When Ghosts Appear in Photographs: Historical Examples and Techniques for Photographing Them

In the mid-19th century, the first photograph of a ghost was documented. Since then, very few images have been seen that do not have a logical explanation. Let’s talk about ghost photography, discover the techniques to make them and the photographic tricks in case we do not believe in them. It is very easy to do them, the difficult thing is to demonstrate that it is authentic.

The magical, alchemical air of the first techniques, added to a few years (the Victorian era) in which death was also photographed, led to it becoming the perfect art to demonstrate the existence of ghosts.

It was fashionable during the second half of the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th century. It all started with the work of William H. Mumler in March 1861. And since then, thousands of phantasmagorical images circulate throughout the wide world. And very few stand up to scientific analysis.

A brief history of ghost photography

The first photograph that was advertised as the real image of a ghost was the result of chance or mistake, like all the great inventions of humanity. The aforementioned American photographer William H. Mumler made a double exposure, without realizing it, and realized the potential for deception that such a laboratory technique had.

We can see him himself, a jeweler about to change his job, and behind him the ghostly figure of his cousin. As they say in the Los Angeles Getty Museumwho own more than 30 photographs of the author, he himself wrote that he was aware of the error and that when the image fell into the hands of the spiritualism magazine ‘The Herald of progress’ everything changed.

The first photograph of a ghost William H. Mumler

This effect, plus the long exposure times, were well known. A photograph of one of the great masters of photography, Roger Fenton, in which the shadow of the caretaker of Prince Arthur, son of Queen Victoria, is preserved. In a manual that was published in 1856, the author of it says:

The first photograph in history can cease to be so at any moment: a look at the Niepce window

For the purpose of amusement, the photographer can even take us into the realms of the supernatural. His art … enables him to give a spiritual appearance to one or more of his figures, and display them as ‘rarefied air’ amidst the solid realities of the stereoscopic image. While a party is busy with their whist or gossip, a female figure with all the trappings of the supernatural appears in their midst. Her form is transparent, each object or person beyond her is seen in a shadowy but distinct outline.

Roger Fenton

The ‘ghost’ of Prince Arthur’s nanny, Roger Fenton

In another book on photographic techniques, written by Walter Woodbury in 1896, it is explained how to achieve the famous ‘ghost effect’:

It’s very easy to make pretty convincing ghost images… First we need to prepare our ‘ghost’ by dressing someone up in a white sheet. We then pose the model and ghost in the appropriate poses and give some of the required exposure. Then, leaving everything else as it is, we remove the ghost and complete the exposure. Developing the film, we find the model and background correctly exposed and only a fairly faint image of the ghost, with objects behind it showing through the double exposure.

But as we have seen, these techniques caught the attention of many swindlers who wanted to take advantage of the death lure of Victorian society. In the United States the Civil War was recent and many wanted to speak with those who had fallen in combat. Later, on the occasion of World War I, death invaded the world.

And many wanted to remember. In fact, spiritualist societies were founded that claimed they could contact the dead to receive messages. And they had very prestigious members, like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the writer of Sherlock Holmes, the famous detective.

In fact, the famous writer was deceived by the photographs they took of some girls with forest fairies, but this is another story that deserves to be told carefully. The technique to get them is exactly the same.

Conan Doyle

Some of the famous photographs of fairies that deceived Conan Doyle himself, author of the Sherlock Holmes character

William H. Mumler was the first and most famous of all ghost photographers. Over time, he came to be denounced for cheating on his clients, but it was never proven whether he was lying or not. It is suspected that his technique was nothing more than a previously exposed negative with the figure of the relative that he had found in his client’s house. As he destroyed the negatives of him at the end of his career, we will always have the doubt. Depends on how skeptical you are.

The ghost of Abraham Lincoln

The wife of Abraham Lincoln and the magician Houdini with the ghost of the assassinated president

As his fame waned after the trial that changed his life, Mary Todd Lincoln posed for him in 1871 and to everyone’s surprise, the ghost of the former president, who had died five years earlier, appeared. She died convinced that she had posed with her murdered husband in 1865. As a curious fact, the great magician Houdini replicated the photograph to prove the lie.

Since then we divide ourselves into believers and non-believers of everything we see. Throughout recent times disturbing images have appeared that technicians have been unable to explain. They haven’t detected any of the usual tricks.

The Brown Lady

One of the few unexplained ghost photographs

‘The Brown Lady’ is one of the most famous ever published. It is a direct photograph. There is not double exposure in the negative nor manipulation in the positive. The photograph is from 1936, and the story of this ghost has been circulating since 1835.

It may be a spot of light, or the superimposition of the image of a statue of the Virgin Mary. But it is one of the few and most elegant spectral images that we can find.

There is no image that really makes everyone believe the existence of ghosts. It is true that hundreds of videos circulate on the Internet, and that we can get to see them. But there is still nothing that invites us to believe at all.

A ghost, by social convention, has to be transparent, ethereal, and in most cases, hardly recognizable. For this reason it is easy to confuse him with a relative or imagine that is something we want to see with all our might. That’s why it works, so they always appear blurry, shaky or jittery.

Techniques for taking pictures of a ghost

I have never taken a picture of a ghost. Only once in my life have I seen one, and I’m not even sure. For this reason I cannot say how to photograph them. But yes I can count cHow to simulate a ghost with Adobe Photoshop.

As we have seen above, the techniques are known since the beginning of photography and with the help of Adobe Photoshop, since it allows you to work with layers, it is relatively easy.

With the help of Adobe Photoshop, we only need inspiration from silent movies, and above all from melies Y Second of Chomon, two great masters when it comes to creating ghosts. It can also be done with Davinci Resolve, as you can see here:

  • To take these photographs we only need the camera and a stable surface, or better yet a tripod.
  • We make two identical photographs. Only that our model characterized as a ghost must appear in one.
  • In Adobe Photoshop we open both photographs in the same file. The easiest thing is to open both, select one and use the classic Ctrl+A to select; Ctrl+C to copy and Ctrl+V to paste into the other photo.
Ghost with Adobe Photoshop

A simple way to make a ghost with Adobe Photoshop

  • For the image above, which should be the ghost, we just have to lower the Opacity.

The difficult job of the photo restorer: this is how a 90-year-old photograph is restored step by step

They have always been talked about and photography seemed destined to clarify doubts. But the mysterious photographs are still there and we can’t always reach an explanation in a simple way. Science tells us that they do not exist, but making them appear in a photo is up to us.

When Ghosts Appear in Photographs: Historical Examples and Techniques for Photographing Them