Updated: Sep 13, 2020
One of the many critical tools that our group utilizes in our investigations is our thermal camera. But, probably not for the reasons that you might think. Initially I made the purchase because several times on ghost hunting programs I had seen ghost hunters capture images of apparitions and strange shaped cold spots. It was seeing the equipment use din this way that got me excited for finding my very own paranormal phenomena with it. But, as we all eventually learn, what you see on TV and the reality of a paranormal investigation are very different things. However, it was with this disappointment that I came to realize that thermal imaging was maybe one of the most critical tools in our equipment kit, just for a different reason than advertised. Rather than capturing the image of ghostly figures with it, we were debunking activity more quickly allowing us to move on to more exciting parts of the investigation.
Now when I watch ghost shows (I still do) it’s mainly for the laughs. This is no truer than when I see the group using a thermal camera. Usually they will walk around with one of these devices like a standard handheld camera and point out blobby heat signatures and cold spots wanting desperately for me to believe these are ghosts walking around. But there are simply some things you only really learn about these devices from experienced use. For one, it’s critical to understand that thermal cameras display and record the surface temperature of objects, not the air. Simply pointing a thermal camera out your window is not a good way to tell what the ambient temperature is. The negative space in the picture may show too hot or cold more than 40 degrees. However, if you point it at solid objects, it can tell you the temperature of that surface with pretty accurate results. Most of these cameras are designed to locate piping and drafts. It does this by using relative temperature. Aiming your camera into an empty field will only reveal mostly blue and green returns with wild temperature variations. Even if a cold or warm blob of air managed to move through the viewer, it’s likely that it would not even register as a visual change.
Because the camera is constantly measuring thermal data using relative temperature, using it as a handheld device while moving around is going to yield a significant amount of wrong data. Since you would be pointing the camera at a number of objects randomly in a short amount of time, the cameras sensor will constantly be adjusting and changing the contrast of output based on the relative temperature. Two objects side by side may have a 20-degree difference and may appear as simply yellow and red in the viewer. But if you pan a third object with a separate temperature into the shot, those original colors must change to accommodate a third color somewhere in the spectrum. It’s this shift and the amount of objects on the screen that cause many of the anomalies that many investigators think are apparitions.
Another problem with this method of use is that as a handheld camera, there is often no frame of reference. I rarely see investigators use these side by side with another camera that is capturing a standard type image to show comparison. If I see footage of a person walking by in a thermal video, I’m going to need to see the standard footage of that area to confirm that it simply wasn’t one of the crew members walking through the area. I have harped on the need for controls in an experiment enough in the past that this one should be obvious.
The easiest, and most straight forward, remedy to these problems is to link the camera with an IR/Full Spectrum camera side by side. By doing this, you are able to provide the viewer with reference imaging for what the thermal camera is picking up. Depending on the type of thermal camera you are using it may be hard to set up a rig as a handheld device. However, we have found that the whole setup works best as a static camera setup for capturing a wider view of the area. By making this simple adjustment we have found that the instances of false positives with the thermal camera basically fell off the map. But interestingly enough, as disappointed as we were to find that we were capturing no paranormal activity with the rig, we were able to debunk many things that we had never even considered before quicker than ever.
Thermal cameras are great for is picking up the heat signatures of humans and animals. And, exposing drafts and air leaks when the camera is operated in a steady manner. Many outside investigations tend to happen at night with low visibility with the number one claim being “we heard footsteps in the darkness but didn’t see anyone there.” My first question is always, did you prove that it was not an animal? So many times, I have heard movement and looked for the source frantically with a flashlight to find nothing there. I could swear on my mother’s name that I was sure it was not nature playing tricks on me. How wrong I found I was once we got a thermal camera. It was embarrassing to say the least. Creatures that live outside and are active at night have evolved to be very sneaky when it comes to avoiding predators. As it turns out, most sounds of footsteps when you think you are alone can be traced back to critter who is very good at staying out of sight from your flashlights. So well so, that I rarely ever even think anything paranormal is going on when I hear those all to familiar sounds behind me in the dark. Our thermal camera is sensitive enough that it can pick up the footsteps of warm-blooded animals on carpet from where they walked.
Additionally, cold spots which are hotly debated as paranormal activity, have become much easier to find sources for. All too often I have heard that an investigator claim that they suddenly were surrounded by a cold spot and claimed that there was no possible source for a naturally occurring draft to have made it. Walking around blindly and waving your hands around, although a tried and true method of finding the source of a draft, is nothing compared to being able to see it with a thermal camera. Cold air does show up on thermal camera as a cloud when it obscures surface temperatures around it. Cold spots are almost always caused by some sort of air leak coming from a door or poorly sealed window. If the building has working AC, it is almost always are coming in from another room. The act of moving through a location with our warm-blooded bodies fluctuates the temperature beyond comprehension and anyone with a thermal camera and the knowledge of how to properly read it can easily prove it on the spot.