4 Ghostly Photographic Techniques Explained

A while ago I wrote an article titled The Orb Controversy, where I explained the natural cause of what some people refer to as “orbs”. As an addendum to that article, I would like to explain several other ghostly photographic techniques that are commonly misinterpreted as paranormal.

The key to understanding these techniques is first understanding the basics of exposure, and how different camera settings used in combination can result in drastically different results.

First, The Basics

Shutter Speed

A camera captures an image by recording light on film (analog) or a sensor (digital). The film or sensor is exposed to light through the opening and closing of the shutter, much like the opening or closing of a window. This process of opening and closing the shutter is called a shutter cycle, and the amount of time this cycle takes is called shutter speed.

Aperture Examples

Shutter speed is measured in seconds and fractions of a second. So, if your shutter speed is 1/25 then your exposure time is 0.04 seconds. This means a higher shutter speed allows the sensor or film to be exposed to light for a longer period of time, where a lower shutter speed exposes it to light for a shorter period of time.


Another setting that controls the amount of light allowed to reach the sensor or film is aperture. When the shutter opens, it dilates much like a human eye. Aperture settings are measured in f-stops.

F-Stops Chart

By controlling how much the shutter dilates when it opens, we are able to control how much light is recorded as well as the depth of field (DOF).  DOF is the distance between the nearest and farthest objects in the scene that appear in focus.

Depth of Field (DOF)


ISO (International Standardization Organization) numbers indicate film’s sensitivity to light. For those of you who remember using analog cameras, you may also remember purchasing film based on this number. The higher the ISO number, the more sensitive the film is to light.


So, if you were going to take photographs outdoors on a sunny day, you would have purchased film with an ISO of 100.  If you were shooting indoors, you likely chose a film with an ISO of 400 or higher.  Films with a higher light sensitivity have a coarser grain, and don’t register detail as well as films with a lower ISO rating.

Most of us don’t use analog cameras anymore, but ISO is still used by digital cameras to control the sensitivity of the image sensor either manually or automatically.


To wrap it up, exposure is all about the combination of how sensitive the film or sensor is, how much light is allowed onto it, and for how long.  Different combinations can lead to drastically different results. Photographers manipulate these settings to create desired image effects. Automatic camera modes attempt to balance these settings to produce the best possible exposure.

I would like clarify that one doesn’t need to be aware they are implementing any of these techniques in order to do so. Since most digital cameras are used on fully automatic or partially automatic settings, your camera may do it for you.

1. Long-Exposure

The term ‘long-exposure’ refers to images captured with high (long) shutter speed. A long exposure time is important in low light and night photography, as there is less light available to record the image. To compensate for the lack of light, the shutter remains open longer to expose the sensor or film to the available light for a longer period of time. If you use your camera on an automatic mode, it probably adjusts your settings without you realizing it. Most digital cameras today also come with a ‘night time’ mode which when used without flash utilizes long exposure.

Long Exposure

Since a large number of photographs claimed to be paranormal are taken at night or in low light, longer exposure time often plays an important role in the final image effect. Since long exposure time is at the core of many of the techniques being discussed here, by understanding how long-exposure photography works, the correlation between exposure time and many claimed anomalies become evident and seem rather… normal.

15 Stunning Examples of Long Exposure Photography

Learn more about long-exposure photography:

 2. Motion Blur

In photography, motion blur is the blur of an image resulting from the movement of the camera and/or subject. A photograph doesn’t represent an instant in time, but rather it represents a scene over a period of time, and this period of time is the exposure time, determined by shutter speed.

So, in addition to its effect on exposure, the shutter speed changes the way movement appears. Longer exposures capture longer periods of time, and the longer the shutter is open, the more likely it is to record changes in the image resulting in motion blur.

Motion Blur

45 Beautiful Motion Blur Photos

20 Motion Blur Photos That Inspire

3. Light Painting

The term ‘light painting” refers to the artistic photographic technique of using a light as paint, and motion blur as brushstrokes either by moving the light source or the camera. Light painting is nothing new. Its roots can be traced back to 1914, and in 1949 Picasso created images in a dark room using a flashlight, a series known Picasso’s “light drawings.”

Light Painting

A light painting basically requires a longer exposure time and movement. The technique can be easily created unintentionally in low-light by the camera’s longer exposure times combined with camera shake. As steady as your hand may be, unless you’re using a tripod (or other mount) in controlled, indoor conditions, there will be varying amounts of motion blur.

Pablo Picasso “Draws” With Light (LIFE Magazine)

10 Masters of Light Painting Photography

Learn more about light painting:

4. Condensation and Smoke

These image effects are typically just that – condensation and smoke. In the same way that light is reflected from dust, insects and other debris, light is also reflected from moisture and smoke. Consider this: the vast majority of these photographs are taken outdoors, in the dark. Since the flash’s light reflects from the airborne particulates back into the lens, the additional contrast against the black or dark background makes the reflection even more evident.

Smoke and Vapor

One of the primary defenses against this explanation is that it “wasn’t freezing” or “cold enough”, and therefore could not be visible breath! There is however, no exact temperature at which condensation can occur. Several environmental factors other than temperature can lead to visible condensation, including relative humidity. You can be almost guaranteed to see visible breath at 7° Celsius (45° Fahrenheit) and below, but other conditions may also be suitable to produce this effect.

Like visible breath, fogs and mists may also form under a variety of conditions, and can dissipate as fast as they form. Again, as many photos are taken in dark and low-light conditions, the photographer may unaware of the fog or mist until it is illuminated my the camera’s flash and captured in an image.

Celebration of Smoke Photography and Smoke Art

Why Do You See Your Breath When It’s Cold?

Just About Everything You Wanted to Know about Fog

In Conclusion

If you catch something of interest in a photograph, please, before you begin shouting from the rooftops (or Facebook), consult a photographer or photography resources – not  paranormal ones. Preferably professional photographers with formal training or years of experience – not the ‘I-bought-a-camera-therefore-I’m-a-photographer’ kind. While there are researchers with some training and backgrounds in photography, there are also many websites and blogs out there that, perhaps due to eagerness, or perhaps do to ignorance, classify every orb, shadow and light streak as paranormal. I’m reminded of this classic Canadian PSA which reminds us to think and ask questions. Not everything you read online is real.

As a researcher new to the field it can be difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff. There are so many people willing to jump on the orb and ectoplasm bandwagon that it creates a communal reinforcement of misinformation. Remember, there is no such thing as an expert in the paranormal, but there are experts in photography that can be a valuable resource.

Cheers, Mila

Additional Resources:

Shutter speed:

Depth of Field:

Camera Settings:



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