Fortean Photography: A Beginner's Guide to Spotting Hoaxed Photographs


This post was originally published by the Singular Fortean Society.

In this series, we’ve discussed how certain technical aspects of capturing an image can make mundane subject matter appear supernatural. We have not, however, examined how many photographs can be manipulated via software such as Photoshop to create a hoax image.

I will preface this blog by saying that I have manipulated images in the past to appear supernatural; however, I did this as artwork to accompany our articles and blogs, and have always disclosed that the image is, in fact, a photomanipulation. There are many people out there who manipulate imagery for similar reasons, and the good ones will always tell you. Unfortunately, there are some people who want to make a false claim for whatever reason, and try to convince people that a faked photograph is authentic. Hopefully, after reading this you’ll be just a little harder to fool.

There are many ways you can examine an image for photomanipulation, and I feel it is best to be thorough. For today’s analysis, let’s look at this image I created for a feature on the Orpheum Theater in Madison.  The manipulated image shows a ghost woman leaving the theater.

Check the Metadata: This should always be the first step, and many hoaxes can be determined through checking the metadata. All digital images contain information such as resolution, lens focal length, and the camera used. I pulled this file off of our website for today as the working file would have contained such info as camera data and photoshop history. As a casual internet browser wishing to check a photograph’s authenticity, you would do the same. In Photoshop I followed the path File>Info, and, sure enough, there is no information under the camera info. This is a sign the image has likely been edited.


Now, it is smart to keep in mind that occasionally websites such as Facebook will compress any image uploaded, and therefore wipe any metadata available; even to unedited, authentic photographs. Nevertheless, it is always good to take this step.

Check the physical photograph for pixelation and obvious tool marks: This is where things get more complicated and tricky, especially as Photoshop is a program with nearly endless methods for photo editing. For starters, modifying a photograph digitally will cause distortion. This can happen through coloring and pixelation. Distortion will be less noticeable in a higher quality image, but if you zoom in closely you will be able to see imperfections.

As an example, I had to photoshop the marquee of the Orpheum to carry the title of our feature. The sign originally promoted something else, so I used the stamp tool to clone areas of the sign in places where their text was, thus making the marquee blank in order to type our title into the image. As you can see, there are areas of distorted pixelation and inaccurate cloning that I have circled while zoomed in. Photographers use the stamp tool a lot with touching up complexions and imperfections. Any repeated, odd haloing usually also shows use of the clone tool.


You really have to zoom in to see any distortion with the ghost woman. I cut out her image with the magnetic lasso tool from another photograph and pasted it onto the image of the Orpheum. I applied several different effects to give her that ghostly look, but as you can see in the second image, there are eraser marks and slight cut lines where I took her from her original background. In lower resolution images, there will usually be a lot of pixelation and anti-aliasing around a cut-out object.

Search shadows and reflections: Now, in the image i created, I did not try to make it look as though the girl was reflecting in the window. We don’t know if ghosts would truly cast a reflection as they are such mysterious beings. Having an understanding of light, shadows, and reflections will help us analyze hoaxed imagery. For example, shadows and reflections occur opposite of where the light source is. Pay attention to the shadows and reflections in the surrounding environment. Do the shadows and reflections cast by the subject in question match that of the actual scene? Telltale signs are shadows pointing in different directions, where the creator of the manipulation was not paying attention to the reality captured in the image.

When it comes to my image, regardless of whether or not I had decided that my ghost cast shadows or reflections--it was a cloudy day where the light is diffused and shadows and reflections are subtle. In these scenarios, it is important to examine these extra closely.

For more information on deciphering questionably false images, please visit this site.

Next month, my hope is to find a fortean image and examine it using these techniques. In October, I will teach a tutorial, in collaboration with Madison Ghost Walks, on making your own Photoshop ghosts in order to better understand the tools in Photoshop used to create false images. Oftentimes, it is easier to study these photographs having familiarity with the tools. We are not teaching this tutorial to encourage hoaxers, of course, so please don't be a jerk.  You should always use Photoshop responsibly.

Unusually Yours,

~The Girl in the Unicorn Pajamas

Emily Wayland