by Robert Novella
Tales of ghosts and spirits can be quite compelling and convincing but many people view photographs of these ghostly phenomena as better evidence or even proof of their existence. They have been proffered as evidence ever since the development of modern photography in 1839. Images generally range from bright spots of light and wispy smoke-like forms to detailed images of human faces. But, disregarding hoaxes, many convincing photographs can more easily be explained as photographic artifacts produced accidentally by the photographer, the developer, or even the camera manufacturer.
Photographic artifacts are anomalous images in photos caused by poor camera work, faulty camera design or improper developing. They are ubiquitous because millions of people take photographs every day throughout the world and because cameras are readily available and inexpensive. Once there are enough people involved in an activity, any activity, even rare events become more and more commonplace. Exacerbating this is the fact that most of these photographers are non-professionals with little technical knowledge and experience in proper camera work. The result is a glut of poor pictures with unusual images that seem to defy conventional explanation. Since many people are enamored with the paranormal and rarely, if ever, consider more mundane explanations for mysterious phenomena, a metaphysical conclusion is quickly and easily reached. What they do not realize is that these more mundane explanations concerning artifacts are the simplest explanations and they have been shown to be responsible for all “ghost” photographs that have been seriously investigated. The principle of parsimony (Occam’s Razor)guides us in these situations recommending that the simplest explanation, among two or more that explain the same phenomena equally well, should be ruled out before more complex ones are supported. There are many types of photographic artifacts but they can be distilled down to five major types; flashback, multiple exposure, light diffraction, camera cords, and light leakage.
Flashback, probably the most common artifact found in photographs, is caused by excessive reflected light from the camera’s flash which overexposes part of the film causing a glare spot or “washed out” area. Typically, the image looks like a bright undefined form on the film, or a white patch. To determine if a flash was used, simply look for sharp shadows and a brightly lit foreground. Ed and Lorraine Warren, Connecticut’s famous Ghostbusters, have a website in which they discussed ways to produce pictures of real ghosts. In it they recommend using a flash, the brighter the better. Even they were unsure why this should be a factor considering their belief that spirits often impress the images themselves onto the film. However, there is no discussion or any recognition at all that the light images might be the result of photographic artifact created by the flash.
Double or multiple exposures can also produce mystifying images that are easily misinterpreted. If two pictures are taken without advancing the film, the resulting photograph will show both images in the same photograph. Because there are multiple images superimposed over each other, a very eerie effect is produced resulting in images that seem to be transparent and ghostlike. This is relatively easy to do on purpose but can also be accomplished accidentally with cheaply made cameras or a lack of camera knowledge. If the film is not loaded properly the film may not advance as it should, thereby exposing two or more images onto the same frame of the negative. Even if the film is correctly loaded, the frame advance mechanism could malfunction, not an uncommon occurrence with inexpensive cameras. To reproduce this yourself simply photograph a solitarily lit subject, then rewind the camera film and take another picture. Some cameras even have a special setting that is specifically designed for multiple exposure. If this is done with care, very convincing photos can be produced that seem to cry out for a paranormal explanation, unless, of course, you are familiar with artifacts.
Paranormal investigator Joe Nickell made a valuable contribution to the field of photographic artifact when he discovered, through experimentation and common sense, the camera cord effect (Nickell 96). Camera cords might seem quite unrelated to ghosts but I believe they are responsible for a host of ghost photographs in which a blurry loop or strand-like image appears. They have been variously called “ghost rods”, “dimensional doorways” or “vortices” by true believers, but most likely they are just another type of photographic artifact caused by subcompact cameras. Subcompacts, like other non-reflex cameras, have direct vision viewfinders which have separate apertures for viewing subjects and for the lens. In contrast, SLR (single lens reflex) cameras use an angled mirror behind the lens that redirects the light from the lens to the photographers eye, (35 millimeter SLRs use a series of silvered surfaces inside a pentaprism to achieve this effect). The result is that non-SLR cameras provide a view for the eye that is slightly different from what would otherwise be seen through the lens. Therefore if there is an object close to the lens it will not be noticed, increasing the chance of producing this artifact. If the cord drops in front of the camera it cannot be seen, resulting in a whitish blurry image of a curving strand-like object. If it is closer to the lens it will produce a more diffuse, mist-like effect. The cord does not appear black, its typicl color, because it is brightly reflecting the light from the flash only inches away. Camera cords are not required for the camera cord effect, however; any object will suffice, be it a thumb, hair, jewelry, or even clothing. Any time direct vision view finders are used, one must guard against, but not be surprised if, ghost rods make an appearance.
Sometimes artifacts reveal themselves as balls of light, often referred to as ghost globules. Many people believe that these globules are a form of spirit energy that has chosen to manifest itself as glowing spheres. As you might expect, this is not the only possible explanation. These images are curiously reminiscent of two phenomena; light diffraction and lens flares. The former occurs when light, moving from one medium to another (such as from air into a water droplet), change direction and interact with one another producing light and dark regions (depending on whether there is constructive or destructive interference).This can happen when a photograph is taken if there is condensation on the lens or particles in the air. As one anomalous image expert noted, “If you take a photograph by night using a flashlight, tiny particles of dust or raindrops in front of the camera may appear on the picture like brilliant balls of light”(Mosbleck). Lens flares produce this effect when the camera is pointed towards or near a bright light source which scatters the light among the various lens elements. These inter-reflections produce images of the lens elements in a straight line moving away from the light source. Both diffraction and lens flares, being simpler explanations, should be ruled out before advocating the existence of something extraordinary and unverified like ghost globules. This is what good scientists do and it is what the scientific method demands.
Some artifacts are not only unique to certain classes of cameras but also to a specific brand within a class. The Polaroid One Step, for example, has been shown to produce a unique anomaly called “The Golden Door.” When this camera is pointed at a bright source of light, the developed photograph shows a rectangular shape surrounded by a halo of golden light. This has been taken to signify the doorway to heaven mentioned in Revelation 4:1. One does not need to refer to the Bible to understand this, however. Through experimentation and trial and error, Georgia skeptic Dale Heatherington discovered that he was able to reliably reproduce this effect with the One Step camera. Further examination revealed that the door-like shape and halo of light was caused by light reflecting off the iris or aperture of the camera.
Light leakage or fogging is yet another phenomenon that can wreak havoc with your pictures. Light can leak onto the film at any point from its loading to development causing unusual and unique patterns that are especially reminiscent of ghosts. This non-image forming light typically reaches the film if the back of the camera is opened prematurely, if the door is ill fitting or loose, or if the camera is loaded in a brightly lit area. An artifact common to Polaroids called “Angel Wings” is an example of light leakage in which a fan shaped image of light has leaked onto the negative. The term “fogging” also includes, more specifically, artifacts created by x-rays, heat and stress on the negative or photo paper itself. Airport x-rays, a hot car, or rough handling of the film can all cause fogging. To determine if any of this has happened to your film, simply look for the anomaly on the film negative. If it extends beyond the frame of the picture then you have been fogged. I’ve examined hundreds of ghost photos on the web, and this artifact is well represented, if incorrectly interpreted.
It is very significant that in the vast majority of cases, nothing unusual is noticed when a ghost photograph is taken. It is extremely rare to hear someone say that they saw a ghost and then grabbed a camera to take a picture of it. Most often the spirit or ghost rod is not discovered until the photographs return from the developers. This should serve as a strong indication that the image is an artifact of the photographic process and not something that was actually there. Some believers respond to this by saying that the film is picking up light that the human eye cannot perceive. Actually, the majority of modern film is designed to react primarily to the visible portion of the electromagnetic spectrum, just like the human eye. There is some sensitivity to ultraviolet, but manufacturers try to minimize this by adding dyes to the emulsion and adding special coatings to the lens. What little UV light that might reach the film would have a bluish cast to it, not the ubiquitous whitish shapes found in most ghot photos.
It is important to note that the artifacts discussed above are only the most common and best documented artifactual phenomena. There are many other types of artifacts each producing different types of images in different situations. Light interaction within a camera is a very complex phenomena that few photographers take the time to appreciate. For this reason, anytime an anomalous image appears that does not seem amenable to the descriptions I have offered above, it does not mean that you have a genuine ghost photo. Such a conclusion would not be justified. What is required is a rational investigation by people knowledgeable about photography and the behavior of light and not rash conclusions based on appeal and desire and little else.
1) Nickell, Joe. Ghostly Photos, Skeptical Inquirer, vol. 20, No 4, 1996 p13-14
2) Mosbleck, The Elusive Photographic Evidence, 208 (quote references UFO photographs)
3) Nickell, Joe. 1994. Camera Clues: A Handbook for Photographic Investigation, Lexington University Press of Kentucky.
4) Hedgecoe, John. John Hedgecoe’s New Book of Photography, DK Publishing Inc. N.Y. N.Y. 10016
5) P. DeAngelis & S. Novella, Hunting the Ghost Hunters, The Connecticut Skeptic, vol. 2 issue 3
In 2008 the NESS discovered a new photographic artifact caused by the twilight mode available in some digital cameras. You can read about that here.