This article summarises and expands on some aspects of the talk I gave at Australia Paracon 2015, at Katoomba, NSW. While the views expressed here might seem closed-minded and sceptical to some, I seek to clear up some of the misunderstandings surrounding photographs that purport to show paranormal phenomena so that, with careful consideration, we can put them to one side and move forward in trying to find good, solid evidence of genuine paranormal phenomena.
In the Victorian era, when Spiritualism was at its peak, photography was still quite new and few people had a working knowledge of it, so photographers such as William H Mumler were able to exploit people with the simple trick of double exposure to make recognisable 'spirits' appear in portrait photos (which is similar to what ghost photo phone apps do today). He would leave a space in the portrait's composition for the 'spirit' to be inserted, printing it from another negative - often a portrait of a deceased family member. (Mumler sometimes got his choice of spirit personality terribly wrong, landing himself in hot water.)
But the more enduring and mysterious historical ghost photos were not deliberate fakes; they were more likely taken by accident, and not while looking for ghosts in haunted locations. This is also the case today. While there are many deliberately faked ghost photos online, the majority of photos we receive for analysis at Strange Occurrences were taken innocently; that is, with no intention of recording any kind of paranormal phenomena. Often the anomaly is noticed later while reviewing on a computer, which is when people get a bit worried, or sometimes totally freak out.
A little background on me: I've been a full time professional photographer in Wellington, New Zealand, for several decades. I have a degree in photography, have worked in photographic retail, and have run photography courses and workshops for years. So, my level of knowledge in photography is in stark contrast to my understanding of how anything in the field of the paranormal works! Despite ten years of book learning, field work and writing on the subject, I don't feel much closer to an understanding of any of it. In fact, I now realise that I know less about the paranormal than I thought I did when I started out! Compared to anything paranormal, photography is really pretty simple.
I co-founded the Strange Occurrences paranormal group (now called the New Zealand Strange Occurrences Society) in 2005. Analysing photos was the one thing we could claim some expertise in, with several other team members also being serious photographers. We receive emailed photos from around the world for analysis, enough now to see some patterns emerging.
Photographs showing possibly paranormal phenomena can be classified into two types (loosely, because some photos fall into both categories):
(1) Photographic anomalies; things that don't, as such, exist in reality but are caused by photography. Examples: orbs, lens flare, light streaks, 'ectoplasmic mist'.
(2) Psychological effects; the interpretation of the visual data in the photograph. This is often explained by pareidolia (discussed later).
Note: some or all of the photos we receive may in fact show genuine paranormal phenomena; but we can't be absolutely sure. We can only offer an opinion, and this will include a rational option which will fit into category 1 or 2, as above.
The topic in my Paracon Australia 2015 talk that caused most discussion (and consternation) was the orb. I was a little surprised, as I thought the standard explanation for orbs was widely accepted these days; but lately there's been an increase in claims of orbs being spirit manifestations, or paranormally significant in other ways.
We treat every photo – orb or otherwise – received for analysis as an individual, unique case, and we're never absolutely certain of our expressed opinion; but most orbs can be explained by the camera flash (or LED illuminators in cellphone and video cameras) lighting up dust particles, tiny flying insects, or moisture droplets passing by very close to the lens - within centimetres, sometimes millimetres in the case of cellphones with extremely short focal length lenses.
When the flash hits a dust mote it creates a tiny but very bright highlight. Because the camera lens is focussed farther out, this point of light is rendered out of focus in the photo, recording (usually) as a translucent disc - a very large 'Circle of Confusion' (C.O.C. - see diagrams below). This is your classic orb.
Other factors may contribute to the C.O.C. effect to produce orbs, and add variety to them:
As camera design changes, so do orbs. Today's orbs look different to those from 5, 10, or 15 years ago. Orbs were uncommon until the turn of the 21st century, when digital cameras took over. Film cameras seldom produce orbs because of the larger scale of the cameras and optics, meaning dust, etc, cannot usually be brought into focus sufficiently to appear in any coherent form (The C.O.C. would be spread over a wide area and basically invisible.)
Lens flare is another common photographic anomaly often mistaken for paranormal phenomena. Flare is caused by bright, intense light entering the lens, bouncing around and messing up your photo. The light source can either be within your photo or outside it. Lens flare produces not only orb-like anomalies but also light streaks and other odd shapes, which can be multi-coloured. If the lens is scratched or dirty the flare patterns can go really crazy and start to look like very strange things.
Ways to reduce lens flare are:
Movement blur is a common anomaly that can occur when photographing in low light. It can be due subject or camera movement, or both, when the camera has automatically selected a long shutter speed to gather enough light for the exposure. The resulting blurry streaks and general randomness can easily be mistaken for something paranormal.
Most cameras have the option of Night mode, with or without flash. When using this mode, (the ‘crescent moon and stars’ symbol) a common mistake is to think the photo has been taken once the flash has fired, and then to move the camera too soon after. In low light conditions the shutter will remain open for up to a few seconds after the flash and you’ll get a blurry scene, maybe with streaks from light sources. (Man-made lights, such as street lights, actually flicker at 50 or 60 cycles per second according to the AC mains electricity, which may show as lines of dashes or pulses.)
If you want to avoid camera-movement blur, either use a tripod or hold the camera firmly on a shelf, ledge, table, or vertically against a wall, making sure it doesn’t move at all during the exposure, which can last for several seconds. Listen closely and you’ll hear the shutter close. (Note, this method will not prevent blur caused by subject movement.)
You can tell if long exposure blur is the likely cause of your ghost or UFO photo from the Exif data (see below). A long shutter time, such as 2 seconds, is the giveaway, but you could get noticeable blur at 1/15 of a second.
If you want to see how any of these effects work with your own camera, you can try to create them deliberately:
Analysing photos, Exif data
When analysing digital photographs, it’s important to view the Exif data, which is a packet of information attached to the photo file. It tells many things, such as; camera model, date and time of the photo, shutter speed, lens aperture, lens focal length, ISO setting, flash mode, whether the flash fired, and more besides. Exif data can be read in Windows, in Photoshop and other image processing software, and (preferably) by downloading an Exif data reader (Exif Reader is good freeware; it's small, safe, easy to use and comprehensive in showing Exif data, which you can then selectively copy and print).
I’ve been trying to avoid photography-speak, but to interpret the Exif data you'll need to know about photography and how cameras work. I can’t adequately explain the technical terms here, sorry. Look them up online, or visit Wellington and do one of my photography courses!
Photos posted online are stripped of this Exif data, and they will have been reduced in size and compressed. Also, their origin is often unknown and/or highly dubious. For these reasons we don't analyse or even offer opinions on photos posted online. For proper analysis, we need to see the original camera version of the photo, complete with Exif data, and know who and where it’s come from. First-hand images from the photographer are preferable, since they will have also witnessed the event photographed.
It's also useful to view other photos taken at the same location and/or around the same time. These can give more information about the scene photographed and the camera. For example, there may be a camera fault that shows up in multiple photos; or, when things in a photo start to look like something else (pareidolia, simulacra), we can see the same view from different positions and times.
Pareidolia is when we see human-like shapes or forms (simulacra) and faces in random visual data, such as cloud, rocks or tree bark. It’s sometimes called apophenia, and a more recent term is matrixing. It’s been explained as a hard-wired survival mechanism all humans have for recognising danger. Also, as babies the first thing we learn to recognise is our parents’ faces, so face shapes get imprinted on the brain very early. From then on we can all see faces and human-like figures easily in anything. If you look for faces in photos, you’ll find them!
The lower the resolution of a photo and the more fuzzy the detail, the more random data will be contained in it for us to see faces and figures in. That shadowy area behind the partly opened wardrobe door might look like it conceals an imp or demon, but it’s usually just our brain ‘joining the dots’. Due to electronic image processing, those shadow areas that contain little or no image information often get sharpened up and made more contrasty so that it appears there’s something there that isn’t. There’s a good article on pareidolia on Wikipedia that’s easy to follow and goes into some depth.
I could go on with more examples of photographic anomalies (some older, film-based ones can get really hairy and are harder to analyse!), but it’s apparent that most things showing up in photos yield to rational explanation.
By experimenting with your own camera, you can build your understanding of how these anomalies occur, learn how to recognise them elsewhere, and find out more about photography in the process.
So where does that leave us? It’d be easy for me to conclude that it’s impossible to photograph something like a ghost, UFO, or cryptid, so we shouldn’t bother trying; and that all such photos of anything considered paranormal are either deliberate fakes or optimistic misinterpretations of the so-called photographic evidence. But I don’t think either of these conclusions is a valid one, based on experience to date. So far, I’ve never managed to photograph any of the (possibly) paranormal events I’ve experienced, for a variety of reasons and poor excuses, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think it can ever be achieved. With improvements in visual technologies new possibilities are opening up; and of course, avoiding stubbornness, one has to be patient and persistent. We keep trying and live in hope.
While writing this, I watched a video post showing a video camera setup with an effective shutter speed of a trillionth of a second. It can film a pulse of light moving through a plastic bottle of water, and other incredible, seemingly impossible things. Immediate reaction: ‘Nah, the video’s a hoax.’ But it isn’t. The ‘trick’ is explained and it’s clever stuff. It is but one example of innovative technology showing us a new aspect of nature that we hadn’t imagined possible. There’s quite a history of this and there will of course be more to come. Let’s hope that some of it might be used to solve some of the problems presented by the paranormal and supernatural.
- James Gilberd, December 2015
Free paranormal photo analysis service
We at New Zealand Strange Occurrences Society have always offered an informed opinion, free of charge, to anyone willing to email their unexplained photographs to us for analysis.
All photos and correspondences are treated as confidential, but sometimes we will ask permission to publish sent in photos on our website (as in this post, for example). This is only done with express permission from the owner of the photo, who may choose to remain anonymous.
Email your photo and relevant information to: firstname.lastname@example.org