Tuesday, 11 December 2012

The rise of the photo-only UFOs

UFOI only saw this UFO when I looked at the photo. It was not obvious at the time of exposure. This is a common introduction to a ghost photo but it is now not unusual with UFO photos. My initial reaction to any photo where the photographer didn't see something weird at the time is that (a) either they simply didn't notice it at the time or (b) it's a photographic artefact. The idea that the object, whether interpreted as ghost or extra-terrestrial spacecraft, was invisible to the naked eye but comes out on a photo, comes way down the list of possibilities I'd consider. But that is just what many people appear to assume.

Let's look at the 'photo-only UFO' here (right). At first sight it has the iconic saucer shape. However, it is not symmetrical, which is a clue to its identity. Also it is obviously blurred, something particularly noticeable around the edges. This means it is either very close and out of focus (it can't be too far and out of focus because the clouds behind are sharp) or motion-blurred. This is where context is vital. In the picture below, we see a larger crop of the same photo.

UFO and gullNow we can see a gull in the same portion of the sky and of similar size. A scan of the whole photo, which is a lot larger, reveals around two dozen gulls in the same view, at various distances from the camera. Almost all the gulls are flying towards or away from the camera, like the one in this second photo. This raises the obvious possibility that the UFO is actually a gull flying at right angles to the camera. In that orientation it will appear (a) to move much faster, probably getting motion-blurred and (b) look a quite different shape with the wings not nearly so obvious. While we cannot say for certain that the UFO is a sideways view of a gull, it certainly becomes the theory to beat! It also fits well with the photographer not having noticed it at the time. With two dozen gulls in view, would the photographer have noticed that one was pointing sideways? And that it was moving quickly enough to become blurred?

As well as birds, I've come across falling leaves and even insects appearing as apparent UFOs. When they appear against the sky it can be impossible to judge their distance or size. And in all the cases I've seen they were motion-blurred, so making their identification less straightforward. Usually it was colour (eg. same as leaves on adjacent tree!) that gave them away though it was of no help in the case above!

There appears to be a general belief around that if something 'only shows up on as photo', it must be anomalous in some way. In reality, the most common cause of this effect is photographic artefacts, like lens flare. And this applies as much to objects photographed in the sky as anywhere else.

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