Tricks or Treats: How to Ghost Your Audience


October 30, 2019
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Image of Sorrell Weed House with “orbs.”

I am a huge scaredy-cat. Horror movies and spooky stuff are some of my favorite things, but getting me to walk-through a haunted house, be it staged or “real” can be like pulling teeth. A specific family trip to Savannah, Georgia comes to mind. We ended up at the famous Sorrell Weed House, said to be haunted by many a soul. I was so very happy to give my grandmother assistance around the house and hold her hand while navigating the staircase to and from the basement! I digress. When leaving, I took a photo of an outside light post that, when reviewed, seems to show orbs where orbs should not be. Could it be a trick of the camera? Most likely so, but it really got me thinking.

Capturing evidence of ghosts and paranormal activity has been a longtime fascination traced back to the origins of photography. Photographers are said to have first been lovers of the dead, bringing the dead back to life through their medium. How can we possibly know what is a true ghost image and what is a manufactured trick for the eye, though? HMNS Photographer Mike Rathke and I took to the halls to see just how easy, and fun, it is to ghost your audience.

Here I am admiring “Red Umbrella” under bright light.

In order to ghost someone in your shots, there are only a few steps to follow. Above all else, tripod tripod tripod! Without a steady shot, you will struggle to capture your ghost. Use a long exposure and we found that somewhere between 5 to 10 seconds timing should suffice. Have your model remain still for around half of the timed exposure and that’s that. It truly is about playing around and trying different things for the perfect ghost shot. More time in the frame will mean less opacity, less time in the frame will mean more opacity. So see what works for you.

“It’s all about your lighting,” Mike stated, camera in hand as we walked through one of our latest special exhibits The Art of the Brick. We scoped out a few cool spots for photos as museum guests watched us nerd out over our little project. Lighting and timing were the two major components he kept addressing during our shoot. With each placement, one of us or both would stand under a good light source (sometimes with the addition of our smartphone flashlights), time the shot just right and then run or roll, literally, out of the frame. I’m sure onlookers thought were were lunatics!

Mike and I posed for the album cover. Stay tuned.

If you were to search ghost or spirit photography on the web, old-timey photos would emerge, showing a craze that surfaced in the 1850s and 60s. Photographers began experimenting with various effects as stereoscopic images, which creates an illusion of depth in an image, or double exposure, which allows the photographer to combine two exposures into one. Now, I’m only a novice in photography, but have dabbled enough to know that modern photo editing software makes these techniques easily executed by the masses nowadays, strengthening the question of what is real and what has been planted for viewers to believe.

Mike and I having some fun in front of “Skulls”

William Mumler’s work is a prime example of spirit photography and the questions it poses. He is known for being the first spirit photographer, rising to fame during the Civil War era and showcasing fallen soldiers who have returned from the afterlife to take one last photo with their loved ones. His most famous work is that of widowed former First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln with the comforting hands of President Abraham Lincoln resting on her shoulders. Was Lincoln truly there with her when taking this photo? Perhaps, but the photograph was probably the outcome of double exposure. Speculation from critics of the period labeled Mumler a fraud, but oddly enough this recognizable photo was taken after his downfall.

William Mumler photo of Mary Todd Lincoln and Abraham Lincoln “apparition.”

Amazing how history can truly take you places. From Mumler’s downfall and time incarcerated to a modern day’s Houston Museum of Natural Science where a photographer and a writer and run through inspiring exhibits and create our own art. Have I answered any of my questions? Not at all, but now I know some pretty cool techniques to creep out friends. Explore the gallery and see for yourself then maybe try some ghosting shots of your own this Halloween!

Authored By Jilliane Johnson

Jilliane began her HMNS career in Visitor Services, greeting and assisting guests on a daily. Now as a full-time member of Marketing, Jilliane educates visitors and viewers of the various stories and storytellers within the walls. When Jilliane isn't writing, you can find her gaming, spending time with friends and family or watching trashy TV dating shows.

2 responses to “Tricks or Treats: How to Ghost Your Audience”

  1. Alyssia says:

    This was so interesting! Can’t wait to try this trick.

  2. Vernett says:

    Great piece! Thanks for making me smile AND wonder….

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