Flash, Bang, Wallop!

Originally posted on the 21st Floor

One of the most commonly presented pieces of evidence to support the existence of ghosts is that of photographs. I’m sure we’re all familiar with the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall, the Grim Reaper standing beside a church altar, and the now famous Tantallon Ghost. For believers, these images are the solid proof that ghosts exist which we skeptics have been demanding for years now.  Here in the hands of an intrepid ghost hunter, are the very documents we have been looking for: a photograph that will convince any doubter and allow ghosts to be recognised as genuinely existing.

The Brown Lady

People who believe in the existence of ghosts fail to understand why skeptics do not trust photographic evidence. They fail to realise that it takes more tangible evidence to prove a claim: you see, photos are very unreliable as evidence; there are all sorts of factors that can affect them.

Maybe there is a natural explanation for the photo, maybe it is an outright forgery, maybe there isn’t an answer at all and the image will be resigned to the “unexplained” drawer (or the “solid evidence of a ghost that baffled skeptics” drawer if you’re a believer). There are a number of possible common explanations for spirit photography I want to discuss and I’ll present examples from amongst the most popular (as well as unknown) images.
So, let’s look at some of the more common cases of ghost photography. This is by no means a complete list, but should go some way to helping you address any anomalies that occur on your holiday snaps:

One of the most common memes in ghost photography. This phenomenon has only started being reported regularly since the advent of digital cameras. Orbs are little round balls of glowing light that appear on photographs, commonly caused due to the fact that with new personal digital cameras, the lens is so close to the flash that small specks of dust, water or  insects are illuminated.

Most paranormal investigation groups worth their salt tend to reject orb photographs but there are still many groups around the world that present them as genuine images of ghostly activity. One common defence is that they only appear in dark haunted locations. Well, it’s true that they are more likely to appear in dark locations as the flash is the biggest source of light close enough to illuminate a picture (outside in the bright day is highly unlikely).

Another myth is that they don’t appear using disposable cameras, so any orb appearing on a photo from a disposable must be more than just dust/water/a bug. Well, that’s not true: for the most part, the lens and flash are in a similar proximity to each other as they are with digital cameras, and I’ve taken numerous orb pictures on disposables. Orbs should really be laid to rest, a message to any would be ghost photographer is to simply put your orb photos in the “spoiled photograph” drawer or the nearest shredder.


Look at that happy smiling face… er… fawcet.

Simply put, we are pattern finders. We seek out patterns in random shapes, the most popular patterns being faces and bodies. In any image we see where it is a little unclear, we can also be guilty of filling in the gaps. Many pareidolia pictures can only be seen once it has been explained to you what you’re supposed to be looking at. For a full article on pareidolia, see here.

Various lighting problems can cause images to appear spooky on cameras. Light can also turn a clear pane of glass into a mirror and reflect what is behind the photographer. Lights external to the camera can cause lens flare, and light can bounce around and reflect off of items.
Any photo that appears to be a light-type ghost should really be shown to a photographic expert, and I’m sure they could explain it. When you are using a camera which is filled with lens made of glass, light can bounce around and create all sorts of anomalies.
Just look at professional photo shoots, they have white balances, reflectors, and a team of experts running around to make sure that there is no light interference that could affect the photograph. Also, a smudge on the lens can create a bizarre effect when photographed.

One of the most popular images caused by a lighting anomaly is the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall. Taken in the early 20th century, the image of a staircase at Raynham Hall was to appear in a countryside magazine, but the photographers noticed a human like figure descending the stairs once they had developed the picture. This has become one of the most famous, and allegedly unexplained, ghost pictures of all time. However, the explanation is far from supernatural. Light was able to bleed onto the photographic plate, causing the centre of the picture to become white and blurry and present itself as the ghostly figure.

Photographer Blindness:
Now this is a strange one, and I don’t see it too often. Basically, this is an occurrence where the person taking the photograph doesn’t see everything in the frame because they are focusing on one specific object- maybe their partner standing by a statue. They completely miss objects, even those standing right by their chosen subject, and even weirder, the object they don’t see is large, even as large as the object they are photographing.
It is difficult to argue that a ghost photo is a product of photographer blindness because most people won’t have seen the object/figure in question at the time of taking the photograph: they ignored it because they were focusing on something else. It’s like sitting in a noisy train, you can focus in on different conversations and drown the other noises out. The same thing can happen visually.

Long Exposure:
This is an occurrence which is regularly repeated and recreated for artistic reason, or to make a fake image, or even occurs unintentionally. Basically, the camera lets in more light for a longer period of time when you have a long exposure set. This means any object within the field of view can become faded or transparent and, in some cases, completely invisible. With modern cameras, you can usually set the exposure time, but with older ones there was no choice but to have a long exposure. This accounts for the blurry nature of 19th century photographs.

With a long exposure of, say, a minute, someone could sit in a chair for thirty seconds, then dash out of shot, which would leave a ghostly after image. With modern cameras, the effect can be intentionally set and created, or it can happen by accident. At night, with a flash, some cameras may leave the shutter open for a fraction of a second. If anyone moves out of shot too fast, the image can be left with the subject looking transparent. Combine this with photographer blindess, and you have a perfect ghost picture.

Double Exposure:
I hear this explanation given all the time,  probably for the same reason that many believers are convinced their photo is good evidence- they simply haven’t been exposed to the alternatives. A double exposure occurs when a photographic plate, or in more recent years a single image from a roll of film, is photographed on twice. Basically, you are taking a photograph on top of a photograph, and you can create very ghostly illusions in this way.

Here is Mumler, with what appears to be Queen Elizabeth II flying our of his mutton chops.

American Photographer William H Mumler was the first to expose this simple, technical phenomena for personal gain. He set himself up in a photographic store in post civil war America and began taking photographs of people with “spirits” around them; sometimes as an unknown spirit, sometimes a recently dead relative.  Mumler was uncovered as a fraud when “ghosts” began to appear in his photographs who were not only alive, but had had photographs taken by Mumler previously. He was simply reusing old plates in order to create the illusion; even using an old plate of Abraham Lincoln to make the former president appear alongside his devastated widow. Mumler was eventually taken to court for fraud, and although found not guilty, his career was in ruins.

Camera Straps:
This “ghost” manifests as a coloured strip of light running from top to the bottom of the image, glowing and coloured it can create a very eerie effect. It is however nothing more than the camera strap, or any other fabric or item hanging in front of the lens. This is sometimes known as a “Vortex” in paranormal terms.

This is the worst and hopefully least common form of evidence. People who intentionally forge photos and images to convince people of ghosts. With the development of easy to use image editing programs such as Photoshop, creating fake images of ghosts has never been easier: sometimes an image might be faked for promotional purposes; sometimes it’s done just for fun and it gets out of hand.

But then, there are the times when a photo is faked for gain. A photo appeared recently in the national press showing a Victorian ghost boy by the side of a collapsed building. It later turned out that the ghost boy was part of a “ghost photo” application for Apples iPhone.
Another fake that came to national attention shows a young ghost boy standing in front of a country gate. The ghost was that of young Anakin Skywalker. Ghost photos are easy to fake; I have done so on many occasions. It doesn’t mean all are fake, but remember, if an anonymous person on the internet insists that their image is a genuine ghost, no matter how sincere, you can never rule out fakery.

There are many other explanations for ghost photos, but what must be remembered is that even if an explanation cannot be found, it doesn’t mean that it is a ghost, simply that the photo is unexplained. Even if an explanation doesn’t seem to cover all the facts, try adding other explanations so as to find the answer: “ghost” photos could be combinations of these effects.

Ultimately, it must be remembered that it is highly unlikely that photos will ever be considered good evidence for ghosts on their own. There are just too many variables. We must also add the fact that we don’t yet have a working definition of what a ghost is. To say that they can be captured on a camera nearly as powerful as the human eye in some way, shape or form, while they are nowhere to be seen  involves too many leaps and assumptions, and is usually wishful thinking.

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