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July 19, 2004

False Positive Agents

By Kenneth Biddle

When I first started this hobby of ghost hunting, I knew very little about what I was doing or what I was looking for. This is definitely a "learn-as-you-go" kind of hobby. I was so excited to get my photos back after my first investigation so I could see if I had gotten an orb, an ecto, or even (dare I say) -- an apparition! I was so excited that when I looked at the photos, I didn't even consider that they might actually be a false-positive. I didn't want to hear anyone telling me that my pictures were dust or a camera strap. What did they know? I was a ghost hunter and I took these photos on a ghost hunt! They must be real and that was that! Well, I was wrong. I've been investigating and researching paranormal activity for several years now, and I've learned a lot since my first ghost hunt. I have a lot of experience and experimentation under my $7.99 leather belt. The so-called "experts" who told me my photos were false-positives... were right. What I have learned about is how the environment can play tricks on us, our cameras and just about every piece of our equipment. I've learned to look and listen to my surroundings and avoid many of the things that would ruin our work.

This article will deal with all the things we've found that will cause us to get false-positive results. First things first, let me explain just what a false-positive is. False-Positive is a term used by investigators to describe any photo, video, audio recording, or technical reading that appears to be of a paranormal origin, but is in fact caused by a natural occurrence. Sometimes it takes a lot of poking around to realize that a piece of evidence is actually a false-positive. Now, there are many false-positive agents out there, as you'll see in these articles.

Reflections of the Camera Flash
When most people think of reflections, they think of seeing themselves in a mirror or catching a glimpse of themselves in a window. The type of reflection we're going to talk about here include these and the many more we get in photographs. Since most of our investigations take pace indoors or during the evening, the flash is always used.

What can cause a reflection to be caught on film? Your first thoughts are probably going to be of mirrors, glass windows and picture frames. Well, that's just the beginning. You really need to look around at the surroundings you're filming. If you can see yourself in it, it will reflect the flash on you camera, as well as the lights on your video camera and night-vision. This includes infrared light.

Let's look at some of the things you'll find with reflective qualities that may cause false-positive results. Dust, brass, chrome, marble, china, silverware, high-polished wood surfaces, crystal, jewelry, glossy headstones, many light fixtures and glass in windows, picture frames, entertainment centers and display cases.

The reflective surface is only part of the problem. Most point-and-shoot cameras in use today have the flash positioned just above the lens. This is both good and bad. The good being that many believe this better helps catch those slightly transparent energies. The bad is that this gives you a high probability of getting a flash reflected straight back at the camera lens. Glass is probably the second worst reflective object, with dust being the worst (we'll get into dust later on). In a residence or any indoor investigation, glass seems to be everywhere. The television set, the entertainment center, coffee tables and some shelving all can contain glass panes which can bounce the flash back at your camera. When the flash hits a reflective surface head-on, it will appear as a bright star. If the flash bounces off one surface and goes onto a wall, the light will be the same shape as the surface reflected. That sounds a bit confusing so let me give you an example. If you take a picture down a hallway and all you can see of a picture frame is a rectangular sliver. This is what the reflection on an opposite wall will look like. When looking at photos, you'll be able to match up the shapes.

Now, if the surface is close enough, you'll get an "apparition" in your photograph. This happens a lot in museums or historical buildings when so many rooms are behind glass. People get right up on the glass and snap a picture. Boom -- they just got an apparition of themselves. Usually what I get is someone sending me a picture with the caption "I took this photo and it shows a face with a very bright orb!" This would be their reflection and the reflection of the flash. In some photos, the room is bright enough that an automatic flash will not go off. That's when the "apparition" looks better, but it's still the photographer's image.

The best advice I can give is to be aware. Look, and I mean really LOOK at what you're about to photograph. Make a note of the reflective surfaces and understand what might happen (The flash will bounce off the brass bedposts and may cause a gold colored orb streaking across the photo -- better cover them first!). By doing this, you'll keep the number of flash bulb false-positives down.

Camera Straps
My all time favorite F/P agent is the camera strap. There are so many photos of these plastered all over the net with captions like "Genuine Vortex," that it really bugs me to no end. Many ghost hunters just starting out find these types of photographs while going through old pictures. They see a white streak and immediately think they have a vortex. Now, stay with me here, because these newbies have jumped full force into ghost hunting, many of them believe that they've never had a strap on their camera. Viola and Presto, you have the ingredients for a camera strap vortex. Let me tell you, when you can see the braiding of the strap, it ain't no vortex!

The "many orbs following each other" theory is severely flawed as well. Take a look at most of these vortex/straps. Make sure to notice how many of these usually enter and exit the same side of the photo, always looping around. Now, some of you out there are probably saying "what about the ones that don't loop around, but go across the picture?" Well, they still show the same thing. They show a braided strap that gets bleached out by the camera flash. Usually, the camera strap is connected to the same side as the shutter release.

I have only seen two photos that show what looks like a genuine vortex of energy. One was by one of our own members, Bob R. The other was from another team. In both cases, the energy actually came in towards the lens of the camera, ruling out a bleached strap. With Bob's photo, I know for sure there was no strap attached to his camera. Other then those two, I have yet to see another convincing vortex photo.

A vortex is a column of energy, usually running through several floors of a house or building. It is believe that this vortex represents a doorway between our world and the world of the dead. The key word here is "column", for a column goes up and down, not from one side of the camera's lens, looping around and going back to the same point. We need to keep this in mind when viewing these types of photographs.

Another point to remember is distance. When viewing these photos, pay attention to the scene. Some have a vortex that is between the camera and a doorway 5 feet away. When you compare the relative size of some of these vortexes to known objects, these things should be a good 1 to 2 feet wide. I doubt it, they appears large due to the strap being an inch or so away from the camera lens.

Ectoplasmic Mist
Ectoplasmic mist -- the smoky, mist-like substance that is sometimes photographed and caught on video during investigations. It is still as yet an unexplainable phenomena to us. Many theories have been tossed about dealing with what this Ecto really is and represents, but that is not what we're going to deal with here. This article will look into the natural causes that can duplicate the images of an Ectoplasmic Mist.

When you look over protocols and procedures of the many groups out there, you'll always find the rule that states-No Smoking is permitted during an Investigation. Have you ever wondered why? Well, just in case you have, here's the answer. The smoke from any cigarette or cigar can and will make its way in front of the lens and give you a false-positive image of an ecto. I had the unfortunate experience of working with an individual who always seemed to get dozens of ecto photos. We found out why one night when I photographed her walking around the middle of a cemetery-camera in one hand and a lit cigarette in the other.

The white smoke just does not dissipate in a few seconds. It lingers on in the air for a while. If you're anywhere near a smoker, there's a good chance you'll catch some in your photographs on video. It's just as bad when indoors. The smoke can linger for many minutes in a closed house, moving into hallways and other rooms. During any investigation, a smokers place should be established for those with the "habit." If you're indoors -- take it outside, if you're outdoors- go well off away from any area that is being investigated. This is a simple but serious precaution to keep the skeptics off your back.

Another F/P agent happens to be your own breath. Yes, during the colder months of the year, your breath freezes as soon as it passes your lips. The colder it is, the longer it lasts. This is bad for two reasons; 1- when you snap a photo of a teammate, they may appear to have an ectoplasmic mist around them or just near them. 2- While you're taking a picture, the camera is usually held up to your face, so you can see through the viewfinder (or just in front of your face when using a LCD screen). Most of you don't think about holding your breath, which when frozen, will float in front of the camera lens. Both of these examples have people who are breathing normally, allowing the "frost breath" to float around. Any camera will pick this up, as will video cameras.

I would take the chance in saying that 80 percent of orb photographs are of dust. Why? Because dust is always in the air and most of the photos you see are by amateur ghost hunters or people who aren't even looking for spirits! If you're not actively looking for ghosts, then you're not following any protocols or precautions that experienced investigators do.

I mentioned that dust is everywhere. Think that's a little overdoing it? Well, take a seat in any room of your residence in a bright sunny day. Take a look at that sunbeam streaking through the window. What do you see in that beam of light? Dust. There are particles of dust that are just floating every which way at different speeds. These little particles will get in front of the lens of your camera. Being so small, they are "blurred," like when something gets too close to your eyes. The flash of the camera light up the dust, actually bleaching it white...poof, you've got an orb. Take note that during experiments, we've found that most white colored orbs were attributed to dust. We have yet to duplicate the orbs of various other colors...such as yellow, red and blue.

Being outside is not nearly as bad as being indoors. Walking around an old cellar will kick up tons of dust, causing a picture with "multiple" orbs. Brushing your hand on a doorknob or railing will do likewise. These photos are the types that contain many (about fifty or so) faint, white orbs. These are not paranormal at all, only dirt.

Electronic Voice Phenomena
Measurements are scientific, pictures are good, video is better, but when it comes down to it, this investigator thinks that EVPs are the neatest form of evidence we can get. But, as with all of our evidence, there are natural things that can cause us to record false-positives.

The biggest cause of false-positive recordings, that I've seen, is that of whispering. Although most organizations have rules against it, many amateur ghost hunters overlook this when investigating. Whispering happens and we sometimes don't realize it or, more often, are "sure" that the recorder won't pick us up. Guess will and it did. The best way to avoid this is to be aware of it. When you start recording, make sure to vocalize the rule. Tell everyone "Ok, the recorder is going on, NO whispering!" If someone does, make sure to note it, in a clear voice, on the tape. This also covers noises from passing cars and trucks, airplanes, trains or someone walking into the room. This will at least cut down on "mysterious" voices. Another possibility exists for false-positive EVP waves. Radio wave interference has been a suggested F/P agent by many skeptics and investigators alike. The possibility does indeed exist. I say this because I've experienced answering machines that have picked up cordless telephone conversations, clock radios that have picked up CB communications and even a TV that picked up a radio broadcast. I know many of you can relate. So, even though our tape recorders, micro-cassette recorders and digital recorders were not meant to receive radio waves, being an audio device make them subject to scrutiny. When conducting any kind of recordings, be sure to ask specific questions that will have specific, short answers. Usually any EVPs that we get are just a few words anyway, so keep them that way. When the answer to your question comes just after you ask and it is an answer (as has to do with your question) then it can be used as an EVP.

Kenneth Biddle is the Founder of the Paranormal Investigators & Research Association (PIRA) and The Explorers Club (TEC). He has also co-founded the United States Paranormal Alliance. Ken is a member of the Bucks County and Montgomery County Historical Societies. His Web site is:

2014 Haunted New England Wall Calendar by Jeff Belanger photography by Frank Grace
Check out the 2014 Haunted New England wall calendar by Jeff Belanger and photography by Frank Grace!

Paranormal Conferences and Lectures
Don't miss the following events and lectures:

Jeff Belanger and “The Bridgewater Triangle” at Dedham Community Theatre - April 6, 2014 9:00PM

The Spirits of the Mark Twain House - Hartford, Connecticut - April 12, 2014

Paracon Australia - East Maitland, New South Wales, Australia - May 10-12, 2014