Photographing Ghostly Ectoplasm

The following is an edited excerpt from the first edition of Ghost Photography 101, by Fiona Broome.

Ghostly figures in Portsmouth, NH cemetery
Smoke is the #1 explanation for crisp ‘ecto’ photos, like this one.

In the field, the word ectoplasm is often shortened to “ecto” and it’s considered rare. Ectoplasm is a complex and controversial topic.

Ectoplasm seems to be something physical.  People describe it as something that’s visible to the naked eye.  “Sparkles” may be small spots of ectoplasm, or they might be something different, since they don’t usually show up in photos.

Orb photos are popular and almost commonplace. Ectoplasm photos are rare and receive little attention.

In fact, many professional ghost hunters seem to dismiss all “ecto” photos as cigarette smoke.  Is that fair?  From my experiments, the answer is a firm “no.”  It’s remarkably difficult to photograph cigarette smoke.

Like orbs, at least 90% of modern ectoplasm pictures have been taken after dark using flash cameras.  To confuse matters even more, there are many natural explanations for ecto-like forms in photos.

False ectoplasm in photos

Ectoplasm in photos could be, in order of likelihood:

  • Smoke.
  • Breathing, fog or moisture in the air.
  • An odd, reflected light.
  • Hair, insects, dust or pollen.
  • A camera strap.
  • A light leak in a film camera.
  • An error during film processing.

Let’s rule those out, if we can.

Film errors are easy to spot.  Examine the film closely, looking for scratches, splashes, fingerprints or other surface evidence of mishandling during processing.

A light leak in the camera will usually extend beyond the frame of the photo, into the edges of the film.

Insects, dust and pollen usually look more like orbs.  However, hair can be confusing, as can camera straps.

For reflected light to cause an ecto effect, it would have to be very close to the lens… and obvious.

Fog and drifting moisture are usually evident when the photo is taken.  You can usually confirm this with a flashlight; the beam of light will highlight bands of damp air that could appear in photos.

Eerie 'ghost' images in breath, Northfield, NH
Yes, this is what breath looks like in a ‘ghost’ photo, but is that all it is?

Breathing is a problem on chilly nights. It’s easily the #1 reason someone might think “ecto” when they look at a misty photo.  To rule it out, either don’t breathe (or stand close to anyone who is breathing) or don’t take ghost photos on chilly nights or when the dew point is high.

From my experiments, smoke is not likely to cause “ecto” effects.  It’s possible, but not likely.  (Those experiments are illustrated in the book.)

As with fog and moisture, you can usually highlight smoke with a bright flashlight, so you can tell if it’s an issue before you take photos.  If its light is reflected, the smoke will reflect your camera’s flash, too.

With those factors ruled out, we’re left with another mystery:  What are those eerie, misty areas and swirling entities in our photos?

Many professional ghost hunters agree that smoke is the best explanation when we see ethereal, ectoplasmic images in photographs.

Most ghost hunters insist that, even if someone had been smoking 20 minutes earlier, smoke particulate can remain in the air and reflect light, especially light from a flash camera.

If you’re serious about ghost photography and you’ve seen images that look like ectoplasm in your photos, run tests with your own cameras.  Rule out normal effects, first.

I recommend testing in a variety of weather conditions, especially varying levels of humidity.

Take test photos of different kinds of smoke, including smoke from:

  • Cigarettes
  • Pipes
  • Incense
  • Burning wood (like a campfire)
  • Burning paper
  • Matches

If you live near a factory that spews minute particles into the air, take after-dark photos near the factory.  Airports (and traffic paths of low-flying planes) can also contribute particulate matter in the environment.

It may sound like a mantra at this point, but it’s important: Always know what different normal effects look like, before deciding that you’ve photographed anything paranormal.

For locations with particulate matter in the air, check regional environmental websites.  In the United States, you may find helpful information at AirNow.gov and at the EPA website, http://www.epa.gov/air/emissions/where.htm

 

More Test Photos

The following photos are from several years’ tests, trying to create convincing, fake, ghost photos.  As you can see, it’s not as easy as I thought… or as simple as skeptical critics claim.

Spider webs with moisture in them

Some people might confuse the lines for ectoplasm, but most won’t.

  

Damp, foggy morning, using the flash in all photos

As you can see, there were no orbs, even in thick fog.  The third photo (lower left) has something odd in it, but it’s not an orb, as I’d been expecting from so much dampness.

    

     

Hair

In some cases, hair could be confused with light streaks or vortex images.  The color of the hair is the clue. (My hair is auburn.)

However, notice the last of these four photos, at the lower right.  It looks like it has large, overlapping orbs. That’s also a photo of hair; when the light catches it in a certain way, it appears as a series of large, faint orbs.

 

 

Smoke

Frankly, the smoke photos showed almost nothing.  The only way we could get smoke to show up in pictures, consistently, was to use actual stick incense.  The results open some interesting questions.  And, yes, some of these could be mistaken for anomalies.  That of course raises the question: If someone nearby were using incense, wouldn’t a photographer notice the fragrance?

  

  

Pollen

Pollen was very difficult to capture in photos.  Even shaking ragweed directly over the camera lens, the pollen rarely showed up at all.  (See the third photo, in the lower left, where I was shaking the ragweed in front of the lens.) The final photo in this series shows what it looks like to crush the ragweed with your hand, and then sprinkle the pollen in front of the camera lens.  These extremes suggest that pollen is rarely a problem for an experienced ghost photographer.

However, in the few photos where it did show up, it could look similar to orbs with “faces” in them.

Unless you’re standing directly underneath a tree that’s sprinkling pollen, or it’s a very bad night for hay fever, I don’t think pollen is a major concern.  Among the few photos that showed pollen orbs, even fewer were orbs that we’d confuse with actual anomalies.

Is it possible to confuse pollen for an anomalous ghost orb?  Yes.  Is it likely?  No.

  

  

Dust and dirt

Dust particles — from household dust and dust (or dirt) kicked up while walking — were equally difficult to confuse with anomalous orbs.

In the first photo (immediately below this text), that’s a Swiffer duster, caked with dust, that my husband was shaking in front of the lens.  Nothing showed up, except the actual duster.

In the next two photos, you can see orbs and other shapes created by reflected dust.  They’re more likely to be confused with ghost orbs, but I think I took 50 photos to get these results.

The final photo in the dust & dirt series shows what very dry, fine dirt looks like, sprinkled in front of the lens.  This is the same powdery, dusty dirt that could be kicked up by people walking or a car driving past you during an investigation.  It looked almost identical to pollen, but a finer texture.

Keep in mind, all of these particles were sprinkled within three inches of the camera lens.  Few produced images large enough to look like ghost orbs, and other characteristics  — such as a solid, dark dot in the middle, or an irregular, notched circumference — usually don’t match anomalous orbs.  However, a  few dust orbs did look like anomalous “ghost orbs.”  (Some researchers might argue that those few were actual ghost orbs.  After all, most of these photos were taken in haunted cemeteries.)

  

  

Rain

Rain produced such obviously fake results, I don’t think rain is an issue for professional or experienced investigators.  First of all, you’re likely to feel the rain even if you don’t see it right away.  Then, some of the drops reflect such as solid reflection, I doubt that you’d confuse a photo of rain with an actual, anomalous orb.

  

Breath

In my opinion, the number one issue for ghost photographers is breath.  Though these photos were all taken on a winter night, I was able to achieve similar results on a warm summer night when the dew point was high.  These are a few of many photos that show strange forms and mists, the result of exhaling sharply at the exact moment I took each photo.  So, these are extremes.

The third photo (lower left) intrigues me the most.  It’s a fairly benign-looking misty shape.  It could be confused with an actual, ghostly anomaly.

  

  

Before I completed the first edition of Ghost Photography 101, I showed these photos to someone else who’s been studying ghost photos for years.  He insisted that some of the photos did represent ghosts (particularly pictures like the third in the breath series.)

I could see his point, but in my research, if something could be explained by something normal, I have to discount that as a non-anomalous photo.  I’d rather err on the side of caution.

On the other hand, I think we need to explore another possibility:  If we give the spirits something to work with — like breath or incense — should we look to see what the spirits do with it?  After all, that’s not too different than using white noise to give the ghosts sounds to work with, to form EVP.  And, it’s also similar to using a device like a Frank’s Box, ghost box or “shack hack” to give entities sounds and words to use.

I’ll expand on this in the second edition of Ghost Photography 101.

Ghost Orb Sightings – An Overview

Orb sightings occur every day.

Most “ghost orbs” appear in photographs or videos in haunted places. So few people see them floating in mid-air, some researcher speculate that they can only be seen by gifted, psychic people.

What are orbs?

orb-newburyport-illus“Orbs” usually refer to the round, usually translucent, round or ball-shaped images that we sometimes see in photographs.

They’re usually white, but sometimes appear in pastel colors.  Rarely, they manifest as deep, rich and intense colors.

If you look at them closely, a few orbs seem to have faces in them.  Some orbs seem to be made up of tiny facets.  Most orbs appear as milky circles or spheres.

People often call them “ghost orbs,” since they seem to indicate paranormal energy.

However, many orbs in photos can be explained naturally. You can see the pollen in the middle, or the insect. The shape is usually irregular.

It may take you awhile to be able to tell the difference between an orb formed by moisture, a reflection, an insect, etc., but — once you can tell the difference — you’re not likely to confuse them again.

Don’t accept the easy dismissal of all orbs as dust, moisture, etc.  See the photos in my 2013 article, What Is “Paranormal”?, if you think moisture or reflections always produce orbs.

I recommend trying to create fake orbs with your camera, before deciding what’s real and what isn’t.  You may be surprised.

Unexplained orbs… they’re the orb sightings that really interest ghost hunters and paranormal researchers.

Orb sightings and the spirit world

Many people speculate about orb sightings. Some explanations include:

  • Ghosts.
  • Angels.
  • Demons.
  • An energy field indicating a portal opening or closing. (This is still my favorite explanation.)
  • A friendly spirit, manifesting to say hello.
  • A glimpse of “the light” that people describe in near-death experiences.

How to see orbs

The best way to see orbs is to take lots of photos in haunted locations, or places where people have seen (or photographed) orbs in the past.

These may include:

  • Cemeteries
  • Battlegrounds
  • Theatres (or buildings that used to have stage performances)
  • Older hotels
  • Living history museums
  • Historic homes (especially pre-1890 and open to the public)

Take dozens of photos, if you can.  Study them closely for orbs.  Adjust the contrast or lightness of the photo, so you don’t miss anything.

Tips for orb photography

  • austin-orb-bookcoverDay or night, use your camera’s flash.  It is possible to photograph ghost orbs during the daytime (see the orb on my book cover for The Ghosts of Austin, Texas) , but a flash seems to improve results.
  • Always take two or three photos in a row, as quickly as possible and without changing position. See if the same orb or orbs are in all photos; if so, there may be a normal explanation.
  • Save all of your photos until you exactly what to look for: Different colors, sizes, levels of contrast.

Tips for orb sightings

If you’re one of the fortunate few who see orbs floating in mid-air, here are tips to help you see more of them.

  • Practice your orb-spotting skills. With a friend or two, visit known haunted locations.
  • Most people spot orbs around dusk or immediately after it.
  • When you see an orb, have friends take photos of the orb. If possible, also get photos of you with the orb to see if the locations are similar in most photos.
  • Measure the temperature and EMF levels around the orb, if you have the tools to do so.

Orb sightings are a controversial topic in ghost hunting.  However, if you’re fascinated by ghost orbs or find comfort in them, every orb sighting can be very important.

Ghost Orbs – The Overlooked Question

orb-tyngs1-contrast-75Ghost orbs are a controversial topic, even among believers.

Some orbs can be explained as refracted light from moisture, reflective surfaces, insects, pollen or dust.

But – and this is important – they’re not the big problem I used to claim they were.

So many ghost hunters took my early advice, I’m embarrassed when I hear someone dismiss a credible orb as “it’s just dust.

Usually, false “orb” shapes are irregular. In other cases, you can see the insect or dot of pollen in the center. It’s more solid-looking. Enlarge your photo and take a close look, to be sure.

When it’s a bug, the reflection is usually white. Pollen usually shows up as a solid (not translucent) yellow dot in the center of the orb.

Some of us believe that unexplained orbs —  described as photographic anomalies — indicate possible paranormal activity.

Critical skeptics fall back on the easy answer that every unexplained orb is just dust. Or insects. Or a reflection.

That’s a convenient excuse.

When I ask how much research they’ve done with their own cameras, trying to create fake orbs, they usually change the subject.

Or, they snap back, “I don’t have to. It’s obvious.”

But, overlooking that bravado, let’s say that those orbs are “just dust.”

There’s still an overlooked question.  In fact, it can be startling and obvious when you think about it.

Why do we see so many more orbs in photos taken at haunted places?

Why are there dozens of orbs in photos taken at a haunted cemetery, and hardly any orbs at a field just down the street from that cemetery?

If they’re both equally dusty, shouldn’t we see an equal number of orbs in the photos?

Let’s backtrack for a moment.

GHOSTS AND PHYSICAL EVIDENCE

Most ghost hunters point to physical evidence such as doors that slam without explanation.  Or, they’ll talk about lights, radios and televisions that turn on “by themselves.”

Similarly, I’ve heard a broken piano play music at The Myrtles Plantation in Louisiana.

We’ve seen balls roll by themselves, pencils move across tables, and so on.

So, why is it so preposterous to think that a ghost might deliberately lift flecks of dust, to manifest as orbs in our photos?

Remember the movie, Ghost?  In one scene, Patrick Swayze — as a ghost — struggles to move physical objects.  Fortunately, another ghost shows him how it’s done.

But what about ghosts in cemeteries and other haunted locations?  Maybe no one has shown them how to move large and heavy objects.  Perhaps a particle of dust is all they can manage.

A ghost that gets our attention with a fleck of dust is no less real than a ghost that slaps someone, rolls a ball across the floor of a deserted hospital, or slams doors in an empty hall.

SUMMARY

Many experienced ghost hunters dismiss orbs caused by obvious reflective objects, pollen, insects, and rain.

Those ghost hunters have viewed thousands – perhaps tens of thousands – of orb photos. They know what to look for:

  • An irregular shape, not a nearly perfect circle
  • A solid-looking dot or shape at the center of the orb
  • A solid dot of yellow in or near the center of a pollen orb
  • A solid white shape inside an insect orb
  • A solid white or grey dot inside a dust orb
  • A brilliant white orb, usually an irregular shape, if it’s rain or moisture
  • A repeating series of circular orbs, usually in a line, if it’s a lens flare from the sun, the moon, or a reflective surface.

But, let’s take this question one step further. Let’s say the orb is from dust.

The next question should be: Is the dust an anomaly?

If you’re seeing unexplained orbs in photos taken at one location, take photos at a nearby location with similar levels of dust,  pollen, and so on.  Equal orbs indicate natural causes.

However, if you see orbs in photos at a haunted cemetery but not in photos at the Little League field next door, the real issue isn’t whether it’s dust.  Instead, ask why the orbs only show up in the haunted cemetery.

The answer might be ghosts.