Photographing Ghost Investigations: A Beginner’s Guide

In the next episode of The Spooktator podcast, we talk about a certain ghost photo that has been in the media recently and how rather than having a paranormal origin, the oddity within is actually the result of poor photography skills. This is a common problem in ghost hunting. When you think about it, the chances of a ghost hunter being a professional photographer are pretty slim, but you don’t have to be a professional to take some basic steps to stop your photos being such poor quality that you start to see things in them that just weren’t there. The biggest problems caused by bad photography habits buring ghost hunts include heavily pixelated photographs which cause people to see faces and figures that are actually illusions caused by the pixels, and accidental long or over exposures that make people and things look see-through, blurred, and ghost-like.

Below are some examples of such photos from a variety of ghost hunting sources:

A decent ghost investigator will be concerned with establishing a cause for whatever claims they are investigating, and while doing so it is useful to document the location and what is occurring. It makes good sense, then, that the ghost investigator does this to the best of their ability and in a manner that doesn’t raise questions about the photos themselves. Anybody who takes bad quality photos during a ghost investigation and does nothing to rectify this problem is a bad investigator. Here are some simple photography tips that could cut out the most common ghost photo problems…

Stick it on a tripod

Tom Eversley

You might think that your hands are steady when you take a photo, but they’re not. Trust me. When your camera shakes your photo will be blurry and if you’re taking that photo in the dark then any light sources will possibly streak (especially if you have a long exposure setting to account for the low light) which upon reflection can look anomalous. Stabilise your camera by using a tripod. You can additionally reduce the amount of vibration affecting the camera by using a remote shutter release to trigger the shutter. This means that when the photo is taken your hands are not touching the camera at all. You can pick up shutter releases from places like Ebay for as little as £2. Or, if you don’t want to splash out on one, you could try using the timer setting on the camera instead.

Control your speed

Mike Lewis

The shutter speed settings control the rate at which the camera shutter opens and then closes when a photograph is being taken. The longer the shutter is open, the more light the camera is exposed to and the brighter an image is going to be. Fast shutter speeds are good for capturing motion – like a friend doing BMX tricks in midair who is about to be pulled back to the ground by gravity. Too slow a shutter speed and you’ll miss the trick, or she might appear blurry. However, slower shutter speeds are good in low-light settings, or for creating artistic effects such as blurring moving water. Night time photography is often done using shutter speeds of anywhere between 1-30 seconds. Yet, if your shutter speed is too slow for the conditions you are shooting in, your photo may become over exposed and will end up too bright, or blurry and messy.  Exposureguide.com have a great beginner’s guide with photographic examples here.

Know your ISO

William Bout

ISO is all about how sensitive your camera is to light – the lower the setting, the lower the sensitivity. Many people are tempted to just whack the ISO setting up high when it starts to get dark (especially during ghost hunts) but this comes at a cost because the higher the setting, the more noise you will see in your photos. This happens a lot in ghost photos and then alleged faces pop out of this noise because humans are pattern seeking creatures (you can learn more about the Pareidolia effect here.) There is no set rule on what ISO setting to use, and you need to get to know your particular camera model to work out what’s best in what conditions, but keeping the ISO as low as the lighting conditions allows will reduce the risk of grainy images.

Focus the mind, focus the camera

Ray Hennessy

Focussing on the subject of your photo should be a given, but out-of-focus photos that create blurry oddities are numerous. A photo might look in focus when you look at the camera screen but if you zoom that image in you really start to get a feel for whether or not the photo really is as focussed as you think. Using the ‘auto’ mode can help with this and I was an auto junkie for a long time, but I now prefer to use my camera in a manual setting while taking the time to ensure a photo is set up properly. It doesn’t take very long to manually focus a shot – and if you do this while zooming in then you can rest assured that the photo will be well focussed. 

Stop taking photos in the dark

Aurélien Bellanger

Ghost hunters shouldn’t be working in the dark in the first place. It makes no sense whatsoever as it completely reduces their observation abilities. Night time photography can be stunning so I’m not saying that photos should never be taken in the dark but even the most novice amateur photographer (aka me) will tell you that to take photos in low-light settings you really need to know your camera and how to use it. Calculating the right exposure for low-light settings feels like more of an art than a precise science.

Wider lenses are said to be easier to focus in the dark when used with higher F-stop settings. The f-number determines how wide your camera’s aperture is (which is the hole that lets in the light when you snap a photo) and the lower the f-number, the wider the aperture.  Each time you increase the f-number, you effectively halve the size of the aperture which halves the amount of light through. Now, if you want to take good quality, focused photos you need as much light as possible so when in low-light setting you should stick to the lower f-numbers to increase the aperture.

Be warned! Image quality can deteriorate when you work at the extreme ends of your camera’s F-stop range.

To conclude, these are just the basics that should be taken into consideration when taking photographs. The only reason ghost hunters take photos of terrible quality is because they either don’t know how to use their camera because they haven’t taken the time to learn about it (which is also the case with most of the equipment they use,) or because using it in such a manner is guaranteed to produce oddities in photos that can be presented as potential evidence of ghosts. If you start using your camera properly you can’t claim that a ghost beard appeared on your face, and where’s the fun in that, right?

photo of man with alleged ghost beard (caused by pixels)
GSI West Yorks

Photos in the post were sourced from Unsplash (except for the ghost hunting ones)

Published by

Hayley Stevens

Hayley is a ghost geek and started to blog in 2007. She uses scientific scepticism to investigate weird stuff and writes about it here while also speaking publicly about how to hunt ghosts as a skeptic.

2 thoughts on “Photographing Ghost Investigations: A Beginner’s Guide”

  1. Good article! It’s a pity more folks don’t take the time to understand what their camera is doing, and why, especially when it’s struggling to do its job in poor lighting. I’d like to add a couple of additional thoughts, if I may.

    One of the culprits for generating difficult-to-explain photos is the “night portrait mode” setting, available on many digital cameras. It sounds like a good setting to use, so people use it. This mode opens the shutter, immediately fires the flash – thus giving a nice sharp frozen image of the main subject – and then LEAVES THE SHUTTER OPEN for a little while longer.

    The idea is that this allows the less well-lit background to also come-out reasonably brightly, making for a more pleasing picture. But, if stuff in the background is lit/glowing/moving, or if the main subject is in motion, you get strange trails, blurs, blobs, etc. They look especially odd because they differ so much from the nice sharp main subject. There may be other special shooting modes on a given camera that also produce unexpected results if the user doesn’t know how they actually operate. Handheld Night Landscape mode, for instance, employs clever tricks too.

    Which leads me onto my second point – the value of accessing the EXIF data.

    Any digicam made in the last 15 years or so will save extra data inside each JPG file, which can be accessed by a variety of methods (Windows 10, for example, has Right-click -> Properties -> Details, and a lot of photo editing software will have a menu option that extracts even more metadata). The most useful data is the Shutter Speed (is it motion-blur? Here might be a clue), Exposure Program (which may or may not (depending on the camera) say which shooting mode was in use), ISO (was it excessively high?) and Flash (for settling the argument over whether the pic was taken with the flash on on not). It’ll also say what model of camera and what quality settings were in use. Note, however, that editing the photo can remove the EXIF data, so there’s real value in keeping the original, straight-from-camera, shots).

    Oh yeah, one other thing. Some people seem to employ poor technique specifically BECAUSE they get more “interesting” results that way. “I like to use this camera because it gets the most orbs”, etc. One has to wonder how interested such people are in obtaining meaningful data!

    1. Hi Dave,

      I was focussing mainly on the aperture settings in this post which is why I didn’t mention anything about exif data or reverse image searching and other photographic analysis tools.

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