The Spirit in the Lens

10 10 2010

[written by writer and photographer, Lucy Huntzinger]

Most children believe wholeheartedly in ghosts. We have a hard time letting go of that belief as adults. We want to believe, though we have numerous sensible reasons for claiming we don’t.

For those who grew up with a Santa Claus who arrives Christmas Eve and climbs down the chimney to deliver presents there’s not much difference between a ghost and an unseen fat man fitting where no human can go, rearranging things to leave his presents and maybe even laughing in the night or jingling bells. In some cultures ghosts are celebrated and sometimes invited to join us on special nights: Feast of All Souls’ Day, Ancestor Day, Dia de los Muertos. In other cultures ghosts are feared and special care is taken not to attract their interest. We fear them or love them, but we believe in them.

You may scoff and say you don’t, but you probably enjoy a well-made film with supernatural elements or a terrifyingly realistic ghost story. Even non-believers like a little scare now and then, especially if they can be sure everything will turn out well in the end. Ghosts appeal to something very basic to human nature: a desire for life beyond death.

We can’t help but speculate about it. If death isn’t the end, as so many people believe, what remains after the body dies? Do we linger to help our loved ones or attempt to take revenge on those who caused us pain? Would we know ourselves or would we be terrifyingly unaware? Aware or not, can our incorporeal selves be seen, touched, heard? Humans have always longed to make direct contact with the supernatural, whether it be gods or spirits. Maybe especially spirits.

Artists express our longings for self-aware continuation with spectacularly creative “proof” that we are not alone, from paintings of supernatural creatures to films about little boys who see dead people to photographs that have seemingly captured the spirits that surround us. Cameras, that marvelous nineteenth century invention, lend themselves particularly well to the hobby of ghost hunting.

Spirit photography, also known as ghost photography, goes back to the early days of glass plate negatives, or wet plates, first introduced in 1842. Inventive photographers quickly worked out several ways to manipulate images so that “ghosts” appeared to be standing behind or next to (sometimes superimposed over) a subject. It was done primarily through double exposures, taking a second shot after the customer or friend had gone, or through long exposure trickery. When the shutter is open for more than a couple of seconds anything moving will appear faint, blurry or simply disappear altogether. An enterprising portraitist could have an assistant dressed as a ghost slip behind the unsuspecting subject who was holding still for the necessary long exposure (up to sixty seconds was common) and pose for ten seconds, then slip away. Only the seconds in which the assistant was standing completely still would show up on the negative.

You can try this at home with your own digital camera. Make sure you are in fairly low light conditions indoors and don’t try it outdoors unless it’s night. Mount the camera on a tripod or prop it up so it won’t move accidentally, set the exposure to ten or fifteen seconds and push the shutter button. Run around and into the camera’s field of view and try holding still, then moving rapidly out of frame, then running back in and holding still again somewhere different than you were before. The resulting image will have one or more “you”s in varying degrees of clarity. The longer the shutter is open and the longer you hold a position, the likelier you are to get that classic image of you posing with yourself. Voila! You’re a ghost!

'Revenge of the Tablecloth II' (photo by Lucy Huntzinger)


Virtually all spirit photography is a deliberate fraud; if we look at the old studio portraits we wonder how anyone could have believed such obvious fakes. But what about those spooky photographs with ghostly faces in castle windows or appearing in group shots where they ought not to be, photographs taken by ordinary people who just wanted a snap of their family or friends standing in front of a famous tourist destination? Well, they’re usually not fakes as such, meaning the photographer didn’t set up a dummy in the window or arrange for some steam to billow up just as he or she took the shot. However, there is nearly always some kind of obvious natural explanation for that kind of photo. Humans try to make sense of patterns and where there are two dark areas above one smaller dark area and a semblance of a horizontal streak it’s very easy to see a face on a mossy wall or in the chiaroscuro of light glancing off window glass. Sometimes another visitor to the castle or cathedral wanders into the photo without the photographer realizing it at the time. Sometimes it’s just areas of light and dark in a place we wouldn’t expect it and we thrill at the thought that it might be, this time, a real ghost.

With the advent of digital cameras in the 1990’s, ghost hunters and spirit photographers lost their fascination with ghosts that appeared in human form and focused on a new phenomenon popularly known as orbs. The notion of spirit energy appearing as balls of light caught on quickly. Why? Because digital cameras more easily capture tiny imperfections on the lens than the old plate and film cameras. Orbs show up particularly well when flash is used because of light reflections off particles, which are translated by the camera’s computer into pixelated balls. Moisture and dust are the most common culprits. Millions of people discover the hard way what happens when you take photographs without cleaning your lens properly or when there is fog, rain, snow or simply your own breath on a cold night creating minute water droplets on the lens. Some of those millions think there’s a supernatural cause for the orbs, which can’t be seen with the naked eye.

Whether you believe in ghosts or not, there’s no scientific basis for believing any form of supernatural creature can be captured through the lens of a camera. Spirit photography is fun and sure, you might capture a ghost if you try it, but just as we laugh at those double exposures from the 1870s some day people will laugh at our collection of orbs. If the spirits are truly with us, it has yet to be proven with a camera.




6 responses

11 10 2010
Ali L

Interesting post…I must try some of that camera trickery some time! 🙂

11 10 2010

Wonderful, educational story! I had no idea how these things were done (long shutter speed)… will have to practice making some fun ones, maybe this Halloween in the fog …

13 10 2010
Michele Cashmore

Great post, Mark but I’m not convinced of your argument. I have pix of Orbs on two occasions in my life, one is at an ancient site in Egypt and only in certain areas – so how does the dust in lens equate with that? Also, another more recent occasion (I have since done some research and found some disturbing info about the place) I took shots in other rooms with flash and pix where clear. Back to the main room and the orbs grew in numbers throughout the night, yet in other parts of the house with the same lighting – nothing! And the subsequent nights all clear. There is also no scientific proof to prove that supernatural photography does not exist!

13 10 2010
Mark Deniz

Hi Michele, I can’t really answer any of this, as I’m not actually the author of this post, merely the host of it. Maybe Lucy will see your comment and can elaborate a little more…

14 10 2010
Lucy Huntzinger

Hi Michele,

Leaving aside any spiritual element for the moment, orbs are produced by digital cameras whenever light reflects off particulate matter in the air directly in front of the lens or on the lens itself. If you look at photos of snow at dusk or at night taken with flash (typically the camera is compensating for a low light condition), you’ll see many orbs. Light is reflecting off the water in the snow. Also, if there’s dust in the air where you’re taking a photograph and there is a light source such as a flashbulb there’s a high probability that some of your photos will display orbs. If you get them without a flash in low light conditions (e.g., with a long exposure), then there may be something on your lens.

Spirit photography has been around for roughly 150 years. Before digital cameras were invented there were virtually no photographs of floating orbs identified in spirit photographs. No one claimed strange glowing spots were really ghosts. The rise of the idea of orbs as spirits is associated with a particular technological advance. Film translates the incoming light from an aperture in a different way than a computer. It mimics the way our eyes perceive light. A computer doesn’t. It picks up absolutely everything in front of it, including light refracting off tiny objects the naked eye cannot see.

I know how easy it is for perfectly natural elements to show up as weird, spooky things in photographs (glowing eyes on animals, for instance, from the flash reflecting off the back of their retinas). Orbs are also created under perfectly natural conditions. Therefore, when it comes to ghost or spirit photography I am unmoved by claims that orbs are supernatural in origin.

Regards, Lucy

15 10 2010

This is fascinating. I have wondered about the sudden appearance of these orbs on the scene–like a fad. But not a fad at all–only digital cameras! Very cool. Great explanation.

I truly feel that they only way to reach the TRUTH is to get rid of all the…not so much truth.

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