Sunday, January 27, 2008

One ghost, three Christmases.

When it comes to cameras, I’m a pack-rat. I still have the three Zenit-B cameras I bought many years ago. They’re in a box in the attic. They might even still work. A whole slew of lenses up there too. Nowadays I use a Canon EOS 10 (film version, not digital), two Praktica B-200’s and a Pentax P30n (for the gadget buffs out there). For digital, I have a Sony DSC-H5. There have been many others and they’re all still around somewhere. I'm not even going to start on the video cameras.

Recently I came across a Praktica MTL-3 that I haven’t used in years. There’s a film in it. I’ll have to get that finished and processed. It’s unlikely to have any great ghost photos because if I suspected I’d caught something I’d have had that film processed straight away. Most likely it’s all inconsequential crap but it’ll be interesting to see what I once thought worth photographing.

It set me wondering. Several friends of mine take a few photos here and there. They’d load a camera with a 36-exposure film, take a couple of shots at Christmas and then put the camera aside. When that film finally makes it to the developers, it’s not unusual to find Christmas at the start, a few summer shots, another Christmas, someone’s wedding and finally Christmas again. Now, with digital cameras, this doesn’t happen so often but it was very, very common with film. Especially if someone received a complex camera at Christmas, read the manual, tried it out and then lost the manual and had to figure it all out every time they picked the thing up. If you don’t use a camera all the time it’s easy to forget how to set it up. If I took out those Zenit-B cameras now, I’d have to relearn how to use them.

So it’s common to find rolls of film covering timespans of years.

So what? Well, consider some of the common ghost photos that make the rounds. The Brown Lady and the Freddy Jackson photos can be definitely placed in time, almost to the minute. Others can’t. I’m thinking particularly of the one with someone’s mother-in-law in the back seat of the car. Was that really taken a short while after she died, or could it have been a short while before? What was on the rest of the roll? I wonder, did it have three different Christmases on it?

When I get this old film developed, will I be able to place each photo to the day it was taken? I doubt it. It’s been in that camera for a few years now. If there’s a photo of someone who’s now dead, will I be able to say with certainty whether that photo was taken before or after they died? No. So I’d have to assume ‘before’.

One photo from a roll of film is like one line of text from a book. Out of context, it can mean whatever you want it to mean. You need to see the whole roll and use the other photos to estimate the date of the one you’re interested in.

That’s another argument against digital. Digital photos aren’t set in order on a physical medium. Files can be renamed. The date stamp means nothing since many people don’t bother to set the time and date on the camera, and date stamps can be altered anyway. The numbers on a roll of negatives can’t.

It’s important to be able to examine the whole roll of film. One photo might show a ghost if it can be demonstrated that the photo was taken after that person died, but it’s all too easy to forget how long ago a particular photo was taken. Especially if it comes from a film in a rarely-used camera.

Keep those ghost pictures, but remember to keep all of the photos and the negatives for that film. This is important anyway but it’s absolutely vital if your photographic activities extend to less than a roll of film a year.

If you use only digital, none of this will help in the slightest. Ghost photos on digital are just too easy to fake, and too easy to break as evidence.

Keep those film cameras going.

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