Understanding the basics of EXIF Data for reviewing paranormal photos

When reviewing photos, we are always telling people to look at the EXIF data because it is a valuable tool to understanding the conditions in which a photo was taken. I explain what the EXIF Data is, how to access it and what things you should be looking at when reviewing photos for 'paranormal evidence'.
Sarah Chumacero
12th January 2018.
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General, Stuff paranormal investigators need to know, Paranormal Investigation.
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We as a community are becoming pretty good at being able to debunk photos presented as ‘paranormal evidence’. If you want to learn more about some of the natural things that can be misinterpreted as paranormal and paranormal photography in general, here are some links to some articles I have written.

Digital Vs Film Photography, Which is Better?

Is it paranormal or is it just slow shutter speed?

Understanding the different causes of ORBS

The Dos and Don'ts of photography during paranormal investigation

Just because it's called ghosting doesn't make it paranormal

Why flash photography should not be used on paranormal investigations

Your full spectrum camera doesn't really see in the full spectrum

You will find in these articles and in pretty much any article written about photography, will make mention of something called ‘EXIF Data’ or Metadata. You can put a photo through a program to download this information easily which is great. But what do you with this information and what does it all mean? What are the things that you need to look for? Do you need to know what aperture is? I am going to walk you through all the information you need to know when it comes to EXIF Data in terms of analysing a photo for paranormal ‘evidence’.

What is EXIF Data?

EXIF Data stands for Exchangeable image file format. This is information which is embedded in the digital photo file which can tell you the kind of conditions that the photo was shot in such as the shutter speed, was the flash used as well as time and date settings (provided they are correctly programed into your camera). Some devices can even pin point the geo tag showing the GPS location where the photo was taken. Any sort of digital photo file taken with a digital camera, smart phone or even scanned in by a scanner, will have this information saved within it’s settings. The file formats it attaches to are JPEG, TIFF & RAW. If shooting in RAW mode on DSLR, it may have a file extension specific to the camera brand but in the majority of cases, you will be working with a JPEG file. It is also worth noting that if this information is missing from a file, it means that it has been edited and it is not the original file that you have been given to review. Plain and simple if a photo has been edited, there is no point wasting your time. You should only be reviewing the original file when it comes to determining if it is something 'paranormal'. Ask yourself, if a file has been brightened, de-hazed, enlarged and of course decorated with a red circle to show you where you should be looking, is the evidence really so ground breaking? The first rule of reviewing photos is that if it is not the original file, move on.

How to access the information

There are several ways to access this information and a lot of it depends on what software you use to upload your photos to your computer and what operating system you are using. A simple way on a Windows machine is to right click on your JPEG image and click on properties and goto summary. On an OSX machine, select the file that you want and goto file, Get Info. There are several different ways to access the information through different photo programs as well. If you don’t know how to do it, goto the HELP section in the application and search for how to view EXIF data or Metadata. But what about if someone has sent you a photo to review or uploaded a photo to Facebook and asked for an opinion which will be the most common scenario for review in which you will need to look at this data? If the image is in it’s original form, you will be able to put a link to this image and upload it to an EXIF Data viewer program and it will be able to give you all of this information. A great free program you can access this information is exifdata.com/

What does all of this information mean?

Here is a photo of typical EXIF data. While someone who knows a bit about photography can easily interpret this information, some of you may be thinking what do all these funny names mean and are they relevant to me? You really don’t need to worry so much about things like aperture and focal length when you are analysing a photo for paranormal reasons as they are not relevant in this case. What do you need to look for?

I have highlighted the key things you should be looking for in RED.

Make & Model: This is more to validate the conditions in which the person submitting the photo is telling the truth. If they told you they took it on their mum’s camera and it tells you that it was really taken with a smart phone, you know straight away they are lying. If they are lying about that, what else are they potentially lying about?

DateTime Original, CreateDate & Modify Date: You basically want to make sure that the creation date is the same as the modify date. If the modify date is different, it means that the photo has been manipulated in some way. The dates can also match up with the person’s story. It is worth noting however that on a digital camera, if they have not programed the date and time it will be incorrect anyway so don’t read too much into this.

ISO: A lot of people don’t really consider this when looking at photos but it is one that I feel is important. ISO is basically the camera’s sensitivity to light. Even though this is usually set to automatic, on DSLR cameras and by using a smart phone app, you can change the ISO settings. Basically it can allow you to shoot in low light without using a flash. The higher the ISO number, the more light it has let in. What happens when you shoot with higher ISO? The picture ends up with a lot of noise and appears grainy. It is in these conditions that pareidolia is more likely to occur. If someone is saying they see a face in a in doorway and the ISO of the picture is high (anything over around 400 and you will start to see digital noise). So if you see a photo and the ISO is 3200, the grain is caused by the lighting and the faces you are seeing in this grain is simply pareidolia. The lower the number, the clearer the photo will be and the less chance there is that the grain will cause pareidolia.

Shutter Speed: We know that the shutter speed is how long the shutter is open during a shot and it works in conjunction with the ISO but we won't get too technical here. What you need to know is,the longer the shutter is open, the more opportunity there is for motion blur to occur. A safe shutterspeed for someone holding a phone or camera is considered to be 1/60. Anything slower than this (such as 1/30, 1/15 and so on) means motion blur is quite possible and the blurry image you can see on the photo is probably just a person or object that is blurry because they or the person holding the camera has moved.

Flash: This one is pretty simple. It will tell you if the flash was used or not. We know how the flash can bounce off objects to cause orbs etc. Quite simply, if the flash was used and you see orbs in the picture, it is debunked. People will often swear the flash did not go off, but the EXIF data says otherwise.

So these are the very simple things that you need to look out for when reviewing the EXIF Data. Remember, photographs are very unreliable for a number of reasons. They can be easily manipulated by a person or natural causes. By arming yourself with this knowledge, you make the process a little bit easier. Remember the EXIF doesn't lie, people do.

What are your tips for analysing photos?

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