Thursday, June 04, 2009

Do cameras lie?

The short answer is 'no'. Cameras record the image they are pointed at, to a degree dependent on the available light and the abilities of the camera. They don't add anything or hide anything. The camera cannot lie.

Film reacts to much the same range of light as the human eye, although it's also pretty good at recording ultraviolet light that we can't see. That's why adding UV filters is a good idea because high levels of UV can cause a 'haze' which makes the picture look foggy. Plus, if you ever bash the end of your camera, a cheap UV filter is a much easier loss to bear than an expensive lens. Film isn't good at picking up infrared unless you use specific infrared film and filters - it's tricky stuff to use.

Digital cameras see well into the infrared and ultraviolet, far beyond the range of wavelengths the human eye can pick up so your digital camera can spot something that's invisible to you. Look into the end of your TV remote and press a button. You don't see a thing. Look at it through a digital camera and you'll see the IR light - because the camera sees it and displays it on its screen, but the screen shows it as a bright spot, not in infrared, so you can see it.

Cameras can't lie but they do sometimes show things outside our normal range of vision. Those things might or might not be paranormal. A IR-reflective pattern on a wall might look like a face, you won't see it but your camera will. Or it could be a ghost. How to tell? Well, if you take the same photo in the same place another time, and the face is exactly the same, it's probably just a pattern on the wall.

There are reasons to be cautious when using infrared lighting, and illuminating such patterns is just one of them. As it stands, IR lights are very useful because digital cameras can't see when there's no light at all. They can see perfectly well with IR illumination. Or UV, which has exactly the same potential problems. Most use IR because it's cheap and easily available, and UV can damage skin with long exposures.

One enterprising researcher has come up with the idea of using UV in combination with blue light, so he can see too. Blue lights in line with the UV means he'll know where his UV lights are pointing and keep out of their way. It also lends a low-level illumination, not enough to interfere with an investigation but enough to see where you're pointing your cameras. Blue LEDs are a cheap and portable light source. Somewhere, I have a small battery-powered set of these I used once for Christmas lights.

The guy with the new light source has a ghost photo here. Bottom left of the picture, there's a face emerging from a white blob which is, I suspect, his UV light reflecting on a pillar. What's missing is a photo of the scene in normal light which would show if there's any formation that could cause such an image, but it looks pretty good as it stands. The white blob does spoil it since it means there's a concentrated UV spot which could result in odd reflections so I hope he tries again.

The other thing about light and cameras is that it affects autofocus. Especially with older video cameras or small-lens ones, lack of light means the autofocus can't 'home in' on anything so pictures go in and out of focus while the camera searches for an image. This shows up in this link (thanks to SW for the tip) and it spoils what might have been a very good piece of film. Something is moving in shot, could be a ghost, could be a reflection, could be anything but the reaction of those present mean it's not just visible in the camera this time. They all saw and reacted to it. If only the camera had been set to manual focus. Most can do that, even my old JVC tape cameras can do it, as can the more modern hard-disk ones.

One of the comments on that link says they should buy top-of-the-range equipment or they 'won't be taken seriously'. I tend towards the opposite view, I don't take gadget-fads seriously. Just because my camera cost more than yours, doesn't mean the ghosts will only want to be photographed on mine and will refuse to be seen on yours. The cost of the camera is irrelevant, to a degree. A phone camera will never get a great photo of anything, the lens is too tiny and well, crap, and the pixel-range too small.

With cameras, optics are the most important thing. You need a wide lens for low light. A little lens won't let enough in so no matter how many megapixels are behind it, it won't be able to see much. Older, bulkier video cameras tend to have wider lenses and in most cases, really good ones. They are also very cheap on eBay, and cheap is good when most outings risk getting all your equipment soaked by rain.

Illumination is important in night photography but it doesn't have to be visible light. Your digital camera will work in UV and IR too. Having some low-level visible lighting sounds like a good idea - even with a previous daytime visit to look for potholes and trip hazards, sometimes you forget where they are.

Your camera can only tell you what it sees but always keep in mind that what it sees and what you see are not always the same. Its range of vision, especially digital, is far greater than yours. Your camera only sees what's illuminated, and they are designed for normal use. Trying to film in the dark with no lights is not normal use. Switch off autofocus and practise doing it manually.

You don't need top of the range equipment. You need to be in the right place at the right time and be fully conversant with what your camera can and can't do. Don't buy more complex equipment. Learn to use what you have to the best of its ability. Buying something that's even harder to use isn't going to help at all, especially if you have to scroll through menus while all around you, the paranormal goes unrecorded.

In this subject, luck is far more important than money.

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