Slow Shutter speeds and paranormal photos

30th December 2019. Reading Time: 9 minutes Photography, General, Stuff paranormal investigators need to know. 3855 page views. 1 comments.

Do you have what you think is a blurry apparition in your photo? What about those coloured rods? It is a case of motion blur due to a slow shutter speed. What can you do to avoid motion blur on your photos? Here is why it happens in your photos and how to avoid it!

Most people that are investigating or attending ghost tours or even just at an alleged ‘haunted’ location just for kicks are probably doing it at night time. This however can cause all sorts of problems if you are planning on shooting photos. Do you find that when you are taking photos in the dark or low light without a flash your camera struggles to focus? Are a lot of your images blurry? This is because your camera is operating at what is called a slow shutter speed. This can cause problems when reviewing photos as people often mistake a blurry person for a potential 'apparition'. Having a basic understanding of shutter speed and how to avoid motion blur is really important to know if you are going to be taking photos as part of your paranormal investigation.

What is a shutter and why does it’s speed matter?

First let’s talk about actual cameras such as a DSLR which are all the rage now. Think of the shutter as a little curtain that sits in front of the lens of your camera. The curtain opens and closes and decides how much light you let into your shot. The longer the curtain is open, the more light it lets in. One can easily assume that when it is daytime for example and there is lots of light outside, the curtain doesn’t need to be open for long to let in enough light. If it is dark, the curtain will need to be opened longer so that there is enough light in the shot. This brings us to what we call ‘shutter speed’. This relates to the amount of time that the curtain is open. When it is open for a fraction of a second, it is considered to be very fast and takes a very fast snapshot of what is happening. A fast shutter speed is excellent for taking shots of fast moving objects like a car moving or a person running. Because it is only open for a fraction of a second, even though your object is moving, it will appear to be sharp and will not be blurry. A lot of people have their own opinions on what they consider to be a ‘safe’ shutter speed where things will not be blurry, however I am going to go by the speed taught to me in my photography course. This is 1/60. Anything slower than this, means that if the person you are taking a photo of moves slightly, the shutter is open long enough that they can come out looking blurry. Obviously the longer the shutter is open, the more likely it is for this to happen and the more noticeable the blur is. It is also recommended that if you take a photo using a shutter speed of 1/60 or slower, that you use a tripod, as the person taking the photo can cause what we call ‘camera shake’. You can also shake the tripod as well unless you have invested in a really expensive stable tripod so we go even further to say turn use a lens with an image stabiliser and use a remote to fire the shutter or a timer on the camera. This is the only way to be sure there is no camera shake (unless there is a perfectly timed earthquake but what are the chances?). In a nutshell if the camera is not completely still when the photo is taken, again your subject could end up on the blurry side.

One of the other 'side effects' of a long shutter, is that it can make your subject look 'see through' under the right conditions.

Photo by Sarah Living Life In Full Spectrum

By using a long shutter speed, I was able to create the illusion of a ghostly see through figure. It was achieved by keeping the shutter open for around a minute, and firing the flash twice. The end result was the above. (That is the same person with no photoshop used to crop them in). I was able to make them appear twice in the same photo just by keeping the shutter open. You don't need photoshop or a ghost app to create a 'ghostly' figure - something to remember when people send you those photos too good to be true!

What about smart phone cameras or regular digital cameras that don't have a mechanical shutter?

Smart phones are also a really popular tool for photos and almost everyone brings one to a location to snap a few shots. It brings a whole new complicated element to the table that can be difficult to understand as it doesn’t have a shutter as such. A phone camera doesn’t have moving parts like a DSLR has. The same applies for your regular cheap digital camera. They have an electronic image sensor instead. This image sensor activates for a certain amount of time, which determines how much light these sensors turn on for. It is the same concept as above, just works a little differently. If it is dark, the sensor will need to be activated longer so that there is enough light in the shot. Some phones and digital cameras do allow you to adjust the shutter speed, some you have to get apps for, but most people using a mobile phone, will not be adjusting their shutter speed (I know I sure don’t). You can get really technical if you want to, but you are probably already aware from personal experience, in low light, both phones and these digital cameras do not function well at all. They find it difficult to focus and sometimes it seems to take a couple of seconds for the phone to take the photo after you press the button. This means it is using a very slow shutter speed and the subject is usually pretty blurry (even though the flash will still fire if it is set to on or auto). The other problem with both mobile phones and digital cameras is that unless you hold them completely still, you will get the ‘camera shake’ element. How many times have you had to retake that selfie because it was blurry or someone in the shot has moved? Another thing that can happen is that there can be a build up on phone lenses. Front facing lenses are the worst for collecting oils from your skin or make up. Do you notice that you are cleaning your lens because things are coming up a bit blurry? Think about a combination of all of these things too. There is a lot to consider.

Converted digital cameras

A lot of paranormal investigators use modified digital cameras which have been converted to be able to see infrared light. It is achieved by quite simply removing a filter from in front of the lens. Now when you think of the fact that the digital cameras used here will be using an electronic sensor, with the flash disabled, the camera will struggle to focus and the shutter can be open for over a second due to the low light which is really long time. You will find that a lot of photos taken with these modified cameras, come up blurry. Because the light is low and the camera has been altered, it can be confusing when you come across some of the photos taken. Any slight movement starts looking like a blurry ghost. If someone not present was to review the photos not knowing where everyone was at the time, it would be very easy to think you may have caught an apparition. In reality though, it is likely someone has walked by or made a movement.

Perfect example of a 'blurry selfie'.  You can see the whole area behind me is also blurry causing the wallpaper to look like lines.  People often take photos like this and think that something 'paranormal' must be messing with the camera because their other shots are not blurry.  Unfortuantely it is just a case that you slightly moved when you took the photo.  Even just the motion of clicking the button to take the photo can make the camera or phone move enough to make a picture blurry.

The above is a photo that was taken during a public investigation at Black Rock House using a converted digital camera with an IR booster so that it can 'see in the dark'.  You can see that the lady sitting in the chair looks like there is a weird clear mist coming out of her hand.  Sometimes people interpret this to be paranormal.  In this case, she moved her hand as the photo was being taken.  As it was a regular digital camera, you cannot adjust the shutter speed.  This is something that happens quite commonly using these converted camera.  If a person moves a body part or even their whole body, it becomes blurry. 

Coloured Rods

One thing that is often mistaken as something paranormal is a long bright light that looks like a rod.  A lot of people mistakenly believe this is a spirit.  Again unfortuantely it is due to the slow shutter speed of the camera.  In the below example I took, I was using my DSLR camera and you can see there is a long red line which is actually coming from a piece of equipment sitting on the floor as we were sitting in a circle.  The long purple line is coming off the IR light.  I have moved the camera slightly upwards in the shot which is why you can see both lines appear as if they are travelling up.

Photo by Sarah Living Life In Full Spectrum

In this next example (which was taken on a samsung smartphone), sometimes people think that a light coming out of equipment is a sign that a spirit is trying to manipulate the equipment.  In this case my hand has moved and it is causing the red light from the mel meter to appear as a rod.  This technique can also be associated with 'painting with light' which I have also written about here:

How can I avoid motion blur?

  • Use a tripod! Ideally if you can use a remote as well, that will also eliminate any sort of camera shake.
  • Take at least 3 photos in a row one after another. It allows you to get an idea of what was happening and you will likely see if someone is moving in or out of your shot.
  • Video your investigations. If you capture something on film you want to review further, you can check the video to see where everyone was in the room at the time.
  • Take photos with the lights on! There is no rule that you have to investigate in the dark. In fact most claims happen in the middle of the day where people report seeing an apparition of some sort. You don't have to take your photos in the dark or using infrared lighting.
  • When reviewing photos someone has submitted to you, review the EXIF data and look at the shutter speed. If it is any slower than 1/60 and you are seeing a 'blurry apparition', it is most likely motion blur.

As you can see from the examples above, all cameras and smartphones are prone to motion blur.  What are you tips to avoid motion blur?

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  • Jenny 4 years ago

    Truly beneficial....looking forwards to visiting