So You Have a Ghost in Your Photo

Kenny Biddle, Joe Nickell

Although science has never authenticated a single ghost, spirits of the dead have posed for elaborate studio portraits, strolled casually into mundane photographic scenes, and darted into the snapshots of hopeful ghost hunters—or so it seems. Initially, however, ghosts were reticent to appear before the camera.

Advent of Spirit Photography

The earliest practical photographs—daguerreotypes (process announced in 1839)—failed to record any ghosts. The same was true for the later images known as ambrotypes (from 1855), as well as their successors, the misnamed “tintypes” (patented in 1856). It was not until the advent of glass-plate negatives (about 1859), which made double imaging easy, that “ghosts” began seemingly to materialize in front of the camera.

It fell to Boston photographer William H. Mumler to discover the “extras” in his pictures. When he recycled his glass plates, he found that a faint image could remain if the glass had not been sufficiently cleaned, resulting in an additional dim face or figure in the next photograph. Because Spiritualism had begun to flourish in 1848 (after two schoolgirls claimed to receive messages from the ghost of a murdered peddler), Mumler shrewdly advertised himself as a “spirit photographer.” Abraham Lincoln’s widow was among his later clients, but Mumler was revealed a fake when some of his “spirits” were recognized as still-living Bostonians.

Nevertheless, spirit photography continued to flourish. Sometimes the photographers produced such heavily draped and poorly focused figures that credulous clients could easily “recognize” the spirits as the loved ones they had hoped to see. Some sitters even helpfully brought pictures of the deceased to assist the photographer in tuning in to them in the Other World. Or he may even have taken the subject’s picture before; in such instances, the resulting spirit would strike the same pose and wear the identical clothing of the available photograph (Nickell 1994, 146–149, 192–196). All sorts of montage techniques (a term loosely describing any process for making a single picture from two or more) were used, and there were numerous methods of creating fake spirit photos—twenty-two by one 1921 count (Nickell 1994, 146–155, 192–196).

Spirit photography took advantage of the gullible throughout the heyday of Spiritualism. However, it began to decline seriously during the first quarter of the twentieth century, especially after Harry Houdini (1874–1926) waged a protracted war on Spiritualistic fraud in general.

Ghost Photos

Meanwhile, whereas professional spirit photography used studio and darkroom deception, apparent ghosts could appear in photos taken by entirely honest folk. For example, suppose a photographer was creating a photo of the interior of a church. Because such an exposure would take a long time, the photographer would set his camera on a tripod, open the lens, and then perhaps go for a stroll. If someone happened to walk into the scene briefly and pause during this time, he or she might be recorded as an ethereal image, a “ghost.”

With the advent of the roll-film camera, amateurs increasingly began to take snapshots, some of which contained anomalies that were mistaken for paranormal phenomena. Not surprisingly, just as spirit photography had awaited the invention of glass-plate negatives that made double exposures possible, some later types of “ghost” anomalies began to show up only following certain developments in cameras, as we shall see presently.

Typical of ghost photographs that became widely published is one taken of the so-called “Brown Lady” of Raynham Hall in Norfolk, England, in 1936. It was made by two magazine photographers who claimed they glimpsed the figure on the stairs just in time to make a quick exposure. Although it is reported that photography experts could find no trickery in the original picture, there is a sequel to the affair: More thorough analysis revealed the photograph was a fake, created by superimposing one image over another (Cohen 1984, 87–90; Fairley and Welfare 1987, 140–141).

An innocent example occurred at the “haunted” Mackenzie House in Toronto in 1968, when ghost hunter Susy Smith visited the site with two “warlocks.” She managed to obtain a spooky picture showing one of the mystics with his fingers extended over an antique piano’s keyboard. There appears in the area of his hands “a mysterious kind of mist.” In fact, the “mist” was not there at all; the effect in the photo was caused by the white pages of music bouncing back her flash (from what we would now regard as an old-fashioned camera), thus washing out (overexposing) a portion of the picture. (As confirmation that a flash was used, there are dark shadows in the photo and bright glare on the polished wood; see Nickell 2012, 159).

Today’s Snapshots

Most of today’s “ghost” images are produced by modern filmless or digital cameras that had become common by the mid-1990s. These compact cameras have increasingly been replaced by smartphones, which behave similarly.

Examples of such images are the bright discs known as “ghost orbs” that commonly appear in snapshots. Many of today’s ghost hunters believe they are evidence of the paranormal. In fact, however, the camera’s built-in flash simply rebounds from floating specks of dust, droplets of moisture, flakes of snow, or the like that are close to the lens. They, being out of focus, show up as round, radiant “orbs” in the resulting photos. This phenomenon was well understood by the 1980s (Mosbleck 1988, 208) when it was attributed to “spirit energy” (Nickell 1994, 159). Today the effect is easily produced experimentally (Biddle 2007, 5–20). (See Figure 1.) Any bright light source directed at the camera can also cause orb-like effects known as lens flares. For more, see Biddle 2007, 15–7.

Figure 1. Droplets of moisture—i.e., rain—appear as “orbs” when reflecting the camera flash.

 

Then there is the variety of effects caused by the flash rebounding from the camera’s own wrist strap. This can produce a bright, white strand (with variations depending on whether the strap is flat, smooth, etc.). A braided strap can create the look of a “spiraling vortex of spirit energy” (Figure 2). Camera-strap “ghosts” are ubiquitous in photos, as are those caused by other common intruders such as strands of hair or jewelry—even flying insects, a wandering fingertip, or any of various other possibilities (Nickell 2012, 128–129, 272; Biddle 2007, 21–28).

Figure 2. A braided strap can create the look of a “spiraling vortex of spirit energy” when it accidently falls in front of the lens and flash.

Still another effect caused by the rebounding flash is that of a strange mist—sometimes called an “ectoplasmic mist,” after ectoplasm, an imagined spirit substance. The mist typically turns out to be flash-lighted cigarette smoke, someone’s frosty breath, or an incoming fog (Biddle 2007, 39–42).

Another phenomenon consists of puzzling light streaks, appearing in a (usually) nighttime photo as one or more lines of light. These lines may zigzag, form arabesques, appear in parallel, or do other stunts. The culprit is almost invariably a slow shutter speed, resulting in a picture that takes seconds rather than an instant to form. The person taking the photo snaps the shutter and—unaware the picture is still in progress—moves the camera. This causes points of light (such as a streetlamp) to become lines of light, forming mysterious, illuminated scribbles in the photograph (see Figure 3).

A major category of “ghost” images in photos is the apparition, of which there are different types. One is the double exposure (comparable to the early spirit photos), which can be made deliberately or may rarely occur accidentally. A reflection on glass is another way a transparent face or figure may be produced (Figure 4). Still another recalls an effect, mentioned earlier: given a long exposure with a digital camera, someone could enter or leave the scene, creating an ethereal “extra” (Biddle 2007, 43–53). And there are other possibilities.

Figure 3. Several points of light become lines of light due to a long exposure and movement of the camera.

 

Figure 4. A face reflected in a randomly placed sheet of glass.

Then there is the effect known as pareidolia. That is a neurological-psychological phenomenon by which the brain interprets vague images as specific ones. It explains the ghostly faces and figures often perceived in photographs—in shadow patterns, foliage, and so on—like seeing pictures in clouds. Called simulacra, such images are especially looked for today in photos taken in supposedly haunted places (Nickell 2012, 351).

In addition to these accidental effects are various means of deliberately faking an image. They include “ghost apps” from smartphones and photoshopping techniques, as well as, no doubt, possibilities yet to be devised. Also, of course, an “accidental” effect may have been deliberate.

* * *

Such an overview as this cannot cover all possibilities of ghostly pictures, but—together with the accompanying chart (Table 1)—should prove helpful as a first-look resource.

One should keep in mind the reason crime-scene and forensic photographs are admissible in court is because the conditions under which they have been made are known and can be attested to. With supposedly “paranormal” pictures, however, we may not know important aspects of their origin with any certainty. Therefore, such pictures are not really proof of anything. Certainly, the burden of proof as far as authentication is concerned is on the claimant—not on anyone else to prove a negative (i.e., that it is not a ghost). Asserting that a particular image must be paranormal because it is unexplained only constitutes an example of the logical fallacy called arguing from ignorance. One cannot draw a conclusion from a lack of knowledge.

 


References

  • Biddle, Kenneth. 2007. Orbs or Dust? A Practical Guide to False-Positive Evidence. NP: Paranormal Investigators and Research Association.
  • Cohen, Daniel. 1984. The Encyclopedia of Ghosts. New York: Dorsett Press.
  • Fairley, John, and Simon Welfare. 1987. Arthur C. Clarke’s Chronicles of the Strange and Mysterious. London: Collins.
  • Mosbleck, Gerald. 1988. The elusive photographic evidence. In John Spencer and Hilary Evans, eds. Phenomenon: Forty Years of Flying Saucers. New York: Avon, 48.
  • Nickell, Joe. 1994. Camera Clues: A Handbook for Photographic Investigation. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky.
  • ———. 2012. The Science of Ghosts: Searching for Spirits of the Dead. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

Ghost Photograph Identification Chart

I. Ball of Light

A. Was it a shape such as a circle, hexagon, oval, or irregular shape?

1. Circle

a. Was camera flash used? Most likely dust particles, bugs.

b. Were there lights in the distance (porch lights, headlights)? Most likely out-of-focus lights.

c. Does the circle anomaly appear in the same location in multiple images? Most likely water stain on lens or sensor.

d. Are there reflective surfaces within the scene? Most likely flash (or other light source) reflections.

2. Hexagon

a. Was there a bright light source such as the sun, flashlight, streetlight, etc., in or just outside the frame? Most likely lens flare.

3. Oval

a. Was it raining or snowing? Most likely raindrop or snowflake.

b. Were you outside? Possibly an insect in flight.

c. Was there a bright light source within or just outside the frame? Most likely lens flare.

4. Irregular shape

a. Does the irregular shape appear in the same area on multiple images? Most likely foreign object on camera lens or sensor (i.e., dust, fiber, hair).

b. Was it moving across a surveillance camera screen? Most likely bug on lens cover.

Figure 5. Lens flare caused by the sun in the top right corner.

 

Figure 6. Dust particles in an auditorium illuminated by a projector.


II. Streak of Light

A. Did the streak have a ribbed appearance (small humps)? Most likely the camera strap.

1. Flash off; Black or gray in color (depends on color of strap).

2. Flash on; White in color (often overexposed).

B. Did the streak have a smooth yet blurry look? Possibly a strand of hair caught in flash.

C. Did the streak look like a “band of energy”?

1. Check the exposure time of image. Most likely motion blur/“camera shake” from a long exposure.

2. Are there multiple bands that follow the same or similar pattern? Most likely long exposure that caught multiple light sources in the scene.

Figure 7. A camera on a tripod, set to a long exposure, captures the path a flashlight travels across the scene.
Figure 8. A strand of long hair makes its way in front of the lens and flash.

 

III. Mists/Smokey Anomalies

A. Were you outdoors during cool or cold temperatures?

1. Was the camera near your face?

a. Yes; most likely frosty breath.

b. No; most likely fog or natural mist.

B. Was anyone smoking or vaping in the vicinity? Most likely smoke or vapor from cigarette, cigar, vaporizers, and/or electronic cigarettes. Check for ashtrays.

C. Was a campfire or torch in use? Most likely smoke from the fire.

D. Were you inside a cave, tunnel, or other similar underground area? Most likely condensed moisture (mist).

Figure 9. Smoke from a cigarette just off camera.

 

Figure 10. Frosty breath floating in front of the camera, illuminated by the camera flash.

 

IV. Apparitional Figures

A. Faces

1. Are the features (eyes, nose, mouth, etc.) out of place and/or out of proportions? Most likely pareidolia (apophenia).

2. Are the facial features fuzzy while the body appears normal? Most likely someone’s head turned during a long exposure.

3. Does the face appear on an interior wall? Most likely a portrait, painting, etc., hanging on the wall.

4. Does the face appear cartoonish or similar to drawings/paintings? Most likely a digitally altered addition from a painting or drawing.

5. Does the face appear on a multicolored and/or textured surface? Most likely pareidolia (apophenia).

6. Does the face lack color, appearing in black and white? Most likely inserted by a ghost app from a smartphone.

B. Shadow figures

1. Did the camera’s flash fire?

a. No; most likely a long exposure (deepens faint shadows).

b. Yes;

1. Check settings and exposure time of image. Possibly a long exposure with flash (possible slow sync).

2. Possibly a person caught beyond the effective range of the flash.

2. Were other people in the area? Most likely living person caught in the scene during long exposure.

3. Does the figure appear on or against a wall? Most likely someone’s shadow (yours or another person’s) in the path of flash or ambient light source.

C. Transparent body/limb

1. Was the camera flash on?

a. No; most likely long exposure and movement of a person in the scene (motion blur).

b. Yes;

1. Check settings and exposure time of image. Possibly a long exposure with flash (possible slow sync).

2. Possibly a person caught beyond the effective range of the flash.

2. Does the “ghost” lack color (i.e., black and white, sepia tone)? Most likely a “ghost app” on a smartphone.

3. Are there parts of the “ghost” that are cut off sharply without any indication why? Most likely phone “ghost app” or photoshopped image.

Figure 11. The face (of a statue in the house) was placed in the mirror via Photoshop.

 

Figure 12. “Ghost app” on a smartphone used to insert this “ghost” into a photo.

 

Kenny Biddle

Kenny Biddle is a science enthusiast who investigates claims of paranormal experiences, equipment, photos, and video. He promotes science, critical thinking, and skepticism through his blog I Am Kenny Biddle. He frequently hosts workshops on how to deconstruct and explain paranormal photography. Email – parainvestigator@comcast.net

Joe Nickell

Joe Nickell, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and “Investigative Files” Columnist for Skeptical Inquirer. A former stage magician, private investigator, and teacher, he is author of numerous books, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin (1998), Pen, Ink and Evidence (2003), Unsolved History (2005) and Adventures in Paranormal Investigation (2007). He has appeared in many television documentaries and has been profiled in The New Yorker and on NBC’s Today Show. His personal website is at joenickell.com.