A Ghost In The Photo? :: Digital Photo Secrets

A Ghost In The Photo?

by David Peterson 30 comments

I received an interesting email last week from Jo-ann, a quite concerned subscriber...

"My family and my parents were camping at the Lower Sabie Camp in the Kruger National Park. There, at about 8pm, my mother took the attached photo, using automatic focus and the 'night time' setting on her camera.

"When we looked at the picture on the camera's LCD screen, we noticed the
funny 'squiggly' light and figured it was a moth or something.

"Today, my 15 year old daughter was looking through our holiday photos and
noticed a woman standing behind my husband. When I looked at the picture, I couldn't believe my eyes as there definitely was nobody behind us when the photo was taken.

"Could you perhaps explain to us what the 'vision' could possibly be?"

Ghostly Image

"Ghost Picture" - click on the image for a larger view.

Sure Jo-Ann. Rest assured, it's not a ghost or spectre!

Looking at the EXIF information for the picture, I can see that the shutter was open for 2 seconds. Because there wasn't much light (and no flash was used), the camera set a long shutter speed to ensure enough light entered the camera to expose the shot correctly.

What happened was someone moved from left to right in the back of the photo while the shutter was open. You probably thought no one was there because most of the time people were not walking behind the subject.

While the shutter was open, the person moved from directly behind the subject towards the right. As the shutter was open for the whole time, you see not only the person, but what was behind them as well.

The squiggly line is caused by the moving person holding a torch (probably so they could see where they were going). It's squiggly because the walking motion moves the torch up and down as well as to the right. If you look closely, you can also see the brighter patch of dirt where the torch shone.

Ghostly Image

The long shutter time has also contributed to the shot being blurry. There's two ways to fix this for next time:

  • Increase the ISO. This shot was taken using ISO 400, but the camera (a Canon 350D) is capable of taking shots at ISO 1600. The higher the ISO number, the more sensitive the camera is to light, and the less time the shutter needs to be open.
  • Use a tripod! If you are not using a flash for a night shot, you really need a tripod. If the shutter speed is more than about 1/50 second, you'll get a blurry image even if you try to keep your camera still. The newer cameras have image stabilization technology that cut the 'hand held' speed to 1/30). You can also see my tip on avoiding shake.

Although the effect was unwanted here, slow shutter speeds can be used for some cool special effect photos, like this Rhino shot. Place your camera on a tripod, set the shutter on a long (15 second exposure) and 'paint' around the object using a torch or colored light (or in this case a LED light).

Special Effects

Thanks to Jo-Ann Meiring, her mother, Lucy Wagner, and Søren Ludvig for the use of their images.

Most people think this post is Interesting. What do you think?


  1. Aldis says:

    I assume there was a short flash to light the closer object and the longer exposure to get more of the background. If this is EOS 350D, then this is how it works (I still use the same camera myself). (The light reflection on the man's glasses would also prove the same to me.) This would explain why there is a weak image of a person where it was first caught by the lens and then only a few lighter patches further on.
    Two seconds is a LONG TIME, folks. The distance that "could not be travelled so fast" appears not to exceed 5 metres (sorry, I come from the decimal part of the world). Quite reasonable for 4 steps in the darkness, done in 2 sec. of time! Those who insist on the opposite - do a small experiment, try it yourselves.
    Regarding no-one being behind the man during the shot: probably you considered closer distance (in the dark!) and did not pay attention to the person with the flashlight, as she appeared to be far in the background.
    To those willing to believe in ghosts: sure there are ghosts. But not in this image.
    This is my take on it.

  2. Marcos says:

    There is a girl walking with a cell phone behind the ghost!

  3. Marcos says:

    Beware! The ghost is the one in chair....

  4. Andy says:

    Nobody moved. I suspect this was a handheld shot and the camera itself moved, bringing somebody out of the shot into the shot.

  5. bianca says:

    hey i dont see it but i think that s scary to

  6. Isela says:

    Well, I believe that there was someone talking by cel-phone, look at the highest of the window, maybe. So, who knows jeje! also I want that you look at the light withouth movement; how it looks? pretty! (sorry about my english, It is a second language for me)

  7. Beth says:

    Yes Geoff. The focus locked upon her when she stopped and switched on the torch. The sudden appearance of brightness drew the focal lock to it.

    What looks like a very bright porch (not torch) light is an over-long exposure of a possibly very dim, but stationary porch light, the flare around it being produced by the movement of the torch through its location. By then, the woman was also moving out of the frame too quickly to be defined in the overexposed flare section of the image.

    It's possible this could be a manufactured image of two others, who knows? But it can certainly be explained as one image easily enough. Why would anyone go to the trouble of mocking it up, anyhow?

    Don't be so cynical, guys.

  8. Rey Roman says:

    It was a person with a torch trying to get out of the picture. The image in the chair is just coincidental design, and it was not that dark, there was a frontal lighting, note the reflection of light from the eyeglass.

  9. zenobia says:

    at slow shutter speed blurred lights occur if shone when the shutter was open,and the shadow is probably of some one from the fly moving around not aware the shutter is open.

  10. david says:

    This picture is a total fake, looks to me like someone has been playing with the opacity of a image of someone singing karakoe hence the hand up to the mouth and the figure is looking down at the screen. Also look at the image everything is badly blured except the figure which would to me suggest a seperate image. tell me what height is a door because god she's a tall women nearly the same height as the airocon unit. look at the whole image without zooming in her waist is well over the back of the chair when this image is a low level shot. lastly why would anyone need a torch when there is a porch light right there.

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