Thursday, 1 May 2014

Can a ghost be photographed?

Ghostly cylinderThe question is often asked - can you photograph a ghost? A simpler question might be - has a ghost ever been photographed? I can only go on the photos I've examined in detail personally. So far, I've not seen any compelling evidence that these photos contain ghosts. The vast majority contain photographic artefacts.

So, going back to original question - can ghosts be photographed in theory? I would say it depends on the type of ghost. Those ghost sightings caused by hallucination are obviously subjective so the answer would be no, at least until brain scans can reliably show what people are actually seeing. But what about that large proportion of sightings caused by misperception? Obviously, misperception is subjective so you can't photograph it directly. However, I think it it is possible to produce misperceptions with a photo.

So what's the evidence that it is possible to photograph what people see when they misperceive? I often examine anomalous photos that the photographer says contains a ghostly face or figure. In almost every case, I can't see the face or figure. However, I have no reason to doubt that the photographers DO see them. The photos concerned are typically motion-blurred or out of focus or over- or under-exposed or a combination of these. Thus, they contain the photographic equivalent of the poor viewing conditions typical of 'real life' misperception. The fact that some people see the anomalous object, while others don't, is also characteristic of misperception.

If a particular pattern of light can cause someone to misperceive in a scene in front of them, there seems no theoretical reason why a photograph can't do the same. Having said that, if you take a photo of an object you've just misperceived as a ghostly figure, you will usually see the bush, tree or whatever you're misperceiving. But there are at least two possibilities where a photo may produce a misperception. Firstly, there might rare circumstances where it is possible to actually photograph a 'real life' misperception. And, secondly, there may be photographs which, quite by accident, produce a pattern that happens to produce misperception in some viewers, like the ghostly faces mentioned above.

I recently came across an example of the first possibility - a 'live' misperception that appeared to be photographable. I happened to notice an odd white cylinder near to where I was sitting. The thing is, there was no such object there. It was only after studying the cylinder closely that it suddenly 'changed' (the misperception broke) into a white flat piece of card.

It gave me an idea for an attempt to photograph misperception, seen in the photo (above). It shows a copy of Seriously Strange magazine that appears, to me anyway, to have its front cover held open to reveal a mysteriously blank inside page. Except it's not!

In reality, the white object on the right is a flat piece of card, not attached to the magazine, diagonal to the camera with the left edge closest. It is illuminated by a diffuse light source with a shadow darkening the card towards the right side. It is not curved in any way, even though it might appear to be. This being misperception, some people will no doubt have seen it accurately all along.

In testing the conditions to produce this photo, I discovered various factors that are important in capturing misperception in a permanent way. Firstly, the field of view is crucial. In the photo above, the edges of the card and magazine are deliberately not shown as these would break the misperception (which is what happened in my original 'cylinder' observation). Secondly, lighting is key - the effect here relied on the light source being diffuse. It would not have worked in direct sunlight. Thirdly, exposure is important. The effect vanished when the photo was deliberately was over-exposed.

All of this encourages me to think that it should prove possible to photograph a misperceived ghostly figure. I think that some people, looking at the resulting photo, will see pretty much what the original witness saw at the time. And that is why I think it is possible to photograph a ghost.

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