Do You See What I See: Spirit Photography
Last month we dealt with capturing audio evidence so this time around it seemed logical to continue by exploring spirit photography. I was honored to chat with Paul Michael Kane in preparation of this article. Paul is a professional photographer and has experience in paranormal investigations. During an enjoyable and humorous chat many topics were discussed.
Many of us have taken a picture from time to time that had strange exposures, lighting effects, or unknown properties and stood there in awe wondering what it was. Paul just about made me fall out of my chair in laughter over what he calls “chimping”. This is when someone takes a random picture while out with friends or when part of an actual ghost hunt and stands there mimicking a chimpanzee jumping up and down shouting “OOOH!! OOH!! Lookie what I got!!” because they believe that bright splotch on the tiny LCD screen is a ghost, when in fact it’s nothing more than a bug or other explainable source.
Spirit photography is the practice of finding images of paranormal anomalies or spirits on film and is also referred to as psychic photography. It doesn’t necessarily have to be night time to get a ghost picture as many photographs of ghostly anomalies have been taken during broad daylight at various, seemingly innocent locations, proving yet again that ghosts or spirits are around during the day just as much as they are at night.
Light exists within the universe in a spectrum consisting of infrared, ultraviolet, and visible light. Without getting too technical, humans experience the physical world through the visible spectrum but parallel to this are infrared and ultraviolet. Infrared, or “night vision”, is electromagnetic radiation with wavelengths greater than visible light and shorter than microwaves; ultraviolet consists of electromagnetic waves with frequencies higher than those that humans identify as the color violet. It is within the boundaries of these wavelengths that spirits make there presence known when they cross over, however briefly, into the visible spectrum and our awaiting eyes.
Just as with EVP, spirit photography has been around since the camera was invented with photographers using many types of film and cameras. For example, Semyon Kirlian discovered in 1939 that when an organic or nonliving object is placed upon a photographic plate and subjected to a high electric current, a glowing “aura” forms around the object and is imprinted on the film. It is more accurate to say that rather than revealing a natural aura, this process produces such. Some effects thought to be paranormal disappeared under more stringent controls, leaving research of Kirlian photography at a dead-end. However, fluctuations in the magnetic fields surrounding the subjects can be detected in this way and Kirlian photography has recently come into use as a medical diagnostic device. It also has a popular market at psychic fairs as a sort of high-tech, more expansive version of the mood ring.
The use of digital cameras has become the rage in recent years, in part due to falling prices, ease of use, and the ability to view results immediately on location. Many ghost hunters take hundreds of digital photos at random, using nothing else during their investigation but the camera, and then present the images as absolute proof of the paranormal and by doing so make a sham out of the field.
The issues researchers had with digital cameras have dramatically improved in recent years. The problem was with older models and how they operated in low-light conditions. Truth be told, even well-lit day conditions were often grainy, pixilated, and with questionable results. Referred to as the “orb factor”, many ghost hunters would take shot after shot of locations and point to the numerous orbs in the resulting photographs and present it as proof of spiritual activity. These were simply a result of the camera’s inability to interpret data correctly, light reflecting off of insects and dust, and areas of the file where the pixels failed to fill in completely leaving blank areas or misinterpreted and warped data. Newer models have all but removed this incompatibility.
Another issue was that a digital image’s authenticity would come into question and often pictures were doctored or manipulated in such a way to support a group’s claim. To be able to analyze a photo and determine its legitimacy, two things have been needed- a print of the photo and its negative. It has been argued that a digital camera could not provide this and since electronic images could be easily altered, it was impossible to prove they were authentic. To begin with, photographs have been manipulated and staged since the camera was first in use. Manipulation occurred within the camera itself and afterwards during the development process, thus tainting the almighty film negative. Technology has changed and now it is not only possible to authenticate digital images but, depending on the camera, it can be used as the primary photographic instrument in an investigation.
It is now within the financial means of investigators to purchase high-quality point-and-shoot digital cameras that not only offer clean and crisp images that do not have the problems with false orbs but some models also offer night-shot modes. These next generation cameras also offer a way to authenticate the images that is as trustworthy as a negative. One option of a higher-quality camera is access to what are called Raw Data or Meta Data files. These files are uncompressed and unprocessed and an anomalous image that is examined using this option can actually be authenticated with often more detail than in a photographic negative. In addition, the newer cameras also offer access to the information about the images that are photographed. This data is embedded into the image once it is taken containing everything about the camera that took the image including camera settings, date and time the image was taken, if flash was used, the ISO settings, f-stop and aperture settings, and more. If anyone attempts to manipulate the image, the changes are marked as well. In this way, a person trying to analyze a digital image will be able to see if it has been manipulated or not. If anyone attempts to alter the data, it will destroy the image. In this way, it becomes a “digital negative” of every picture that is taken.
Video cameras are another important instrument for any investigation. Unlike still cameras, they provide constant visual and audio surveillance for review and observation.
Due to most investigations being conducted in absolute darkness, video cameras equipped with infrared capability are a necessity due to normal cameras needing a light source bright enough to capture. Many of today’s handheld digital camcorders can be fitted with an optional infrared module for night vision recording and are fairly cheap via aftermarket outlets.
With video any phenomena occurring can be documented in its entirety. This will show the length of time the phenomena occurs, what is happening, the conditions surrounding the phenomena, and possibly even the cause of the phenomena; also widely used are infrared wireless security cameras for the unattended stationary recording of various locations within an investigation area. Paired with a 4 to 8 channel Digital Video Recorder system this is a must have for any investigation covering a large area.
When working with video it’s best to set your camera up on a tripod during recording to keep the image or video steady. Don’t drag the camera around trying to get something on film- let the spirits come to it. Set the camera up somewhere and just let it run, then view the footage later on. Set your camera to manual focus and keep it focused on something nearby. If it’s on auto focus and something unusual comes into view it will spend a lot of wasted time trying to focus in on it, and it usually won’t be able to in time, so you won’t see what really went by.
Try using external infrared lights to increase the viewing range. When using a night vision camera, the laser dot will appear as a white glowing point, so don’t confuse it for something it’s not. These can be fitted to a digital photo camera as well so there will be less need for flashes during an investigation. There are Do It Yourself kits but you’re best option is to have a professional install it.
The holy grail of paranormal research equipment is the thermal imaging scanner. This device is a fusion of the digital video/still camera and the infrared thermometer that allows users to see and record on video what an IR thermometer detects. A deviation of plus or minus 10 degrees is significant for investigation purposes. Should there be a cold spot or hot spot, this infrared technology makes it possible to see the shape and size of the temperature change. These remain perhaps the most expensive items to date costing anywhere from $1500 to $10,000- second only to the new full-spectrum cameras which can run up to $30,000!
The results of this device are often glorified by groups like TAPS and GHI, but for every paranormal incident that the device shows, there are several that TAPS is able to debunk because of it.
A recent addition to the camera class is the full-spectrum model. Not only can these highly-expensive cameras capture everything in the visible spectrum, but simultaneously in the ultraviolet and infrared as well; the resulting images are black & white with some color hues.
So what exactly should you look for in a digital camera to do ghost hunting with? Make sure it has a good flash and the ISO settings can range from 100 to 1600. By using cameras that range from 8 to 13 megapixels and taking advantage of all of the options available to us, we can actually gather significant evidence with our digital camera that is comparable to that of a 35 mm camera. The Nikon P6000 is a great camera for ghost hunting purposes.
If the camera has a preprogrammed night-shot setting, which is a very slow shutter speed, you may want to invest in a monopod which can cost as little as $14 and easily portable on an investigation. With this type of setting any hand held shot will come out blurry. Some digital cameras will not take a picture if it thinks the area is too dark as well because they require something for light to bounce off of, like a gravestone. Also use high capacity media cards- anything from 512 MB to 1 GB will have plenty of storage space for investigations.
A major issue that needs to be dealt with in detail when working with photography is the matrixing effect. “Matrixing” is a general term for the natural tendency of the human mind to interpret sensory input, what is perceived visually, audibly or tactilely, as something familiar or more easily understood and accepted, in effect mentally “filling in the blanks.”
I was initially convinced I caught something wild when I took this photo. It turned out to be the camera’s wrist strap.
In this example several of the rain drops looked like faces to me.
So, there you are, on location chimping away at your camera screen and exciting your fellow investigators because something looks paranormal on the LCD but later when the photo is analyzed in larger detail it turns out to be the reflection of a butterfly’s wings or the way the shadows of trees merged together to look like a figure standing in the field. Of the hundred of pictures that are taken maybe 1 or 2 percent actually produce worthwhile results. Is this to say that cameras are a waste of time? No. When something of merit is discovered it is usually of great importance to paranormal research. Just be sure of what you have before releasing your findings.
A few groups take a conventional camera and shoot away in the hope that something will appear on the processed film. From time to time distortions and anomalies result during development. It should be noted that all such images are well-known an understood effects of photography and of cameras. They happen every day and have nothing to do with paranormal phenomena. Sometimes what may seem like a ghost or other paranormal occurrence in a photograph is the result of matrixing or physical factors within the camera itself.
We must also discuss the infamous “orb factor” in more detail. The parapsychological meaning of substantiated orbs are floating circular balls of light with color or brightness seen in areas of high paranormal activity and are believed to contain the soul, personality, and emotions of a deceased person or animal. These may be visible to the naked eye or invisible until caught on film. They may also have streaking tails of ectoplasm or glowing energy; most orbs are widely debunked by paranormal researchers as evidence of paranormal activity. True orbs produce their own inner light, so would it not seem likely that a true orb will be seen with the naked eye before being caught on camera? After all, a light bulb doesn’t just show itself when a picture of it is taken. The example above left of four ‘orbs’ surrounding a grave is particularly interesting. While I know it’s most likely dust, the formation around the marker- as if standing guard- was very peculiar.
The two examples above show how some orbs are captured. The example on the top does seem like it’s glowing of its own accord but keep in mind that the closer it is to the flash, the brighter it will be. The example on the bottom is leaving a tail as it moves upward. Dust will generally move very slowly and in an erratic pattern due to wind factors so the cause of this photo is open for interpretation.
There are several examples that Paul suggested as the cause of the majority orbs. The infrared lights from video cameras or teammates camcorders could be reflecting in. I once was analyzing some video footage of pulsating lights and it turned out that it was the handheld Mini DV of an investigator and a stationary camera’s IR modules reflecting into each other thus causing the phenomenon.
There is a term within professional photography known as Bokeh (bo-kah), meaning “out of focus”. Many mists are the result of a portion of the lens being out of focus or the operator’s finger is over the lens causing condensation. Also keep your fingers away from the flash and remove the wrist strap.
Sensor dust occurs in DSLR cameras when metal shavings from the detachable lenses stick to the sensor inputs of the camera and cause unwanted effects. Sometimes there can also be issues with the shutter sync.
With great jealousy I listened to stories from Paul when he had an opportunity to document a pictorial of a paranormal investigation into Eastern State Penitentiary. Over the course of the event, and during other investigations, he has gathered some great advice for investigators when documenting photographic evidence of the paranormal.
Pull out that camera from time to time and take a few shots. Don’t just take a picture in front of you but also over your shoulder while walking. While looking in one direction, quickly snap a photo in the opposite direction. This method of capturing something on film is usually quite effective. Trust your feelings. If you feel something or someone else does, take a picture. If you think you saw something, take a picture.
Take more than one consecutive picture. Rather than taking a quick shot of a stairwell and moving on to the next room, take two or three quick shots keeping the camera in the same position. Most of your typical point-and-shoot models have a sport or burst mode that will ratchet off three to five frames at once. In this way, if you caught something you can have before-and-after shots to help track its movement.
Go with your instincts, but if you’ve captured something try to debunk it by recreating it. Have someone stand in the same position to see if it was just a reflection or light effect as often it’s just our imagination impacting our perception of events. Try to remove as much human element from your photographs as you can. Be aware of reflective objects in the room; with dust and debris the closer it is to the flash the brighter it will be in the picture. Also be aware of where other team members are and what they are doing. If they are in the hallway taking a picture and you simultaneously take one in a connecting room the flashes will interfere with each other. Control light sources as much as possible and try putting the camera down regularly and set the timer.
Many common settings on the camera can also improve your results. Read the manual that came with your model thoroughly and know how to adjust the settings. Turn off red eye reduction, set the camera for aperture priority, and most importantly turn off the auto image preview. This feature slows down your picture taking because many cameras do not reset for another shot if the screen is active. This also removes any possibility of chimping (I love this term) and if you’re too busy staring at the screen all night you’ll miss something. Leave the in-depth review of your pictures for the analysis phase.
With photos you’ll want to import them into a computer and view them on a large screen. Just like with EVP, you’ll want to work with copies only and leave the originals safely stored away. You can also zoom in and out of the image to help clarify objects. Be aware of the matrixing effect and go through each one to look for differences in lighting, shades, and shadows consistent with a vortex or apparition. Using the tools available in programs like Photoshop, increase levels and clear up the image as best you can by adjusting for light, contrast, and color balance. The most important thing is to differentiate between reflections and objects that are emitting their own light. Look at how lights and shadows are affected by the objects in question and their positions three dimensionally. Light bends around objects; it does not hover in mid air.
Two of my most treasured photographs (above) were taken at Goodrich Cemetery where a lone marker was hidden in a back alcove; these were taken in succession mere seconds apart. This is an example of a vortex, known in environmental science as plasma lights. There is no satisfactory explanation as to their origin.
So there you have it, a brief but concise introduction to spirit photography. As with many aspects of ghost hunting, try different techniques and experiments. Remember to try and recreate or debunk any anomalies you encounter and strive toward truth rather than the exciting. I hope Across the Great Divide continues to be informative and enjoyable for you and your comments are well-received and always appreciated. As always, and until next time, keep those cameras rolling and always exploring the great unknown.
For more information on the photography of Paul Michael Kane and his pictorial book about Eastern State Penitentiary, please visit his website at www.paulmichaelkane.com