Create a ghostly urban landscape

Want to shoot urban scenes with a difference? Find out how with a twist on multiple exposure techniques…

If you fancy creating a city scene with a surreal twist then you’ve come to the right place, as here you’ll find out how to make an eerie-looking urban landscape filled with ghostly inhabitants. More accurately, it’s the main street in Dubrovnik, filled with rather annoying tourists (of which, to be fair, I was one), but let’s not let that get in the way of the atmospheric look.

In fact, that’s exactly what this technique does – it helps you deal with circumstances that don’t initially seem ideal. As photographers, we are often faced with situations like this, where we want to shoot an interesting landmark, only to find it’s beset with people in kagools eating their pack-ups. This ghosting technique will certainly make short work of those annoyances (kagools to ghouls?), but it also provides something a bit more interesting than a regular long exposure would, giving an impressionist look to the scene. You might even end up seeking out crowds just to try it.  

Multiple exposure technique
At its heart, this is essentially a multiple exposure technique, but one that uses Photoshop to combine the separate frames rather than doing it in-camera. Layering one shot on top of another, the scenes will mix, creating the ghostly look. So, learn how it’s done over the next few pages and then start thinking about where you might give it a try yourself.

Capture the shots you need
One of the most important factors in this technique is the alignment of the images. If they don’t sync up properly in editing you’ll find that not only will the people look ghostly, but the background will too. And although that can look good in its own right, you’ll certainly lose the impact created by the contrasting solid and see-through elements. So, while you can get away with shooting handheld with a steady grip and attempt to align the pics in software, it’s far better to shoot everything from a tripod.

Shoot a long exposure
Shutter speed is also a concern here. I wanted the figures to be indistinct, but not disappear completely, so around 1/5sec was good for that. And I also needed a ‘background shot’ which had been emptied by a very long exposure, so a speed of 30secs was used there. The long exposure is a safety net that helps lose even very stubborn subjects – even people waiting for a bus will disappear given a long enough exposure.

The raw materials for this technique are very important, so shoot plenty more than you’ll actually need and experiment with the placement of figures as they walk past.

Location
For this technique to work your location needs to be busy, allowing you to get enough shots as people stream past. You need some space, so find a wide street, or pedestrian area. It helps the pic if you’re shooting in a good-looking location, and in the final shot the ancient Stradun or Placa market street also worked as a nice lead-in to the Dubrovnik Bell Tower in the distance.

Support
Shooting from a tripod will keep the camera’s position identical between frames and make combining the resulting images much easier, with no unwanted shifts in alignment.

Exposure & filters
Having full control over the shutter speed you use is vital in this technique, so set the exposure carefully and make sure you have some full ND filters to control the light if required.

Why not just shoot a long exposure?
You may have tried something similar to this technique before in crowded places, using a long exposure to blur the movement of people, or remove them entirely. This multiple exposure technique is different as it keeps a sense of the crowds, but makes them a benefit to the image. In contrast, very long exposures, which can remove the crowds from a scene entirely, often make the view look too empty and lacking in atmosphere.

Long exposure

Long exposure

Multiple exposure

Multiple exposure

1. Compose and lock-off
As you need to shoot lots of identical images to make this technique work, it’s important to get your composition right from the get-go. Attach your camera securely to a tripod, find the right position then frame up your shot, leaving some space for the crowds to walk into. Focus your image using autofocus (AF), then switch to manual focus (MF) via a switch on the body or on the lens – this is so that the focus doesn’t shift during the sequence of shots, as in AF it may target the people moving past.   

At this point, add any filters you want to use. I added a 1-stop ND grad to hold back some detail in the sky and balance the light with the darker foreground. I also added a 3-stop full ND filter, which would allow me to use slower shutter speeds in the conditions.

Finally, if the scene is quite busy, be careful that no one knocks your tripod. One nudge and you’ll need to start the whole sequence again...

2. Set the first exposure
I wanted to record a little movement in the figures, so they were indistinct but didn’t disappear completely. That meant setting a slowish shutter speed of around 1/5sec. In aperture-priority mode (A or Av), set the ISO to its lowest (100), and close the aperture until you get the shutter speed required. Even with an ND fitted, the conditions here meant I needed f/22 to slow the shutter enough. Such small apertures aren’t ideal, but the speed is more important.

3. Shoot the sequence
Now you’re ready to go, wait until someone walks through the frame and fire the shutter. For sharpest results, and so you don’t jog the camera by touching it, use a cable release or remote control. Try to get a mixture of shots where there are people in most areas of the scene, but watch that they’re not too close, as if you have too many blocking the rest of the scenery the final pic can look confused. Don’t change the exposure settings between shots.

4. Get the long exposure
With a decent sequence of pics in the can, it’s time to get the final component, a very long exposure that will create an image free from any distinct figures. As the shutter speed had already gone as slow as possible in the conditions, I fitted a 10-stop ND filter, meaning I could get a shutter speed of around 30secs. The f/number was kept the same to avoid any shift in depth-of-field.

Create the shot with Layers
It’s in Photoshop that things really start coming together with this technique. The technique takes the images you’ve shot and stacks them up as multiple Layers, and while those might look like a lot to deal with, it’s actually pretty simple. Once the Layers are stacked, which can be done as an automated process in recent versions of Photoshop, it’s really just a case of altering the Opacity of those Layers to get the ghosting effect. The order of the Layers makes a difference to the final look, so in the following steps you’ll see how to drag them around in the stack. We’ll also use some simple masking to pick out the best in each.

It all starts with selecting your shots and trimming down the overall number, as you’ll likely have taken quite a few. You can still delete Layers from the stack as you make the image, but it makes sense to get rid of any problem pics at the outset.

1. Convert your RAWs
If you’ve shot in RAW, in your browser or a dedicated file management software like Bridge, highlight all the RAW files you want to use and hit Ctrl+O to open them into Photoshop’s Adobe Raw Converter. Next hit Ctrl+A to Select All and any changes you make will be applied to all. Here Shadows and Exposure were increased along with Clarity and Vibrance, while Highlights and Whites were decreased.

2. Save the files and load them as a stack
Still in the Adobe Raw Converter, click on Save Images and save the files as JPEGs. After the JPEGs have saved, if you’re in Bridge highlight the files and go to Tools>Photoshop>Load Files into Photoshop Layers. In Lightroom, go to Photo>Edit In>Open as Layers in Photoshop. Alternatively, open all the files into Photoshop itself and go to File>Scripts>Load Files Into Stack..., choose Open Files and click OK.

3. Check the Alignment and Layer order
Even though the images have been taken from a tripod, it doesn’t hurt to check the alignment. Open the Layers palette (Window> Layers) then go to Select>Select All Layers, and then Edit>Auto Align Layers, choose Auto and click OK. Finally, find the long exposure Layer – the one with the most blur and make sure it’s the lowest of the Layers. To re-order, just click on its thumbnail and drag it to the bottom of the stack.

4. Change the Layer Opacity
Now click on the second-to-bottom Layer, hold the Shift key and then click on the top Layer. This will select them all, but leave the lowest Layer unselected. Now in the Layers palette click on the Opacity setting and lower it to around 50%. Now you can see all the Layers as one you can start thinning them out again. Click the eye-icon on and off to identify any ‘problem’ figures, and drag those Layers into the Delete icon.

5. Mask out what you don’t want
Changing the Layer order will also affect the look of the ‘ghosts’, so drag the Layers around to see what works best. You can also mask out figures you don’t want – just click on the Layer in question, then click the Add Layer Mask icon. Paint black into the mask and you’ll hide anything in that area. If you want to paint parts back in, switch to white and paint back over.

6. Merge, mask and flatten
When the ‘ghosts’ are looking OK, select all but the lowest Layer again and press Ctrl+E to merge them. Now add another Layer mask and use it to hide any further figures you don’t want (like anyone who annoyingly stayed in the same spot through all the frames!). Here, I also masked back the sky of the lowest Layer, showing the long exposure effect in the clouds. When you’re done, go to Layer>Flatten Image.

7. Crop and increase contrast
Now’s a good time to crop the pic, particularly if the Auto Align in Step 3 caused white edges to be visible after it flattened. Pick the Crop Tool (C) and drag it over the parts of the pic you want to keep, then click the tick to confirm the new framing. Next pick the Dodge Tool, set to Highlights and a low Exposure (3-5%). Run this over the ghosted figures and repeat with the Burn Tool (set to Shadows).

8. Final tweaks
For the final step, treat the picture as you would a regular shot, making whatever adjustments you see fit. Here, I’ve added a Curves Adjustment Layer and used the Red and Blue channels to warm the pic, then masked the effect so that it sits mainly on the Bell Tower (there’s more on adjusting colour with Curves in this month’s Editing Suite). Finally, go to Layer>Flatten Image and save your work.

This article was first published in the July 2016 issue of Practical Photography - download back issues here.