Tuesday, 3 September 2013

A Response to Higgypop's "How To Take A Photo of a Ghost."...

Well apparently Higgypop is a comedian and I've made a complete fool of myself by failing to identify this post as satire. Yep. Complete failure to do my homework. I could take the post down but instead as Higgy completely nailed me I'll keep it up but moved out of the blog roll and use it to promote his very funny Youtube channel. Which you can find here. Sad thing is, I've actually seen a few of his potion videos before and really enjoyed them. I just didn't make the connection.

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I recently came across this article on a blog site called Higgypop, which aims to instruct ghost hunters and paranormal investigators how to take photographs of "ghosts". At first, I hoped the article was satire. Unfortunately, it's not. I'm going to refer to the author as HP here as there's no author named in the piece.

The first thing to note before we delve too deep into the article, there's hardly an issue with ghost hunters failing to capture images of spirits if social media and the tabloid press are to be believed. There are elements of the post which seem sensible enough. HP offers advice on effects that limit common attributions and flaws in photography, although he doesn't elaborate on prevention methods. What my issue with the post is, no amount of ghost photography will ever constitute useful data. There are simply too many possible sources of misattribution and controlling for these elements to a satisfactory level is near impossible. HP admits as much:
"A high percentage of ghost in photographs are caught unintentionally and although this might make for a great news story, the fact the photo hasn't been taken under controlled conditions makes it hard to determine whether a spirit is present in the photograph or not."
A high percentage? One hundred percent surely? Also, as we've never even determined ghosts exist there's simply no way of verifying in which images "spirits are present" it all seems rather arbitrary doesn't it? At the moment, sorry to be negative, but our total percentage of photos verified to contain a ghost stands at zero. But maybe HP can change my mind.

The article begins
"Spirit photography is a field of photography which aims to capture images of ghosts or apparitions in the shot, usually as part of ghost hunts or in haunted locations. The principles are very old, dating back to the 19th century and as cameras have to got better and more advanced, so have the photos of spirits. Even modern smartphones can be used to capture spirits."
I have to correct the author here. Ghost photography has indeed changed over the ages, but this hasn't been a result of photos advancing. The changes in ghost photography have reflected the particular flaws in photography of a particular generation of film. Changes have also reflected new methods of fakery. It's one one the most damning things about spirit photography that as we've moved from film to digital, full bodied apparitions as a result of double exposures and damage to film rolls caused by light leaks have been replaced by orbs and the full bodied apparitions provided by phone apps and digital manipulation.

Early spirit photography was mostly hoaxed, with the original examples credited to William Mumler, inspired by the rise in the spiritual movement created by the Fox sisters in 1848. The effect of spirits appearing behind sitters was achieved by Mumler placing previously used positive glass plates with unused glass plates producing the world's double exposure apparition photographs. PT Barnum exposed Mumler as a fraud by demonstrating how easy his technique actually was. The technique was widely adopted by other fraudsters even after Mumler was ruined. Would Mumler be proud of his legacy? Now any phone user can produce his or her own fake images at the click of a button. Would Mumler bemoan the lack of artistry I wonder?

Moving beyond outright fakery, we've seen misattribution of photographic artefacts change from people moving during extremely long exposures in the earliest examples of photography resulting in
their appearance as a ghost like after image (a stunning example of which is on the left.  The 1854 image shows the nurse maid of  Prince Arthur anxiously ensuring he does not fall off the box he is posed upon) to the effect of slow shutter speed on a moving object creating a ghostly blur (below), long exposure leading to light trails when found in conjunction with flashes and flying "rods" in the case of quickly moving objects (also below).

The fact that "ghosts" once appeared on photographic images full-figured but now appear as the ubiquitous "orb" should tell HP something, as should the fact that orbs were unphotographed virtually until the advent of digital photography. The evolution of the ghost image tracks perfectly alongside the evolution of photographic methods. Prime example. the return of the "full figured apparition" as a result of panoramic errors in digital photography (below).

Higgy goes on:
"A high percentage of ghost in photographs are caught unintentionally and although this might make for a great news story, the fact the photo hasn't been taken under controlled conditions makes it hard to determine whether a spirit is present in the photograph or not."

Hard? Try impossible. There is literally no way of determining if an image that appears in a photograph is "a ghost". We can certainly determine whether an image has been added at some later stage, we can stop digital manipulate if we examine the photo's EXIF data or even the image itself. But if there's no manipulation, and that object is there in the frame of view, there's no way of telling what that image is with certainty. There's an easy way of breaking down HP's statement here: the fact that they think it's "hard" to determine if a ghost is present in an image, that implies they also believe it's possible to make that determination: so show me one photo that has been determined to be that of a ghost. 

A big clue that you aren't going to be able to do this is the fact that ghosts haven't been shown exist!

Higgy continues:
"This is why, as paranormal investigators, you should take care to ensure your photos are taken with as little chance of capturing something that isn't really there. The simple steps below will help you take photos of spirits which can hopefully be corroborated by avoiding some of the mistakes that amateur ghost hunters make."
Helping control for mistakes is not a bad thing, it's a good idea. But it's difficult and also it won't corroborate a ghost image is genuine. If that were sufficient a measure, we'd have proven ghosts exist. 
The next section is comprised of some fairly handy tips about avoiding common photographic errors, it's useful I guess but extremely lightweight. I know very little about photography and I didn't feel like I'd learned anything from reading it I didn't already know. The section doesn't scream to me that the author particularly knows much about photography. If so, what positions them to be offering advice to ghost hunters or anyone else?

Could be a willingness to resort to utter bullshit.

"You're more likely to capture a ghost on camera if you let the spirits know you (sic) intention."
Again, sorry for repeating myself here: there's no way to assess the most successful way of capturing a ghost in a photo, as we can't ever be sure there's ever been a ghost captured on film! If I wrote a long article about the most successful method of trapping a Yot in a pot you'd think I was a bit stupid or crazy, certainly wasting your time, right?

Higgy continues that it's only polite to allow your intended spirit subject time to do their hair before you snap away. Apparently, ghosts are fussy sorts who like to appear presentable. Please enjoy Higgy's free form ramble on the subject:
"Let's say you walked into your living room at home, all of your family are sat on the sofa, you take out your camera and point it at the wall and say "smile." None of your family member had time to reluctantly drag themselves off of the sofa, stand against the wall and adopt and unnatural grin. If however you'd walked into the room, asked your family to pose for a photo, given them a chance to run their fingers through their hair and then get in line, you'd get a much better result and the same applies for the spirit world."
Uhhh... Yeah?

Moving on quickly. The next piece of "advice" is to take more selfies.
"You could also try taking selfies, if a spirit has attached itself to you or is following you then you might find that a selfie is the best way to capture a spirit which is lurking over your shoulder."
Seems like Higgy walking back all the advice he/she previously offered in the last section as selfies tend to be spontaneous things, taken on mobile devices which Higgy recommends are avoided. It's hard if not impossible to control for a spontaneous shot with a background you can't see apart from what's on the view finder. This eliminates the idea of controls somewhat surely?

"If you're lucky enough to have caught an apparition or spirit on camera that's great but a single photo doesn't tell you much and skeptics will instantly point out all of the factors which could have resulted in your spooky shot. So, always take multiple photos. Keep the camera still and take at least three photos as quickly as your camera will allow you too, some cameras have burst mode which is perfect for this. By taking multiple photos you go from having a still to a timeline of images. If an anomaly appears in just one of the three photos then it's most likely a piece of dust or other artefact. If however the object is in all three photos then there's no denying that you've caught somethings (sic) weird, you might even been (sic) to determine a direction it's travelling in, the objects size or the distance from the camera."
 Again this isn't bad advice, but it doesn't really demonstrate anything useful. Presumably, if your orb has moved it's just a case of Brownian motion pushing the dust particle around. Or even more likely, a different dust particle is highlighted in subsequent shots. Without a solid example of what kind of anomaly would show up and then disappear this section is pretty meaningless.

You know what could add meaning to this part of the post, and the blog in general? Some examples of ghost images, even some of the author's own perhaps. All we are given are some stock photos.

Where are the examples of ghost images? I suspect the author excluded them for one crucial reason. An attempt to include an actual ghost image would result in commentators pointing out the naturalistic explanation for said image, thus proving the whole post futile. There aren't any demonstrably genuine ghost images so any attempt to instruct or inform about how to obtain one is ultimately a pointless exercise.


Original article

History of spirit photography.


Modern photographic artefacts.