Thursday, September 16, 2010

False-Positive Agents- Series

About the Author

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:

MSSPI recommends researchers to read Mr. Biddle's books and guides. His website is a good source for information. We use some of his information in our training of new members pertaining to field investigations and evidence review. Read his work and form your own opinions. We recommend his book "A Guide To Paranormal Investigations" Book one in the Investigation Series, Published by WHG-PIRA Productions, Levitown, PA.

False-Positive Agents- Series

By Ken Biddle, Founder of PIRA

When I first started the 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 remember being so excited to get my photos back after my first investigation to see if I had gotten an orb, an ecto, or even--dare I say--an apparition. When I looked at the photos, I didn't consider that they might actually be something other than what I believed them to be. I didn't want to hear anyone telling me that my pictures were of dust or a camera strap. What did people know? I was a ghost hunter, and I took these photos while 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 and have learned a lot since my first ghost hunt. I like to say that 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 is how the environment can play tricks on us, our cameras, and just about every piece of our equipment. I've learned, too, that I have to look and listen to my surroundings and avoid many of the things that would ruin the kind of work I do.

This series of articles will deal with all the things that will cause false-positive results. First things first though. 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. Other times it's painfully obvious to others that you have a reflection, instead of an apparition. This is why we need to really REALLY look at the evidence we get.

Now, there are many false-positive agents out there, as you'll see in these articles. Some of them you may already be aware of, while others may come as a surprise to even the seasoned investigators. So, read on. Learn, experience, and share.

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 types of reflections we're going to talk about here include these and many more we get in photographs. Keep in mind that since most of our investigations take place indoors or during the evening, the flash is almost 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 your camera as well as the lights on your video camera and night-vision equipment. (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, glossy painted surfaces, liquids, 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 investigators believe this better helps catch those slightly transparent energies, and the "bad" being that this gives you a very high probability of getting a flash reflected straight back at the camera lens.

Glass is probably the second worst reflective object (with dust being in the number one spot, which we'll get more into a little 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 can contain glass panes which can bounce the flash back at your camera, not to mention the windows, picture frames, and mirrors. 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 reflection will be the same shape as the surface reflected. Okay, that sounds a bit confusing, so let me give you an example. Let's say that you take a photograph with your camera aimed down a hallway that has a picture frame on a sidewall. While looking down the hall, all you can see of the picture frame is a rectangular sliver, due to your angle of view. This "sliver" shape is what the reflection on an opposite wall will look like. When looking at photos, you'll be able to match up the shapes. I suggest you experiment at home by following the example above.

Now if the surface is close enough, you may get an "apparition" in your photograph. This happens a lot in museums or historical buildings where 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! I often get e-mails from people 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 own 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. In some cases, I've been able to make out what type of watch the person was wearing!

The best advice I can give is: 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 (i.e., the flash will bounce off the polished brass bedposts and may cause a gold colored orb streaking across the photo, so it's better to cover them first!). By doing this, you'll keep the number of flash bulb false-positives down.

Camera Straps and the Vortex

My all-time favorite false-positive agent is the camera strap. There are so many photos of these plastered all over the net with captions like, "Genuine Vortex." 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. 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!

There is a theory called "many orbs following each other." It tries to explain a vortex as many orbs following each other in line. This 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. Most cameras straps are attached to the right side of the camera, since the shutter release is also located on that side. Once again, look at the majority of these "looping" vortexes and ask this question: What side does it come in out of? The answer will mostly be the right side.

Now, some of you are probably saying, "What about the ones that don't loop around, but go across the picture?" Keep in mind that most cameras have a lens opening about a quarter-inch wide. When something is only a few inches in front of it, it doesn't take much to reach from one end to the other. The majority of these photographs are also taken vertically (with the camera turned on its side), which allows the camera strap to fall down in front of the lens. 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 a member of the Paranormal Investigators & Research Association (taken by Bob R.), and the other was from another team. In both cases, the energy actually came in toward 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, since I was on scene to witness the event. Other than 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 believed that this vortex represents a doorway between our world and the world of the dead. The key word here is "column" because a column goes up and down, not from one side of the camera's lens and then 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 types of photos, pay attention to the scene. Some have a vortex that is between the camera and a doorway five feet away. When you compare the relative size of some of these vortexes to known objects in the photo, these things should be a good one to two feet wide. In reality, when you actually figure out the distance in many, you'll find that the "vortex" is only about an inch or two away from the lens.

Ectoplasmic Mist

Ectoplasmic mist is the smoky, mist-like substance sometimes photographed and caught on video during investigations. It is still an unexplainable phenomenon to us, but we try to explain it anyway! Many theories have been tossed around about dealing with what ecto really is and what it represents. That is not what we're going to deal with here. After all, this article it a part of the false-positive series. This time around, we'll look into the natural causes that can duplicate the image of an ectoplasmic mist.

When you look over protocols and procedures of many paranormal groups, 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, giving 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 no matter where we went. Time and again, cemetery after cemetery, she always got at least a dozen ectoplasmic mist photos. After some checking, we found out how this was happening. One night during another cemetery investigation, I photographed her walking around the middle of the cemetery--camera in one hand and a lit cigarette in the other. Every few feet, she was snapping another photograph. She never realized that she was creating her own ecto mist each shot.

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 or on video. It's just as bad when you're indoors. The smoke can linger for many minutes in a closed house, moving into hallways and other rooms. During any investigation, a smoker's place should be established for those with the "habit." If you're indoors, take it outside; if you're outdoors, go far away from any area that is being investigated. This is a simple but serious precaution to keep the skeptics off your back.

An experiment I performed a while back involved a cigarette, an incense stick, and my camera. When the cigarette and incense stick were lit, the smoke from both traveled well beyond what I thought they would. I took several photos from 13 feet away, and the smoke came up just as if I had been three feet away.

Another false-positive agent for the ectoplasmic mist 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. We've all seen this, and we've all played with this neat effect when we were kids (some of us still do!). This is bad for two reasons: One, when you snap a photo of teammates, the teammates may appear to have an ectoplasmic mist around them or just near them. Of course, this depends on how close you actually are to them. To be technical, it actually depends on how close the flash on your camera is to them. From a good distance, you'll barely be able to see your teammate. When you're pretty close to them, their frozen breath will be illuminated as well as they are. Surprisingly, some teams actually post pictures of ghost hunters, standing in the snow, with the caption, "Look at the ecto around his head." (No, I'm not making this up.)

The second "bad" reason is that 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 will freeze and float in front of the camera lens as you take a photo or two. A good idea to keep in mind is this: hold your breath for three to five seconds before taking a photograph in cold weather. This should give ample time for the air to clear and allow you to snap a picture free of frost breath. Remember that you don't have to be huffing and puffing or just breathing heavy. Any camera will pick this up, as will video cameras. So, when you're out on a chilly night, take a moment and breathe into the light of a flashlight. If you can see your breath, so can the camera.


I would take the chance in saying that 80 to 90 percent of orb photographs are of dust. This is 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 on a bright sunny day. Take a look at that sunbeam streaking through the window and hitting the floor a few feet away. What do you see in that beam of light? Dust. You'll see little, tiny particles of dust that are just floating every which way. They move at different speeds, float in crazy patterns (up and down like a roller coaster), and yes, they even change direction.

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 will light up the dust particle, actually bleaching it white. Poof! You've got an orb. Take note that during experiments, I'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 or basement 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 50 or so) faint, white orbs. Many photos will turn out completely covered in orbs. These are not paranormal at all--only dirt.

You may ask me this, "Why are the orbs transparent then?" Good question, and I have an answer and an experiment you can try at home. Dust particles are very small, so much so that humans normally don't see the particles all the time. (There are some passing between you and the screen or magazine you're reading right now!) However, the lens of the camera is small enough to pick up these particles when they're close enough AND with the use of the flash.

Okay, try this out. Take a pencil and hold it so the point is straight up (yes, you can use a pen too). Hold it out at about arm's length and look at the point, with one eye closed. Nothing special, right? Right. You can clearly see the pencil (or pen) point. No big deal. Now, focus on the wall that's across from you. What happened? The point got a little blurry. Ok, still no big deal. Now bring the pencil point (carefully) up to about an inch from your eye (still pointing straight up and focusing on the far wall with one eye). See the difference now? The point of the pencil in your vision has now become transparent and blurs out to the sides. When moving it side to side, you can actually see "through" it. That's because your iris is larger then the pencil point and also curved, allowing you to be able to see the background around the pencil point. The pencil point represents a dust particle, and your eye represents the camera lens. The difference is that the flash bleached the dust particle white.

My advice to you is this: When reviewing photos of orbs, make it a common practice to accept only those that have some type of reading to back it up. If you can get an EMF spike or temperature drop (of course, that can't be explained) to back up the moment you captured the image of an orb, then it can be acceptable. It doesn't mean it's definitely a genuine orb, but at least you have some scientific reading to help it along. Oh, and the color is also taken into account. White orbs can easily be duplicated by dust, but I've been unable to get other color to come up naturally.


Measurements are scientific, pictures are good, and video is better. But when it comes down to it, this investigator thinks that EVPs are just about 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. And since this is a series on false-positives, we'll be diving into some of these things!

The biggest cause of false-positive recordings that I've seen is that well-known habit of whispering. Although most organizations have rules against it, many amateur ghost hunters overlook this when investigating. Whispering happens. It's just a fact, and we sometimes don't realize it or are more often "sure" that the recorder won't pick us up. It can, it will, and it did happen. The best way to avoid causing a false EVP is to be aware of what you are doing. When you start recording, make sure to vocalize the rule. Tell everyone, "Okay, the recorder is going on. No whispering!" If someone does, make sure to note it, in a clear voice, on the tape. This rule also applies to noises from passing cars and trucks, airplanes, trains, or someone walking into the room. If you can hear it, you can be sure that the recorder did as well. Make note of it by stating in a clear voice exactly what you heard and what it was (i.e., a passing car). This will at least cut down on "mysterious" voices and noises.

When you use any type of analog recording device (cassette), I strongly recommend the use of a microphone. The internal gears and mechanisms of the recording device will cause static, white noise and some clicks and pops. Many amateur ghost hunters hear this and claim they have an EVP. Unfortunately, it's not. It's easy for the imagination to "pick up" words or noises in the replay. EVPs should be clear and understandable, without having to guess at what's being said.

Another possibility exists for false-positive EVP recording: radio waves. Radio wave interference has been a suggested false-positive 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 makes 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 to that specific question, then it can be used as an EVP.

It's amazing how much a recorder will pick up. Simply walking across the room above where a recording is taking place can turn up "mysterious" footsteps. A soft, quick intake of breath can be heard as a "sigh" when a tape is played back.

In closing, there are two points I've tried to make with this article. One, be aware of what's around you when conducting an investigation. LOOK, LISTEN, then LOOK AND LISTEN some more. Two, not every piece of evidence is genuine simply because you think or want it so. If you're part of a team or know those on a team, use them. I send my evidence out to other members in case they can pick up something I missed. It saves me time and embarrassment. Do yourself a favor and do the same!

Note* MSSPI provides articles and links for research and educational purposes only. We make no profit from the posting of these articles. MSSPI does not claim or deny the validity of the information contained in them. All opinions and statements are purely those of the author. We leave it up to you to decide for yourself the validity of the information provided.

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