Learning the Basics of Spirit Photography
by Chris Bailey | Grimstone Inc.
Since the 19th century, never has spirit photography been as popular as it is today. From the amateur ghost hunter to the professional paranormal investigator, more people are looking to prove the continuance of life after death through the lens of a camera. Spirit photography is considered to be a form of mediumship or spirit communication in which the ghost or entity makes contact with the physical world by leaving an image on a photographic plate or digital image. Though this may be a fun hobby to some, or part of a trade to others, it is always important to understand your equipment and its proper use. This is the best way to be sure to gather clear documentation and avoid false positives.
Glossary of Terms:
Aperture: Circular hole in front of the lens which controls the amount of light that enters the camera and reaches the film or digital CCD.
Apparition: A partial or full visual manifestation of a ghost or spirit. It may appear as a shadowy silhouette, semi-translucent, or completely solid as in life.
APS: APS stands for Advanced Photo System. It is a new film system for consumer photography that uses a unique format and photofinishing techniques.
Camera Shake: Movement of the camera due to improper camera support. It will often produce out of focus pictures or pictures containing motion blur.
CCD: CCD stands for “charged couple device”. It is the sensor used within digital cameras that consists of a series of light sensitive diodes. This sensor receives the image information (photons) and converts it into data that is able to be processed by the camera (electrons).
CMOS: CMOS stands for complimentary metal-oxide semiconductor. Unlike CCD chips, CMOS chips have transistors at each pixel which permits each one to be read individually. While more cost efficient and easily manufactured, the transistors generally allow less light to reach the pixel sensor and thus do not provide as high quality fidelity as a CCD.
Dorbs: Ghost hunting slang for dust orbs. These are spherical anomalies caught on film which are created by flash reflections of dust, pollen, and/or fine particles which are within the focal length of the camera. These are often confused with spirit orbs.
Ectoplasm/Ectomist: Traditionally, ectoplasm was the term described as a stringy gel-like semi-solid which often extruded from various orifices of a medium during spirit contact. Modern spirit photography now considers it a paranormal vaporous airborne substance which appears in photographs.
F Stop: It is the number that equals the lens’ focal length divided by the diameter of the aperture. The smaller the F stop value, the more light you are allowing into the camera at any one time.
Focal Length: When focus is set at infinity, it is the distance from the rear nodal point of the lens to the focal plane.
Frames per second: Frames per second or fps is used to describe how quickly a motor drive or winder can automatically advance a film camera. In regards to a digital, it refers to how quickly the cameras processor and buffer can take photographs in succession.
Hot Shoe: A universal fitting atop many cameras used to run accessories such as an external flash.
ISO: International Standards Organization. It is the prefix to film speed which has replaced ASA (American Standards Association). The higher the ISO value, the faster the film speed and generally the grainer the image quality.
Lux: Internal Standards unit of illumination equal to one lumen per square meter. This is the minimum amount of light needed for a camera to record a visible image.
Nodal Points: These are located in two areas of a compound lens system. The frontal nodal point is located where the rays of light entering the lens appear to converge. The rear nodal point is where the rays of light appear to have come from after passing through the lens.
Shutter Speed: The rate at which the camera’s shutter opens and closes. The faster the shutter speed, the smaller the time of exposure. It is typically incremented in fractions of a second.
Simulacra: The ability of the human brain to associate recognizable images to unidentified objects.
Spirit orb: A paranormal based photographed anomaly of a semi-conscious spherical object. In most cases these are self-illuminating and also known as spirit lights.
Digital, 35mm, and instant cameras have all been used in the field of spirit photography with moderate success. Each type has its own advantages. When first selecting a camera for spirit photography, it’s important to keep in mind the conditions in which you will be shooting. Most shooting sessions will be performed in low light.
OLD SCHOOL 35 MM
If you plan to use 35mm, it is ideal to have a camera that can handle faster film speeds and offers you some control over shutter speed and aperture settings. In addition, you may want to use a camera equipped with a hot shoe for an external flash. The benefits of this format are that you typically have much higher resolution than that of commercial digital cameras and have the negative to review and confirm potential evidence. Most 35mm film is considered equivalent to 16 to 20 Megapixels and thus images can be blown-up with very little distortion. They also offer the widest variety of lenses, flashes, filters, and accessories. The general draw-backs of 35mm are the expense and the delay of film processing. You do not instantly know if you captured a paranormal anomaly on film.
Digital photography has progressed a long way in the recent years. There are several benefits to using a digital camera for spirit photography. They include instant viewing of shots taken and money saved in processing costs. Some digital cameras can record partially or fully in the infrared spectrum as well. Sony produces two cameras currently in its Cybershot series that allow for photographs to be taken in 0 lux through the use of infrared technology. The main drawback to digital technology is that commercial cameras do not offer the affordable resolution of a 35mm. The other limitation of digital photography is that many photographers feel the images produced do not offer the depth of 35mm. This problem is being greatly reduced through better lens systems and the introduction of the digital SLR. If you are selecting a digital camera for spirit photography, you should look for one that offers high resolution and low interference noise in low-light. Online publications such as Digital Photography Review (www.dpreview.com) can offer assistance in selecting a specific model.
Polaroid or instant cameras also work well for spirit photography. They offer the benefit of seeing the image results in very little time compared to other film cameras. The image plate is also resistant to tampering and image manipulation allowing it to be used as a more credible source of evidence than digital photography. The main drawbacks to this camera type are high film costs and very little control over camera settings.
Other equipment that should be carried with you during photography sessions include a flashlight and cell phone. Many places used for taking spirit photographs are poorly lit and offer potential hazards. It is important to operate safely.
If you selected a film based camera, you will need to use a faster film speed than normally used for daylight photography. ISO 400 or 800 speed film works well. Going above ISO 800 often causes a loss of resolution due to image graininess. Infrared film can also be used. See “Advanced Tips” for details on infrared film.
Some spirit photographers prefer to photograph only in black and white. By removing the color aspects of the print, you can see a greater difference in contrast; which makes anomalies much more clearly defined in some cases. Kodak currently produces ISO 400 BWC film for 35mm cameras that requires no special processing.
If you selected a digital camera for use in spirit photography, you will want to use it on its maximum resolution (highest Megapixel value). If the camera saves images in more than one format, it is advised to have it save in RAW, TIFF, or PNG mode. These provide finer details and less distortion than compressed formats such as JPEG or GIF.
Before investigating any site, it is important to insure the upkeep of your camera. Check the lens for signs of smudges, scratches, dust, or condensation. Use lens cleaning materials that are approved for your specific lens type. Avoid caustics or harsh abrasives that could damage your lens further. Cameras should have a lens cap on them or the lens retracted into the camera housing when not in immediate use. A smudge or scratch can quickly give a “ghostly” anomaly on a long series of photographs. Thus lens care is important.
Make sure your camera is equipped with fresh batteries or that the internal battery is properly charged. Rapid battery discharge is a fairly common phenomenon with haunted locations. You may even wish to bring extra batteries on your photo sessions in case of sudden voltage drains.
A good place to start spirit photography, if you are not lucky enough to live in a haunted home, is at a local cemetery. If possible, select a nearby cemetery that is older and has a wealth of history behind it. It is advisable to visit the cemetery first during daylight hours to become familiar with the layout and possible hazards that may be present. It is also important to become familiar with specific cemetery rules or regulations. Be advised that some city, county, or state regulations prohibits visiting a cemetery after dusk or limit visitation to certain hours. It is important that you are familiar with what regulations are in effect for cemeteries near you to avoid being charged with trespassing. If unsure, contact your local county municipal building or sheriff’s department.
Once you are familiar with the location, come back in the evening near dusk. The darkening sky will provide a contrasting backdrop to the anomalies you wish to capture on film. Be respectful of your location. You are walking among the physical remains of people’s parents, children, brothers, and sisters. For some investigators, it is standard etiquette to announce your intentions upon entering the site and to ask for cooperation from the local spirits.
Begin taking pictures whenever you feel inclined. Paranormal phenomena can occur quickly. If your camera is so equipped, take pictures in small bursts. If not, take pictures in series of twos before changing your camera orientation. By having more than one photo of the same setting, you have additional photos for comparison when an anomaly is captured.
While telephoto lenses can provide you with amazingly crisp detail in photographs, it is important to note that most anomalies in spirit photographs are not visible by the naked eye. Thus, the use of a wide angle lens allows you to capture more of the surroundings and in return increases the likelihood of capturing something on film.
Take as many pictures as you desire. The more pictures you take, the greater your odds will be of capturing paranormal phenomena with your camera. True spirit photographs are rare. While some organizations claim a very high success rate for their methods of spirit photography, these numbers dwindle quickly when the photographs they present are scrutinized by experts. The chances of taking a true spirit photograph are roughly two to five percent based on publications and various reported successes by ghost research organizations. Thus, you should truly plan to use at least two rolls of film per site or the equivalent number of digital pictures. You should also not be discouraged if a few photo sessions do not produce any viable images.
Some spirit photographers take an electromagnetic field detector with them to a site. When the meter detects an unusual field reading, the photographer will take several shots in that area. Others rely on their instincts or feelings of chills on the back of their neck. There are a variety of techniques that can be used as aids. Work with what you have available and what you feel comfortable with.
Keep in mind that many false positive spirit photographs are created by light reflections, so be mindful of reflective surfaces as you begin to photograph the area. Subjects like marble tombstones, road reflectors, or litter can all cause false anomalies in photographs. The most common false positive is the “dorb” or dust orb. When fine particles such as dust, pollen, or dirt are within the focal point of the camera, they can create spherical light reflections on film. These are sometimes mistaken as spirit orbs. Small insects can give similar reflections, sometimes more oblong in shape. This occurrence is more common with cameras that have a built-in flash that is very close to the lens.
One method to avoid light reflections is to use an external flash with a diffuser. This provides more consistent lighting throughout the area, cutting down on the amount of light bounce. The use of an external flash also positions the flash further from the lens system, minimizing “dorb” effects.
Another method to reduce light reflections is to reduce the intensity of the flash. Many camera models allow you to adjust the flash intensity. While reducing the flash intensity will reduce the amount of light reflections, it will also result in darker photographs. To combat this effect, you may have to compensate by further opening your camera aperture or slowing your shutter speed. If shutter speed is too low, you risk problems associated with camera shake. The use of a tripod and a cable release will help minimize camera shake.
If you can avoid using a flash, do so. Most flashes are only effective for four to five feet in dark open areas. Thus for low-light areas such as cemeteries, the flash does not bring much benefit to a camera with good ISO, shutter, and aperture controls.
If you are not skilled in developing your own prints, it is highly recommended that you send all film out to a laboratory for processing. While this may dramatically increase the time it takes for your pictures to be ready for review, the quality control present at a laboratory is much higher than your average 1-hour photo shop. You will be more likely to receive back images with processing and chemical errors from a 1-hour developer due to the time constraints placed upon them. Dust, hair, and improperly mixed chemicals can leave blob or line shaped anomalies in the pictures. Images are also sometimes developed with small scrapes. If you are using infrared film, you do not have the option; it must be sent to the laboratory.
When submitting film for processing, indicate on the envelope “DEVELOP ALL PICTURES”. Lab technicians do not know you are shooting images at night and looking for anomalies. Your apparition at a glance may appear to be a defective print and discarded. You may also wish to include on the envelope to avoid photo correction techniques. Many laboratories now automatically fix film flaws, such as red eye reduction. Every change that occurs to your photograph decreases its credibility of it being genuine phenomena by various skeptics or experts in the field.
• Avoid reflective surfaces like litter, road markers, and marble tombstones outdoors. Indoors be concerned over glass, mirrors, metal objects, and glossy paint.
• Move slowly and do your best not to stir up dirt and dust. This can create dorbs on film.
• Do not photograph within the path you have just walked. As you walk, you disturb insects and pollen which can cast reflections.
• Be weary of taking photographs during early morning. Mist can come off vegetation and the ground. Pictures of this mist are often confused for ectoplasm. Likewise, morning dew creates reflections.
• Do not photograph during poor weather conditions. Rain and snow can appear as orbs and other anomalies.
• Be careful when photographing on an angle perpendicular to the sun. This may create lens flare. Use a lens hood and/or polarized filter to help reduce the chances of this error.
• When using slow shutter speeds, use a tripod. When possible, use a cable release.
• Avoid using lens hoods when using a flash. They can decrease the amount of light that actually reaches the lens from the flash and end up with under exposed images.
• If photographing in groups, you may want to announce when you are taking a picture. This prevents individuals from photographing each other’s flash.
Some organizations such as the Ghost Research Society of Chicago work extensively with infrared film. Likewise, many digital cameras are capable of photographing in the infrared range. However, some accessories or modifications may be necessary for proper picture taking.
When using 35mm infrared film, it should be purchased fresh just prior to use. Infrared film is stored cold to help prevent exposure. If your infrared film is not removed from a refrigeration unit, do not buy it; the film may already be ruined. Keep the film stored in its container and in the refrigerator until you are ready to use it. Remove the film approximately one hour before use to allow it to warm to room temperature. Inserting the film into your camera must be done in complete darkness. Even using a dark room’s red light risks exposing the film and destroying it, before it is even used. Likewise once the film is used, it must be removed in complete darkness as well.
Using 35mm IR film does not require you to use a filter. However, if you wish to strictly limit what wavelengths are recorded, you may wish to use an IR pass filter. These filters can help remove the chances of recording any visible light. This can be useful especially during daylight photography.
If you wish to perform IR photography with a digital camera, you need to see if the CCD or CMOS chip is infrared enabled. Numerous camera companies place a “hot mirror” between the sensor and the lens system which blocks out infrared light. A simple test to check is to point a television remove control at the lens and press a button. If the LCD display shows light emitting from the remote, your camera can at least partially photograph in the infrared region. If it does not, you can consider opening your camera and replacing the hot mirror with a piece of glass the same size. However, removing the hot mirror can sometimes cause changes in image clarity and quality. With an IR enabled camera, you should use a filter to remove the excess visual light. Currently available filters can be found on the chart below.
|#25||OG590||90||25A||25||580 nm||600 nm|
|#29||RG630||91||–||29||600 nm||620 nm|
|#89B||RG695||92||R72||–||680 nm||720 nm|
|#87||RG780||–||–||87||740 nm||795 nm|
|#87C||RG830||93||–||–||790 nm||850 nm|
|#87B||RG850||–||RM90||–||820 nm||930 nm|
The infrared spectrum starts at 700 nm. To completely remove all visible light from photographs, you would have to use a Tiffen 87 or greater filter. Depending on the surrounding light during your photography session, you may have to combine the IR filter with a neutral density filter to prevent over or under exposure.
On the opposite side of the visible spectrum is ultraviolet. Many digital cameras can also take images in this wavelength space. The “hot mirror” must also be deactivated or removed as with IR photography. A UV pass filter must be used with the camera; some include the 18A or B+W 403. This prevents all light above 360 nm from passing to the camera sensor. This will also slow exposures by 8 to 20 times. A tripod should be used with this filter to prevent camera shake.
Once the pictures have been processed or downloaded for viewing, each individual print needs to be carefully reviewed. Paranormal indicators can include:
• Unusual shadows that do not have a point of origin.
• Unusual color, lightness, or clarity shifts in sections of the image.
• Semi-translucent objects or people (be careful that this is not due to slow shutter speeds).
• Self-illuminating orbs or spheres of light.
You may wish to use such programs as Adobe Photoshop (www.adobe.com) or Corel Paintshop Pro (www.corel.com) to help identify anomalies. These programs offer a variety of features such as Zoom, Gamma Correction, and Channel Splitting to help you better review your photographs. In addition, many paranormal organizations, such as Grimstone Inc. (www.grimstone-inc.com), also accepts photographs to assist you in evaluations.
The still camera is a valuable tool for finding proof of the existence of life after death. Like with all tools, the more knowledgeable you are on its use, the more you can accomplish with it. The proper use of a still camera can allow a researcher or ghost hunter to capture images of subjects that are too quick to be recognized by the naked eye. They also allow us to glimpse into the unseen world of the infrared and ultraviolet. It is important to learn not only the camera’s abilities but limitations so you can quickly dismiss false positive photographs and make accurate assessments on the rare photos of apparitions.
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