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THE ANALYSIS AND EVALUATION OF UFO PHOTOGRAPHS.

By Mark Easen - BUFORA Investigations Coordinator and Photographic Analyst.

                                                                                           

The opinions expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of BUFORA.

Introduction

As its name suggests, one of the principle aims and objectives of the British UFO Research Association (BUFORA) is to conduct unbiased scientific research and investigation into the Unidentified Flying Object enigma and related anomalies.

BUFORA often receives photographs and videos sent in by members of the public who believe they may have captured an image of a UFO on film and would like us to evaluate the pictures and subsequently offer our (hopefully) informed opinions as to what it may be that has actually been recorded. I would like to share with you in this article some examples of the types of photographs which come into us, and also some of the factors that are taken into consideration during our assessment and evaluation process.

Definition of the term “UFO”

I think it is worth making it clear that although UFOs undoubtedly do exist, the term UFO literally means “Unidentified Flying Object”. It does not automatically mean “Extraterrestrial Spacecraft” (although there is a popular misconception that it does) - it simply means an aerial object which has not yet been adequately identified.

It is generally accepted by researchers and investigators that around 95 to 98 percent of all UFO reports and photographs can be found to have a perfectly conventional explanation, and that following scrutiny by trained investigators, a definitive, probable or at least a possible identification can, in most cases, be offered.

Thus the vast majority of pictures or videos initially considered to be UFOs by the originator then become “Identified Flying Objects” (IFOs).

The very small percentage of those remaining Unidentified Flying Object sightings and cases for which a conventional explanation cannot be found, then become referred to as “True UFOs,” for which there is no explanation at this time.

Whilst it is very likely that secret ‘Black Budget’ military aircraft account for a good proportion of these; by virtue of the unexplainable nature of the flight characteristics attributed to a small remainder of these true UFOs, together with other corroborating evidence dating back to the late 1940’s and even further, an “Extraterrestrial Hypothesis” (ETH) has been proposed by various investigators and researchers to account for some of those otherwise unexplainable cases. However no concrete formal evidence or definitive proof has yet been provided or has come to light to prove this hypothesis beyond any shadow of doubt, only much rumour and speculation surrounding various cases from around the world.

List of objects which may be Identifiable

The list of conventional objects which may be captured on film and misidentified as a UFO or sometimes even not positively identified at all is almost endless but I will attempt to list the main items in the categories below:

Astronomical objects: including bright stars, planets, the moon, comets, meteors, re-entering man made space craft and space debris, artificial satellites, the International Space Station.

Aircraft: private, commercial and military aircraft, jet contrails, helicopters, gliders, advertising aircraft, aircraft landing and navigation lights, missile and rocket launches, military drones and UAVs, radio controlled models (powered or gliders), parachutes.

Balloons: weather and research balloons, party balloons, advertising airships and blimps.

Other atmospheric or environmental objects: including birds, insects, falling leaves or other objects, flying debris, dust devils, clouds, (particularly lenticular clouds), auroral phenomena, ball or rod lightening, earth lights, plasma discharges, mirages and reflections, sun dogs, elevated car headlights and streetlamps, lighthouses and beacons, kites, flares, fireworks, lasers and  searchlights. During the last two years Sky Lanterns have become a major culprit for sighting/ photographic  reports  and comprise approximately sixty per cent of all  reports to BUFORA.

Equipment malfunction: effects due to dust or dirt on or in the camera lens, lens flare, processing and post processing negative or image contamination, double exposure.

Hoaxes: such as using cut-out pictures, models suspended on string, Frisbee like items thrown, and, increasingly - computer photo editing and manipulation of digital images.

Things to remember

 On a stand alone basis, a single photograph itself can often be very difficult to fully assess, therefore photographs should be submitted for analysis in conjunction with a completed sighting report form (available to download from the BUFORA website) which provides space for a written account of what was witnessed and a sketch, plus other important factors such as the location and date of the sighting, time, duration and characteristics of the object, weather conditions, and if there were any other witnesses.

The more accurate information that can be provided and the higher its quality, the higher the probability is that the object can be positively and successfully identified. Sometimes, the eye witness testimony appears to differ from their photographic evidence, and this is where the skill and knowledge of the investigator comes into play. A thorough working knowledge of a variety of photographic equipment and how different camera settings (whether set manually or automatically) such as; shutter speed, aperture size, ASA rating, exposure compensation, focal length, focus setting and depth of field can affect the outcome of the resulting images obtained is crucial, and an inherent understanding of the many objects that may be mistaken for UFOs is equally important.

Another important but not commonly known fact is that most digital pictures have ‘embedded technical data’ within them which can be accessed by right clicking on the original image.

When the witness reports that what he saw with the naked eye did not resemble the photographic image, the investigator must also consider the possibility that visual perception and/or processing factors may be involved. The list of potential disorders is surprisingly long and it is not within my remit to attempt to describe each and every one of them here, but one of the more common complaints/problems would be Autokinesis, which is a phenomenon of human visual perception in which a stationary, small point of light in an otherwise dark or featureless environment appears to move. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Autokinetic_effect)

Let me now share with you some generic examples (actual case data will not be used as the BUFORA code of conduct strictly maintains witness confidentiality and copyright) of the types of photographs received and the methods of analysis employed – some perhaps basic and some maybe more complex:

Example One: Daytime photographs of landscapes with a small dark anomalous object(s) somewhere in the sky

The witness may have had no recollection of seeing the anomalous object at the time the picture was taken, and when the photograph is viewed at normal size the object is not readily identifiable. However, if the camera used was a high resolution digital camera, and the photograph is of sufficient quality, then the image of the object itself may be enlarged digitally many times over on a computer screen, until its profile, colouring and maybe even its structure and texture can be reasonably ascertained and thus the object can usually be identified beyond reasonable doubt. This is a very straightforward and simple technique but it often achieves good results. It is important, however,  not to zoom in too far, as the image might become too ‘pixilated’ to offer any detail.

For example, if the object when magnified appears to have a long thin white fuselage with grey wings and a vertical tail fin,  it is almost extremely likely to be an aircraft. If further detail can be distinguished such as if it has a high or a low wing position or what the aspect ratio or dihedral of the wing is or the exact shape of the fuselage or tail fin is, then it should be possible to differentiate whether it’s likely to be a private, commercial or military aircraft, and it may even be possible (depending on the investigators range of knowledge of aircraft) to name the exact type of aircraft it most resembles. Care must be taken here however not to overstretch the imagination too far. It is better to remain ‘approximately right’ rather than risk being perceived as ‘precisely wrong’ and in doing so lose all the credibility amassed up to that point with the witness.

I have taken some digital photographs to try to illustrate these points, and these are shown below. The first three pictures are of a passing light aircraft initially at ‘normal’ full size, then I have enlarged the image of the ‘object’ on the computer screen to what I feel is ‘optimum’ zoom and lastly ‘over zoomed’ to highlight the importance of using the correct zoom when attempting to establish an objects true identity.

The two photographs following that were ones I took as a couple of birds flew past. On the first picture, two small dark objects can just be made out in the centre. At the optimum zoom level in the second picture, it can be seen that the bird on the left is fairly easy to identify as a bird, whilst the bird on the right has its wings in such a position that would make a positive identification very difficult if not impossible, had I not seen the birds flying along at the time I took the pictures.

                    Skyscape as taken, a feint object can just be seen in the centre of the picture                          
 
 
                                                        When zoomed in appropriately, an aircraft with its wings horizontal is just about discernable
 
 
 
                                                                         Whilst if 'over zoomed', all detail is lost and image is indeterminable
 
 

At other times when the image is enlarged, the outline shape and colour may resemble that of a bird, although its wings are likely to be either ‘frozen’ in a particular place or ‘blurred’ due to whatever shutter speed was used (this can be verified by checking the embedded data) which sometimes makes exact identification more difficult, but with sufficient knowledge one can generally narrow it down to the most probable species.

This is a very simple technique but it often produces the required results.

  

                                                                                Two dark objects can just be seen in the sky (centre)
 
 
 
 
                                                        Zooming in reveals outline of bird on left with wings outstretched, but bird on right still unclear.
 
 
 

Occasionally, the photograph provided just may not be of sufficient quality to reveal any useful detail at all, and then the object unfortunately has to remain to all intents and purposes just an unidentifiable blob. At that point I would say that if one is being realistic and after considering the facts of the matter, then the most likely explanation for what the unknown objects identity might be, would be that it was simply a passing aircraft or bird or balloon in the sky which was not noticed by the photographer at the time. I am not dismissing the possibility that a small percentage of photographs/video footage may remain unexplained, but if there is absolutely no evidence that can be found to support an esoteric conclusion, then I feel that objectively considering the balance of probability, there is no reason to suggest the object should have anything other than a mundane every day explanation.

Example Two: Photographs of an apparently stationary bright white light in the night sky

Enlarging a night time image in an attempt to identify what an object might be, usually turns out to be fruitless because we simply see a bigger light and no additional detail or structure is revealed. One frequent explanation for bright lights in the night sky is that it could be spotlights of an aircraft coming directly towards the witness on its way to an airport for landing and looking at the location of the sighting and plotting the direction of the object on a map should reveal if it was on course for a nearby airport or not. Sometimes if the witness had waited for the light to disappear, he may have recognised it as an aircraft as it flew overhead a few minutes later, and he probably would have heard it as well. If the object was indeed an incoming commercial aircraft en-route to a major airport then it is likely that the witness would be able to repeatedly observe a similar sight at that same location at different times and on different days.

Sometimes the accompanying witness report may indicate that the ‘strange’ bright light had been observed for a long period of time - maybe several hours, in a portion of the sky where he does not recall seeing lights or anything in the past and therefore has no idea of what it was. Stars and planets can often appear as extremely bright lights (particularly Venus and sometimes Jupiter) in different parts of the night sky (as the Earth slowly rotates relative to the stars and planets), and what may help us identify the object is if the witness has sent additional pictures taken of the same object from the same view point but sometime later in the night indicating that the light may have changed position somewhat or even ‘disappeared’ below the horizon/hill/rooftops and the sighting report form confirms this. If the approximate time of and the time between the pictures is known, either from the witness or from the embedded picture data or preferably both, then an online sky chart can be accessed from the internet and the relevant data such as date, time and location co-ordinates entered into the program which would then give us a picture of the night sky as it was at the time(s) of the sighting(s). From this we can see what stars or planets would have been visible to the witness in that portion of the sky and see if the pace and direction of any movement of the ‘strange light’ matches that of any particularly bright astronomical body. Often it will, and then a probable identification can be made.

A good example of this happened to me whilst camping at an outdoor event near Oxford in July this year with a friend. At around 9pm we noticed a fairly bright red coloured light about 45 degrees above the horizon in the night sky. Our first thoughts were that it could be aircraft navigation lights but when the light was still there (but now nearer to the horizon) a few hours later this possibility seemed unlikely. Upon returning home a quick check on the internet sky chart showed that the red planet Mars would have been visible in that part of the sky at those times and would have gradually moved in the same manner as the object we had observed and thus providing a likely explanation.

Example Three: Night time photographs of apparently structured craft

I have seen many cases where the witness has provided to us, what at face value appears to be a relatively clear photograph of some sort of ‘advanced structured craft’ in the night sky. Enlargement of these photographs invariably reveals the ‘craft’ to have all sorts of ‘protrusions’ and ‘antennae’ and to be emitting various coloured lights from different parts of itself. Curiously, when further pictures taken within a short timeframe of the same object are analysed, the object can be seen to have changed its appearance and even its colours quite dramatically.

The  initial reaction of most people (mine included) upon viewing this phenomenon for the first time might be – Wow, it’s a shape-shifting UFO. But then reading through the accompanying sighting report, the witness will usually describe how he spotted an orange/red/white glowing object in the night sky which moved slowly and silently across constantly in whatever direction until it disappeared from view several minutes later. He may have taken several pictures of it as it passed by in the distance and will usually have some sort of opinion as to how high/big/fast/far away it was - which is very difficult to accurately estimate when not even one of those factors are actually known for sure, and sometimes (if he is thorough and honest with himself) he will comment that the object when viewed with the naked eye looked different to how it appears on the photographs. Now we are actually starting to get somewhere.

A check on the embedded data recorded within the digital photograph may reveal that the camera exposure time was in the region of one or two seconds or so. I defy anyone to take a clear and accurate photograph of a relatively close but moving illuminated object in the night sky (particularly if the camera was ‘zoomed in’) when it was hand-held with a shutter speed of that length. The resulting image has got to have some ‘camera shake’ in it, full stop. And this small but unwanted movement is undoubtedly what is responsible for giving the image its ‘appendages’ as the actual object ‘dances around’ happily leaving its trace (and a different one each time) on the recording medium. Even if the witness had a tripod to hand and had used it, the image would still have been slightly streaked or blurred because the object was still moving relative to the camera during those two whole seconds. It would have taken a shutter speed of at least one thirtieth to one sixtieth of a second to sufficiently ‘freeze’ the image and make it a clear and therefore accurate representation of the actual object being photographed.

Quite often, the witness reports seeing a second ‘strange light’ following behind the first one or sometimes there may be several of these ‘lights in the sky’ all travelling in the same approximate direction but at slightly different heights and speeds (the prevailing wind speed can vary with altitude). The historical wind speed and direction for the day of the sighting can be checked on the internet to see if it confirms the direction the object was reported to have been travelling. If it was, then often the most likely explanation that fits with the witness’s description of these objects is that they are Chinese Sky Lanterns. These are a relatively new phenomenon to Britain but they are becoming very popular and currently do account for more UFO sighting reports coming to us than any other single object.

Example Four: Hoaxes and Fakes

The increasing availability of ever more powerful imaging software programs inevitably make it much easier for photographs to be hoaxed or faked today than it used to be twenty or even ten years ago.

                     

                                                                                                          ‘Photo shopped’ image
 
 
 
 
                                                                                                                 ‘Raw’ picture
 
 

These days the would be hoaxer has easier tricks up his sleeve than suspending a model on a string or photographing a picture stuck onto a pane of glass. ‘Manipulated’ or ‘enhanced’ digital images which initially look fairly convincing can sometimes be uncovered for what they are by viewing an enlargement of that portion of the photograph where the ‘mystery object’ is. When a portion of a photograph is ‘cut and paste’ onto a different photograph the size/colour/texture of the pixels of and immediately around the object are usually slightly different to the background, and sometimes even the outline of the ‘lasso box’ used can be revealed. Undoubtedly, though, there will be times when a fake is so well made that it is virtually impossible to detect how it was done.

 
 
                                                   Photograph taken through a window pane with a manufacturing defect and dirt adhering to the glass
 
 

Witness acceptance and feedback

I do hope that the examples provided above give you an insight into some the of typical ‘distant or blurry light or object’ type of photographic evidence we find ourselves dealing with time and time again and that you can understand my  logic, and are in agreement, with my general example of  photographic analyses as explained above. As I have previously said, in the vast majority of cases either a definitive or probable explanation can be made, and  usually after considering our comments regarding their sightings, most witnesses can understand the reasoning behind  our findings.

Occasionally though, for some reason which is not usually clearly given, (and I do accept the fact that we are only human and may not always be 100% correct all of the time) the witness will not agree with our evaluation at all. In view of the fact that all our investigations are conducted thoroughly in a rational and objective way encompassing    all the available facts, this is something which I used to find strange, but I am now coming to understand fully how much   witnesses’ beliefs can influence the way in which a witness chooses to interpret his sighting experiences, photographs and the subsequent evaluation and opinions  on them. I won’t elaborate on this further here as this particular aspect of the subject has been well documented in other BUFORA articles and is available to view on the website.

Brief Biography

I do not propose to encumber the reader here with my ‘qualifications for the job’ but I feel a brief mention of my background would be in order: I have had a keen interest in, and have been studying Photography, Ufology and other relevant subjects since I was at school in the 70’s. Whilst I would not consider myself to be an expert in these individual disciplines, I do feel I have a reasonable level of knowledge of those subjects and of the many objects which may  be observed  in the sky, together with the logical ability to clearly differentiate one from another and I try to keep an open, enquiring, pragmatic, rational, analytical and perhaps initially slightly skeptical mind. And I am learning all the time, and attempting to put that knowledge to good use.

My involvement with BUFORA started fairly recently in 2009 when I saw on their website that they were offering an Investigators Training Course (ITC) within the National Investigations Committee (NIC). I had always considered BUFORA to be one of the most authoritative UFO organisations within the UK and so I decided that enrolling on this course was the logical next step for me in order to progress my understanding of the UFO phenomenon further. I can personally thoroughly recommend this six month email training course (details of which are on the website) which I successfully completed and achieved the status of Accredited Investigator (AI).

Subsequently I was asked by the BUFORA committee if I would like to assist with the co-ordination of investigations and to help with its photographic analysis from time to time as and when required. Naturally I was delighted to be offered this position within such a prestigious organisation, and I am using all my resources to fulfill my obligations and responsibilities not only to BUFORA but to members of the public who kindly provide us with sighting reports and also to the wider community, in our collective aims to conduct objective and serious investigations and research into the many facets underpinning the UFO phenomenon.

Beyond Photography

Without doubt, there are many aspects involved with the vastly complex UFO phenomenon with its range of diverse but connected subjects as a whole, of which photographic analysis is just one small but nonetheless vital part of it all. Knowledge of what images the various civilizations throughout history have recorded before photographic film was invented, using media such as cave paintings, canvas paintings, murals, tapestries, stone carvings, wood carvings and other manufactured artifacts is one such area for example.

It is beyond the scope of this article for me to attempt to list all the categories relating to Ufological study, but I would argue that a true understanding of the UFO enigma can only be hoped to be achieved once one has taken the time to have a thorough and balanced look at the vast amount of factual information that is available from all of the various disciplines within the Ufology realm, without ignoring those parts which may not be of interest and without focusing on one single aspect of the subject to the detriment of the rest as a whole.

Whose Job is it anyway?

It seems to me that most of the governments of the ‘developed’ world are not too keen to admit or to share (rightly or wrongly) all that they know about UFOs (and certain other matters) with their public. We cannot rely on the media to give us accurate and objective information, as obviously they are in the business of selling newspapers which entertain people. As for TV news, the term ‘reporter’ sometimes might be more correctly titled ‘repeater’ as most of the mainstream channels appear to simply regurgitate stories as released to them by one of the many ‘news’ agencies, propaganda style.

As for the mainstream science brigade, there seems to be a general unwillingness to be involved in anything which cannot be tested empirically in their laboratories. At best Ufology can be described as ‘Pseudoscience’ by them and at worse, they can be so full of ‘establishment facts’ that they refuse to look at arguably ‘compelling evidence’ presented by some credible witnesses, investigators and researchers.

Obviously, there will be some exceptions to these general observations and occasionally someone with ‘inside knowledge,’ possibly from their time working within one of the many government agencies, will come forward to share their experiences with researchers. Invariably though, the witness’ job will have been so ‘compartmentalised’ that whatever information they have will be only one part of the jigsaw. Care must also be taken when dealing with ‘whistle blowers’ that they are not providing ‘misinformation’ or even ‘disinformation’.

So, it appears that the job of impartially separating the facts from the fiction in an attempt to find the actual truth behind the UFO enigma falls to the various worldwide UFO associations and groups, who, through the tireless and usually thankless efforts of their voluntary members seem to be making slow but steady progress towards that goal.

There are also a small number of dedicated investigative journalists in the field who continue to provide their latest findings to whoever wants to find out, via books, lectures, video and audio interviews etc.

Belief Systems

It is said that ‘extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence’. And the ‘burden of proof’ to provide the evidence necessary to substantiate any claim not currently accepted by society as a whole, must predominantly lie with the claimant. Although having said that, the ‘counter claimant’ is not entirely free from his or her responsibilities either. After all - ‘Absence of Evidence is not Evidence of Absence’, and those who practice the ‘fallacy of argument from ignorance’ and similar, are also required to provide evidence in order to support their viewpoint if their claims are to be considered valid.

Sadly though, there will always be people with immovable belief systems (both for and against), and these closed minded hardened skeptics and debunkers will argue with you against all logic and factual evidence, once their mind is made up

Ideally, one needs to study all the available data and information, and then attempt to find the truths within it to acquire knowledge of the situation, and only when armed with this knowledge is one is in a position to make a sensible and informed judgment. Occasionally it might be advantageous to interpolate or extrapolate various factual elements within the data in order to form a ‘working hypothesis’ as a means of advancing the investigation, which in turn could lead to the discovery of other important facts. I maintain that there is nothing wrong with initially erring on the skeptical side, as long as one continues to use ‘critical thinking’ to evaluate the vast amount of factual evidence relating to whatever it is one is studying and one is able and willing to update or modify ones viewpoint in the light of any new credible evidence as and when this comes along.

I am also of the view that everyone should be entitled to have his or her own opinion, but where people do not have enough information and knowledge to make an informed decision, they can chose to remain ‘agnostic’ on that particular subject if they so wish,  (and I practice this myself where applicable) and until one has enough information on which to base ones ‘beliefs’, this would probably be a good thing to do as it would lessen the ‘muddying of the water’ so that others may have a better clarity to make sure the ‘baby is not thrown out with the bath water’.

Summary

To conclude, my chosen analogy of attempting to study the UFO phenomenon, is that it could be likened to attempting to solve the biggest four dimensional jigsaw puzzle ever, where not only do you not have all the pieces because someone is hiding some of them, but the lid of the box containing the picture is actually missing too. And whilst some people are helpful to you in your efforts to piece the puzzle together, others are busying themselves either adding pieces from a totally different puzzle altogether, or trying to tell you that some of the pieces you have tentatively placed where you feel they best fit are either not in the right places or may not even be valid pieces at all. Invariably this last category of people will comprise of those who have little or no experience with jigsaw puzzles or the big picture whatsoever.

August 2012

 

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