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Ghostly Photos

Investigative Files

Joe Nickell

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 20.4, July / August 1996

Figure 1

Figure 1 and Figure 2. “Ghostly” forms in photos like these made by a New York State couple are becoming common.

I first became aware of the mysterious phenomenon when I received a call at my office at the Center for Inquiry. It was from a Lockport, New York, couple who were experiencing some spooky occurrences and were concerned about their young children. The most unusual phenomenon, they said, was found in their color snapshots. Although they had seen nothing at the time the photos were taken, each contained strange, unusually white shapes the couple could not explain (see Figures 1 and 2).

Similar pictures were taken by another couple. They had appeared with me on The Danny Show (where they presented UFO video sequences). Afterward, discovering I had written a book they praised, Camera Clues: A Handbook for Photographic Investigation (1994), they gave me some snapshots that puzzled them. Looking at them later I recognized a few that had similarities to the photos that the first couple had taken. A note on one indicated it had been made in Mexico and was similar to a photo in Fate magazine.

Figure 2

Figure 1 and Figure 2. “Ghostly” forms in photos like these made by a New York State couple are becoming common.

Naturally, the notation led me to the October 1995 issue of Fate, which featured a nationwide ghost photo contest. It was (to quote Yogi Berra) deja vu all over again! Beginning with the Grand Prize Winner’s photo (Figure 3), mysterious strandlike forms "infected” all six winning photos. Citing my book, Camera Clues, at the end, the accompanying Fate article explained how some of the ghost effects in the photos that the editors had received were due to such causes as film-processing errors, lens flares (caused by interreflection between lens surfaces), and outright hoaxes. What was left, they opined, were a few pictures that “may represent an ectoplasmic energy or kinetic energy often associated with the presence of a ghost; however, experts tell us that kinetic energy can be related to a living being as well” (Fate Ghost Contest 1995).

Figure 3

Figure 3. Grand Prize-winning photo featured in Fate magazine’s ghost photograph contest was made by Marilyn Bolduc, Sanford, Maine. (Published by permission.)

Yet again, the strandlike forms appear in a British photo in Jane Goldman’s The X-Files Book of the Unexplained (1995, reviewed in SI, May/June 1996). Goldman’s caption suggests the white shape is a ghost; “Or is it fogged film?” Goldman asks in a moment of doubt.

Actually it is neither. I learned the source of the ghostly phenomenon when the first young couple visited my office and, at my request, brought their camera and film for me to keep for a few days. Examination of the negatives revealed nothing remarkable, but by the next day I had the answer: the strand- or looplike form was caused by the new subcompact camera’s hand strap getting in front of the lens. Since this type of camera’s viewfinder does not see what the camera sees (as it does in a single-lens reflex type camera), the obtruded view goes unnoticed. Although such camera straps are typically black and photograph black (or dark) in normal light, their sheen enables them to brightly reflect the flash from the camera’s self-contained flash unit.

Figure 4 Figure 5

Figures 4 and 5. Experimental photographs by the author reproduce similar ghostly effects.

Some of my experimental snapshots are shown in Figures 4-6. The braiding of the strap can even be seen. When the cord is quite close to the lens, the result is softer, more mistlike. It follows that analogous effects could occur if other articles were placed before the lens — either deliberately or inadvertently. For example, flash-reflected hair, jewelry, articles of clothing, or the like could produce distinctive effects that might not be easily recognized.

It is instructive to note that in each of the cases I have related, including the six examples in Fate magazine, no one saw anything out of the ordinary but simply discovered the anomalous shapes when the photos came back from the film processors. As I point out in Camera Clues, that situation is a good indication that the paranormal phenomenon in question — ghost, UFO, or other entity — is really only some sort of photographic glitch caused by camera, film, processing, or other element. In this case, a new type of camera was the culprit in a rash of allegedly supernatural pictures.

Figure 6

Figure 6. Experimental photographs by the author reproduce similar ghostly effects.


Joe Nickell

Joe Nickell's photo

Joe Nickell, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and "Investigative Files" Columnist for Skeptical Inquirer. A former stage magician, private investigator, and teacher, he is author of numerous books, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin (1998), Pen, Ink and Evidence (2003), Unsolved History (2005) and Adventures in Paranormal Investigation (2007). He has appeared in many television documentaries and has been profiled in The New Yorker and on NBC's Today Show. His personal website is at