Photojojo’s Guide to Scary Photo Pumpkins

scary pumpkin!
Extra photos for bloggers: 1, 2

We love Halloween.

The costumes, the candy, the parties: we love it all. What other holiday is completely devoted to making you feel like you never have to grow up?

And what better way to celebrate your arrested development than plunging your hand into a pumpkin, scooping out its guts, and carving scary faces on it?

We’ll tell you what better way: carving your own scary photos onto that pumpkin instead of the usual triangle eyes and pointy teeth. All you need is a scary picture and a little know-how. Read on for the full details on how to make your own photo pumpkins.

Photojojo’s Guide to Photo Pumpkin Carving
Thanks to reader Leah Rust for the idea!

Why’s It Cool?

If you’re going to carve a pumpkin, you might as well make it really awesome. And a photo pumpkin is about as awesome as you can get!

Carve your pumpkins the same day you want to display them, since finely carved details will deteriorate quickly as the pumpkin begins to spoil. If you want to keep your pumpkin around for a while, you can buy fake pumpkins at craft stores. We are not making this up. They’re made of foam, but you can carve them like regular pumpkins. Weird, right?

What You’ll Need


  • A scary picture
  • A computer and printer
  • A pumpkin
  • A candle and candleholder
  • Tape
  • A pen
  • Cutting tools — these can include anything from carving knives to steak knives, plus an X-acto knife for fine details.
  • Scooping tool — a large, sturdy spoon and/or an ice cream scoop.
  • Poking tool — an awl is ideal, but anything from an icepick to a small nail will serve.

Step 1: Choosing An Image

An ideal image for this project is a portrait with lighting from one side and a high degree of contrast. A high-resolution photo isn’t really necessary.

If you have a really scary picture you want to use that doesn’t meet those criteria, try it out anyway. Chances are you’ll be able to alter it enough in the next step to make it workable.

Step 2: Preparing Your Image

preparing the imageFirst check out your pumpkin: figure out which side you want to carve, then measure the height of that side. This will determine what height your image should be (minus an inch or two to allow for the hole at the top of the pumpkin).

Open your image in Photoshop (or whatever image editing software you have). Resize your image to the desired height.

There are four steps in preparing your image to be used as a pattern:

  1. Desaturate: change your image to black-and-white. (In Photoshop, Image -> Adjustments -> Desaturate.)
  2. Contrast: increase the brightness and contrast of the image until the grayscale is reduced almost to pure black and pure white. (Image -> Adjustments -> Levels or Brightness/Contrast.)
  3. Posterize: convert the image to three levels of color, pure black, middle gray and pure white. (Image -> Adjustments -> Posterize -> Levels: 3.)
  4. Invert: invert the image so that black becomes white and vice versa. This will save ink when you print the image out. (Image -> Adjustments -> Invert.)

Step 3: Making the Pattern

templateBear in mind that when you cut areas out, you won’t be able to have a floating island of uncut pumpkin in that cutout space (i.e. the highlight in someone’s eye), so plan your design accordingly.

Print out your image and use a pen to join any areas that need to be connected to make the carving easier. You can also smooth out any jagged lines with the pen, and use White-Out to remove any extra details that you don’t want to carve.

Step 4: Using the Pattern

poked pumpkinTape your image onto the pumpkin, on the side that you want to carve. Use a poking tool to transfer the image by poking holes all along the outline of the image. The line of holes will show you where to cut the design into the pumpkin.

Step 5: Carving the Pumpkin

carving the pumpkinCut a hole at the top of the pumpkin: make it large enough that you can get your hand inside, and make your cut at a slant so that the lid won’t fall in when you put it back in place. Use a sturdy spoon to scoop out as much of the innards as you can, and scrape away the gross stringy stuff clinging to the sides of the pumpkin. Save the pumpkin seeds so you can make delicious pepitas!

When the pumpkin is hollowed out, start carving your design. We found it easiest to trace the outline with an X-acto knife, then use a larger knife to cut through to the interior. Smaller pumpkins can be carved using only a standard X-acto blade, but large pumpkins may be easier to cut using a long, narrow carving saw blade.

And hey, we don’t have to tell you to be really careful with those blades, right?

Carve away the black areas of the picture and leave the white areas. Instead of carving away the gray areas, peel the top layer of skin off the pumpkin. This will allow some light to shine through, but not as much as the carved-out areas.

Step 6: Light It Up!

lit pumpkinOnce your fantastic pumpkin is carved to your liking, put the candle inside and light it up!

If fires and/or the smell of burning pumpkin are a concern, you can buy battery-powered tealights that work just as well as regular candles. Either way, don’t forget to put your pumpkin’s lights out at the end of the evening.

Easy Version: Glowing Eyes

lit pumpkinIf you’re not up for the full 3-D photorealistic effect, make your design pure black and white. In Step 2, choose two levels of posterization instead of three, and skip the invert step.

Cut out the dark areas of the image (such as the eyes and mouth) and leave the light areas intact. Aaaaggh! Creepy!

How To Photograph Your Masterpiece

pumpkin photoSo now that you’ve carved a photograph onto your pumpkin, you want to take a photograph of it. How meta.

The main thing to remember is to turn off your flash. The flash will illuminate the outside of the pumpkin, but not enough of the light shining from inside. Use a tripod and a long exposure, and make sure there’s a little ambient light so the outside of the pumpkin will be slightly visible.

If you want to get extra-fancy, use a flashlight to light-paint the outside of the pumpkin during that long exposure. Spooky special effects!

More Resources

For carving tips, tool info and generally great ideas, check out Pumpkin Carving 101.

For an in-depth tutorial and some great example photos of the 3D effect, check out Notions’ pumpkin portrait carving tutorial.

Think none of your photos could be as terrifying as the upcoming election? Then you can download free photo patterns of the presidential candidates!