The making of a ghost in Saigon

In the Fine Arts museum in Saigon, a silent figure is caught between the world of the living and the dead. Whispers and rumours have been wafting around of a tormented girl wandering the halls of this historic building for decades.

Art museum ghost

I was assigned the task of capturing an image of the fine arts museum to feature in an article on this urban myth in the upcoming March edition of Oi Vietnam. Actually, the editor asked which of the two staff photographers wanted to do it “simple – just a picture of the museum”. Immediately my mind went wild imagining how something a little more interesting could be achieved and put my hand up for the job in a blink.

I had it all planned out. I would find a Vietnamese girl, dress her in a white dress and have her move up and down the main staircase of the museum. Using a long exposure with a burst of flash right at the end would create a ghostly trail behind her. I would also try some exposures with her moving her head through a long exposure to create a creepy image with clear dress but an eerily-blurry face.

That was the plan, anyway…

Thankfully I found a model as soon as I shared the idea with my wife, who was just as quick to volunteer as I had been to take the gig in the first place. Maybe it was the thought of her husband hanging around with a pretty young girl in a dark stairwell?

OK. Model: check.

I’d never done anything like this before, so I had to spend some time at home playing around with how to get the effect I had in mind with my camera. I’m not a photoshop maestro, so I wanted to get most of the image looking mostly right in-camera and then tweak it just a tad afterward.

So one night after my girl got back from work, we played around with things. Let me tell you, most of what I took that night looked terrible, but I’ll show some here so you can see the process as I tried to figure things out…

Ghost trial-2

This first one was me playing around with having her hold her head in two different positions in one exposure, as I’d seen something that looked kinda freaky that had been done this way somewhere online in the past. Wasn’t really what I was going for. No problem… keep experimenting…

I quickly figured the white dress would act differently in a long exposure than a red one, so I had her change into a white top to see how that would affect things.

I knew there’d likely be a strong backlight if I shot in the main stairwell, so I’d need to illuminate her as she moved in the image. I grabbed a torch (that’s a flashlight for you Americans out there), and shone it on her as she moved back and forth in our hallway.

Ghost trial-3

It was looking pretty poor, as every time she took a step, she would spend more time on that spot than the places in-between steps, so it just looked like three of her standing in different positions, and didn’t look very “ghostly” at all.

So I lengthened the shutter speed to about 15 seconds and had her walk quickly back and forth, also moving side to side and up and down as she did to create a random blur of white behind her, before stopping at the end for the flash to light her up at the final position. As she was running back and forth I illuminated her dress with the torch.

Ghost trial-1

OK, so the flash and the torch weren’t quite bright enough, but I felt I was finally beginning to get closer to the effect I was going for. I was confident that we’d get it right on the day, especially with some more lighting equipment to illuminate the right bits at the right times.

Next, we needed the dress. My first thought was to hire one. One of my colleagues suggested a place that hired them out for just 200,000VND (around $10) for the day, but then I realised we could probably buy something for around the same price, with the bonus of my wife being able to add it to her own wardrobe once we were done.

We ended up spotting the perfect dress for just 130,000VND (about $6.50).

Great. Dress: check.

All was going well. I figured we’d just walk into the museum, find a quiet spot, and shoot away.

We arrived at the museum, and my wife went to talk to the museum staff about doing the shoot. After being sent from superior to superior, she was told that they do not allow any kind of shoots generally, but if we really wanted to go through the process, we could send a letter of application and pay 1,000,000VND, and maybe we could do the shoot.

Well, this was not for a major article in the mag, so there’s no way I’d have been able to get them to cough up the cash, and I certainly don’t make nearly enough from this job to justify paying it myself.

I had to get a little more creative and solve the problem, as I was determined to get the shot!

The solution…

I went to the museum alone the next day as a tourist. Seeing my camera, the woman at the ticket desk said I could take photos, as long as I didn’t use flash.

Cool.

I wandered the museum taking random spots that I could composite my ghostly wife into later in photoshop…

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First stop was the main staircase, which I had envisioned the original photo being taken in, but then I felt that there was too much bright light coming in from outside, and even bringing it down in Photoshop, it would be too prominent and draw attention away from my “ghost”.

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I could imaging a ghostly figure looming in the corridors, so I kept that in my mind, but I was feeling like Bono. Still hadn’t found what I was looking for.

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Took shots of some of the galleries, just in case I decided to go for something that was obviously in a fine art museum, but still felt dissatisfied.

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Toward the rear of the museum was a dark corridor with an interesting gritty kinda paint job on the wall which showed some promise. The main problem was that I felt people who had only seen the museum from the outside may not recognise that this was part of it, as the building is a historic colonial-style piece of architecture instantly recongnisable by its yellow paint. I wanted to get some part of the museum that still featured this yellow paint.

Then I made the best decision of the day…

I peeked into the fire escape.

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Eureka! I’d found it. It was moody, visually striking, and had the yellow paint that would connect it to the museum to anybody who knew the slightest thing about the building.

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I wandered up and down the staircase snapping at different angles that I could incorporate an image of my ghost bride into later.

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The solution – part 2

Next step was to take a ghostly image of my wife to blend into the pics of the staircase from the museum.

I would have to change my approach slightly, as I’m not sure I could smoothly integrate the ghosting I wanted to achieve with a long exposure, so I decided to just take some regular shots and let my limited photoshop skills do more of the magic.

We went into our own apartment building’s fire escape and tried some images with the camera shooting both up at her figure and downward, so that I had the most options to integrate into the various staircase shots.

I knew there would be backlight coming in the window, so I set up a speedlite behind my wife, and let the reflected light from the white walls illuminate the front of the dress.

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OK, so all that remained was for me to try to combine the images in Photoshop.

Turned out that there were only two shots of the stairs that lined up nicely with the one shot of my model, at least enough that one could be convinced we’d actually taken the image in the staircase and that the figure in the shot was really there.

First I tried the vertical shot.

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I didn’t do too much in Photoshop, as I felt she took up too much of the image, and I didn’t want to waste my time with a shot that wouldn’t be up to scratch no matter what I did. Her figure was too dominant, so I then tried the horizontal shot I’d taken from the same segment of the staircase.

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First I placed my ghost into the picture so the stairs lined up (more or less).

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Then I added a layer mask and painted in and out the various bits to blend the two images together, and give my model a semi-transparent look.

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I wanted the figure to be a little stronger, so I duplicated the first layer with her figure, and set the blending mode to overlay to make things a little more intense.

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It still didn’t look specter-ish enough, so I duplicated the layer with my ghost three more times, added some blur, and shifted them around to different spots behind and above the original figure. Then I lowered the opacity so they kinda blended in, and then polished them off a little by adding to or removing parts with layer masks on each layer.

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I was satisfied that the image was looking close enough to what I had imagined – at least as far as my limited photoshop skills allow – so all that remained was to make it pop a little more with brightness/contrast, vivid/saturation and similar adjustments.

Art museum ghost

I finally had the image.

One thing that I love about being a photographer is the challenge of sometimes having to be creative in your efforts to get the result you’re after when nothing goes according to plan. This month is the first month I’ve really had some fun with my images for Oi magazine, and I think now that the door has been opened, I can’t wait to see what else pops its head out in the coming months…

Keep an eye out for the article in Oi Vietnam, due out at the beginning of March – along with a bunch of really great articles and photos (I made some ripper images for the mag this month – be sure to check them out)!

If you’re not in Saigon, you can view Oi online or download it from the website: http://oivietnam.com/

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