Good Old Fashioned UFO Photo Analysis

By Charles Lear

  From the early days of Project Sign to the final days of Project Blue Book, photographs played an important part in the Air Force’s UFO investigation.  On July 4th, 1947 just weeks after Kenneth Arnold’s June 24th sighting, a woman in Seattle took a picture of a UFO and this would be the very first photograph that the Army Air Corps soon to be Air Force received.  It was identified as a balloon, and perhaps it really was, but at the time, personnel assigned to the project were still figuring out how to actually approach their investigations.  They were soldiers trying to think like scientists and photo analysis in the military was historically focused on reconnaissance.  Analysis of UFO footage has different challenges and these were met by private researchers who continued investigation after the end of Project Blue Book in 1969.

The use of photography for reconnaissance didn’t become practical until cameras became small and portable following the invention of film in 1885 by George Eastman.  Aerial photography over enemy lines was the dream but with highly vulnerable balloons and kites being the only available means of flight at the time, truly effective aerial reconnaissance would have to wait.  Two inventions in the early 1900’s would change things.  The first was the well-known 1903 invention of the airplane by the Wright brothers.  The second, lesser-known invention was the pigeon cam patented in 1907 by German apothecary, Julius Neubronner.  The pigeons and the planes were both used in World War I and the planes proved more effective as they were guided by a human as opposed to pigeon brain.

By the end of the war, military planning was rarely done without photo reconnaissance.  Analysis was primarily done through the use of magnification and enlargement in concert with ground surveillance.  Accurate interpretation came from education and experience and it was often that many lives depended on it.  By the end of World War II, photo analysis had become quite sophisticated and would continue to play a part in the cold war with the advent of spy planes and long-range cameras.

The UFO problem presented new challenges for military analysts.  The biggest challenge was the issue of hoaxing which was not encountered by the U.S. Military up to that point though they, themselves, had hoaxed the Germans with a “ghost army” involving props and rubber tanks prior to the Normandy invasion.  To counter the hoax issue, the focus was placed on establishing the credibility and psychological profile of the photographer and many cases were dismissed in this way.  There were a lot of bad photos which provided little information but some photos made it all the way through to Blue Book’s final days when they were evaluated as part of the late ‘60s Air Force commissioned University of Colorado study under the direction of Edward Condon.

The person who evaluated the evidence was William K. Hartmann whose most notable scientific contribution was convincing his peers of the planetary impact theory explaining the origin of our moon.  Hartmann believed that it was not necessary to identify the objects on film in order to prove they were not “flying saucers.”  What he was looking for was photographic evidence that added “probative value” to a report.  His results were highly subjective as can be seen in his evaluation of the McMinnville photos where he describes the object shown as, “[c]learly either a fabrication or an extraordinary object (“flying saucer”).”

A case that didn’t make it into the Colorado study was one referred to as the “Lubbock Lights.”  This was a case that caught the attention of Captain Edward J. Ruppelt who was the director of Project Blue Book from 1952 until 1953.  Four professors from the Texas Technological College in Lubbock reported seeing groups of bluish-green lights in a V formation at least twelve times over a period of two weeks.  Also included in the report were five photos taken by Texas Tech freshman, Carl Hart, Junior, at a separate time and location in Lubbock. What made the case particularly compelling was a report from an area radar station that they had tracked an unknown target during the period traveling at 900 miles per hour which, after six minutes of observation, was cause to scramble an F-86 jet interceptor which failed to make contact.  Ruppelt traveled to Lubbock where he interviewed the parties involved and acquired four of the five photo negatives from Hart, which he sent to the Photo Reconnaissance Laboratory at Wright Field.

In his book, “The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects”, Ruppelt devotes an entire chapter to the case.  He describes the analysis done by the lab giving us insight into their methods.  They examined each spot of light and concluded that all were actual photographic images of light sources.  They noted that the night on which the photos were taken was clear and that no stars were captured.  They determined from this that the lights were of an unusual intensity.  They enlarged the film and plotted the positions of the lights in all the photos and determined that they shifted in a definite pattern.  Because they only had a formation of lights against a dark sky, no information could be gleaned concerning size, speed or altitude.  Ruppelt then took it upon himself to try to duplicate the photos and found that he could not.  Ruppelt concludes the chapter saying he received a satisfactory explanation for the lights from a scientist who set up instruments to study them.  Because he promised the scientist anonymity and might have compromised that by giving us the answer to the mystery, the case remains controversial.

Private researchers have also given us insight into photo analysis methods by writing papers detailing their investigations.  Most noteworthy is Bruce Maccabee, who has appeared in many documentaries and television productions and lectured extensively on the UFO subject.  He specializes in photo analysis and has taken on some famous cases.  Before we look into his work, however, there is a paper by Richard Haines, another prominent UFO researcher who normally specializes in pilot sightings, that thoroughly examines a photo that is a personal favorite of this writer.

Haines published a paper titled “Analysis of a UFO Photograph” in the Journal of Scientific Exploration, Vol. 1, No. 2. 1987, which is a journal devoted to fringe science.  In his introduction, Haines states that the problem with evaluating such photos lies not as much with what is pictured as it does with the photographer, the film and the camera.  Because of this he focuses on these aspects first and in great detail.  The photo is of a mountain on Vancouver Island, British Columbia.  In the upper right-hand portion of the photo is a classic disk with an apparent dome on top.  The photographer was a woman on an outing with her husband and daughter and didn’t see the disk until after the photo was developed.  That the mountain was the center of focus adds credibility to her story.  Haines determined from the camera’s focal length and lens apertures that the object was no closer than 10 feet away and most likely was more than 20 feet away due to its being in focus.  He got all the details of the film used and its processing to determine the likelihood of a false image.  He analyzed the image itself looking at angles and optical density (using a Kodak step wedge) to determine the amount of light being reflected by the object and concluded it was not made of polished metal.  He was also able to rule out a double exposure with a horizontal scan using a micro-densitometer.  By making enlargements in black and white on papers sensitive to different wavelengths and doing computer enhancement with different filters, Haines determined the spectral range of the light being reflected by different areas of the object and, most importantly, found no sign that the object was suspended by any sort of line.  Haines visited the actual site and provides detailed measurements including the exact location of the photographer.  He determined the credibility of the photographer by interviewing her and her husband and asked if they owned a Frisbee to which the husband answered yes.  He was shown a model that was known as a “Professional FIFI” that did not match the image in the photo.

Haines finishes the paper with a highly detailed examination of Frisbee physical structure, flight characteristics, reflectance, and how one might appear on film if thrown.

He concludes by saying that the witness is credible and that the identity of the object is unknown.

  Bruce Maccabee holds a PhD in physics and specialized in optics and lasers during his career in the Navy, Strategic Defense Initiative and Ballistic Missile Defense.  He has been a UFOlogist since the late sixties as a member of NICAP and was a MUFON State Director in Maryland.  Maccabee has taken on many classic cases including the iconic McMinnville photos.  He wrote a paper detailing his examination and submitted it to CUFOS for presentation at a symposium.  After his introduction and establishing the date of the pictures, Maccabee addresses the time of the photo, which is controversial.  Paul Trent, the photographer, repeatedly insisted he had taken the photos in the evening just before sunset, which was at 7:30.  Hartmann had erroneously reported it as 7:15.  Another investigator, Robert Sheaffer had pointed out that shadows on a wall seen on the left of the photo indicated morning rather than evening.  Maccabee, using results from densitometric measurements of the original negatives, angle measurements and physical experiments, argued that light reflected off a cloud to the east could have caused the shadows in question.  In this same section, he addresses the credibility of the Paul Trent and his wife Evelyn who was a witness.  Using previous testimony from both witnesses and recent phone interviews with Evelyn, Maccabee argues that they were hard working farm people who never profited from their story or photos.  He goes into detail about the weather, then the sighting and the object’s flight as described by the Trents.  Because there were two photos, flight direction from right to left could be verified.  His photo analysis is similar to Haines’ starting with a description of the camera and the film.  He determines that the grain size of the film would have allowed detection of a line if the object was suspended from overhead wires in the picture determined to have been 60 meters distant.  Interestingly, he uses Hartmann’s photometric estimate of the object’s distance as a starting point for his own estimate, which he determined could have been as much as 1 kilometer away.  A big question about the brightness of the object’s bottom (supporting an argument that it is a truck mirror) is brought up and Maccabee concludes by saying that distance cannot be determined using this method.  The rest of the paper focuses at length on the credibility of the witnesses.

The sole use of photos for scientific analysis of UFOs has never been successful in proving that any UFO is an alien spacecraft.  With today’s technology this is even more difficult as the ability to hoax photos is easily available.  Until someone can put a physical object or organism in front of us that is undeniably alien, witness testimony and credibility are the best means we have to evaluate UFO cases.  Even so, UFO photos remain a fascinating part of the phenomenon.

One thought on “Good Old Fashioned UFO Photo Analysis

  • July 26, 2019 at 11:50 am
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    Sir: I was going through some older photographs, when I notice an artifact in the sky. I am trying to find out and address to send copies of them. I would like their evaluation of the object.
    It was taken 5 years ago, while I was working in Connell WA.

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