Fake Ghost Pictures: How to Debunk a Hoax 

Fake picture of the rod phenomenon

Everyone has seen photos that claim to include something paranormal, and at first glance, it can be difficult to determine whether the ghostly apparition is a trick. There are actually lots of ways to create fake ghost pictures, and once you know them, you'll have a good chance of telling whether an image is a hoax. The practice of faking photos of paranormal phenomena dates back to the beginning of photography, and it's still alive and well in the age of smart phones.

Fascinating History of Fake Ghost Pictures

From the invention of the camera to the modern era, photography naturally lends itself to bending reality. People tend to think of photographs as a factual representation of the truth, but it's relatively easy for photographers to manipulate light and create effects that trick the viewer. This practice began in the mid-19th century as photography was really taking off. These are a few of the most notable cases of fake ghost photography.

Photograph of the Ghost of Abraham Lincoln

A Boston-based photographer, William Mumler, created portraits of people with their departed relatives in the 1860s. He was tried for fraud and acquitted after he created a very famous photograph of the ghost of Abraham Lincoln with his wife Mary Todd Lincoln. No one knows for sure how he faked these pictures, but it's likely he used glass negatives from previous photographs to create double exposures.

Ghost Photos After the Great War

In the aftermath of World War I and the 1918 influenza epidemic, there was renewed interest in spirit photography due to so many people grieving for lost loved ones. English photographer and medium William Hope began creating photos of ghostly apparitions, which many people believed represented deceased family members. After an extensive investigation, researchers found he was re-using glass negatives to create this effect.

Sundarbans Ghost Photograph

The practice of creating hoax photos has continued in the modern era. Doctored photos, or pictures digitally manipulated in programs like Adobe Photoshop, can be easy for regular people to create. One clear example is the Sundarbans ghost hoax, which was debunked by Snopes. This hoax features a photo of a tourist and a ghostly apparition and includes the story that the tourist screamed and died when the picture was taken.

Identify the Techniques Used in Fake Ghost Photos

There are lots of ways to create a fake ghost picture, but each of these techniques lends a distinctive look. Once you learn how the technique is used, you'll be able to see it in use in hoax images.

Double Exposure of Two Different Images

One of the earliest ghost photo techniques was the double exposure, and you can still do this with digital cameras or with your phone today. Basically, one photo is layered right over another photo to create a ghostly look. This used to happen accidentally or on purpose with film cameras, but it's rarely accidental with digital photos. Either way, you can see two distinct images if you look closely.

A winters day and a semi transparent male figure standing above

Double Exposure of One Scene With and Without a Person

Another double exposure technique can create a different look, and this is a very effective way to fake a photo of a ghost. For this type of image, the photographer puts the camera on a tripod and takes a picture of a scene without anyone in it. Then the photographer takes a second picture of the same scene with someone there. Because the camera is on a tripod, the details of the scene are exactly the same in both pictures; the only difference is whether the person is there. When the two images are layered (either in the camera or in a digital photo editing program), the person looks like a ghost. You can identify this technique because everything in the scene looks perfectly captured, but the person is indistinct.

Female Ghost Against Piano In Darkroom

Motion Blur With Long Exposure

Photographers can also fake a ghost image with motion blur. If the shutter is open for a long time, resulting in a long exposure, anything that moves in the scene will become a blur. The photographer needs to have the camera on a tripod or stable surface so the other details of the scene remain distinct. You can tell this type of ghost image by any other signs of a longer exposure. Light sources may look like stars, and other things in the scene (like trees or grass) may show movement.

In the old alley at night

Long Exposure of Steam or Smoke

Another type of long exposure can capture the movement of water vapor or smoke, resulting in a ghostly image. If the camera is on a tripod and the shutter is open for a long time, the movement of wisps of smoke or steam will get recorded. If these wisps are significant enough and the exposure is long enough, the resulting shape can look almost solid and definitely paranormal. Like in a motion blur photo, look for signs of a long exposure like light stars or additional movement.

Asphalt road under the viaduct

Long Exposure With Light Painting

Photographers can also use long exposure to perform an interesting trick called light painting. To create an interesting effect, the camera is on a tripod and the exposure may be several seconds or even a few minutes long. While the shutter is open, the photographer or an assistant intentionally introduces one or more bright lights to the scene, moving them around to create trails. The camera captures the movement, but if the person moving the light is fast enough, they are invisible. You can identify this type of fake ghost picture by the bright light trails or shapes in an otherwise dark scene.

Light Painting and Woman Sitting On Chair At Table Against Sky At Night

Rear Curtain Flash

In this advanced photographic technique, a photographer can capture motion blur with a long exposure and then freeze the motion with a flash of light. The result has a very distinctive look, like a person has created light trails of themselves or is dissolving into light. Anytime you see a photo with long trails coming from the person, there's a good chance it was made this way.

Man as a ghost

Intentional Shadows

A faint shadow that appears on a floor, wall, or other surface in a photo may not be a ghost at all but an intentional trick by the photographer. Creating a photo is always about recording where light falls in an image, how intensely, and for how long. The brightness of the light effects how dark a shadow is, so if someone is dimly lit from behind and only for a little while, the shadow can be very faint and ghostly. To identify this technique, look at the way the light is falling on other things in the image. If it's coming from behind the camera, there's a good chance the ghost could actually be just a shadow.

Shadows at a prison

Light Flares

Most photos, even those made with smart phones, are created with lenses. Lenses have layers of glass that are stacked together to create a certain effect. If you shine a light directly into a lens, it will sometimes bounce around between the layers of glass, reflecting off of some of them and going right though others. When this happens, you get rays or circles of light or even orb shapes. You've probably noticed this when you've taken a photo in bright sunlight. If you harness this effect, you can create a ghostly appearance. Look for light in repeating shapes like rings, arcs, or balls.

Mysterious Darkness And Light

Ring of Fire

Another light flare technique that can be tricky to master but can provide supernatural looking results is the "ring of fire." In images using this method, you'll see a ring of light encircling a person or appearing anywhere else in the frame. It's usually very bright. To make this happen, the photographer holds a shiny piece of copper pipe in front of the lens as she shoots, allowing the bright light to reflect inside the surface of the pipe. The end result is a bright ring that looks like it can't be natural.

A mysterious ghostly figure

Blurred Object in the Foreground

The foreground of a photo or the part of the scene that's closest to the lens, is often in focus. However, if the photographer is focusing on something farther from the lens, anything close to the lens can become a blur. That blur can easily look a little ghostly. You can tell this is happening in a fake ghost photo because the focus is clearly on something farther from the camera and the blurry object looks closer.

Blurred ghost sheet flying in dusk sky

Digital Manipulation

In recent decades, it's gotten a lot easier to fake supernatural pictures with digital manipulation. There are lots of different techniques for using Photoshop and other programs to combine images or blur parts of the image to create a "ghost." Sometimes, it can be hard to tell if a photo has been doctored, but these are some signs:

  • The shadows are in the wrong place. In a scene, light falls consistently across the photo. If you see that a shadow is different in some part of the image, that's a sign it was manipulated.
  • Some things are too light or dark. If one part of the photo is much lighter or darker than another and that doesn't make sense with its surroundings, this can be an indication it was doctored.
  • You can see pixels. If you zoom in on a fake ghost photo that was digitally manipulated, you may notice pixels in the spots that were changed. This can happen during manipulation.
  • There's a mistake. In most cases, photos are manipulated by humans, and humans make mistakes. Look for jagged edges from cutting and pasting, strange blurred spots where one part meets another, or even extra body parts in a picture.
Invisible men taking a train

What if It's Not Fake?

If you don't see the signs of one of these methods for creating spiritual photo hoaxes, there's always the chance that you might be looking at a real ghost photograph. Paranormal investigators are always looking for ways to learn more about the other side, and photographing ghosts can be an important tool. Once you know how to spot a fake ghost, it might just make it easier for you to tell a real one.

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Fake Ghost Pictures: How to Debunk a Hoax