|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.|
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
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
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,
This shot, all the way from Denmark, shows an
More strap pictures:
If you look closely at this one, you can make out the
The caption for this shot suggests that since the
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).
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.
View" - If you look closely at the circle of
|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 this shot, you can even see the cigarette in the
This is a tricky one: The presence of the strong
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
|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.
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
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
Here's a good example
of light leaked into
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
|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
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
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
The Power of
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
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
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
1) An abnormality in the pane of glass, or some other object in the window which happens to resemble a child's face,
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
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.
- 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: firstname.lastname@example.org|