Contributing editor Jim Richardson is a photojournalist recognized for his explorations of small-town life. His photos appear frequently in National Geographic magazine.
Down in the basement of the Treasurer’s House in York, England, is a simple, bare room that has taken on great fame among those who are convinced that ghosts move among us. It was here, in 1953, that laborer Harry Martindale was working away when a whole platoon of Roman soldier ghosts marched through. Harry’s encounter is one of the most famous ghost sightings in this English city, which prides itself on being the "ghost capital of the world." That’s all well and good, except that I had to take a picture of the place for National Geographic Traveler’s October 2008 story on York. (See more about the story.) The truth is that, for all its fame, it’s just a bare room down in the basement. Not much there for a photograph. I thought my goose was cooked on this one. The smell of fear was everywhere, and it was coming from me.
I really considered just giving it up and going off to more fertile ground. Then I got stubborn and said no way is this little room going to beat me. Time to pull out all the stops. My one bit of good luck was my tour guide, who had a bit of the thespian about him, was dressed all in black and looked vaguely otherworldly. After that I was on my own.
The lighting was dim. Very, very dim and leaving dark corners with absolutely no light. So I positioned my guide right in the dark spot and added three Nikon SB-800 strobes to the scene. One I bounced off the brick wall out of frame to the left, lighting up my guide with low, soft light. Another I positioned on the floor behind him to light the wall behind him, silhouetting him in his black suit. And the third I set on the old steps up above his right shoulder to light that area. So that lit him up nicely. Then I kept extending the shutter speed until the available light from the light in the ceiling and down the narrow little hall was well exposed. This turned out to be an overall exposure of 1.6 seconds at f/5.6.
Then I did the magic trick: I shook the camera during the exposure! I mean I shook it a lot. That’s what caused the blurring in any area that was lit only by the available light. Remember that I had set my guide in an area where he didn’t get much available light exposure, so he was lit pretty much only by the strobes. The flash makes him sharp; the shaking makes everything else blurred. Sometimes I shook the camera back and forth. Sometimes I shook it in a circular motion. Pretty soon I started to figure out how to shake it in order to have the blur of his face and hand fall on the best side of the sharp image from the flash. It worked! We published the picture as part of the York story. I didn’t get to see the ghosts, but I lived to shoot another day.