Photo Tips and Tricks

Put a ghost in your ghost town photographs…and other easy tips to create cool pictures

You don't have to be an Ansel Adams or a Berthold Steinhilber, with their expensive equipment and their assistants, to take wonderfully evocative photographs. Outdoor photography is about more than capturing an exact likeness; it's about exploring and expressing the silent mystery of the landscape.

Below we've assembled several techniques, from experimenting with Polaroid film to making a pinhole camera, guaranteed to transform your photographs from everyday snapshots into real eye-catchers.

But before you click the shutter, take the time to create a unique composition. Move your camera and practice taking pictures to the left and right of, and even up, down and diagonally from, your subject. Walk around until you find an interesting montage of light and shapes. Work also with the unpredictable gifts of nature: if it's overcast, raining or dusk when you visit, don't fret; you may be pleasantly surprised with your results. Don't be stingy with your film. Shoot several rolls, and remember to keep your arms tucked in for steady shots.

Create a Dreamscape with Polaroid Transfer

Polaroid transfer prints are made by applying a Polaroid negative to non- photographic paper, such as watercolor paper. It's a great way to capture the otherworldliness of a place like Bodie or Chloride.

All you need is a Polaroid camera, some color peel-apart Polaroid film (usually 3x4, 4x5 or 8x10), watercolor paper, a container of hot water and a roller.

About ten seconds after you take a picture with your Polaroid, peel apart the film and place the negative directly onto watercolor paper that has been dipped in water and blotted dry. Don't touch the negative, as heat from your fingers will create fog marks on the film. Using a roller, press the photograph onto the paper. After about two and a half minutes, pull away the Polaroid negative and see what image is left behind on the paper.

Depending on the type and thickness of the paper, you may get anything from a photographic image to an impressionistic arrangement of subtle, attractive colors. Remember to carry a plastic garbage bag for disposal of wet negatives. Also, avoid skin or eye contact with the residual processing fluid.

Web resources
For more information about Polaroid transfer, visit The Light Factory and Polaroid.

Get That Old-Fashioned Look by Hand Coloring Photographs

Before color photography was invented, people took black-and-white photographs and hand colored the prints for dramatic effect. You can achieve that same effect today.

Black-and-white prints (preferably with a range of tonal values and few dark areas) on matte or semimatte paper, art pencils or crayons, watercolors, felt-tip pens, oil paints and a container of hot water.

Wet the black-and-white print, either by submerging it in water or blotting it well with a damp cloth. Remember to keep the photograph wet throughout the project. Then color the image with art pencils, crayons or felt-tip pens, or with watercolor or oil paints, using brushes, cotton swabs, blotting paper or sponges.

Don't be afraid to experiment. Felt-tip pens create a sharp-lined, dramatic look while watercolors leave behind a soft tint. Crayons give texture. Remember that lighter-colored areas of your photograph will show tinting more clearly.

Web resources
Visit and The Light Factory for hand-coloring materials, additional tips and examples of hand-colored photographs.

Create Surreal Images with Pinhole Cameras

Simply put, a pinhole camera is a camera without a lens. Pinhole cameras come in many sizes and are made of materials you can find at home or on vacation: oatmeal boxes, seashells, soda cans, long poster tubes, even vegetables and vehicles (Smithsonian, May 2000). Children and adults alike can design and build pinhole cameras.

Any size or shape of container and black-and-white or color photographic paper.

Drill a very small hole on one side of your container. Insert black-and-white film, color film or photographic paper into the container opposite the hole. The hole allows a small beam of light to pass into the box to create an image on the photographic paper or film. You can expose the film for however long you like, from seconds to several hours. The film will need to be developed in a darkroom.

Pinhole cameras often alter or bend objects and landscapes. Distorted images can be either soft, sharp or folded in upon themselves. Different-sized objects (a shoe and a building, for example) in a single picture can appear to be the same size. The size and shape of your camera will also affect your results.

Web resources
To look at pinhole photographs and for instructions on how to make a pinhole camera, visit Pinhole Visions.

Putting a ghost in your picture

To make your photographs of ghost towns look even more supernatural, you can work with double exposure to superimpose ghostlike images of people on buildings, streets and landscapes.

A point-and-shoot camera or a digital camera.

Take a picture of a friend or family member standing in a doorway or in front of a building. Keep the film in the camera from advancing. (Older manual cameras are better for this technique; you may be able to use a manual crank to push the film back. With newer cameras, you may need to look through the camera's manual to find out exactly what to do.) Then take another picture of the building or landscape without the person there. Be creative: have your subjects wear costumes, such as a ten-gallon hat or a long dress, and have them strike an eerie pose.

Because of the dual exposure, the image of your friend or family member will be translucent and ghostly. To make the effect work, you will need to keep your camera still so that the patterns of the first and second shot fit together. You can take as many pictures as you like on one negative to create the look you want, although to avoid overexposure, it's best to overlap only two images at once.

Wizardry with Digital Cameras
Ultrawide lenses:

To create a distorted and eerie effect, try using an ultrawide lens. With this technique, straight lines will look curved; when combined with the Western landscape, it can create novel results.

Sepia toning:
When you are back home at your computer, you can use sepia toning to create that old-timey look. This can be easily achieved with most software. If your image is in color, convert it to black-and-white. Then select and cover your image with a brownish tint. To make it even more old-fashioned looking, try blurring the image a little.

Infrared film:
You can also purchase infrared film, such as Kodak infrared 35 mm film, to create spectacular effects with color. This film is especially sensitive to the infrared part of the color spectrum and results in bluer blues and red, rather than green, foliage. To make the most of the film, you can also attach an infrared filter to your lens. Filters can be purchased at most camera shops. You will need to load the light-sensitive film in the dark and get it processed as soon as possible. You can also experiment with orange and yellow filters. Though colored films are expensive, they produce dramatic results.

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