Ghost Photography The internet is almost certainly the popular medium it is today due to its ability to send graphics files around the world. Were it simply a text-based media, it would probably still be the domain of the research scientist and academician. 
Hundreds of thousands of web sites exist for the purpose of sending and receiving small, compact graphics files that can be sent and displayed easily and quickly. As a life long lover of things supernatural, I have found many sites that are devoted to ghost hunting, including many that contain "ghost photographs" sent in from contributors. 
Now, I want to be very clear about this from the start: I consider myself to be an "enthralled skeptic", meaning, (as the poster on Fox Mulder's wall proclaims) "I want to believe". This can be a problem, in that it can lead one to filter information with a slant towards the conclusion that one wants to believe. I try to reign this in, however, and towards that end, I am angered by what "evidence" is put forward by those who are not skeptical.
It is tempting to see the world in absolute polar opposites: those who believe in a thing, and those who do not believe in that thing. I truly aspire to be in a third group: "Those who suspect a thing, and are looking for evidence of it, but are very critical of that evidence." This is not, to me, a case of faith, or spirituality. The problem to this approach is that members of both camps will claim you as an opponent. Those who believe without questioning will see you as a skeptic, and those who claim to be skeptics (but are really just disbelievers) will claim that you are wrong to try to find proof at all. I do not believe in ghosts in the face of evidence to the contrary, or lack of evidence. Likewise, I do not disbelieve in ghosts in the face of evidence. I just haven't seen any yet.

Carl Sagan suggests in his book Dragons of Eden that if there were ghosts, with all the souls that have lived and died, and all the reputed visitations, there would be some PROOF of their existence. (Carl Sagan also said in an interview in the last year of his life, when asked about the existence of God, and a Hereafter that he was "very tolerant of ambiguity in this regard", in that he did not have to have irrefutable evidence of the existence or non-existence of a God to live his life.) After all, we have no shortage of proof of the existence of something previously unknown, such as, for instance, the mountain gorilla. (You can drive across town and see one at the zoo if you want, yet a century ago, early European explorers came back from Africa with strange tales of hair covered man-like monsters, much to the disbelief of the scientific community). The trouble with this business of polar opposites is that the folks in camp 1) say "There IS proof! You just choose not to accept it!" and the folks in camp 2) say "That's because there IS and CANNOT be proof of the existence of something that does not exist..." Another draw. I think that a belief in ghosts has more to do with faith than fact, but that may be only because I have not seen what I consider to be irrefutable evidence of anything like a ghost. We build are "fact base" based on information that we get from a reputable authoritative source. In grade school we read text books that told us the distance from the earth to the sun, yet very few of us have or ever could do the actual science involved in determining the distance. So, "facts" are merely those pieces of information that we choose to believe are facts. Facts are beliefs. Beliefs are choices. We choose to believe something, even when some teacher is cramming it down your throat, it's still a choice.

I am very interested in anything that purports to exhibit "proof" of the existence of ghosts. (I also firmly believe that "proof" is in the eye of the beholder, and that "belief" is a choice, not a mandate). I had a boss once who I like to quote from time to time. One thing he said was "People make up their minds about something and then go out to find their rationale for it." meaning, they put the cart before the horse: Proof must come first, not belief. If belief comes first, you don't have a very critical eye on what passes as "proof".

One of the first jobs I had out of school was working at a camera counter in department stores. This led to a pretty good working knowledge of photography, and when I began viewing these ghost photos, I saw things that I recognized as photographic anomalies.

These pictures were taken states away from one another,
and yet clearly show the camera strap ghost is a pretty
pervasive creature. (These shots could almost have been
taken with the same camera!)

This shot, all the way from Denmark, shows an
object, possibly the camera strap, almost clearly
enough to make out details. As evidence of
the fact that this object is illuminated by the
flash at a very near distance, look at the
shadow that the flash created of the object on
the wall in the background. This was purported
to be "ectoplasm".

More strap pictures:

 

If you look closely at this one, you can make out the weave
of the strap. Actually, I think the dog looks kind of spooky!

The caption for this shot suggests that since the camera
strap appears to be hanging perpendicular to the ground
only a "skeptic" would discount the possibility of it being
a spectral photo. My money still goes with the camera strap.
Actually, my title for the shot would be "how long are you going
to be staying on the futon?"

I have come up with a few categories of photographic "evidence" of ghosts, and will list them here:

1) The Ghostly Camera Strap: This has to be the most common photo evidence of ghosts found on the internet. It is simply caused by the strap of the camera falling in front of the lens, but the effect is not to show a camera strap, but a hazy white streak, which is often called "ectoplasm" in the ghost photo descriptions. (For those of you who are new to the pursuit of ghostly phenomena, ectoplasm is an ethereal substance that some believe to be the stuff that ghosts are made of.) Here's the scenario: Dad grabs his auto focus, auto-everything camera to take a picture of the wife and kids, and while looking through the view finder, fails to notice that the strap has fallen in front of the lens. In single lens reflex cameras, you would see this strap, but view finder cameras don't see through the lens. That's why most ghost photography involves digital photography. Next, the flash fires (this is critical in producing the "ectoplasmic" phenomenon). People not knowing much about cameras think that flashes have unlimited power to illuminate their subject. A typical commercially available camera has a flash capable of illuminating objects sufficient for photographing to a distance of about 12 feet. Have you ever seen pictures taken by someone at a concert from the 40th row? There is a small blur of light from the stage, surrounded by an ocean of blackness (where the flash fails to reach anything), and a glowing white orb in the foreground which is the very adequately illuminated head of the person sitting in front of the camera. (I always get a kick out of watching TV coverage of live concerts and watch all the flashes popping off out in the darkness, and think of all the people standing in line at the drug store the following week leafing through their black concert pictures. Professional photographers use high speed film, often "pushed" to 4 or 6 times the film speed, to capture what happens on stage at a concert. Flashes are almost never used for a number of reasons - least of which is not the fact that they just don't reach far enough).


When the flash goes off, another phenomenon takes place. Because the strap is so close to the source of light, it is "washed out" or flooded with light. This produces two results: 1) almost anything, regardless of color, will, in the presence of this much light, reflect back as white to the film, and 2) because the strap is also so close to the lens, it will be out of focus - the effective "depth of field" (the range of distance that objects will fall into focus in), is at least a foot, if not two, away from the lens.


Combine these elements with an object that is naturally smoothly curved, the camera strap becomes this smooth, fuzzy, ghostly white, undulating object that begins and ends off the edge of the picture. I remember from my freshman psychology course that we humans do something called "cueing" which is critical to this process. If we see two dots of light in the darkness, some primitive part of our brain that was responsible for keeping us out of the mouths of predators tells us "Those are eyes!" and fills in the darkness around them with a head, scary fangs, etc. Cueing doesn't work to be 100% accurate, but operates on the principle that if it is wrong 99 times, and right once, it still kept us out of the predator's jaws that one time. We see the ghostly column of smoky white going across our picture and we don't' see an over illuminated, out of focus camera strap, but that which our fears tell us is their instead - a ghost.


Really, if it weren't for some cueing going on, photographs wouldn't look like anything recognizable to us at all. Because our brain is able to "fill in the blanks" and convert a two dimensional image into something that makes sense in a three dimensional frame of reference, we can look at these flat sheets of paper and know that they represent some object or objects.

I have three cameras at home, and a digital camera I use at work. My single lens reflex cameras are pretty camera-strap free, but I have a Minolta auto-focus with a strap that will try to intrude on almost any shot, regardless of how you hold it. It's important to remember with this type of camera that because you don't see the strap in the viewfinder doesn't mean it's not hanging in front of the lens. They do not see through the lens.

Probably the funniest instance of this phenomenon I have ever witnessed has to do with a series of pictures that my mother took while in London. In about every third shot, and blurry pinkish object obscures the upper left third of the shot. She asked me what I thought might cause this, and I wasn't given the answer until Christmas time that year, when she was walking around the room taking pictures of people. I began laughing, and she asked me why. I said "Without moving your hand, lower the camera and look where the middle finger of your left hand is." Which she did, and an expression of dismay came over her face. She held this camera in a way such that this finger curled around in front of the corner of the lens - well out of the way of the viewfinder, but very near the flash. Her "ghost" was her bird finger!

Here's one of my own, a small brown trout caught in the Black Hills. Now, because there was enough ambient light present, the flash didn't go off, but you can see all the classic elements: the sideways held camera, the "invisible" camera strap, this time made very visible because it is not flooded by the flash. Doesn't look very ectoplasmic to me, and yet there is only a little difference between this photo and all the ghost photos at left. 

Notice also not only the clearly visible weave, but that this close, even in normal daylight, the black strap appears silver.

"Parallax View" - If you look closely at the circle of
light (described as a "ghostly orb" in the photo
description) you will see the straight lines of the
shutter's iris. Also, this shot is a good example
of very near objects getting washed by a flash
that is trying to illuminate the entire forest at
night

2) Iris distortions: This is another photographic anomaly known well to photographers. In order to understand how it works, you have to know a little bit about how a camera works. Light enters the camera through a series of lenses, each with a slightly reflective surface, and passes through an iris which is compose of blades of very thin material in a circular pattern that can open and close to make an aperture. This hole is therefore not perfectly circular, but rather composed of a series of straight lines in a circle. Some irises have 6 blades, some 10, some more. In cases in which strong direct light enters the lens, some light may get bounced back and forth between these reflective surfaces, passing through and taking on the shape of the aperture, before finally hitting the film. What results is a whitish spot, almost always fairly distinctly outlined in a regular geometric form with straight sides, be it an octagon, nonagon, heptagon, etc, based on the type of iris in the aperture.

In this picture, you can easily imagine the cigarette
in the mouth of the guy holding the beer can!
This is a good example of the phenomena caused
by using a flash at night outdoors. Almost everything
in this photo is too dark or distant to be illuminated
by the camera flash, but close objects are "washed"
(notice in the extreme lower left corner how washed
the man's shirt is). Flash range drops off quickly,
also, past a certain depth. Notice that the standing
boy is well illuminated, but the woman on the right,
although only a few feet more distant, is much less illuminated.

In this shot, you can even see the cigarette in the man's
mouth. (Notice also the flash-flooded image of the
person's arm in the foreground - see # 4.)

This is a tricky one: The presence of the strong
light on the children would lead you to think that a flash
would not have been used, thereby failing to flood
the camera strap (note the fabric weave). Look
at the lamp in the background, though. It clearly shows
the straight on flash bounce on its metallic surface.

1) The Ghostly Camera Strap: This has to be the most common photo evidence of ghosts found on the internet. It is simply caused by the strap of the camera falling in front of the lens, but the effect is not to show a camera strap, but a hazy white streak, which is often called "ectoplasm" in the ghost photo descriptions. (For those of you who are new to the pursuit of ghostly phenomena, ectoplasm is an ethereal substance that some believe to be the stuff that ghosts are made of.) Here's the scenario: Dad grabs his auto focus, auto-everything camera to take a picture of the wife and kids, and while looking through the view finder, fails to notice that the strap has fallen in front of the lens. In single lens reflex cameras, you would see this strap, but view finder cameras don't see through the lens. Next, the flash fires (this is critical in producing the "ectoplasmic" phenomenon). People not knowing much about cameras think that flashes have unlimited power to illuminate their subject. A typical commercially available camera has a flash capable of illuminating objects sufficient for photographing to a distance of about 12 feet. Have you ever seen picturestaken by someone at a concert from the 40th row? There is a small blur of light from the stage, surrounded by an ocean of blackness (where the flash fails to reach anything), and a glowing white orb in the foreground which is the very adequately illuminated head of the person sitting in front of the camera. (I always get a kick out of watching TV coverage of live concerts and watch all the flashes popping off out in the darkness, and think of all the people standing in line at the drug store the following week leafing through their black concert pictures. Professional photographers use high speed film, often "pushed" to 4 or 6 times the film speed, to capture what
happens on stage at a concert. Flashes are almost never used for a number of reasons - least of which is not the fact that they just don't reach far enough).

In this shot, objects which are probably rain drops
are frozen in time by the brilliance of the
flash. Because everything in this spooky
cemetery is relatively distant to the camera, the auto focus set itself to infinity (making the brain drops look blurred), and set the flash to
maximum, which fails to illuminate the dark,
distant objects, but serves to wonderfully
illuminate the rain drops.

4) VBLS - The Very Bright Light Source (The Invisible Flash): A very common element in many alleged ghost photos is flash photography. Aside from the elements of flash photography listed above, there is the general tendency of anything that is near to the flash to be illuminated disproportionately. When this is your Aunt Elma's head, you immediately recognize it, and curse the overexposure from the flash, but when it is a rain drop, or smoke, or flying insect, your brain goes into the "fill in the blanks" mode again, trying to suggest possible explanations based on the information it gets. The problem is that if you are photographing distant objects (remember that to a flash unit, "distant" need only be about 15 feet), a little computer tells that flash to put out as much light as it can. It doesn't "see" tiny objects in the foreground, and subsequently they get "washed" (extremely overexposed) with light. I have seen photos where flying bugs, rain drops, and (as mentioned above) camera straps and cigarette smoke fall prey to this over-illumination. If our eyes worked as quickly as cameras do, we would see the these objects illuminated as the camera sees them, but it takes the image frozen on film (or in a computer graphic image) for us to see what was apparently not there to our naked eye. The end result of this type of shot is some anomaly that is brightly lit in an otherwise dim, dark photo (because all the other objects are outside of 15 feet or so). When you think of it, this sort of circumstance comes up pretty frequently in photography.


Click to View image full size.
Make your own orbs: Here's a home made orb shot. In order to do this, you must:

1) Have a fairly large space to shoot into. Most rooms will work, if you're all the way at one end of the room, as I am here.

2) Near complete or complete darkness. In this case, the picture looks like a room with the lights on. It was pitch black. What you're seeing is all flash. This is key to understanding "orbs"

3) Some particulate matter in the foreground, specifically very small and very near the flash. In this shot, I squirted a Window bottle to create tiny water droplets, then hit the button. The flash and the camera did the rest.

 

5) The Multiple Exposure: This is a camera phenomenon that you don't see much anymore, due to modern camera design and manufacturing. At one time, it was difficult to get cameras NOT to take multiple exposure shots (this happens when the shutter fires a second time without first advancing the film, or after only partially advancing it, thereby capturing two different images on the same frame, superimposed on one another, making for a very convincing ghostly figure.) So you click a picture of Aunt Edna, and then two days later, she dies, and you take the same camera to her funeral where, (without ever having advanced the film) you take a shot of her casket, send the roll off to the processor, and when the shots come back, Holy Aunt Edna! You caught her ghost floating over her casket! Most early film special effects were made using his technique.

Now, with auto wind and advanced manufacturing standards, it is difficult to make a camera do this. Difficult, but not impossible. Some of the greatest "ghost" photos of all time are multiple exposure shots.

Here's a good example of light leaked into
the camera, either during the time the
image was taken, or during processing.
The image was annotated to call attention
to the blob of light in the red circle.
This is probably much more indicative
of poor processing or film handling than
of any supernatural phenomenon

6) Leakage: Light invading the camera can cause a wide variety of results on film. From blurring, to shading, to hazing, to bright streaks, this can result in some pretty ghostly looking results. This can happen when the back of the camera is inadvertently popped open, or during the processing of the film, if light is allowed into the tanks that contain the chemicals. Once again, because this is not noticed when it happens, it seems to be something the camera caught when seen on film. It is, but not caught through the lens.

This series of shots above illustrate the effect on film when
the sun, or some other very bright light source, is just out of
view of the shot, but strong enough to peek around the corner
of the lens and create refractions with the lens surfaces, appearing
as "ghostly" white streaks and smears.

7) Very Bright Light Source: This is usually caused by the sun, but can be caused by strong floodlights. In the pictures at left, (which purport to show a ghostly woman in the window, in the top photo, center, and an "ectoplasm" light on the right in the bottom picture), the sun is either rising or setting just out of the range of the camera (on the right). You can tell this by the brilliant backlighting behind the building compared to the relative darkness of the front of the building (away from the sun). What is happening is that the sun, on the right, out of view, is illuminating objects on the left (out of view) which are then seen as brilliant reflections in the windows facing that direction (top shot). These windows, although almost in gloom, are reflecting very brightly lit objects out of the frame of film. In the bottom shot, the sun has just peaked around the corner of the lens hood and is entering the lens where it is washing the film, but still not directly in the line of sight of the camera. The illusion in these shots hinges around the fact that the objects in the shot appear to be very dark and poorly lit, which cues our brain to think that there are no strong light sources around. The brilliantly lit windows in the top shot are proof that the sun is very strongly illuminating the sky (to the left of the picture) and yet since we don't see the sun, we assume it is not there.
9) Poor quality: Have you ever noticed how all the really compelling ghost photos are really grainy and of low resolution? This is due to a combination of factors: First, the grainier and more out of focus a shot is, the more "real" it seems, somehow. Less staged and rehearsed, and more "in the heat of the moment" and amateurish. Secondly, the cueing that our brains do is best kicked in when the image it is seeing is blurry or indistinct. I have seen many alleged ghost photos where the compelling element in the picture is a cropped out and blown up area from a snapshot so the that cropped area is distorted and fuzzy beyond recognition, but faintly looks like a face, or a hooded figure.

The caption with this picture calls attention to the area
to the right of the wall at top, where a face seems
to peer out at you from the leaves. This was a shot
taken of an abandoned church with some violent
history (an element that really kicks the "cueing"
our brains do into high gear - we are looking for something,
and if we look hard enough, we will find it.) I can find
at least three other areas in this shot that could be
"seen" as ghostly apparitions, from the dots in the
windows to the shapes in the bricks, but what' I'm
really doing is looking at a spooky old building, and
expecting to see something.

10)"Jesus on a Tortilla" (cueing, pareidolia): "Cueing" is a psychology term that talks about how our mind works to fill in blanks in the interest of safety. Our primitive ancestors had to be able to peer into the gloom, see a couple of glowing red eyes, and know that there was a lion attached to them. That's how the brain works - by filling in the missing details. Problem is that it isn't accurate a lot of the time. There's a famous black and white drawing used in psychology textbooks to illustrate this attribute. Viewed one way, the black lines suggest the face of an old hag. Viewed another, the mind sees a beautiful woman. In reality, all they are curved lines and blotches, but our mind fills all the detail in.

Many ghost shots fall into this category. A blurred upper story window is blown up and enhanced, and lo! There's a spectral face. Well, just like the picture of Jesus on a tortilla, if you bake enough tortillas, eventually you are going to bake one in which the subtle combinations of burn marks and scorches roughly resemble a man with long hair and a beard. If you cook enough tortillas, eventually you will get one that looks like a steam locomotive, too, but this isn't seen as a religious miracle. The same thing is at work here. If you take a few million photographs of nature, buildings, whatever, eventually chance groupings of branches, leaves, twigs, wood grain etc, will turn up in a shot that appears to be a face, or hooded figure, or something ghostly. Photography enhances this effect in that it renders 3 dimensional figures into two, which further serves to take away the subtle cues that our brain uses to identify objects.

Imagine your reaction if you were to see this same light in
a shot taken in a busy intersection in a city. You wouldn't
give it a second thought. That it appears in a shot of a dark,
lonely, cemetery at night - almost a cultural icon for ghostly
sites - is going to cause any object to be scrutinized.

The Power of Suggestion: If you stick a person in an abandoned house at night, or a lonely cemetery on a dark, moonless night and give them a camera, they are going to look for things in those pictures that they wouldn't look for in pictures taken in a grocery store, or the zoo. It is only human nature to look at blurs and streaks in shots taken in the dark (with tombstones in the background) to start interpolating phantoms.

Shots taken in places where investigators have heard of hauntings - hotels, churches, houses - are always going to be a little more suggestive of phenomena.

These two shots (the lower being a blowup of the circled
area in the upper shot ) come from England, and show a
beautiful old castle with what appear to be a group of trans-
lucent people on the lawn in the left. The caption says that
there were no people present at the time of the picture. It's
very hard not to stare at these ghostly figures which seem
to be dressed in long dresses and hose; clothing from another
era. Real or not?
One note that I would make on the photographic science of
this shot is that the sun is clearly in the background of this
setting, which means that anything would be backlit (as is
the castle), yet the figures appear to be lit from the front
by an equally strong light source. Of course, if these were
ghosts, I guess the laws of photography and light sources
wouldn't necessarily apply to them, but I have also learned
that any time you see two objects in one shot that have
either different amounts of light shed on them, or light from
different angles, one should immediately suspect a multiple
exposure. (See #5)

11) The "Real" Thing: Eventually, you will come across a photo that does not appear to be any of the above mentioned effects at work. It is very compelling to assume that this is a ghost photo, but as Carl Sagan said in The Dragons of Eden, "a photograph is the worst proof in the world of something's existence." (paraphrase). The truth is that photographs trick the eye far too easily. One of the most compelling photos of a UFO I have ever seen was done with a brownie camera and a pie plate in the back yard of a farm house. If this were not true, we wouldn't line up to see movies like "Jurassic Park" and "Star Wars". The images caught in these films are far more convincing looking than even the most compelling ghost photos, and yet we know them to be artificial because of their context. Again, context is EVERYTHING in interpreting ghost from photos.. I will always remember a photo that I saw a long time ago, when I was a kid, of a face in a window of an abandoned house. Even now, the memory of this shot sends chills through me. It has all the classic elements of the great ghost photo: Lack of real clarity, poor lighting conditions, indistinct objects, amateurish quality, and yet the object in the little window upstairs so "clearly" looks like a child's face. After all these years, I know that it is probably one of the three following possibilities

1) An abnormality in the pane of glass, or some other object in the window which happens to resemble a child's face,


2) A real ghost!


3) Or finally, and surprisingly the last thing that the mind wants to come up with as an explanation: A real child! Why is it so hard for the mind to assume that this is just a kid on a prank with a camera, and so easy for it so assume it is a trapped and tormented lonely soul, stuck on this earthly plane. The real paradox here is that if the picture were in better focus, and more clearly revealed the face of the boy, we would be LESS likely to accept that that's exactly what it is? Huhhhh???

Which one is most attractive to think about?

I want to close this by stating as clearly as I possibly can what my intent was in writing this. I consider myself to be a skeptic. I strive to be a skeptic. Remember that "skeptic" does not mean disbeliever, or one who is out to discredit. That is not my goal. My little pocket dictionary defines the word as "one who questions beliefs generally held." In that case, I am not even a skeptic, since the existence of authentic ghost photographs is by no one's definition a "generally held" belief. As I said at the top, I am one who does not believe out of hand, nor do I disbelieve out of hand. I am in the middle. I agree that the goal of many skeptics is to discredit, but to me, these are not skeptics, but disbelievers and defamers. Let's face it: All of us (and I consider myself in this group) who have maintained life-long interests in the paranormal and supernatural have always felt the sting of criticism for having beliefs and interests in "goofy" or "weird" things. My goal is to change this. To me, too easily accepting photographs as evidence that can be too easily explained by anyone with some photographic knowledge does nothing to further our "cause", but in fact damages it, and makes us look like we are not interested in scientific explanations of things that can be scientifically explained.

Like Fox Mulder's poster, "I want to believe", but not enough to put aside my logic, and certainly not enough to engage in the acceptance of too easily discredited photography as evidence, thereby risking the criticism of real science. If it's accreditation and acceptance we are looking for, it is us who must scour these photographs and seek to be "skeptics", not our detractors. We play into their hands by too easily believing.

  • To encapsulate - common elements of "ghost" photos:

 - The image caught on film was NEVER visible to the human eye at the time the picture was taken.

 - Highly suggestive subject matter (dark house, cemetery, dilapidated building - spooky looking places)

 - The (mis)use of a flash.

 - A narrative. Especially when a "ghost" photo needs some setting up. In this case, the picture will be accompanied by a caption like "We took this shot at midnight in the upstairs bedroom where she is said to have killed her family and then stuck her head in a blender.." 

 - Poor or extreme lighting conditions. (If you point a camera at the sun, you're not going to get very good results).

 - The presence of a VBLS (Very Bright Light Source) very near the camera's lens, so that the effects of the extremely bright light are seen without the light itself being seen.

 - Lens flare effects, caused by light bouncing on interior camera parts.

 - "Orbs" and "Ectoplasm" are largely produced using digital photography.

copyright 2019 James W Penson

contact me: jamespenson@tx.rr.com