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Sunday, July 24, 2016

Photographic Anomalies - What the Camera May See

When I am teaching about photography I am always quick to bring up that the camera captures details we often don't see or notice with the naked eye. The cameras ability to see everything is one of the reasons that its such a satisfying art form. 

When I have this discussion with students, I am rarely talking about the camera seeing things that don't make sense. But there are other things that defy explanation. I often run across the occasional image that doesn't make logical sense to me. With well over a million photos taken in my 20+ years behind a camera I think I have a fairly good understanding of light refraction. I see it all the time when working with night photography. But rarely do I see photos with light anomalies that I can't explain. 

In fact I can think of only a handful of photos that challenged my perceptions. Now I am not claiming the camera is capturing ghosts or spirits or UFO's. What I am claiming is that I can't explain the occasional anomaly that I come across. 

About a year ago I caught this image in a New Orleans cemetery which I dubbed the "galactic orb". 

I have often run across orbs when photographing at night in cemeteries. But they rarely have structure. What made this one different was the concentric circles around the center point that gave it a distinct structure that you don't see in dots and dabs of orb lights. 

You can see it here blown up that it has a swirl similar to what you would see in a photo of a galaxy. The nearest light source was the street light you see in the distance (approximately 500 yards away). The thing is with this image that I'd taken several others and and none of them showed the same anomaly. In fact I can safely say I'd never seen a light refraction like this ever. 

But photographers see odd things quite often. Since the light was never seen again, I wrote it off as one of those strange unexplained things and moved on. In fact I'd quite forgotten about this image until last night.

I took a group into the French Quarter of New Orleans for a night photo shoot. It was intensely busy. People were bustling around everywhere. So I had no expectations that the camera might see something other than what I was photographing. When we arrived in front of the cathedral at Jackson Square, we were taking some photos aimed at the street lights around the park. I'd taken several images of these four lamps lined up together when I noticed a cool cloud  above them and aimed up and took several shots without flash of the cloud. 

To my surprise when I got home and looked the images over I saw this.

My first thought was that they were merely reflections of the street lamps. But I thought it looked oddly familiar so I blew up the two lights and enhanced it a bit and to my surprise, was the same galactic orb shapes found in the image taken a year before.

In fact the green one was almost identical. The fact that they seemed to be pointing upwards says that if they are light retractions, they are the oddest I've ever encountered. 

But to even more to my surprise was another image taken about ten blocks from the first. In fact there were three images taken identical to each other. I often do this when shooting in a darkened place because the first image is often blurry. So redundant imagery is often the case. These were taken in three different light settings. The first was with a flash. The second without. The third the camera was set to low light. Here is the first photo.

As you can see, its a pretty boring image of a brick building. The second image, taken only seconds apart show the same with one small difference.

Now I can write this one off to a possible light refraction coming off the upper light in the photos. The third image taken showed the same light anomaly.

It is rare for me to get any kind of a light refraction on such a low aperture setting. Again I could write it off to the street light. But when I blow up the light anomaly and enhance it, this is what I got. Please note I've used different enhancement techniques on both photos. 

I see structure here. Usually a light refraction just shows as a highlighted blur. But when I bring it up close and enhance, I see definite structure. The other thing is, while it looks small, if you compare it to the SUV's directly below, the anomaly is near the same size as a human being. 

Let me say again, I am not claiming these are anything more than light anomalies. But they are curious ones to say the least. Again in 20+ years of photography, I can't say I've ever caught anything like this. 

In closing, I've only caught one other image over that time that confused me. This one cannot be attributed to light anomalies as it was taken in the middle of the day. In the first photo you see the building as photographed from the front. It had been abandoned a long time.

We'd been doing a modeling shoot inside of it. The inside was one hollow room with nothing but metal columns left within it. There was no one in the room except us and we'd been in there about 30 minutes with lights and equipment. 

When we left, I turned around and snapped one last shot of the opening we had just exited not 15 second before. The room was empty and the photo should have shown a black hole to the interior. But it didn't.

As you can see, there is something in the doorway now where a moment before there was nothing. I didn't see it when I snapped the image and it wasn't until I got home that I noticed it. Here is it enhanced. 

I thought at first that there was a homeless person in there, but I asked others on the crew which was composed of 7 people plus 4 models and everyone said the room was totally empty. There were no hiding places within it. 

Who knows what any of these things are. Perhaps just flights imagination. But they are curious nonetheless. Who know what may be that our weakened human eyes may never see. But the camera sometimes does.


I did a bit of research on light anomalies and camera refraction. I found very few examples of light phenomenon that were similar to what I photographed. Intriguingly though I found an image not of an orb but of a UFO that was a dead on match. This photo was taken in Norway and was seen by many people. The Russian government later claimed that the light was from a damaged missile test. But it is curious the similarities.

Again I am in way saying the anomaly in the second photo is a UFO. In fact even though I did not see the anomalies when I took the photo, I doubt that they were far enough away to be something very large. 

So I've decided to do some tests. I am curious enough that I would like to try and find a valid reason why light anomalies are captured. I dragged Billy out to Lafayette cemetery last night. Its claimed to be very haunted and even though it was closed up, I walked the whole perimeter and photographed periodically around it.  Here is a map of the cemetery. You can see that it forms a square. 

We started at the main gate walked the perimeter at about 3am. The walls are high so you can only see the tops of the tombs except at the gate points on each side. But I took shots all the way along each wall and each street from each direction to be thorough. I took a total of 83 photos, aiming towards the upper portions of the walls especially and attempting to get shots through the gates where I could. In some cases it was too dark to get much. But when I went through the images to my surprise I came up with four light anomalies. I've marked where each one was taken on the map below.

Now the first three can be explained as light anomalies from refraction. Here are the first three untouched images.

Anomaly #1

Anomaly #2

Anomaly #3
Its the fourth image that is perplexing. I sat the camera on a ledge and aimed it into the cemetery. I can assure that even though the anomaly is again orange, there was absolutely no orange light source in the vicinity of this photo. Yet the camera picked up two shapes just inside the gate.

If there had been an orange light source nearby I would question it as just light refraction also. But those tombs were in the dark. The only reason they are brightly lit is because there was a halogen street light about 100 yards up the street that cast a slight blue haze similar to a new car light does. The only other light source was the moon which was almost directly above and what is causing the sky to be so bright.

At this time I have no idea what might be causing it. But I am going to go back out tonight and rather than walk the whole perimeter again I am going to set up a tripod at this gate and take photos spaced over a 30 minute period, just to see what I get. I'll also take several from the same exact angle as the photo above to see if the same shapes show up again. If they do then I can write them off as a trick of light. 

A friend asked me today why I was even bothering with this. Part of it is because it would be helpful to know what causes certain effects in the camera. Part of it is just curiosity to see if I can come up with any conclusions. Lastly its because as a surrealist artist this knowledge may benefit future pieces of art. 

And then again I might just be a crackpot! 

UPDATE: 06-28-16

Most things can be explained if one only has the patience to research them carefully. In the above entry I showed the photo of the odd orange lights in front of the tombs. I returned to the same place at the same time the following night. But this time I brought a tripod with me and set it up to take the same shot as I'd taken the night before. To my surprise the orange lights were back again. But this time despite it being very dark, because the camera was steady I got a much more precise photo this time.

This image told me a lot. First it told me that the light anomaly I was seeing was the exact shape seen in the blurrier image. This instantly said to me that I was seeing a shadow of something and even though there was no orange light close, the camera was indeed seeing something that as much as I stared I could not see with the naked eye.

I took multiple images though from different angle and the problem that plagued me was that sometimes the light was there and sometimes it wasn't. For example the photo below was taken a moment after the image above and the light anomaly was no longer present.

Other photos at various angles did the same thing. My analysis of the photos taken included looking at a google map overview of the cemetery site and that's when we struck upon the answer. 

The green star is where the photos were taken. A half block away was a street light (red star). As dim as that light was each time it turned to red it was coming a half block across the cemetery to rest on those two tombs. The reason the light came and went was because the light was changing. Apparently the green was not bright enough to reflect also, so all we were seeing was the red. 

Mystery solved. 

What I've learned from this is never jump to conclusions and that the camera has the ability to see some pretty amazing things! 

I'm not done experimenting. I am relocating myself to a different cemetery next and see what I get there. Expect updates later.

UPDATE 07-24-16

We were out in the French Quarter just before dawn this morning to do a photo shoot of Bourbon street. We had some time before hand so did a little walking in the lower quarter and snapped a few images. Low and behold I caught another galactic orb. 

The interesting thing about these little buggers is that I can't seem to find any corresponding images of light refraction anywhere on the internet, yet there they are. I can't help but think its a peculiarity of my camera because going back over years of past images I've never encountered this except with this specific camera. And we are not talking a few photos. We are talking thousands of images taken over the past 15 years at night. So just what are we seeing here? 

I think an extended night trip to the French Quarter is in order soon.

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