Horror Photography: A Guide to the Creepy Side of Taking Photos

Horror is a genre most known for movies and television, but it’s also a genre of photography that’s gaining in popularity in recent years. If you’re interested in all things dark, creepy, scary, and macabre — then read on.

This guide will peek behind the curtain at horror photography. We’ll look into its history, see who the top photographer’s in the field are, and then give you some tips and tricks to add some spookiness to your own photography.

What is horror photography?

Horror photography is a type of fantasy photography that aims to be creepy, dark, and scary. Much like a film of the same genre, it wants the viewer to feel like they want to look at the image in disgust. Or, the viewer wants to look, but look away at the same time. Horror photography is usually created to shock the viewer.

Photo by Edilson Borges on Unsplash

History of horror photography

It has been said that horror photography has roots in the Victorian era when people used to have portraits taken of the dead. This isn’t true, however. Remember, the intention of horror photography is to scare and horrify the viewer. The Victorian-era memento mori photographs might seem morbid by modern sensibilities. But, they were a way to commemorate a loved one during a time when death was extremely common and mourning was fashionable.

More likely, horror photography was inspired by the first horror publications, Terror Tales and Horror Stories. They were both first published in the 1930s. These magazines are credited with the macabre storytelling that inspired many horror comic books, too. 

What’s the best camera for horror photography?

There’s no single correct answer to this question. However, for the best results, always opt for a camera that allows you to choose your exposure settings and change your lens for a variety of different environments and lighting conditions. 

If you intend to shoot professionally, you should choose a DSLR or mirrorless camera. Great DSLR options include the Canon 5D Mark IV and Nikon D850. If you’re leaning toward a mirrorless setup, you won’t go wrong with the full-frame options from Sony, Canon, or Nikon.

What’s the best lens for horror photography?

Most photographers will agree that your lenses are more important than your camera body and that’s ultimately where you should invest your money. Horror photography is often shot in dark spaces, so look for glass with a wide maximum aperture — f/2.8 or wider — so that you can capture details in low light. A 24-70mm f/2.8 is a good choice that will give you a lot of options when it comes to focal length, too. It’s a common lens, so you’ll have no trouble finding one that works with whatever camera body you have.

horror photography
Photo by Chaozzy Lin on Unsplash

Camera settings for horror photography

Your settings will vary, depending on what and where you’re shooting and what the lighting conditions are. But, there are a few things to keep in mind.

  • Shoot in RAW. You’ll appreciate the extra data your camera saves when it comes to editing your image.
  • Keep your ISO low to avoid noise. However, with horror photography, noise is more acceptable than most other types of photography. So don’t be afraid to bump the ISO if your image is too dark. 
  • That said, horror photography is usually dark and slightly underexposed.
  • Use a very wide aperture (a small f-stop) for a very shallow depth of field. The blurred background adds to the mystery.
  • A slow shutter speed will introduce motion blur, which could also add an element of creepiness to your image.
creepy doll heads
Photo by Jene Yeo on Unsplash

3 horror photographers to follow right now

  1. Joshua Hoffine: considered one of the leading horror photographers, his work has been featured in Rue Morgue, Fangoria, Horror House, Scream UK, and more.
  2. Rick Jones: specializing in creative portraiture and horror makeup, Rick Jones and his studio, Horrify Me, have a solid reputation for producing shocking, disgusting, and fantastically scary work. 
  3. Jannike Viveka: she specializes in self-portraits, but these are anything but typical. They are uncomfortable, morbid, creepy, and dark. You don’t want to look but you can’t look away.

Tips and tricks for making your photographs spookier

  1. Seek out the shadows

The creepy basement, the woods, the dusty attic… . these are all settings in horror movies for a reason. They’re dark, mysterious, and full of shadows. Take advantage of settings that are inherently full of shadows and mystery and use them for your horror photos.

Photo by Gwendal Cottin on Unsplash

2. Add a tilt

In photography, we’re always saying to “straighten your horizon!” Well, this is one time when you can ignore that advice. Adding a little bit of a tilt can make the viewer feel out of balance and uneasy. That’s why you usually want to fix it — but that’s a reason to keep it crooked in horror photography!

horror photography
Photo by Chaz McGregor on Unsplash

3. Have the subject look away

Have your subject look away from the camera, at something beyond the frame, to create a spine-tingling sense of mystery.

Photo by samer daboul from Pexels

4. Be an observer

This is a trick that’s used often in horror films to make the viewer feel like they’re watching an unsuspecting target. Shoot through a window, tree branches, or a gap in a fence so that it looks like the viewer is spying on the subject of the photograph.

Photo by Hello I’m Nik on Unsplash

5. Hide the eyes

Horror photography is all about breaking the rules. One of the rules of photography involves focusing on your subject’s eyes. It can be extremely unsettling when you can’t even see their eyes. There are many ways to do this creatively. With a shadow, cropping, or by physically covering the eyes. 

horror hide the eyes
Photo by Daria Sannikova from Pexels

Editing horror photos

Many horror photographs are highly edited. But, the amount of manipulation you choose to incorporate into your horror photography is entirely up to you. You might choose to convert your images to black and white. Or, you might add noise or some other gritty treatment to take the image out of reality and into the surreal.

One surefire way to influence the mood of an image is to adjust the white balance. To give your images a spookier, witchy feel, try adding greens or purples to the shadows. On the other hand, boosting the reds and oranges might give your image an apocalyptic vibe.

Photo by Elti Meshau on Unsplash

Final thoughts

While horror is a genre that’s usually reserved for the silver screen, it’s definitely got a place in still photography, too. And, it’s only growing in popularity. If you have an interest in all things creepy, then perhaps horror photography is a genre you should explore.

Brooke Arnold

Brooke Arnold is a writer and award-winning photographer specializing in cat portraits. She is an advocate for rescue animals and is best known for dressing up her cats as famous people like Bob Ross and Evel Knievel. Her biggest claim to fame, however, is being child #2 in an orange juice ad that hung in a mall in Miami at age 8.

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