The Greatest Halloween House Ever

I found it by accident.

While cycling though South Minneapolis one October I noticed a small house where extensive Halloween preparations were underway – really extensive. Extension cords, lights and inflatables were laid out all over the tiny front yard. I thought: this can’t be possible, that’s way too much stuff. But I noted the address and on Halloween night, drove by to check it out.

It wasn’t hard to find; the glow was probably visible from orbit. So much crazy Halloween iconography that you felt you were walking into the Nightmare Before Christmas. People were parking half a block away and bringing their kids to be mesmerized by it. The colors were hallucinogenic. You were pulled in like moth.

I can’t really describe the feeling of standing out there on a cool October night, with a few stars overhead, in front of all this. You just didn’t want to leave.

That was a few years ago. Now I go there every Halloween, after dark, mainly just to enjoy the experience, but also to do some photos. The wonderful lady who creates this madness greets me with a hug, and I send her some prints later. This year was their best display yet.

See the owners waving from the top of the steps at center right? Sure, I put these on Facebook but I don’t post their names or address; they have plenty of visitors and probably don’t want carloads from the suburbs clogging their street.

The Nikon Z6 has great low light performance, but the scene isn’t really all that dark; the challenge is dynamic range. A big 12mm lens is perfect (and here’s a tip – in the dark you can’t see the aperture and focus markings on a manual lens, so turn on focus peaking or know where your ‘zoom’ buttons are). The Z6 has IBIS even with a manual lens, so a shutter speed of 1/25 is fine.

Standing on the sidewalk in front of this Halloween galaxy, the dynamic range is big. The sky can just go to black, but I don’t want ghosts becoming featureless white blobs. I try to expose for the highlights, per that ancient rule of photography, but those areas are small, and the histogram display isn’t much help. What I’ve learned is to shoot ‘raw’ and pretty much trust what I see in the LCD display through the viewfinder (not the rear LCD). The camera generates an 8-bit image for that display, and it’s pretty smart about showing you the highlights you’ll be able to recover from the ‘raw’ image in post. I’ve found I can push it a bit, making most of the shadows visible and not leaving much actual black, and it will look great after some work in Capture One. I don’t worry about shadow detail because Halloween shadows should be as black as the inside of a crypt – just ask Jack Skellington.

White balance is whatever I want it to be. The camera makes its best guess but goes too warm, making the ghosts yellow and losing the blue highlights. I just tune the white balance from memory, or maybe pick out one ghost, skull or eyeball that I’m pretty sure was pure white and go from there. I also boost the purples, blues and greens a bit because the sensor loses them in the low light.

These are the owners’ grandkids handing out candy. Yes, that’s right, besides putting this whole amazing scene together, these people give candy to everyone that comes by – about 500 this year. Was your grandmother this cool?

Oh and one more thing: they also do Christmas...

7 Replies to “The Greatest Halloween House Ever”

  1. Wow – what a fantastic find! The owners of that house certainly go to a lot of trouble each year and it is great that they also welcome visitors. Now do they do the same at Christmas time?

  2. This is a house? When I first saw the photos I thought it was an amusement park of sorts. It’s interesting how much effort some families will put into decorations. A neighbor not too far from my house used to carve 100 pumpkins every halloween. They would get friends to come over help, then go around asking neighbors to join it.
    Photographing these decorations lit from the inside is not hard since, as you wrote, they are not dark. Great find and I’m sure the family is grateful that you didn’t give details of where they are.

  3. Oh what a display! As I looked at the first photo, the first thing to pop in my mind was the opening to The Nightmare Before Christmas – possibly my all-time favorite Halloween movie. Now I have “This is Halloween” song stuck in my head.

  4. What a cool thing to do! Was glad to read they receive some prints from you. Also, a cool thing to do!! Thanks for your information regards settings on your Nikon Z6

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