Explaining the Unexplained in Photographs

by Joelle Steele

Every few weeks I receive a photo from someone asking me to analyze it and explain what the big fuzzy blur is that's in the corner of their photograph that they think is a ghost. They could as easily be asking about circular balls of light (orbs), long lines of light (trails), vague mists/smoke, spirals/vortices, or mysterious faces in mirrors or windows (reflections). In every case, the photographer thinks they have captured a ghost, some supernatural being, or an alien presence in their photographic image. I believe in ghosts, having seen one, and I write about ghosts in my novels. But capturing a ghost on camera is very rare. Usually, there is a simple explanation for what appears to be a ghost.


Most people who contact me about their photos are just curious about these things. Others desperately try to attribute a supernatural interpretation to their photographic phenomena. The latter is a psychological cognitive behavior known as "apophenia," from the Greek words, "apo" meaning "away from," and "phen" (from the original old Greek word "phainein") meaning "things that appear or are brought to light." Apophenia refers to making an irrational or unreal interpretation about something entirely different than what it really is; for example, seeing a pattern or meaningful shape or thing apart from what is really just random non-patterned "stuff," such as a bunch of leaves, a pile of sand, or smoke from a chimney. We get many related words from the Greek root word "phen" ("phainein") in our English language, including "phenomenon," as well as "phantom," "phantasm," "fantasy," and "fantastic." Sometimes the term "pareidolia" is misused in place of apophenia, but pareidolia is a type of apophenia that primarily refers to seeing religious or spiritual images in random imagery, such as the Virgin Mary in a rock or cloud formation.

While some of these ghostly or otherworldly phenomena in photographs do seem to defy a rational explanation, the vast majority are of a natural origin or are camera-related, and can be easily explained by understanding how such images are made.


Whether film or digital, still or video, SLR or point-and-shoot, cameras are interesting devices that are all capable of creating a wide variety of effects about which the photographer is often unaware at the moment they press the shutter. If you add flash to the picture, you get even more possible effects. And, if you have an SLR camera, film or digital, they have mirrors in them, which lead to even more options for reflective phenomena. And, if you can't hold the camera completely steady when you shoot, that slight motion can add more unexpected effects. Add weather and atmospheric conditions, and possibly an insect or two along the way, and you've got a more or less infinite number of possible effects that seem to lack any plausible explanation other than the presence of a ghost or spirit.

Film cameras, like their modern digital counterparts, have options for shooting under different conditions. With film cameras, you use different kinds of film for different types of photos, set the aperture and shutter speed, focus the lens, and press the shutter. With digital SLR cameras, you can do pretty much the same, but with the less expensive point-and-shoot type digital cameras, you often get to select from a menu of shooting options, e.g., automatic, night, landscape, portrait, snow, etc. If you use a setting that doesn't quite match the shooting conditions, you are far more likely to end up with photographic phenomena.


My first experience with a photographic phenomenon was in 1976 at a restaurant that had a reputation for being haunted. Back in those days, I never went anywhere without one of my many cameras, in this case, a 35mm Rollei SLR film camera. The occasion for going to the restaurant was a birthday party, and I took several photos of my friends and of the birthday girl. One of the photos of a party guest was taken near a mirror at the entrance to a hallway. When developed, there was an image of a woman with dark hair in a dark dress in the mirror. I knew for a fact that there was no one in the hall but me and the party guest at the time I took the picture, yet there was the face in the mirror.

I know that cameras can create all kinds of seemingly ghostly phenomena. So, I went back to the restaurant to examine the area and see if I had really captured a ghost on film. What I found was a French door with glass panes situated just before you entered the hallway. That door was the entry to a separate dining room, and when it was slightly ajar, it reflected the people at a particular table in that room directly onto the mirror in the hallway. I only had to wait and observe for about a minute before a waitress, dressed in a black uniform, waited on the table nearest the door, and voilà, there she was in the mirror.

Reflections are the number one cause of ghostly apparitions in photographs. They can occur when you are shooting anywhere that there are reflective surfaces such as water, glass, mirrors, chrome, windows, old TV screens, etc. There is usually more than one reflective surface that is not in the immediate view of the lens, but it reflects onto something in the lens view, and is then captured by the lens. When most people take a photograph, they aren't looking at the surrounding backgrounds of their future pictures. They are instead looking at the person or thing they set out to photograph. When they later view the photo, they are surprised to see a ghostly person in the image.


Orbs are those round balls of light that can be white, colored, crisp, fuzzy, single, multiple, separate, or overlapping. Many unwitting folks believe these are spirits making their presence known. Nothing can be further from the truth. I first learned about orbs in 1982. I had been hired to shoot photos of cars for a client, an advertising agency in southern California. The creative director said to me, "Be sure you angle the camera so that you get some really nice circles of light." I had no idea what he was talking about. Then he pulled out some photos and showed me literally dozens of pictures used in ads for cars, all with varying sizes and quantities of circles of lights. When I displayed my ignorance of how to do this, he told me to bracket (make several pictures in a row at slightly different angles or settings) a lot of car shots off of windshields, side mirrors, windows, sign posts, or anything reflective in the immediate area. I was doubtful about how to do this, but I followed his instructions, and out of 36 exposures on one roll of film, I got six with "orbs."

Over the years, I got much better at duplicating this effect in landscapes with water or windows of houses, etc. I even saw how it worked with a video camera in which changing the angle of the camera created these orbs and also made them disappear and then reappear again. Orbs are even easier to make when taking photos with a flash. Again, all you need are some reflective surfaces. SLRs make the best orbs (the brightest and the most of them per photo), but even the most modern digital point-and-shoot cameras and cell phone cameras make them as well. And flying insects can also create small orbs of light (not true circles since their shapes are erratic) when flashed. Sometimes they look like a line of light rather than just a small blob if you have a camera with a setting that results in a slower shutter speed and the insect is therefore moving during the exposure. In film cameras, regular film can capture the insect movement this way, but high speed film usually eliminates the movement entirely.

Other causes of orbs are miniature objects, dust motes or drops of water, that are too close to the lens to be in focus, and when flashed on and captured by the lens, the result is a circle or circles of light, sometimes overlapping each other in varying sizes. It is amazing that a tiny particle(s) can create such an array of phenomena, but it does happen. With point-and-shoot cameras, digital or film, the possibility of getting orbs by accident is a lot greater than with SLRs which need to have their depth of field increased to get the orbs to appear.


These are common phenomena that I see quite often in photos. They are very easy to explain. They are caused by the presence of very ordinary moving things (e.g., the flying insects again), sometimes ones that come between the camera lens and the subject being photographed. In every case, the photographer never sees it when they shoot, and that is because there is often wind/draft or camera movement involved. The usual cause of lines or trails of light, straight or wavy, are: long strands of hair (look like translucent spirals or smoke/mist in some cases), thin nylon camera straps (spirals or "vortices"), insects flying by, vehicle lights in the distance, airplane lights, someone wearing a shiny bracelet or ring or holding a cigarette and then moving their hand ever so slightly, etc.

There are more sources for these phenomena than you can begin to imagine. They usually occur with inexpensive cameras that have a slow shutter speed or that are used at a setting that automatically lowers the shutter speed. And in every instance, these photos are taken with a flash in anything from a fully lit to a totally dark place.


Again, these are very common phenomena and come with a simple explanation. And no, it's not ghostly ectoplasm just because you took the photo in a spooky old house. I first encountered mists in photographs I took when I was camping in October of 1991 at Glacier National Park in Montana. I was with five other people and I was shooting with three different format film cameras, all Rolleis with Zeiss lenses. In October, it is really beautiful in Glacier, and so I took photos mostly during the first couple hours of daylight and the last couple of hours just before sunset to get the full effect of the autumn colors and the changing skies.

When I had the photos developed, there were at least 60 out of about 300 shots that had smoky mists in them. More than half of those 60 shots were of my camping companions. I couldn't figure out what the mists were until a more experienced photographer friend of mine pointed out that it was my breath and their breath in the cold air that was producing the phenomena. The ones I took of people around a camp table at dusk really showed the mist/breath. Since then, I avoid exhaling when taking a photo on a cold day or in a cold room, and I ask my subjects to hold their breaths (and not smoke!) rather than say "cheese" on a cold day or night.


Double exposures are some of the oldest producers of photographic phenomena. They happened from time to time with my oldest film cameras if I forgot to advance the film after one shot and the camera did not have a way to determine this had happened. The photographer could then take another shot that would be superimposed over the negative of the previous image. Newer film cameras stopped the shutter from being pressed again so that you had to advance the film to take another picture. Double exposures don't occur with modern cameras at all, but they can occur if you take a photograph of your TV screen. And, of course, anyone can create a double exposure using Photoshop photo editing software.

My first experience with a double exposure was in 1989 while I was exploring the ruins in Palenque, Mexico. I was taking photos with the older of my two 35mm Rollei SLR film cameras. As I got to the end of the roll, I took three photos in the same place. When the film was later developed, one image was superimposed over the other, and it appeared that there was a ghost of a man in white standing in the doorway of a ruin. The photo after this double exposure was a normal shot that showed the same man standing a little outside of the doorway. Because this was a film camera, I could examine the negatives and see that I had made a double exposure.


As you can tell, it is not difficult to get a variety of seemingly unexplained phenomena in your photos. But, before you jump to the conclusion that ghosts, spirits, and aliens are invading your life, take some time to look at your photos from the standpoint of the camera, the lighting, the subject matter, etc., to rule out some very ordinary causes of your photographic phenomena.

This article last updated: 06/02/2016.