Spectral forms in the dark at Dowth and unintended photographic ghosts

Spectral forms in the dark at Dowth and unintended photographic ghosts

This is a blog post with a difference. It is about some very strange artifacts or spectral images captured during a late twilight photoshoot at the Stone of the Seven Suns at Dowth here in the Boyne Valley.

I have been capturing twilight and nighttime images of the great Brú na Bóinne monuments for over two decades. I first used the 'painting with light' technique in 1999, right here at this very stone, Kerb 51 at Dowth, known as the Stone of the Seven Suns.

At this stage, I should be experienced enough to know how to capture images of huge stones with their megalithic art with some expertise. Apparently not!

Here is the sort of image I was hoping for:

Dowth Seven Suns stone self portrait

I should have known it was a bad idea to put myself into the photograph! I mean, who wants to see the stupid photographer with his cheesy grin in a photo with beautifully preserved megalithic art that is over 5,000 years old?

Lighting stones in such a way as to highlight the megalithic art is a skill and an art. And from the results I captured that night, I think it is obvious that I don't always get it right. In the following image, strange things appeared when I imported it to my computer after coming home from Dowth, I appeared to capture something rather odd. Spooky even:

Dowth Seven Suns mystery

You can see (clearly, I hope) that this is a photo of the Stone of the Seven Suns with mise (Irish for me, otherwise known as 'the photographer') in it. All good, except that there are some mysterious wisps and tendrils of light above the stone and above and to the right of the photographer.

Perhaps the lens was dirty? I checked out a second photo, which is here:

Spectral forms in the twilight at Dowth

More streaks and wisps and tendrils of light. What is going on? Had I encountered the spirits of the ancestors while taking pictures in the deepening twilight at one of my favourite ancient monuments?

Well, the short answer is no. It transpires that what we have here is a classic case of 'operator error' or 'human error' to put it blankly. I call it DPS - Dopey Photographer Syndrome.

I zoomed in on the spectral forms on the computer to try to ascertain what they might be. I shouldn't have been surprised with what I found. Below is a crop of the first image:

A face in the darkness at Dowth

I can see a face. Can you see a face? Yes, there's definitely a face. Wow. Spooky. Except it looks like my face. How could it be me? How about a zoom/crop of the second image?

A face in the dark at the Seven Suns stone, Dowth

Same thing. It's a face. And it looks like it might be my face.

The simple (or perhaps convoluted) answer is that it is my face. And here's how it happened. I was using a torch to illuminate the megalithic art on the Seven Suns stone. Off-camera flash can sometimes be too harsh, and not directional enough, for this kind of photograph. So using a torch to carefully illuminate each emblem on the stone can be much more successful.

But you have to be careful about how you shine the torch, and not to allow its light to rest in one place for too long, because what happens is that the brighter areas get 'burnt out' - in other words, the sensitive sensor of the camera takes in too much light and the resulting area loses detail and gets washed out.

In order to create the perfect photograph, a lot of trial and error is required. You find that sometimes there is too much light and sometimes too little. You have to move all the time, because if you stand still for a moment you will appear in the photograph as a ghostly form.

Consider the below photograph as the perfect example of how to do it right. This picture of the kerb stones on the southern perimeter of the great mound of Knowth (sister site of Dowth and Newgrange) is in fact a montage or blended image of two separate photographs, in each of which I walked along shining a torch on the stones but taking care to make sure the torch was hidden from the camera at all times. (This photograph is featured in the 2023 Mythical Ireland calendar).

Knowth kerb stones illuminated at night

As you can see, my illumination of the kerb stones with the torch was spot on - there is no area that is much brighter, and I do not appear in the photograph because I was moving constantly.

The reason my face appears in spectral form in the Dowth photographs is simple. When I had completed the lighting of the megalithic art with the torch - which was successfully concealed from the camera - I turned around and faced the camera before the exposure was finished. And guess what? I was illuminated by those two lights which I had placed on the ground to uplight the stone.

It turns out I uplit myself! The error here was to place the torches on the ground, because as I moved along lighting the stone, they were illuminating my clothes, and (when I turned around at the end) my face. 

Unfortunately, I did not see this error on the back of the camera at the location, because the photographs were slightly underexposed to prevent burn-out of the brighter areas. It was only when I brightened them up on the computer that I saw the artifacts or ghostly figures.

The result is that I will have to go back to Dowth to repeat the experiment, this time without capturing my own stupid face in the images. The photo below was a successful capture from that evening, and the main reason for success is that I am not in the photo - either in person or in wispy, vague, lustrous, translucent form.

The Stone of the Seven Suns, Dowth

I hope you like this image, and that you enjoyed this blog post. Please feel free to leave a comment below, and do check out the photographic prints and other products in our online shop. You can see some of those if you scroll further down this page.


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What a delightful story Anthony! It’s interesting how light can play when we are photographing, bringing about odd and unusual effects in the end product. Thank you for sharing. By the way, the photos are fairly stunning!

Susan Isabella Sheehan

Fascinating, Anthony! Many thanks for the photographs and for the explanation. The ‘successful’ capture is stunning as is the gorgeous photograph for April in the 2023 calendar. I also really like the spooky ones. Such fun. Perhaps you might add a spooky Hallowe’en photo in your 2024 calendar.

Anne McCallum

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