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Photography and the Paranormal

This essay is based on my presentation to the NZ Skeptics conference in Wellington, 2009 and on the subsequent article 'Digital Photography and the Paranormal' in NZ Skeptic #94, 2010. It has been adapted and added to for the purposes of this website.

The Cottingley Fairies

This article describes the most common anomalies that occur in photography (mainly) with digital cameras and how the resulting photos may be misinterpreted as showing paranormal phenomena. In many cases described, the effects are caused by the camera and would not have been visible as such to the human eye when the photo was taken. The remainder are due to common psychological reasons. The point being, modern photographic technology causes many 'false positive' results in paranormal investigation, while genuine (or unexplainable) ghost photos are rare indeed.

Since the beginnings of photography in the mid-nineteenth century people have used the medium to capture images of ghosts, both na´vely and as a hoax for commercial gain. Until the arrival of roll film, in the late nineteenth century, which was more light-sensitive than earlier wet and dry plates, long exposure times sometimes resulted in spectral-looking figures accidently or intentionally appearing in photographs. Nearly all early photographs showing alleged ghosts can be explained by double exposure, long exposure, or they are recordings of staged scenes - contrivances such as the cutout fairies at the bottom of the garden in Cottingley (above). The Cottingley Fairies - Wikipedia

As cameras became more foolproof, with mechanisms to eliminate double exposure etc, accidental ghosts in photographs became scarce. During the 1990s I carried a compact 35mm camera (an Olympus Mju-1) and shot more than five thousand photos with it. At the time I was not looking for paranormal effects such as those described below, but a quick review showed only very few strange occurrences in the photos. This century digital compact cameras have become ubiquitous and, a full century after the end of the Victorian era, ghost photographs are once again cropping up everywhere.

olympus mju-1 compact 35mm film camera Pentax Optio waterproof compact digital camera

Olympus Mju-1 compact 35mm film camera and a Pentax Optio digital.

Design-wise, the basic layout of a compact digital camera isn't much different to a compact 35mm film camera; both have a lens with a minimum focal length a little shorter than standard (See Note #1 at end) and a flash positioned close to the lens. The main differences are the lens focal lengths, the image recording medium and the method of processing the image (digital rather than chemical).

A typical 35mm film camera has a semi-wide angle lens (which may also zoom well into the telephoto range but we're not so much interested in that) in the range of 28mm-38mm. A standard lens for the format is about 45mm. A digital compact camera is more likely to have a lens focal length starting out in the range of 4mm to 7mm. A 5mm lens is typical, and at a maximum aperture of around f2.8, the maximum working diameter of the lens can be less than 2mm and the stopped down aperture less than 0.5mm diameter. (The maximum aperture of my Mju-1 was 35mm/f3.5 = 10mm diameter - large by comparison.) The tiny lens apertures found in compact digital cameras allow things very close to the lens to be captured by the recording medium (albeit out of focus) even when the lens is focussed on medium-long distance.

The most common photographic anomaly that is mistakenly held up as evidence of paranormal activity is the orb. While there are natural objects that are visible to the unaided eye and may photograph as orbs - that is, any small or point source light, either close by such as a lit cigarette or burning marsh gas, or distant such as the planet Venus - there are other types of orbs that only show up in photographs. You don't see them but the camera does. These are mainly caused by airborne dust, moisture droplets, or tiny insects. In the dark, they are visible only briefly (for a millisecond or so) when illuminated by the camera flash. Dust is the most common cause of orbs in photographs, captured as an out-of-focus glow as it passes within centimetres of the camera lens, in the zone covered by the flash.

? Strange Occurrences 2008

The diagram above shows how a compact digital camera, having its flash close to its short focal length lens, is able to photograph dust orbs. Most 35mm cameras won't do this because the lens is too long in focal length to be able to create a small enough Circle of Confusion (see Note #2 at end) image of the dust and larger Single Lens Reflex (SLR)-type cameras tend to have the flash positioned farther from the lens (above) and also have larger image sensors and longer focal-length lenses which are more like a 35mm camera.

Note: a built-in flash on a digital SLR, while being closer to the lens axis, is set some distance back from the front of the lens, so the dust particles it illuminates are also out of view of the lens; they are mostly behind it.

&copy J.Gilberd 2009

Specifically, a dust orb is an image of the electronic flash reflected by a mote, out of focus and appearing at the film plane as a circular image the same shape as the lens at full aperture. Most of the time when a compact camera takes a flash photo the aperture blades automatically stay out of the way to allow the widest possible lens opening. If the aperture blades close down at all, they create a diamond-shaped opening and any dust orb then takes on that shape (see above), an effect predicted by this theory of dust orbs.

&copy J.Gilberd 2009

&copy J.Gilberd 2009 The diagram above shows a dust mote much closer to the camera lens than the focussed subject, a tree, and how the out-of-focus orb appears superimposed upon the tree in the processed image (right), appearing the full size of its Circle of Confusion at the image capture plane.

Further discussion of orbs in photos.

Photo is copyright Other common photographic anomalies which are sometimes assumed to be paranormal are caused by lens flare, internal reflections, dirty lenses (image on right?) and objects in front of the lens. These can all occur in any type of camera. What they have in common (and this includes dust orbs), is that the phenomena exist only in the camera: they will not be seen with the unaided eye. Most of the time, photographs that are held up as paranormal were taken when nothing apparently paranormal was suspected: the anomalous effect was only noticed later upon reviewing the images.

photo is copyright Another confusing aspect of photographic anomalies is the loss of sense of scale, caused by the reduction of the 3D world to a 2D photograph. In the photo on the right, it appears the baby is looking at the orb, but actually the dust particle causing the orb is centimetres from the lens and the baby is looking at something else much farther from the camera (and out of frame). The orb appears to be quite large but it is merely the out-of-focus image of a dust mote. There is no clue as to depth.

A variation on the situations discussed above is when someone senses or otherwise suspects the presence of a ghost and responds by taking a photograph. If a dust orb appears in the photo it may be immediately assumed to be a visual representation or manifestation of the spiritual entity. This often happens during a paranormal investigation or ghost hunt, really the only types of activity that involves wandering around in the dark taking photos of nothing in particular.

Now that digital cameras have large displays, photographers using the cameras during a paranormal investigation are able to immediately see dust orbs in their photos. If they believe these orbs to be paranormal, the hysteria of the investigators is fed. I've seen it happen and been caught out myself. With film cameras and even with older digital cameras having smaller displays or no photo display at all, the orb effect was not usually observed until after the investigation, and at such time the evaluation can be more objective.

Photo by Viviane Parenyi. Photo is copyright

Another type of photographic anomaly is shown above in this detail of a long-exposure photo of the Oriental Bay Marina at night. The ghost lights in the sky are secondary images of light sources elsewhere in the photo, caused by internal reflections in the camera lens. Again, no lights were actually seen in the sky. I was present when the photo was taken and we didn't think we had captured a paranormal event. The effect only occurred in-camera. I am unsure whether a film camera would've recorded a similar image.

Photo: Denise Durkin 2010

While operating a camera in the dark it is easy to make a mistake such as letting the camera strap or something else get in front of the lens (as above), or put a fingerprint on the lens that will cause lens flare later. The camera strap problem often occurs when the camera is turned 90 degrees for a vertical-format shot.

Photo: James Gilberd 2010

Use of the camera in the Night Photography mode may cause light trails from any light source due to the slow shutter speed, often several seconds. Also, in Night Mode with flash a person moving will tend to record as a blur combined with a sharp image from the flash, making it look like a mist is around them. The photo above was the result of camera movement while the shutter was open, causing the streetlamps to spread their light over a large area of the photo. Sometimes the 50Hz or 60Hz pulsing of an man-made light will show as a slightly broken streak (top part of photo above).

Compact camera shutters open and close almost inaudibly, and the camera may often automatically choose a long shutter speed when used at night, with or without the flash firing. You may not be aware this is happening, and it may depend on the exposure mode setting, so the thing is to know your camera and learn to recognise the effect of long shutter speeds. Try sitting the camera firmly on a wall or other support, or use a solid tripod.

photo is copyright It is important to remember that a compact digital camera will process an image file before displaying it. While a more serious camera will shoot in Raw (unprocessed) mode, most compact cameras record the image in JPEG form, which is compressed. Cellphone cameras usually apply a lot of file compression to save memory and minimise transmission time. Digital compression creates artefacts, and the effect can be seen in the enlarged photo of the dust orb (right). Also, digital sharpening is automatically applied, which causes the patterns within the orbs and can make a vague blur into a more definite shape, a smear into a human face.

photo is copyright

We are all aware of the tendency to want to recognise human faces or figures in random patterns. This is a strong instinct possibly linked to infancy, picking out a parent's face from the surrounding incomprehensible shapes. Once people see human features in a photo it is difficult to convince them that they're looking at a random pattern and just interpreting it as a face. The effect is called pareidolia, sometimes referred to as matrixing, or the figure as a simulacrum.

photo is copyright

The 'Face in the Middle' photo (above) is an example of pareidolia. The third face appearing between the boy and girl is several background elements combining to produce the simulacrum. The low resolution and large amount of compression in this cellphone photo exacerbate the effect.

While I think that people do somehow perceive or experience ghosts (see 'Some Thoughts on the Existence and Nature of Ghosts') I feel it may be impossible to capture an image of a ghost, as such, using any known method of photography. Photographs are not considered hard evidence of anything much these days anyway, because it is widely known that even a moderately skilled photographer or Photoshop operator can create a realistic looking picture of almost any fantasy. A photograph showing anything really extraordinary would these days immediately be assumed fake and would be difficult to prove genuine. In paranormal matters a photograph can at best be considered circumstantial evidence requiring backup from other types of hard data and witness accounts to lend it evidential weight.

Cameras, digital or analogue, are useful in the field of paranormal investigation because they are superb recording devices, ideal for showing in great detail the physical aspects of locations and objects for later analysis. Using a tripod and long exposure, a good camera can gather far more light than the human eye, by accumulation over time, thereby showing up such things as subtle lighting effects that are at the extreme of human sensitivity.

Photo: James Gilberd 2008

So the camera is a useful tool, but paranormal investigators should be aware of the types of false positive results that can occur. If you just switch the camera to Programme, Auto, or Night Shot mode and fire away in the dark, you will find that you will accidently generate many of the anomalous types of photographs discussed here. Hopefully this article is of some use in identifying an understanding the causes of photographic anomalies. If you disagree with any point in this article, identify a mistake or feel something important has been neglected, please let me know about it.

The Strange Occurrences team has a specialisation in the field of photography and we are happy to assist other paranormal groups by offering opinions on photographs, photographic techniques, hardware and other related issues. We are also happy to analyse photographs sent in by the public.

We never claim 100% certainty in our views; the context of the photograph's taking and background knowledge of the situation are always factors. Photographs are only part of the evidential equation of any potentially paranormal occurrence, but a vital part.

Article by James Gilberd, May 2010.


1. A standard lens has a focal length close to the diagonal measurement of the film or digital sensor. This lens renders objects in correct proportion according to their distance - a neutral perspective, neither compressed (as by longer focal length, or 'telephoto' lenses) nor exaggerated (as by shorter focal length, wide-angle lenses).

2. Circle of Confusion (COC) is a term in optics for the image of a point of light that is in or out of focus at the imaging plane of a lens. Each point of an object forms an image circle of a diameter relative to its degree of sharp focus, with an in-focus point forming a tiny COC that effectively appears as a point. An Infinite number of larger, overlapping COCs form the blurry (unfocussed) areas of an image. This is the basis of Depth of Field in photography.

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