Digital Forensics: Spotting a Fake

Over the years I have been sent a staggering number of pictures to study. Countless people on ghost hunts, or by chance have snapped a picture that they believed contained evidence of paranormal activity. While many times I have been able to figure out a more reasonable explanation for strange images, sometimes I cannot. But, even in those cases, probably more so, it is important to verify that the picture has not been tampered with digitally. While most people out there are smart enough not to try to get one over on me that way, a few have tried. It’s my experience that people sending photos to a paranormal investigator are usually just looking for an answer to a strange photo. People trying to hoax others will usually post pictures in mass groups rather than risk scrutiny by an expert. But, it still happens from time to time. In this field, it is important to know how to spot and rule out fakes before wasting your time trying to figure anything else out.

Start with a quick visual inspection in good lighting. If so inclined, try printing it out. Sometimes when a badly doctored picture is printed out, the printer will inadvertently accentuate the incorrect details when trying to assign a color to the pixels. Your senses can go a long way in spotting fakery. Obviously, in our field, there is probably going to be something very strange that will draw your attention to the picture. But, ignoring that, look over the picture a small section at a time. Does anything look out of place? Does the photo look oddly positioned or do objects seem out of place? Do the shadows all seem to line up in the same direction, or does it seem like there are any places where it just looks badly cut and pasted together? Finally, look at the angle and location where the picture was taken. Most people don’t break out a ladder, lay on the floor, or other strangeness to get something that is supposed to be an unexpected image. If everything looks too well posed and positioned, it probably is. Most people take pictures of things from eye level unless they are a professional photographer. We’ll take a more in-depth look at it in detail a bit later; but, take it in and see if it just “looks” fake to you. If so, then there’s a good chance it is. Granted some pictures just come out strange. But, let your common sense guide you.

Next, look at the EXIF (metadata) for the image. Every digital file has meta-data, and it can be looked up in a variety of ways. This can easily be done by right-clicking the picture and going to properties; or using a website like This contains information about image size; camera used to take the picture, color settings, the last program used to edit and open the file, and so much more. If you’re a photography enthusiast much of the data will reveal how the picture was taken down to the shutter speed used. This means you can use the information to compare back to the visual inspection. Is there a lack of motion blur where there should be due to shutter speed? Does the current image size match up with the default image sizes for the model of camera it was taken with? Was the last program to open the file Adobe Photoshop? These are all good indicators that the photo has been manipulated in some way. However, keep in mind that does not mean anything was faked. It simply means that the photo has been somehow edited or enhanced in some way either by cropping or other means of manipulation. And, if you open a file with no metadata; there is a good chance that it has either been scrubbed or pulled directly from the internet. Photo’s lacking metadata are the most likely to be fake, even more so than one that has clearly been opened in Adobe LightRoom. This is one reason I always ask people sending me photos to also send me the raw image file straight from wherever they saved it along with whatever enhanced version they are sending. Anyone who is a serious investigator should know to keep these around somewhere.

If things seem fishy, they probably are. In my experience, people who are trying to pass off a phony photo aren’t very original. Always try using Google’s reverse image search. You would be surprised what people think they will get away with. If they are using an app that adds ghosts to images, it’s going to be a stock image they are using for the specter. If someone has photoshopped their own ghost into it, the likely pulled it from the google image search. Using the reverse lookup tool will identify parts of the image that it may have already logged into its magical algorithm database and show you others who are using the same thing.

There are entire agencies here in the United States that are dedicated to the field of digital forensics. And, while to be professionally certified for a career in the field; anybody with a laptop could be an expert given the right amount of study. I’ve been doing it for several years, enough that I feel old as I reflect on that number while writing this article, there is simply too much to teach a person everything in one article. But, I will go into the most common and easiest things to spot.

First, examine the shadows in depth. A shadow cast by an object will appear opposite the light that caused it. Using that information, visually (or using software) map lines between shadows, objects, and the corresponding light sources to see if the image is physically possible. This is something that even professionals screw up because it can be easy to overlook. Also, pay very close attention to out of place objects along perspective lines. Even with a tool as simple as paint; trace perspective lines to see if things line up. If someone’s head seems too big, if people are looking in directions where there should be no focus, something might be up.

If you have access to Photoshop yourself, there are a few adjustments you can make to try and draw out artifacts that you might miss with your naked eye.One tool is changing the Levels. You can access this by pressing Command + L (Mac) or Control + L (PC). If you bring the white point all the way down really close to the black point, what’s going to happen is that the narrow range of black will expand out quite a bit. If somebody has taken the eraser tool and erased something in a dark area, you can see the traces of the tool. The same effect happens if you drag the black point all the way up to draw more detail out of the image highlights. Also, increasing the contrast or the sharpness will help emphasize hard edges in the photo, which can sometimes occur when an object is pasted in. Inverting the colors on an image (control + I or command + I) to get a new perspective on the photo, which could jolt your brain into drawing out some irregularities.

Pattern recognition is an area where software can be a major advantage. Some patterns you can recognize easily just by looking at the image. Someone using Photoshop may leave repeating patterns behind when trying to clone out an object. Zoom out and look at the image from afar to see if your eye can pick up on any patterns, then zoom in closer to see if there might be some repeating objects in the scene.

You can also look for pattern discrepancies in the noise created by the image sensor, which requires some slightly advanced software. If someone airbrushes an image, for example, that effect will change the pattern in a way a computer can recognize. You might even spot it with your naked eye if the hoaxer is particularly heavy-handed. If you have ever noticed a model’s skin looking particularly flat and doll-like, you’re seeing basically the same effect.

While there are many tools you can find online to help you verify the integrity of a photo, never forget that people retouch photos all the time and it does not necessarily mean that there is any fakery going on. Above all else, use your common sense to examine anything out of place and trust your judgment.

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