Understanding Photographic Anomalies in the Paranormal Field
Anyone with any remote interest in the anomalous research field or more particularly in either ghost hunting or paranormal investigations has spent time on the internet visiting social media, various websites, or reddit searching for pictures of what is reported to be activity of a paranormal nature. The truth is that well over 99% of the material that you find has an easily explainable natural cause to what is being perceived as paranormal.
There is a phenomenon known as the Observer Expectancy Effect. This phenomenon is also called the experimenter-expectancy effect, expectancy bias, observer effect, or experimenter effect. It is a form of biased reactivity where someone’s cognitive bias causes them to subconsciously influence the participants of an activity or influencing the perception of those reviewing or observing the results of an activity. This bias is commonly unilateral in nature and not influenced by someone else, meaning that you could be biased about your own perceptions and beliefs. This bias can lead to the person completing, observing, and/or interpreting the results of the activity incorrectly because of the tendency to look for information that conforms to their hypothesis, beliefs, or desires and overlook information that argues against it. In the paranormal field the Observer Expectancy Effect may be equated to someone who is ghost hunting or reviewing evidence from a ghost hunt or other general perceived evidence such as photos. In situations where the bias is present the person interprets any type of perceived activity to be paranormal because they want it to be paranormal. They may also attempt to convince others that benign occurrences have to be paranormal in nature. While this is common in ghost hunts it can also happen during a science based paranormal investigation when a paranormal investigator will overlook possible paranormal activity and write it off with science without confirming said science for that particular instance. Why do people do this? There is a simple answer to that. When it comes to ghost hunters people want to see the spooky and will find ways to believe that they see the spooky even where it isn’t present. When it comes to paranormal investigators they could be quick to dismiss something when it isn’t warranted due to a scientific bias. A very common human behavior is to convince one’s self that something is true without a shred evidence or even without a scientific foundation for the thought to even remotely be feasible. While I have found this Observer Expectancy Effect quite common in ghosthunters, I have seen it to a much lower level in reference to paranormal investigators who are not searching for the paranormal as a ghost hunter would, but are searching for science to explain the perceived paranormal. Without that bias due to hoping to find something paranormal I have found in my many years of experience that the prevalence of Observer Expectancy Effect is predominately exhibited by those with a non-empirical interest in the paranormal and by ghost hunters in comparison to paranormal investigators where it is fractionally as prevalent comparatively speaking due to completely different goals and methodology.
Now let’s get back to those photos that I was talking about. There are a bunch of easily recognizable photo anomalies that often get misinterpreted as paranormal activity either singularly or when multiple anomalies are combined. Quite often I get sent a photo or video that someone believes to be paranormal in nature that has an easily recognizable commonly known photographic anomaly. While most of the general population has no reason to self educate on what these anomalies are, it is important that ghost hunters and paranormal investigators become familiar with these anomalies in order to be able to recognize them in photos when studying them as to not mistakenly interpret something as paranormal when in fact it has an obvious natural cause. The more common terms that we will discuss today that I feel are most prevalent in the photos produced in the paranormal field describe various anomalies include aliasing, backscatter, barrel distortion, blooming, bokeh, chromatic aberration, dark current, flare, halation, jaggies, moiré, overexposure, parallax, pincushion distortion, pixelization, purple fringing, and underexposure. We will now explore each of these individually so you may understand them and be able to recognize them.
I will forewarn you this can be a little bit technical at times, but I will include a more laymen’s terms explanation for easier understanding. It is important for you to understand the cause and appearance of the various anomalies in order to be sure not to misinterpret them as paranormal.
Firstly we will discuss aliasing. Aliasing most often occurs with digital files of photos that are of low resolution. Where the object that was photographed has straight or smooth diagonal lines aliasing will cause those lines to appear jagged. Aliasing occurs when the sample resolution of the photo being taken is at most twice the frequency of the captured image which is also known as the Nyquist Rate. This was named after Harry Nyquist who was an electronic engineer and physicist who contributed greatly to theory pertaining to communication. I couldn’t tell you how many times I have been sent photos that had clear aliasing going on that someone claimed to be distortions due to paranormal activity which is untrue.
Next up on our list is one of the most commonly misinterpreted photographic artifacts which would be backscatter. This occurs when an object is close in proximity to the lens of the camera and either the infrared light or flash from the camera, or lighting behind or above the camera leads to reflection of that light off of an object and back at the camera causing what appears to be an orb as the object will be out of focus. Even the smallest movements will appear to the eye as movement at a quicker speed and distance due to the close proximity of the object reflecting light back at the camera. Over the years I have literally been sent thousands of photos of backscatter that someone believed to be paranormal in nature. Photographic orbs have never been paranormal in nature. It was a fallacy that gained momentum in the mid to late 1990s when the 1990s equivalent of social media, something called yahoo groups, had a very popular group run by Dave Oester who in an attempt to further increase popularity made wild claims about orbs being paranormal in order to create a buzz. Eventually there was enough backlash by professionals with science degrees debunking his claims and he stopped making these wild claims and faded into obscurity. Unfortunately it was too late and the damage was done. The false information had for all intents and purposes gone viral and to this day people still wholeheartedly believe that orbs are paranormal in nature when they are nothing more than a simple camera artifact caused by light reflection and diminished focusing. This false information that orbs are paranormal in nature has continuously been passed from person to person for decades. When these objects have a trail or a halo this is called blooming which is another artifact that we will cover shortly.
Next we will discuss what is called barrel distortion. This most often occurs with cheaper digital cameras, phones with cameras where photos are being taken of scenes, especially things like buildings, where there are parallel lines either vertical or horizontal within the photo. It is also common with wide angle photos. This distortion presents itself when what should be straight lines appear to bend outward from the center of the photo, as if there was warping of the object. I have heard people attempt to claim that photos with this distortion was evidence of a paranormal portal or evidence of an entity in the photo bending the light which is obviously not correct.
Up next we will talk about something called blooming. This photographic artifact is caused when a portion of an imaging sensor is exposed to excessive light which in turn bleeds the light into nearby pixels within the photo. This artifact presents itself as a halo either of a single or multiple colors around one or multiple brighter objects in the photo. In quick moving objects or low frame rate video this can appear as a trail behind an object or as a streak across the photo or in lower frame rate video. Often I have been sent photos containing blooming where the person believed that they were seeing paranormal activity, in particular an entity when that wasn’t the case.
Next on our list of photographic anomalies that are often misinterpreted as paranormal activity we will discus what is known as bokeh. Bokeh is a word taken from the Japanese language that means blur or haze. It refers to the highlight areas of a photo where an area that has a limited depth of field is out of focus. This artifact presents itself as small circles in areas of the photo that are out of focus. These circles can vary in shape and appear more or less circular. These circles are often misinterpreted as paranormal activity or even as orbs, which as we all know, is nothing paranormal in nature as I discussed a few minutes ago.
Let us now talk about what is known as chromatic aberration. This particular artifact is caused when there is a failure to focus on a common plane by the collective color wavelengths. This occurs most often in cheaper camera lenses, however it can occur with any camera. This artifact presents itself around the edge of a high contrast image as unwanted lines of color. I have seen countless situations where someone incorrectly attributed this to paranormal influencers or an aura.
That brings us to a type of photographic distortion known as dark current, also known as noise. This is where signal charges are collected by pixels over time in the absence of light, particularly in shadowy areas within the photo. Dark current presents itself as random pixels of color in darker areas of a photo. I have seen people attribute this to mini orbs, which again are not paranormal in nature, and to the presence of paranormal entities when they are not.
We will now cover a flare, also known as a lens flare. This occurs when light is flared or scattered within the camera lens through forward scatter or reflection. This is more prevalent when using the zoom function on a camera. This will present itself as either glare or even as a light trail. Many times have people presented me photos of lens flares believing that it was something paranormal.
Next on our list of photographic artifacts that are misinterpreted as paranormal activity we will learn about what is known as halation. Halation occurs when light is spread around bright areas within the image. This effect gives most if not the entire image an appearance of blurring, or being a bit out of focus. More times than I can count I have been sent photos with this photographic artifact being apparent, however the people sending me these photos incorrectly misinterpreted this as one of many forms of paranormal activity.
We will now discuss a phenomenon known as jaggies. Jaggies are more common with very inexpensive digital cameras or cell phones. Lower resolution photos can give the appearance of angled or curved lines that appear to resemble a stairwell. Jaggies are also a form of aliasing. As always when people want to see the paranormal they will the paranormal and will believe the jaggies are a result of or proof of paranormal activity when they are not.
Next we will discuss what is known as moiré. This is most often caused in portions of photographs where there is a pattern within the image which is then confused with the pattern of pixels in the imaging sensor by the device taking the photo. Basically this happens in photos of something that has repetitive lines, dots, stripes, or other similar patterns. This is also a form of aliasing and presents itself as a wavy like pattern. Somehow people choose to also interpret this as paranormal activity, when it is something caused by the digital imaging processing.
Next in line is what is known as overexposure. This occurs when the shutter speed of the camera is too slow in reference to the amount of the abundance of light in the area being photographed. This results in a lighter image, and can often give the appearance of mist, fog, or haze, which is often misinterpreted as paranormal activity, especially when photos are taken in a cemetery, near a body of water, or on a humid day.
Let us now review what is known as parallax. This occurs primarily when taking panoramic photos. This is caused by the positioning change of a camera when multiple images are being taken and stitched together to form a single larger image. For example when taking a panoramic photo you hold your arms out straight and twist your body in order to obtain the wide field of view that you are photographing. If the camera was on a tripod the camera would be fixed position and rotated on a center point which would minimize the parallax effect. It is very difficult for humans to complete this task and panoramic images will often appear very curved on the bottom portion of the photo. I have heard of people trying to attribute this to portals and visual warping due to paranormal entities. As I have stated multiple times when people what to convince themselves and others that they are seeing paranormal they will find a way to do so.
Next up on our list is pincushion distortion. This is the opposite of barrel distortion. Like its sibling, this artifact is visible most often in photos taken by cheaper cameras where straight lines either vertical or horizontal appear to bow inward giving a warped appearance to the center of the photo. Just like the barrel distortion, people try to incorrectly attribute the pincushion distortion to paranormal activity or portals.
We will now speak about pixelization. This occurs when you digitally enlarge a photo, most often in regards to a lower resolution photo. During the enlargement process pixels can be spread out causing areas of the picture to no longer appear smooth or no longer blend together. Often people will attempt to believe that the pixelization is representation of out of focus paranormal entities or related objects by believing that they see faces or other recognizable life like patterns.
Next to last we will cover what is known as purple fringing. This is another form of chromatic aberration which we discussed earlier on. This artifact is caused when the light refracts from the light gathering micro lenses which caps the pixels of the photographic sensor. This will cause the appearance of purple halos or streaks within photos. I have received a multitude of photos over the years from people claiming that these purple streaks were paranormal entities, paranormal ribbons, and other unscientific deductions. Purple fringing is also a form of blooming which we discussed earlier.
And last, but not least we will cover what is known as underexposure. This occurs when a photo is taken with insufficient light. This results in a darker image than what was seen by the person who took the photo. Just like the other anomalies we have discussed here today I have seen many people claim this to be the presence of a darker or mean entity. This artifact can also make objects to appear as something they are not.
Today we discussed a wide variety of photographic anomalies that can easily occur in photos, but ignorance to these artifacts has lead countless people to believe that the artifacts are paranormal in nature. I have said it more times than I can recollect, but when someone is biased to want to see the paranormal, they will quickly interpret something as paranormal even when whatever it is that they are misinterpreting is not remotely paranormal in nature and has an easily explained natural cause. Until you are familiar with all of these various artifacts that arise in photos I would suggest that you make yourself a quick reference guide of the names of these photographic anomalies and how they appear in photos so you can compare your photos to the list and easily rule out natural anomalies.
Remember everyone, the science comes before the spooky!