Every picture tells a story – sometimes they’re whoppers

Pictures don’t lie, right? Of course they do. And they were deceiving us long before Photoshop made the manipulation of images almost child’s play.

Today, nobody would bat an eye at a ghostly image of Abraham Lincoln standing behind his grief-stricken widow, apparently comforting her. But back in the 1860s when William Mumler produced the first ‘spirit photographs’ the public was stunned. These photos appeared to show dead relatives hovering around the living subject who had posed for the picture. Photography was magical enough, so it didn’t seem such a stretch that the camera could see things that the human eye could not

Mumler discovered ‘double exposure’ accidentally when he mistakenly used a previously exposed but undeveloped photographic plate. He immediately recognised the financial potential of this discovery and reinvented himself as a psychic medium who specialised in communicating with the other side through photographs. By today’s standards his efforts were amateurish but in the heyday of spiritualism they were readily accepted as authentic. Only when Mumler made the mistake of using images of people who were still alive as his ‘ghosts’, did his little scam crumble. But by this time many other ‘spirit photographers’ had recognised the lucrative nature of the business and had gotten into the game. And amazingly, the clever ruse even snared luminaries like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sir William Crookes. Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, was a physician and Crookes was a pioneer in chemistry and physics. One would think they would have known better.

Conan Doyle was a staunch believer in spiritualism, a position his famous detective would have taken a dim view of. But it was Sir Arthur’s championing of another type of fake photograph that best demonstrates the extent of his credulity. In 1917 two young girls produced a photo that purported to show fairies dancing in the woods. Conan Doyle was convinced the pictures were real and refused to believe that he had been fooled by the simple trick of hanging cardboard cutouts by a thread in front of the camera. It was inconceivable to him that a couple of uneducated girls could put one over on someone of his stature. The pictures therefore had to be evidence of the existence of fairies! In 1983 Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths finally admitted that they had faked the photographs but nevertheless maintained they had actually seen real fairies.

By the time the ladies had unburdened their souls, Roger Patterson and Robert Gimlin had outdone the ‘Cottingley fairies’. In 1967 these two thrilled the world by capturing the first images of the fabled Bigfoot. Their short film shows a creature lumbering across the woods, looking very much like a man in a gorilla suit. There is good reason for that. It is a man dressed in a gorilla suit. The elaborate hoax was described in detail at a recent conference on magic history by Phillip Morris, a man who should know, since it was his costume company that provided and altered the gorilla suit used to stage the scene. Needless to say there are legions of Bigfoot believers who don’t buy Morris’ claim and remain convinced that some sort of giant ape-like creature prowls the Pacific Northwest.

With such ample historical evidence about photographic manipulation, it’s surprising how few people question the authenticity of a series of photographs being circulated on the internet purporting to show the results of a student’s science fair experiment. The pictures depict plants supposedly watered either with microwaved water, or with water that has been heated on a stove top. And guess what! The microwave-watered plants wither while the others flourish!

One can come up with all sorts of possible explanations for the difference. Was the soil the same in the two plants? Were they given equal amounts of water? Could they have been exposed to different lighting conditions? Was there some difference in the seeds? But how about a simpler possibility? Fraud. It isn?t very hard to set up two plants side by side and ensure that one thrives while the other dies. Just water one and not the other. Of course the possibility that this is the way the pictures were created does not prove the case.

Heating water in a microwave oven does nothing other than raise its temperature. Any talk about “the structure or energy of the water being compromised” is plain bunk. But absurdly implausible arguments don’t prove that the pictures are fraudulent either. What proves it is the good old standard of science: reproducibility. Or lack of.

I did the experiment. I watered plants with microwaved water, kettle-boiled water, and stove-top boiled water, feeling pretty silly about it, but I did it. The results? As expected, no difference. I didn’t take any pictures because, after all, how would you know that they are not faked? So here is the choice. You can take my word that the experiment cannot be reproduced, accept that science tells us that microwaves do nothing to water other than heat it, or take at face value some pictures in a circulating email that purport to show an effect that has eluded scientists around the world but was discovered by a student pursuing a science fair project. Better yet, do the experiment yourself!

As you might guess, I don’t believe in spirit photographs, fairies, Bigfoot or plants succumbing to the evils of microwaved water. And I would have put goats that climb trees into the same ‘unbelievable’ category. But I would have been wrong. It seems that some Moroccan goats have learned to climb the argan tree in search of its olive-like fruit. Legend has it that the undigested seeds that pass through the goats used to be collected and pressed into “argan oil,” a traditional food flavouring. Highly questionable. The oil, also used in the cosmetic industry, is actually pressed from fruit that has been picked by human hands, making the tree-climbing goats a nuisance. Still, one can appreciate their remarkable athleticism. Easy to find pictures of their exploits on line. And pictures don’t lie? Right?

Digital Photography and the Paranormal

More ‘ghosts’ than ever are appearing in photos – thanks to digital cameras. This article is based on a presentation to the NZ Skeptics 2009 conference in Wellington, 26 September.

Since the beginnings of photography in the mid-nineteenth century people have used the medium to capture images of ghosts, both naïvely and as a hoax for commercial gain. Until the arrival of roll film late in the 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.

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 supposed ghost photos are also now common. There is a connection.

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 standard1 and a flash positioned close to the lens. The main differences are the lens focal lengths and the image recording medium.

A typical 35mm film camera has a semi-wide angle lens (which may also zoom well into the telephoto range but we’re not 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 aperture of the lens can be less than 2mm and the stopped down aperture less than 0.5mm. (As a comparison, the maximum aperture of my Mju-1 was 35mm/f3.5=10mm.) These tiny apertures 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.

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 Confusion2 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 behind it.

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 becomes triangular, an effect predicted by this theory of dust orbs.

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 over the tree in the processed image, appearing the size of its Circle of Confusion at the film plane (or, in this case, digital imaging plane).

Other common photographic anomalies which are sometimes assumed to be paranormal are caused by lens flare, internal reflections, dirty lenses 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.

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 opposite, 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 out of frame.

A variation on this is when someone senses the presence of a ghost and responds by taking a photograph. If a dust orb appears in the photo it may be assumed to be a visual representation or manifestation of the spiritual entity. Naïve paranormal investigators and other credulous types get terribly excited when this happens, and it often does during a ghost hunt. And ghost hunting is about the only type 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. 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.

Next is an enlarged part of a photo of the Oriental Bay Marina. The ghost lights in the sky are secondary images of light sources elsewhere in the photo, caused by internal reflections in the camera lens.

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, or put a fingerprint on the lens that will cause lens flare later. Use of the camera in the Night Photography mode will cause light trails from any light source due to the slow shutter speed (usually several seconds), combined with flash. Also, in Night mode a person moving will record as a blur combined with a sharp image from the flash, making it look like a ‘mist’ is around them.

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 (page 12). Also, digital sharpening is automatically applied, which can make a vague blur into a more definite shape, a smear into a human face.

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.

The ‘Face in the Middle’ photo, below, 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 we all know it is easy to fake a ghost photo using in-camera methods such as long exposure or multiple exposure, or in post-production using imaging software such as Photoshop, current camera technology makes it hardly necessary. It is far easier to choose to use a compact digital camera or cellphone camera and allow it to produce the anomalous effects automatically: one reason why ‘ghost hunters’ use them. Then one can claim ignorance and honestly say they didn’t mess with the photo, it is exactly how the camera saw it. Having done a fair amount of ghost hunting myself, it is tempting to use a digital compact camera with the knowledge that while it is highly unlikely an actual ghost will be photographed, a certain number of anomalous photographs will result which will at least spice up the investigation report!3

In my experience of analysing photographs, I have found that some people are prepared to accept a rational explanation of what they thought may have been a photograph of a paranormal event. Others don’t want to hear anything rational; they’ve made up their mind that there’s a ghost in the photo and that’s the end of it. Having looked at a large number of photographs that allegedly show ghosts, I haven’t yet come across one that doesn’t fall into one of the general categories of photographic anomaly referred to above or isn’t a probable fake.

While I think that people do have ghost-like experiences (an opinion based mainly on the vast accumulation of published anecdotal evidence but also on some personal experiences that remain unexplained), it is probably not possible to photograph a ghost as such using any known method of photography (including pictures using the EM spectrum outside visible light). 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. 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.


  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.

  3. In Strange Occurrences we use digital photography in much the same way as police photographers, that is, to record details of a location for later reference. Also, long exposures with a digital SLR on a tripod can show things the unaided eye cannot quite make out in low light, such as reflected and/or diffracted light patterns from external light sources that may appear somewhat ghost-like. Captions: The placing of the flash close to the short focal length lens of a digital camera means that dust motes can be illuminated as ‘orbs’.

September 11: the Paranormal Aftermath

Sometimes the most successful prophets are the ones that don’t even try

In the aftermath of the Challenger disaster and the death of Princess Diana, the world was quickly awash with black humour and very tasteless jokes. But the scale of events in the US on September 11 was such that the reaction has been altogether different. Such humour as there has been has focused on the safer target of Osama bin Laden; the attacks on the World Trade Center, on the other hand, have generated a wave of weirdness, some of it straight-out hoaxes, others apparently attempts to mythologise and make sense of the events.
Nostradamus, always a favourite in times of crisis, was very much to the fore. But, it seems, the great man drew a blank on this one. All the quatrains linked to these attacks and attributed to him are at least partially bogus. Ironically, the most widely distributed (it was mentioned on Holmes, TV3, and in several mainstream newspaper articles) originated in an article written by one Neil Marshall, a student at Brock University in Canada and published on the internet in the 1990s, as a fabricated example to illustrate how easily an important-sounding prophecy can be crafted through the use of abstract imagery. This is how Marshall put it:

“If I make, say, a thousand prophecies that are fairly abstract, for example:

In the City of God there will be a great thunder,
Two brothers torn apart by Chaos,
While the fortress endures, the great leader will succumb

“Well, let us analyse this. For example, what does City of God mean? It could be Mecca, Medina, Rome, Jerusalem, Salt Lake City, or any holy city depending on your religion. What do I mean by thunder – a storm? War? Earthquake? Lots of stuff can be described by thunder. There are a lot of two brothers on this world (I think the number runs among the billions), and “fortress endures”… what? – besiegement, famine, etc? What great leader? How will he succumb? To what?

“Now let the prophecy rest for a few years. Add a couple of thousand more. Eventually, one of them will fit close enough with events that have happened in the future that the prophecy will appear to come true. If you make enough prophecies and are intelligent enough to word them in such a way that they are abstract you become an instant future seer person.”

And now of course, with hindsight, the two brothers are the towers of the World Trade Center, the fortress is the Pentagon, the holy city is New York (why was everyone so happy to accept this one?) and the great leader is George W Bush. The version as distributed recently also has a line tacked on the end, “The third big war will begin when the city is burning”.

Given the internet’s reputation as a spreader of misinformation, it was actually quite hard to find credulous accounts of these mock prophecies on the world wide web. The search engine, HotBot, even went so far as to set up a link labeled “Nostradamus Hoax” at the top of its search results for “Nostradamus” and “World Trade Center”, directing searchers to a site debunking the whole affair. CSICOP have also set up an excellent page, www.csicop.org/hoaxwatch, keeping track of the largely email-spread bogus September 11 material.

One widely distributed photo (two copies were emailed to our address), supposedly from a camera recovered from the WTC wreckage, purports to capture one of the incoming jets in the background of a typical tourist snap: the CSICOP site now has the original airliner image which was digitally inserted into this picture. Other images include satanic faces leering from the smoke of the building – given the human propensity for seeing faces everywhere (eg the Face on Mars) these are easily explained.

And the numerologists have been busy, coming up with a whole bunch of supposedly uncanny occurrences of the number 11 (eg New York City, The Pentagon, and Afghanistan all have 11 letters, the attack occurred on 11/9 — 1+1+9=11, the WTC looks like a giant number 11). Never mind that World Trade Center and Osama bin Laden, to pick two obvious contenders, don’t have 11 letters, the trick with numerology is to run with the hits and ignore the misses.

Another remarkable image (see below) comes from CD cover artwork for the album Party Music by left wing hip-hop band The Coup. It was produced in July, but hastily withdrawn on September 11 before the album hit the market. While it seems spookily prescient at first, it’s worth remembering that the WTC had already been the target of a bombing attempt in 1993, and with the recent huge protests against globalisation, the destruction of the building which most symbolises word trade must have seemed, before it actually happened, an image which would strike a positive chord in some circles. In detail, the correlation between art and reality is not that strong: both explosions occur simultaneously in the artwork, and are the result of high explosives, not aircraft, but we have a tendency to see the parallels and gloss over the discrepancies. It is, of course, this very human characteristic which makes the prophecies of Nostradamus and others so compelling to so many.


Desperately Seeking Psychic Photographer

I am writing in the hope that your readers may be able to help me in a little research I am doing, in my position of Publicity Officer for the Wairarapa Archive.

We have in our collection a pair of albums of local cartoons and photographs made by a local photographer, Edward Arthur Sanders Wyllie, in the 1880s. In following up the life of Wyllie, I stumbled onto his later career as a “psychic photographer”.

It seems that when he left Masterton in 1886 he went to America and continued in his photography career, which ultimately proved to be a failure, so he moved into providing his “psychic” photographs.

He became one of the world’s foremost exponents of this art, and is mentioned in all the modern works on the phenomenon. I have been unable, however, to locate any copies of his work, either in New Zealand or in the places one might expect them to be overseas — British and American Societies for Psychical Research, Mary Evans Library (UK), Californian State Library, etc.

I know there were copies of Wyllie’s “work” in New Zealand as a man calling himself the “Rev S. Barnett” gave a lecture on Wyllie at the time of his death in 1911. This lecture, given in Masterton, was illustrated with glass slides of Wyllie’s exposures. I assume this to be the same S. Barnett who was a prominent Spiritualist in New Zealand, and who authored a Celestial Survey of New Zealand which must surely rate as one of the most incredible books ever printed in New Zealand.

I am writing to you in the hope that either you, or one of your readers, may have an interest in skepticism in this area, and may know of the whereabouts of some of these “psychic” photos. I have some poor quality reproductions of some, from a photocopy of an old book.

Any help that you can afford me will be most appreciated.

Gareth Winter, Lansdowne Nursery, 65 Te Ore Ore Road, Masterton