holding up their hands and creating two inverted “L” shapes with their thumb and index fingers, creating a “frame” and looking for that perfect angle. When taking a picture of your village consider the best angles to frame your image. Sometimes a 45º angle (instead of straight-on) will capture the architecture more clearly. Consider bird’s eye view, eye-level view or ground-level view to add more visual interest to your final picture. These close-up pictures place the viewer “in” the village itself.
For the LaGhosti Theatre I wanted the background flames to frame the shot, and I knew that this particular building looks best from a slight angle.
Rearrange the village as needed
Great village displays tend to be very dense with trees, figures, and multiple levels of buildings. Sometimes the background gets lost in the picture because of the foreground. Consider moving elements out of the way to get the perfect picture. I’m constantly moving trees and figurines to get a clean shot of a building. Also remember that in low-light picture taking, any moving objects (windmills, flying witches, etc.) will be blurred. Consider unplugging the moving parts, if possible.
To capture the image of the Black Cat Diner above, I had to remove several trees and other accessories to get a clean shot of the building from a ground-level perspective. I took this picture last, knowing I'd have to remove several other pieces.
Take a series of pictures
Unless you are an expert, taking low-light pictures is a time-consuming and sometimes frustrating experience. Consider taking a series of pictures over several nights rather than trying to do it all at once. Review pictures on a bigger computer screen (rather than relying on the tiny camera screen) and consider improving certain key shots. You’ll also have a better feel for the “visual tour” you are trying to create.
For my 2007 village, I took an initial series of pictures but wanted something slightly different. So I set up a bunch of black lights and the same village seemed to come alive in a new unexpected way. Apparently, many of the paints used are quite sensitive to black lights! Who knew?!?
Create a visual tour of your village
When taking pictures and assembling an album or gallery, orient the viewer going from the left to the right of the display (this is how we read, so we are used to the motion). Sequence pictures with overlapping details like trees or fences to give viewers a “guided stroll” through your village.
I divided the All Hallow's Eve vignette above into four subsequent pictures for my online album.