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How to Light Creepy Halloween Masks for Added Drama

It’s October again and that means Halloween is around the corner. This is good news for you as a photographer, Halloween is a visual holiday like no other. With all of the decorations, theme shaped food, Jack-o-lanterns and costumes you have more potential for photography than you can shake a selfie stick at.

One of my favorite parts of Halloween are the masks. Many of the better quality masks available are extremely detailed and creepy, lending themselves well to visceral imagery.


Because of the monsters they often portray, they also tend to be suited for a more cinematic approach to lighting, which will give you the opportunity to explore ways to create mood and drama in your images. This tutorial covers how to light using a basic side-lighting technique that will allow you to create heavy shadows, to shape and accentuate the creepiness in your masks.

What you need:

  • Studio strobe or speedlight fitted with a softbox or a window
  • Black paper – enough to cover the edges of the softbox (heavy, non-transparent curtains will work with a window)

Optional but useful extras:

  • Seamless paper, black background
  • Black reflector/ flag or a piece of black poster board

Setting it up

The first thing you need to do is turn your light source into a strip light. This will create a very narrow shaft of light that will skim the front of your subject, creating a lot of contrast that will emphasize all of the fine details.

To do this with a softbox, tape a few pieces of black paper over the sides leaving only about 6” (15cm) of white showing. You can make the gap smaller if you like, but for this technique you shouldn’t go for more than 6”.


Tip: If you use seamless paper backgrounds, save the scraps whenever you trim the ends. They always come in handy at times like these.

If you’re using a window with curtains, simply draw them closed until you have a six inch gap.


Once your light source is modified, you’re ready to go. To side-light, place your light so that it is pointed directly at the side of subject. If you start with the light aimed at the front of the mask, you can then fine-tune as your images require, by moving it an inch or two forward or backwards. Because the light source is so narrow, moving it in tiny increments will result in drastic changes to the final images.


Pay careful attention to any light falling on the background. The narrow beam of light shouldn’t allow much light to spill over, but if it does, try moving your subject and light source a few inches forward (away from the background).

When working with detailed subjects like this, I like to use a smallish aperture like f/11. This ensures that all of the fine details are sharp in the final images. However, if you’re working with window light it may be a struggle to stop down that far without setting a high ISO (or using a tripod, which is a good idea for maximum sharpness anyway). Feel free to use whatever aperture provides you with the best quality results.



When you’re attempting to get really deep shadows with a technique like this, sometimes things like white walls reflect a lot of light back onto the shadow side of your subject. This is where having a black reflector, known as a flag, comes in handy. By holding your flag to the side of your subject, you are blocking the light from reflecting off of other objects that can affect your images.

In the end

Even though this an easy technique, hopefully you can see that with some simple, but careful manipulation, you can take control of even the most basic lighting equipment to create bold and evocative imagery.

If you do decide to give this technique a go, I’d love to see the results you get with your masks. Happy Halloween!

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John McIntire
John McIntire

is a portrait photographer currently living in the UK. He studied commercial photography and is always looking to improve. Admittedly a lighting nerd through and through, John offers lighting workshops and one-to-one tuition to photographers of all skill levels in Yorkshire.

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