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How to Fake a Ghost Photo

A photographic technique that assists investigators might also encourage fraud.

I attended a crime scene photography workshop for digital single-lens reflex cameras and heard the phrase, “painting with light.” After several hours spent on other techniques, we got to this intriguing concept. Our instructor would show us how to paint with light.

The first step was to create a scene, so one of the participants lay on the floor to simulate a body. We set up the cameras on tripods, because a key requirement for a good shot is that they remain absolutely still. The camera had to be capable of being set for a long exposure time.

The second step was to have a nice, bright flashlight ready. Some crime scene flashlights provide a lot more light than a typical flashlight. Our instructor was going to use one from Sirchie, a crime scene investigation supply company. They are bright!

When the “body” was in place, we stood next to our cameras. The lights were turned off, and there were no windows, so the room was pitch black. We opened the shutter and stood back. I believe it was set to stay open for 30 seconds.

Our instructor moved his flashlight over the body several times, lighting the scene that we, the photographers, would capture. Once the shutter stopped, we looked at the resulting photos. (With digital, you can see the results right away.) To my astonishment, it looked as if I had taken the photo in good light. (See the photo above.)

The point of this for crime scene investigation is to be able to take photos in dark places, such as poorly lit basements or wooded areas where there is little to no light. But I also noticed something else. (I was probably the only one at this workshop to think of this.)

We tried several takes, and in some of my photos, there were streams of light similar to what I have seen on many “ghost” photos. I also noticed that a shot I took of several men standing in the dark looked absolutely ghostly, as if they were transparent.

With this technique, you can use the light like a broad brush, or you can use it as a pen for more precise results. If you move the light slowly over your photographic subject, you’ll get better results, unless you hold it too long, which “burns” it.

I’ve seen a lot of ghost photos, and it was clear to me just from my initial results that someone who knows this technique would have no trouble recreating photos to pass as ghost photos. Learning about it gave me yet another tool for investigating fraud, which is all too rampant in the ghosting-hunting community.

Yet even without fraud, I can imagine that many of the results that amateurs get might be the result of something similar. They just don’t realize it. To them, getting strings of light or luminous images in a dark place can’t be explained by camera work alone. Yet, just moving the camera a little bit will get some of these effects.

In fact, the participants in my workshop were quite surprised by the results of painting with light, despite being experienced photographers, because they’d never tried it before. If they were mystified, I can see how ghost hunters would be doubly convinced that images of light that emerge from the dark could only be paranormal.

There’s nothing particularly new about this technique. It’s even described on Wikipedia. However, only when I saw the results of my own work and recalled the photos I’ve seen from ghost hunters did I realize how easy it would be to create any of them, whether orbs, ectoplasm, a vortex, or an apparition.

I wish I’d known about this when I was writing Ghost: Investigating the Other Side, but I’ll definitely be including it in my Paranormal Forensics series.