Common Photo Problems

Common Photo Problems Found on Film

The following e-mail was received and used with permission of Stuart Powley at It addresses some of the more common problems found on film.

I've just recently began getting on this site and I must say I like it very much. I've had an interest in the scientific investigation of paranormal events for quite some time. I must say, I find this site well done and entertaining. I'm not familar with the EMF detectors, however, as I have never heard of them being used in an investigation before. I know statistical documentation can be difficult to provide in hauntings, but I would kind of like to know how well they work, as I'm considering purchasing one. Any feedback you can give me in this area would be appreciated.

I have a few comments to make on the subject of anomalous photos. I've been in photography for about 18 years professionally, and have worked for about 8 or so labs (general use and professional) on an on again off again basis. (Usually to generate extra money) I've seen, taken and processed literally hundreds of thousands of photos, so I thought I might give some general guidelines on telling a true anomalous photo from a screw up.

First of all, let me point out that very little can be interpreted from a print. There are just too many factors that can influence the final product. The negative, however, is another matter. The negative has only been though the process of being exposed and developed. whenever I see something strange on a print I want to check out the negatives first.

One of the biggest problems that I have run across in printing pictures is the ever lurking "UFO." In darkroom jargon a "UFO" has nothing to do with spaceships, stands for "Unidentified Fuzzy Object." These objects can usually be tracked down to very mundane sources.

For example, dust is a big problem. When a print is exposed, a light shines through the negative and projects the image onto the photographic paper. In between the negative and the paper are at least three lenses, 2 to 4 mirrors, and three color filters. If there is dust on any of them (including the negative and the paper) there will be white dots, lines, or smudges on the final print. It is almost impossible at times to eliminate dust, and quite frankly it drives lab techs nuts. Therefore, there is a fairly good chance that from any roll of film that you get processed there will be at least some dust spot "UFO"'s.

The easiest way to tell if something on the print is dust is to look at the negative- preferably through a jeweler's loop. If there is a black dot on the negative that doesn't move when you blow on it, you may have something. Then again, you may not. You must look very closely because it is possible that a bit of dust became embedded in the film's emulsion during processing. If the spot looks like its raised above the surface of the negative under magnification, then you have a dust speck.

Sometimes you might see black or brown specks or lines on a print. What you need to look for are scratches on the negatives, or in the emulsion of the photo paper. Scratches will have definite "depth" when viewed under magnification. Be sure to look on both sides of the negative to be sure. A dusty camera can also give you dark specks on the print. Always make sure your lenses and mirrors are spotless. If you have spots on the same parts of several frames in the negatives, you probably have a dusty camera.

Another problem is double exposure, either intentional or not. The easiest way to spot a double exposure is to closely examine the the edges of the frame on the negative. It is quite difficult, even with expensive equipment, to make two frames fit perfectly on top of each other. Usually there will be some slight movement in the film between exposures that will make a double edge on the frame. Also if that frame on the negative is noticeably darker or lighter than the ones around it, there might be a problem.

Still another problem is "fogging." To "fog" film means to unintentionally expose either the negative or photo paper with light, heat, radiation, or stress. If a camera has been left in a hot car, sent through an X-ray machine, had the back opened even slightly, or had the film tugged on violently, you probably have fogged film. The photo paper can be fogged in much the same way. Fogging is quite simple to detect, however. Look at the negative. If the "blobs of light" extend over the edges of the frames, its a good bet the film is fogged. Fogging seldom shows up on only one frame and may be spread through the whole roll of film.

Also, many people run into trouble when the try to shoot through glass. Glass can do weird things to a photo that may look like something paranormal. The flash can bounce back and make white blobs or streaks. Objects in back of the camera can be reflected in the glass and look very much like a ghost. If you have to shoot through glass, place the lenses flush with the pane. Doing this makes the glass simply another lenses and will cut down on reflections.

Finally, you always have to check where your light sources are. Try to avoid shooting toward a bright light, such as the sun, moon, or stark artificial lights. Doing so can produce "lenses flare." Lenses flare is when the light reflects back and forth between the lenses in the camera. The result can look quite a bit like "spirit orbs." A way to spot this problem on a negative it to see if you can see the light source in the frame, and check and see if the orbs are arranged in a straight line away from it. If they are, you probably have lenses flare.

On the subject of orbs, there is another problem that can cause them. If there is dust or moisture on, or in, the camera or the lenses the result can resemble them. Looking at the frames on either side of the one with the orb can clear this up. If they have orbs in the same places in the frame, you probably have moisture or dust.

What will real anomalous photos look like? There are a few things to look for. First, does the object have a shadow? Granted, some paranormal effects don't seem to throw shadows, but if you see one at least you know that it is a photo of something solid. Does the object look 3-D? Most of the problems Ive listed here will result in marks that look rather flat compared to the rest of the picture. Are the edges sharp on the negative? Finally, could something have fallen in front of the lenses at the moment the picture was taken? Sometimes its easy to forget things like this. With practice it should be easy to spot the difference in real paranormal effects, and general screw ups.

By the way, I have developed photos that had things in them that could not be explained by anything I've listed here. One comes to mind in particular. It was on a roll of wedding pictures that were taken outside. There was a series of shots taken while the couple were cutting the cake. On a frame in the middle of the series, a grayish fog or smoke covered the area above and in back of the couple's heads. The fog ended sharply at the edge of the frame on the negative, and was not in any of the other frames. An interesting point is that the couple's heads were obviously in front of the fog, which showed it had depth in the print. I was never able to come up with any reason for the fog to be there. I've seen others as well, but this seemed like a good example.

Return to Main Page

Copyrighted 1997 - 2014 by Dave Oester