Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Review of a “Ghost” Camera

Cemetery at night, with clouds and full moon above
You might think this is an April Fool’s Day post, but I swear it’s true! Recently I had the opportunity to borrow a ghost camera. My friend Susan Ellis loaned me her Bell and Howell S7, a 12 megapixel (MP) point-and-shoot “night vision” infrared-capable camera. The subject is illuminated by six red LEDs on the front of the camera. So lo and behold, the images look just like those fuzzy black and white videos on the ghosthunters’ television shows! People and objects have sort of an aura around them.

So literally, the ghosts are in the machine - in the camera, that is! Not really sure if I actually photographed any ghosts outside the camera. In the event the camera was indeed able to pick up energy from the netherworld, I took it into some graveyards at night, as well as in the daytime. The spookier images appeared to be those of live people, however. I also shot various other things with it, examples of which you see here.

The pupils of people’s and animals’ eyes glowed white when illuminated by the S7’s LED panel, giving them the demonic look you see in this photo. (That’s not Linda Blair from The Exorcist at left, its my lovely daughter Olivia, smiling sweetly).

One interesting thing about IR is that when shooting in black and white, foliage appears white. In the daylight, the night vision mode registered simply as poor-quality black and white, save for the foliage appearing white. You can see this in the image below, where the pine needles from the evergreen are white. Here’s a color version of the same image. The camera is easily switchable from low-quality monochrome to low-quality color! (The switch manually removes the infrared blocking lens from in front of the image sensor.)

Order from Amazon.com
Low-quality image? I know what you’re thinking (I have that power, you know), “If the Bell and Howell S7 has a 12 megapixel image sensor, then why are the images of such poor quality?” Mainly, that has to do with the bogus sales pitch (and ad campaigns) that would have unwary customers believing that the higher the pixel count, the better the image. Oh, if life could be that simple! Unfortunately, it is not so.

You see, image quality (resolution, color reproduction, etc.) has more to do with the overall size of the image sensor, not the pixel count. The smaller cameras get, the smaller the image sensor needs to be. A DSLR may have a 24 x 35mm image sensor with a total pixel count of 6MP (megapixels), while the average point-and-shoot may have an image sensor whose overall dimensions are only 5 x 7 mm, but with a total pixel count of 12MP.  Guess which one has better image quality? The DSLR, because it has an overall larger image sensor! (In case you’re interested, I cover this in greater detail in Chapter 4 (“Magical Devices for a High-Speed World?”) of my book, Digital Photography for the Impatient, available from Amazon.com).
"Lone Wolf"
Another reason the black and white infrared images on the Bell and Howell S7 are so grainy could be due to the poor light sensitivity at higher ISO settings, or it could simply be that the camera simulates the traditionally grainy infrared film! I rather like the effect, which is quite cool in this nighttime image of a Mummers’ street party in Philadelphia (above, New Years’ Day, 2014). In this image, there was quite a bit of ambient light, so the camera’s LEDs were not the only light source. When it is the only light source in the dark, you get this vignetting effect (below), which appears simply because the LEDs cannot illuminate the entire field of view.

In color still image mode, the Bell and Howell S7 night vision camera has most of the modes and features of a standard inexpensive digital point and shoot, and you can see them all in this YouTube video. It is also capable of video capture.

Color image made with Bell and Howell S7 camera

I didn’t make any night vision videos, because the LED light source is so weak that it doesn’t illuminate anything more than a few feet away. Even when taking still photos, the shutter speed is so slow, you really have to brace the camera against something solid (like a tombstone, for instance, or a tripod) to keep from getting blurry images. You couldn’t really carry the camera around while trying to capture video in the dark as the sensor is just not very light-sensitive (not sure how ghost-sensitive it is, either) – you just end up with blurriness. Your best bet would be to have the camera on a tripod and let it roll, hoping the ghosts will come to you. (Here’s a YouTube video of an S7 video capture.)

Lastly, and I failed to try this since I didn’t read the Thinkgeek website until after I returned the borrowed camera: “…during the daytime in night vision mode you can see through some types of clothing, paper and other various thin materials. ... Important Note: Respect the privacy of your fellow humans and don't use the … Night Vision Camera for evil." Guess I may have to borrow Susan’s camera again!

Note: To read more about the Bell and Howell S7 (which you can buy for around $100), click here to go to the Bell and Howell website.