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Paranormal Photography; The Ghost in the Machine

Paranormal Photography; The Ghost in the Machine

by Robin M. Strom, author of Anatomy of a Ghost; A Guide to Analyzing the Dead, and On the Hunt for the Haunted (April 2019, Llewellyn Worldwide)

The team often receives questions about photos and videos in which supposed paranormal anomalies are caught.  Most of the time, these can be fairly easily explained. Below is a series of anomalies that we were able to debunk.  Our team works under the caveat that that which can be explained or recreated isn't paranormal.  But then, sometimes, we can't find a rational explanation for an image. That of course is when we get truly excited.  The photo at the end of this article is a case in point.  


Knowing the weather conditions and or humidity when taking a picture is important.  Notice the "orb" by my son's face as he was working on his snow fort.  This isn't a spirit trying to communicate with him, but a rain drop.  The snow had stopped this particular night, and it had begun to rain.  I was using the flash setting on my camera to take pictures because it had gotten very dark.  Later, on review, I noticed, I had an orb! What actually happened is the flash reflected off a rain drop resulting in a really cool orb shot.  Snow, rain, dust, pollen and bugs are all capable of creating the orb effect in a photo, especially when used in conjunction with a flash. 

Similarly, dust, bugs, humidity, pollen, rain, snowflakes, all are extremely reflective in a camera with an IR setting, such as night-time surveillance cameras. I can't tell you how many orb questions I receive from people capturing such on their surveillance cams.  To date,  I've still never witnessed an Orb photograph that I seriously considered the real thing. Remember, for an orb to be an orb it should emit it's own light not be reflecting light, as is the case in this photograph. I have had some credible witnesses that have seen orblike balls of light with their own eyes.  Still, things like car lights and the lights from airplanes should be considered. These may also create the illusion of shadows, or shadowy forms that may seem to move. 

Strange Fogs

The two photos below of a strange fog are actually cigarette smoke, with the smoker placed behind the camera. This had none of the wispy, curly features that other texts had suggested would take place with cigarette smoke, but instead produced a most believable odd fog effect. The one the left is thick to the point where it might even be mistaken for a spirit coalescing.  So before you consider spirit, you might want to find out if there are some sneaky smokers getting in a quick drag. 

In pictures taken outdoors one must be especially careful of fogs.  Other than cigarette smoke a fog might have a natural cause. Take into consideration the temperature at the time the photo is taken.  Changes in temperature can cause the condensation in the air to appear.  Digital cameras can also capture carbon dioxide which is released by trees and vegetation in swampy areas, even if the area appears dry.  A couple caveats about making too much of "faces" seen in a mist- a tendency called pareidolia. If you are also witnessing the fog while you're photographing, make note of its changing density and watch to see if it appears to be following you about. And do what photographers do, bracket your photos. In other words, take a series of pictures. If you notice something strange on one photo, take successive photos of the same scene. Check photos before and photos after. Does the "fog" move or stay the same? Is it in all the photos or only one? Something paranormal will likely appear and disappear quickly, or move about seeming to follow the action. Something natural like a fog will stay longer, dissipating much more slowly.  Having said all that, I did receive one picture of a fog that I thought was interesting. This one caught in a cemetery seems to be contained in a very small area, and not close to the ground or near trees.  Still, we can tell the evening was chilly by the amount of clothing the subject is wearing, so certainly condensation could be the issue. Humidity is reflective and we know the camera was using a flash, because we can see the light on the tombstone. 

The Ghost in the Details; Slow Shutter Speeds

 This strange effect was caused by a slow shutter speed in a low light situation. I dislike the flat effect of a flash, so I avoid flash as often as I can.  But a slow shutter in low light causes ghosting effects in subjects whenever they move.  Notice in the first shot just the hand seems to be fuzzy.  In the second the entire head of the subject appears semi-opaque.  Is it a ghost? No, it's my son who is in perpetual motion.  A strong indicator of this anomaly are lines of light. Notice the line of light on the right side of the second picture. The light lines can also appear jaggedy or look like lightning flashes.  If you take such a picture and don't examine it immediately, and then look at it later you might believe you captured a ghost.  I say this in all honesty, having just watched a recent episode of Ghost Hunters where a photographer did just that.  The picture seemed to show a ghostly form, but also displayed the lightning flashes of light that would indicate camera movement in a low light situation. Photography students are taught to tripod any photos using a 60 shutter speed or less.  But whoever listens to what their photography instructor taught them?

The Evil Eye

Recently the team was contacted by a family whose teenage girl was worried.  Being a typical teenager she took multiple selfies of herself using the flash on her phone camera.  Her photos often showed what she described as an evil eye.  She was so unnerved by the evil eye that she purchased a new phone. But even with the phone she kept getting the evil eye effect. So I turned the flash on, and took a selfie of myself with my phone reflecting off the mirror. And voila, I too got the evil eye effect.  It turned out the "evil eye" is actually a reflection of the IR light on the camera.  The camera focuses with an IR light. The IR light is sent out and when it hits something solid it bounces back.  The time it takes to bounce back allows the camera to determine the distance between camera and subject. It then focuses for that distance.  Using the flash and a mirror illuminated and reflected that IR light which would normally be invisible to our eyes, complete with a ghosting effect around the light at the center, creating what looked like an evil eye....imagine evil laughter here. 

Notice the evil eye effect in the photo below, on the shoulder of the team's Co-Director - in yellow hoodie.  It can also occur when there's strong light sources in front of the camera. 


Fireflies and Traveling Spiders

Sometimes it takes me awhile to work these things out. A woman sent me several pictures. It was a summer evening, and she had been taking pictures of her family when she noticed small, green orbs showing up in her pictures.  She sent them to me and I scratched my head.  On the one hand they did act like orbs should act, a ball of light illuminated from within, not being reflected from without.  And then it dawned me, it was summer night at dusk and the photos were being taken in a grassy area. Fireflies! Mystery Solved.

Another inquiry took me longer.  A gentleman had set up a deer cam in the forest near his house.  Deer cams shoot video when something moves in the frame.  In this case the video was filmed at night, using the camera's IR setting, with a lovely doe munching by a tree calmly when this filmy, guazy string floats by over her head.  I admit I was somewhat at a loss on that one, until I stepped out on my back porch one day and saw a newly hatched spider floating by on a wisp of gossamer web.  That's how newly hatched spiders find a home.  They hatch from a nest, throw out a bit of web, which catches the breeze and floats them off to a new locale. Cobwebs and spider webs are both eerily reflective on an IR camera. 

Reflections and Pareidolia

A gentleman sent in this picture.  He felt he'd captured a ghost in the window of this quaint little shop in Rehoboth Beach.  (1st story window to the right of the door) In the window he saw what he thought looked like a ghost wearing a hat.  The building had a reputation, apparently, for being haunted, which probably increased the confusion. But the form in the window isn't a spirit but a reflection off the window.  Notice that just above the figure is the perfect outline of the tree branch which has the same light quality. 

This is a case of pareidolia. Pareidolia is defined as a psychological phenomenon involving a stimulus (an image or a sound) wherein the mind perceives a familiar pattern of something where none actually exists.  Our minds do this naturally, they're hardwired to try to make order out of chaos. That's why we see pictures in the clouds, or the face of Jesus in a water stain. 

Below is an even better example of the effect. A co-worker of mine had me examine these one day. He'd been warming up for a big show, and had his wife take a few photos. In the photos it appears that there is the face of Bob Marley reflected on his very shiny, very reflective, black guitar. He actually had a short video clip as well, which appeared to show the face undulating to the music. He said the place wasn't lit which would cause reflections, but we can see from the can lights to the back of him that the room was well lit. He also noted that there was little in the room that could be projecting the image of Bob on the guitar. But some research of the establishment and the room in particular showed me that the place was rife with items from a fully stocked cabana styled bar to posters on the wall.

While one of the coolest examples of pareidolia, I've ever seen, I do believe it to be reflection of something in the room and not the ghost of good old Bob Marley in the photo.

Ghosts Caught on Film

Still sometimes I get a picture that simply can't be explained by camera malfunction or reflection. Case in point is the photo below. The young mother who took this photo had gotten up during the night and left the room where her young daughter was sleeping in her toddler bed.  Mom took the baby monitor and her cell phone with her into the other room.  Looking at the baby monitor she was astonished to see a figure of a woman that seemed to be leaning over or floating above the child's bed.  She quickly took a photo of the image with her cell phone.  The next day the family were amazed at the picture Mom had captured.  They had the really good idea to try to recreate the effect the next night. With the child in bed asleep, and the lighting the same, the family took a picture of the monitor with the cell phone.  No ghostly image.  Furthermore, the recreated image clearly showed items behind the toddler bed, which were occluded in the first image.  (The image on the right is the recreated image.)

What I really felt was fascinating about the image of the woman is that when you enlarge it the female image appears to get sharper instead of dissipating in a cloud of pixilation. Further, when I asked and received a photo of the young mother's grandmother, who was recently deceased, the facial similarities were remarkable.  I also was very happy the family tried to recreate the image, under similar circumstances.  What cannot be recreated is that much harder to explain.


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