Fauxtography Part 3: Ectoplasm? I Ain’t Afraid of No Ghost

No signs of paranormal activity here…wait, do I see angels?!

Who caught a ghost? ME! Just call me a Ghost Hunter and be done with it. Seriously, I’ve been hoping to get an accidental fauxtography shot, and this turned out just perfect. But before I begin, I’m just going to stop here and say: Ray Parker, Jr. employed a double negative with the “I ain’t afraid of no ghost,”and it’s bothersome to me. Unless he really meant he was afraid of a ghost, then all is forgiven. He was right about bustin’ though; it really does make you feel good.

Now, back to my ghostly encounter. It was Christmas night. We just got home from Grandma Chanti’s house and were looking forward to playing in the freshly fallen snow. The girls were all very excited understandably, since we live in Texas and some years were don’t get anything but a light frost. I bundled each daughter up: two layers of pants, a long sleeve shirt, socks, boots, coats, hats, and gloves. We then ventured outside and started throwing snowballs and making snow angels.

I didn’t use my Rebel to take photos; it’s too cumbersome for this sort of fun. I grabbed the Sony Cyber-Shot (which was on loan from Grandma Chanti) because it is smaller, I can hold it in my hand with ease, snap away, and use the wrist strap so I don’t have to worry about dropping the darn thing. Being in almost complete darkness, I had to use my flash. The pictures aren’t the quality I usually hold my photography standards to, but I was capturing spontaneous moments and quality wasn’t really top priority.

Call a cryptozoologist! It’s a werewolf!

As I was perusing through the photos on my computer later that night, I spotted an anomaly (this photo is untouched by Photoshop and is in the original state that I photographed it):

Little did we know we had a ghostly visitor. Maybe the ghost of Christmas past. Or present. Or future.

How strange. Some sort of mysterious “smoke” or “cloud” was floating around Briar Rose. Mind you, it was not snowing anymore. Briar hadn’t thrown a big cloud of snow at me or anything. What could this be?

Well, it’s hard to say. Cursory glances through online photography websites don’t really hold the answer. It’s hard to Google “mysterious cloud in picture on a cold night”; you mostly get pictures of clouds. Eventually I happened upon a website that had a definition for what I caught: “Ectoplasm”. I know, kick-ass, right? We’re talking Ghostbuster stuff now.

“Ectoplasm”(the old school version) originally started with mediums.  The ectoplasm was said to appear when a spirit or ghost entered a medium’s body. The ectoplasm would be excreted through their mouth or nostril. This was said to be the way the spirit could communicate; the gauze-like substance allowed the spirit to take on some sort of physical existence that they could speak through. Researchers, desperate for a physical explanation of psychokinesis in séances, looked to ectoplasm as an explanation.

According to Wikipedia:

The psychical researcher Gustav Geley defined ectoplasm as being “very variable in appearance, being sometimes vaporous, sometimes a plastic paste, sometimes a bundle of fine threads, or a membrane with swellings or fringes, or a fine fabric-like tissue”. Arthur Conan Doyle described ectoplasm as “a viscous, gelatinous substance which appeared to differ from every known form of matter in that it could solidify and be used for material purposes”

Another shot from the night. Nothing suspicious here, except the lights of UFOs in the background.

Of course, ectoplasm was eventually proven to be a fraud, much to the chagrin of believers. The mediums were caught (it seems like they can never catch a break). They had been swallowing various sorts of cloths covered in substances such as potato starch and egg white, then throwing it up during séances, and calling it ectoplasm. As much as I hate these frauds, these mediums were hardcore and willing to go to extremes. I think their dedication to trick others is part of the reason so many are driven to believe it’s real. They find it hard to believe anyone would fake such a thing.

How did I get this ectoplasm to appear without using a flash? I explain below.

Well, that’s the end of our ectoplasm journey, right? Nah, this is the age of the internet; everything old is new again. Don’t think for one second that ectoplasm is dead and gone. Interestingly enough, during the celebrity that ectoplasm enjoyed, there were photographs produced of such occurrences. Looking back on these pictures now, we can spot the fakery within seconds and scoff at these measly attempts of ectoplasm creation. I mean, how could people fall for such chicanery?  Of course we have the luxury of hindsight and technology. Back in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s these photographs were created by photographers with a bit of purposeful trickery, but with the introduction of cameras that amateurs could use, a simple flash could create some strange images. That seems to be how we get most of the “ectoplasm” in our photos today. It’s actually a phenomenon that is having a sort of resurgence (examples claiming ectoplasm: here and here). I don’t want to call out any ghost hunting agencies personally, but there are plenty of websites that have photographic “evidence” that seems similar to what I photographed that cold December night.

When you use a flash in your photography, the light that is emitted from your camera flash bounces off objects, even objects that you may not perceive with the naked eye. You can get some strange, mysterious looking stuff in your photos when you use direct flash and when these types of photos are seen by a person that doesn’t understand how a flash works, you can get some ridiculous explanations. This is how much of the “ectoplasm” in photos is created, though I’m sure there are other accidental ways, and it can be done on purpose as I show below. In general photography, I avoid using direct flash as much as I can, otherwise you get deep dark shadowy outlines around your subjects and the subjects themselves are overexposed; you can also get a strange effect, like I did the night I took that snow photo.

When I saw the photo that I took of Briar surrounded by a “cloud”, I instantly knew there would be a paranormal explanation assigned to such a photograph. I mean, I myself, a photographer with a few years of experience under my belt, cannot with 100% certainty explain the photo I captured. My assumption (with about 99% certainty) is that I caught my breath in the photo. Since it was a point-and-shoot camera with a big screen, I didn’t need to hold it to my face to look through the viewfinder like I do with my DSLR. I had the camera out in front of me, probably about shoulder level or a bit lower. It was freezing, so of course when I exhaled, the water vapors from my breath condensed and formed a cloud. Or you can believe ghosts/ectoplasm seem to appear only when a flash is used.

Curious if my suspicion was correct, I set-up a photography experiment to try to recreate this ghostly effect the best I could and it pretty much came off without a hitch. Using the humidifier in my bedroom, I was able to capture the mist and replicate the effect that my breath produced that night. I did three versions:

Version 1. Shot in low light with no flash vs. with flash (done for a side-by-side comparison to show how the flash will light up things that seem invisible to the naked eye). I shot with an f-stop of about 4.0 in natural, low light to create a darker photo since most ghost photos tend to occur in darker settings.

Version 2. Shot using my portrait lens with the aperture set at 1.4, allowing light in to show the mist without using flash, mostly because I like the look it creates.

Version 3. Shot using just the humidifier mist in complete darkness with my flash (the one closest to recreating what happened Christmas night when I took the picture of Briar in the snow).

The “ectoplasm” in the new photos doesn’t look exactly the same as the “ectoplasm” did on Christmas, but it’s the same principle.

Version #1: As you can see, the humidifier mist (representing my breath the night that the Briar ectoplasm photo was taken) was not visible in the first picture, but appeared when I used my flash in the second picture because the light was reflected off the water vapor.
Another Version #1: Again, dark and natural light show no water vapor. Using the flash produced the desired ectoplasm/ghost effect I was going for.
Ecto fstop
Version #2: For the photo on the left, I had Jude sit closer to the humidifier. No direct flash was needed for these photos because I used my portrait lens and changed my settings to an f-stop of 1.4 and a shutter speed of 1/200. It allowed enough light in for me to capture the mist and made for a smooth look.
Version #3: This one is as close as I can get to recreating the effect in the original photo. Looks pretty ectoplasmic.

That is my guess about what happened that Christmas night when we were playing outside in the snow and taking photos. I think it’s a pretty decent explanation. I even did an experiment to help prove my point. But you don’t have to take my word for it…

Gigi Chickee

All photos are taken by me, Gigi Chickee, unless otherwise noted. Photography Correspondent here at Mad Art Lab. Wife to my gorgeous husband, Rob. Mother to my four girls. Proud Secular Homeschooler. Photographer when the occasion arises. Seamstress in training. Skeptic always. Follow me and my musings on Twitter: @gigichickee

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  1. I’ve got a part-time job leading ghost tours – and I’m upfront about my skepticism with the audience at the very beginning of each tour – and I of course get tons of people claiming ghost photos during the tour. One I remember specifically took a picture of me in front of a tombstone and loudly exclaimed about how many orbs were in the picture. She was, of course, using a flash AND IT WAS SNOWING.

  2. I love the way you think, Gigi! I was trying to photograph the mist from my humidifier a couple weeks ago. I didn’t get the effect I wanted, but I got a similar effect to yours… or maybe I have ghosts in my apartment!

  3. MarlowePI: How interesting. I think it’s pretty cool to have a skeptic leading ghost tours. Have you always been a skeptic or has your experience with the ghost tours led you to skepticism?

    Madfishmonger: I used to be a sort of a believer too, or should I say “a person who didn’t research outlandish claims and didn’t really care to think about them much”. Edumecation does a person good.

    Seelix: What a weird coincidence that you photographed your humidifier recently. What effect were you going for? And yes, I’d get an exorcist or ghost hunter in your apartment to check for ghosts. Just in case.

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