Thursday, 15 December 2011

Ghostly faces in photos

Ghostly faceVisualize a pair of those 'comedy tragedy' masks associated with theatres. Now take one of the two masks and add a sinister-looking moustache. Then look right. Do you see one such mask, looking left ('his' right) in the centre of the photo? If you can't see it, I wouldn't be surprised. Seeing 'faces' and 'figures' in photos of inanimate objects is an 'ability' that varies a lot from person to person. It will also vary a lot depending on the visual display you are using to view the image. As a clue, if you can't see it, the 'mask' is tiny, just below the very centre of the frame and apparently trails two blue 'attaching strings' stretching out above and right wards, as if blowing in the wind.

When analysing a paranormal photo, it is important to look at the picture as a whole. It is easy to concentrate on the 'ghost' or 'face', while ignoring important clues about what is going on, which are contained in the rest of the photo. What you can see in this photo is vegetation, some green, some more like straw. The whole photo looks blurred which is a key point. It was taken with a shutter speed of 1/8s and there is noticeable camera shake, blurring everything in the picture.

Having experimented with producing 'face' pictures in this way, I've noticed that a little motion blur is very helpful in producing images of this kind. A lot of motion blur is distracting and produces obviously unreal images. Really sharp images can still produce 'faces' but they are much rarer, more like conventional simulacra which don't really convince anyone. I've also noticed that vegetation is good for producing 'faces', because of the many different shapes produced by overlapping leaves and stems. I can't claim I discovered this totally by experiment. It is what I've noticed from examining many photos taken by other people that purportedly show ghostly faces. Vegetation and a slight blurriness are a common feature of such photos.

Ghost unmaskedI'm not sure of the precise mechanism but blurriness seems to actually make non-existent shapes, like 'faces' and 'figures' in photos of inanimate objects, actually appear clearer! It is a paradox. It is reminiscent of misperception where our brains substitute clear images of something from visual memory for objects they cannot recognise. Once the unrecognized object is seen more clearly, the substitute vanishes abruptly. It is not quite the same with blurry photos, however. The 'mask' in the photo above, if you can see it, appears as blurred as the surrounding objects, unlike in visual substitution. Also, it is persistent, unlike most misperceptions. But the brain mechanism involved is clearly similar.

Compare the image above with the one below, to the right. The lower photo is a much sharper image of the same scene. Clearly, there is no 'mask' or 'face' to be seen! Its place is taken by part of a plant, probably an open seed pod. The blue 'attaching strings' are actually blades of grass BEHIND our 'mask'! Most curious of all, there is no sign of the 'moustache', 'eyes' and other features of the mask, though you can match up certain parts. The 'mask' has, quite simply, completely vanished! This is despite the fact that the second photo was taken just 30 seconds later, so nothing much can have changed, even the lighting, in the meantime! The angle of view may be slightly different but only by a few degrees.

This is where the blurriness factor is so important. The 'features' of the the 'mask' were clearly produced by camera shake blurring objects into each other. The blurring of separate real objects by the camera has produced a brand new visual object in the photograph. Even with this knowledge, it is difficult to see what particular elements made up the mask! In the vast majority of cases, only a blurry version of the photo is available, so it can be difficult to persuade someone that the 'face' they see is probably not real! It is not as if there was anything face-like visible at the time of taking the photo!

So, clearly, part of the explanation for such 'faces' lies in the photographic process itself, namely the blurring of objects into one another. That would explain why such images are persistent (assuming you see them in the first place). However it is a brain process that tends to turns such shapes into 'faces' and 'figures', rather than cuckoo clocks or sports cars. And if cars or clocks in a bush sounds too absurd, consider how likely it is that a tiny moustached mask should be there either! And yet such 'faces' are reported regularly in photos!

All of this demonstrates how even a minor degree of blurriness can have a profound effect on a photo. It is vital, when examining photos featuring ghostly 'faces' or 'figures' to check for even minor blurriness.

PS: Has it rained apples? See here for the story. For ASSAP's own 'falling frogs' case, see here.

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