Long Exposure Photography

Long exposure digital 'ghost', shutter speed set to 8 seconds.In an age where many elements of the popular media seem to be willing to take any piece of photographic evidence at face value, there’s a lesson to be learned: don’t believe everything you read and certainly don’t believe that a photograph never lies! In our age of digital photograph and affordable photographic manipulation software, relatively convincing photographs can be produced with relative ease that can fool most people into believing that what they’re seeing is actually evidence of the afterlife.

This article deals with digital long exposure photography: put simply, this process takes place by the camera taking the photograph over a long (relatively) period of time. If objects remain stationary during this period, they are produced as sharp, ‘solid’ images. If however, that object moves, it will become a transparent image. So how does this happen? Simple! If the camera is taking a photograph over a period of 4 seconds, and a person stands in front of it for 2 seconds and then hurries away, then for the remaining 2 seconds the camera is focused on taking an image of the background behind where the person was standing. Thus, when the photograph is produced, you have both the person AND the background, creating a transparent person.

Lit and Phil, 2010Take the photograph to the left. I took it during OWNE’s investigation at the Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle in November 2010 (yes, 10 years ago!) as part of a demonstration as to how this process worked. In this case, the ‘ghost’ is obviously an investigator (me), reaching toward the camera. However, if I’d stood away from the camera, put on some period clothing and struck a pose, then maybe the image would have been more ‘convincing’… or would it?

The first thing that an investigator must do when studying ‘apparition’ photographs from a digital source is ask to see the original. Each digital photograph contains EXIF (Exchangeable Image File Format) data, essentially a digital fingerprint whereupon those with access to the file can see make of camera, time and date of the original photograph, time and date of modification and importantly in this case the shutter speed of the camera at the time of taking the photograph and whether or not the flash of the camera fired. The EXIF file can be read by many graphics applications, some which are downloadable from www.exif.org.

Image showing the telltale signsIf you receive an image for study, and it contains no EXIF data, then there’s a pretty good chance that its either not the original or is faked. Some software destroys the EXIF data when an image is altered, whereas some simply ads the ‘modified’ time. Personally speaking, if the file has been modified in any way, and the owner still insists that it is the original unmodified file, then I dismiss the enquiry at that point and don’t bother looking any further.

However, in many apparitional photos that I have seen, the EXIF is intact, with no signs of modification. Does this mean that the photograph truly is an image of the dead come back to life? Well, first thing to do is look at the EXIF data again, this time concentrating on the shutter speed and whether or not the flash has fired when the photograph was taken.

For a long exposure image to be created as mentioned above, the shutter speed must be set to a longer time than normal. The flash also must be set not to fire. Take the image of myself at the Lit and Phil. Looking at the EXIF data, the shutter speed was set to 4.5 seconds (a very long time in photographic terms!) and the flash set not to fire. Instantly, if I were an investigator looking at this, then I would have alarm bells ringing in my head: 4.5 seconds is enough time for the photographer (using the camera on a tripod, probably with a remote switch) to stand in front of the camera for a few moments then dart away, thus creating this image.

Ah, I hear you say, but what if we don’t have access to EXIF reading software? Like most elements of investigation work, observation and analysis must then come into play. Look at the photograph again. We know that there’s no flash fired, meaning that there’s a light source in the room. Looking at the exhibition stand, the top of the flat sheet has significant glare on it, suggesting that the light source is located to the left of the photo frame. Now we look at the solid objects in the photograph, specifically those that can case a shadow. From the direction of the shadow, we can confirm that the light source is indeed to the left of the camera frame. So, we can now apply the same methods to the transparent figure. If indeed the ‘ghost’ is someone pretending to be something he’s not, then he’ll have been affected by the light in the same way as the other solid objects in the room. In this case, the ‘ghost’ is too close to the camera, and the camera not at the right angle to see if he has cast a shadow on surrounding objects or the floor, so we rule that out. So now we look to see if the light source has created an impression on the contours of his body, and instantly we can see that the ‘ghost’ has been hit by the same light source as has hit the solid objects. The right arm hanging down to the back has both light and shadow to it; the arm stretching forward has the same. The big ‘tell’ in this case though is the head, with the light gleaming nicely on the forehead, hair and side of face, especially the nose. This indicates that the light source in the room was treating the ‘ghost’ as a solid object at the time of the photograph being taken, indicating foul play in this instance.

Another hint that long exposure photography has taken place is often noticeable if a light source is in the photographic frame itself, such as a candle or electric light. The longer the camera takes to produce the photograph then the longer it is essentially processing light – meaning that light sources themselves become brighter and brighter and often become blurred due to the intensity of the light on show.

Examples of long exposure photography

A good example is this following photograph, taken during a photographic survey of Castle Keep, Newcastle upon Tyne. While it shows nothing ‘ghostly’, just look at the lights and see how fuzzy they are: The shutter speed on this photograph was set to 0.5 seconds, so imagine how bright and fuzzy lights would get at the settings required to produce a convincing ‘apparition’. This rule also applies to old film photography, which often also required even longer shutter speeds to create anomalous images.

An example of a famous long exposure image?
An example of a famous long exposure image?

Of course, long shutter speeds or exposure times means using a tripod on your camera, otherwise the merest shake on your part will mean movement and blurring within the image. I’d doubt anyone could hold a camera absolutely still for over 2 seconds, so look for blurring in the image as a whole. Sometimes, the culprit also doesn’t move out of the camera range quite fast enough, and essentially leaves a movement trail or in some cases may even knock the camera, creating duplicate images superimposed on each other.

Look at the next few images, and see how many of the rules in this article can be applied to each. I think you’ll surprise yourself as to how easy it is to spot a long-exposure image once you know what to look for!

So in the digital age, that old phrase ‘the camera never lies’ no longer really applies, and nothing can be taken at face value. I just hope that this article helps its readers recognise telltale signs that may prevent some red faces down the line…


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