Supernatural Magazine

Paranormal Photography: Auras, Lens Flares and Psychological Priming.

As a ghost hunter and investigator, I often get asked to review photographs as well as audio and video recordings. I love doing it because I get to interact with people who’ve had, in their opinion, unusual experiences that they cannot yet explain. Often times, these people are scared and don’t know how to process what is occurring to them and it brings me a great joy in being able to help these people understand what is happening and bring them a small measure of peace of mind. At other times, they are simply curious and want to know more and sadly, investigators must also be on the lookout for fraud.

Below is one recent (and stellar!) example of curious folks who happen to catch something odd and I’m providing it because I think it dovetails really well into a point that I have to make often with people who have experiences and interpret them a certain way. It also is a great example of how important understanding psychology is to ghost hunting (at least if you do it in a professional manner not chasing dust balls and doing the fake 3 AM YouTube challenges). We covered orbs in another article but this time I’d like to cover another photography angle (a small in joke there, you’ll see why later): Len’s flare.

When I review pieces such as photographs and recordings, I like to have as much environmental data as possible about the image and the circumstances and location. Below is what information that was sent, including images of a burned out tree which had been turned into a shrine by locals and a few photos of the surrounding area in which bright purple flares were captured on film, like auras. I’ve attached at least two examples of this purple light in this post. Anyway, here is the email (I’ve redacted names and identifying information):



“At first glance I dismissed this mysterious “pink glare” just that, a glare due to the rays of sun. But, upon further review(the pic of the mountain side that’s to the right of this tree for example) shoes that this “mist/fog” has some mass and/or 3 demensional aspect to it. As if it was smoke or something of the sort. There were no fires or smoke visible or even a smell in the area in the moment these images were captured.

Date and time the recording/image was taken:

TUESDAY, DECEMBER 25, 2017 approx. 3:30-4:30p.m.

Location image/recording was taken:


Who was present:

Myself (Taking the pictures) and my wife ( you can see her but on the back side of tree there’s a big branch she was sitting on hidden by the trunk in the images)

Type of machine that captured the image: My iPhone 7

The first time I’ve seen “The Virgin Mary” tree start being mentioned is in 2005 when they (the townspeople of Agua Dulce) started seeing people leave flowers and letters/prayers for themselves and/or their loved ones. There was a violent brush fire in 2007 which started in Agua Dulce and ended in Santa Clarita. Although trees that had burned along the way had been cut down “The Mary tree” although also burned along the way, was not burned enough to where it had to be cut down not enough for them to cut it down. And so it still stands. They say the Virgin Mary image was much more prominent before the fire.

Back story: there is a lot of documented history in this land said to be old sacred Indian land which lead to a sacred Indian burial ground finding near the same Agua Dulce area.”

— “Anonymous”.


(Notice the purple-pink aura near the tree top?)
(Notice the purple-pink aura near the tree top?)

(Again, the pinkish purple glow yet in this photo we have a clue as to its source. Do you see it?)
(Again, the pinkish purple glow yet in this photo we have a clue as to its source. Do you see it?)

So as an investigator, the first thing I do before I even look at the images is analyze the data provided. There was no weather or climate data, no barometric pressure measurements or EMF or temperature baselines so I move onto the date and time and location. The location is Agua Dulce, California and the date and time is December 25th (Christmas) between three and four thirty that afternoon. Pulling up the weather for that day and location gives me the following data:The average temperature was 66 degrees F with the high for the day at 69 degrees. The moisture had a dew point measurement of about 25 with no precipitation and winds of about 1 MPH in a northern direction. Visibility was about ten miles with clear conditions for that time range.

That tells me it was a beautiful warm and clear sunny day in Agua Dulce and that during that time range there were no weather based phenomenon to give us weird anomalies. Or were there? We’ll come back that. There actually was and it caused the photos in question.

The second thing I look at is the location’s history and local cultural significance.

In this case, it was The Virgin Mary Tree. In 2005, along the Sierra Highway, someone noticed that that a tree among several others, seemed to have an image of the Virgin Mary on it. It quickly became a very popular spot among the faithful and those seeking healing, blessings or a miracle. In 2007, a fire started by accidental arson by a 10 year old boy playing with matches exploded in the area and unfortunately did massive amounts of damage to 38,000 acres of land and destroyed 21 homes. The tree managed to survive the fire while the others around it had to be taken down. Even damaged and badly scarred, the tree became even more of a popular attraction for those of faith and continues to be so today.

So what do we have? We have a location that is culturally significant for the perceived image of the Virgin Mary to which people ascribe powers of blessings, healings and miracles, essentially turning it into a holy shrine. Most who visit the shrine are religious people who are in need of support and aid that they feel they are not getting elsewhere and with nowhere else to turn, they turn to the miraculous. Others who visit are curious passersby and tourists, and sadly others are vandals and people who are hateful and destructive.

Upon having the preconceived notion of entering a holy site or being present at a site that is said to be holy and special, most people enter a frame of mind that puts them into a quiet respectful in awe mind set. As rational investigators, we know that the image of the Virgin Mary isn’t really there. We know that the Virgin Mary isn’t really there and its just a random pattern of lines, shadows and grooves that play with our minds natural tendency to make a recognized shape out of chaos. This is called pareidolia and it’s why we can recognize faces but as you can see, it has drawbacks.

So in combination with pareidolia, we have the conception of a place being holy and magical, even if we aren’t faithful and people seeing the tree as surviving the fire as proof of its power thus the mindset psychologically prepares them, even unconsciously, to label anything that is unusual or strange to the paranormal and supernatural, even its something they would not normally do that with and rationally explain. Their frame of reference has been changed in the moments they are at the location and in the moments they view any captured events in. They are no longer looking at it rationally but emotionally.

Now that we know about the environmental conditions, the location’s history, its cultural significance, the frame of mind and psychology of the witness and the claimants and the neurology of the human brain, what do we have? We have an answer to what is causing our purple flares.

Lens flare caused by bright sunlight!

It’s a bright sunny day outside and the images are all of subjects that are in a heavy mix of light and shadow with a bright clear sky behind the subject facing directly into the camera lens. While it may not appear bright to our eyes (reasonably), to the camera lens and sensor the light is blinding. This light will enter the camera lens— a camera lens is actually a combination of several lenses that when aligned correctly capture not only the original image but the proper mix of colors and shadows without warping it. A single lens on its own wouldn’t work for photography—bounce around the lens structures and the cameras inner workings and finally strike the sensor that records the image.

This will take the image and record it, giving you a picture. However, at the right angles, this bright light will do all the before mentioned behaviors but will cause a brilliant flare to be recorded on the picture as well as the original image. Most commonly, these flares are purple, pink, white, greenish or greenish-white and often occur towards the edges of the field of view. The camera isn’t broken. Essentially what is happening is that, at the right angles, the photons entering the lens bounce around at 186,000 miles per second like mini suns which in turn behave like ping pong balls before striking the sensor and overloading it in little tiny supernova of light instead of properly activating the sensor allowing for a clean shot. This aberration will produce a pronounced lens flare or corona.

Now, given that most people know what lens flares are (generally speaking if not the specific mechanics), they recognize them and dismiss them and simply re-orient themselves and take another picture from a new angle that doesn’t have the flares since most the time, these flares are viewed in real time in the view finder. However, if you are in a location that is considered a holy location and has been associated with miracles whether they are true or not, your brain is primed to be on the lookout for anything special or strange.

When you see the flares, your brain overrides your rational thinking and you go “AHA! It’s a strange miracle/supernatural event that I cannot explain!” This reaction is so strong it can sometimes override our other rational behaviors like calmly studying or listening and instead goes to activate our flight or fight response (ever hear a weird noise outside and you immediately freeze as the hairs on the back of your neck stand up and nine times out of ten no one could pay you enough money to go deeper into the woods to see what made the noise even as your mind floods your primal brain with imagined terrors from your darkest nightmares).

It’s the same thing.

What we have here is the perfect convergence of mental frame of reference, priming, pareidolia and the environment working just right with the sometimes contradictory actions of our brains to produce what some call unusual or strange events when in reality, stripping away the mysticism it’s just lens flare.

Now, I’m not going to assume whether or not the submitters were people of faith; I have no way of knowing. It doesn’t matter. It’s a primal instinctive reaction our brains engage in when in situations as described above and even with 14 years of investigating behind me, I have to immediately shut it down and it takes effort every time to do it so that I can be impartial and objective. It’s as strong as the reaction your body gets when your face gets wet.

When your face gets wet, your body automatically shifts oxygenation priority to your brain and heart, drawing oxygen away from other parts of your body, slowing your heart rate down. It happens nearly instantly and you can feel it happen. It almost makes you want to gasp. This is called the diving reflex and it allows mammalian vertebrate animals (Including humans. Yes, that includes you. You are an animal! ROAR!) to be underwater for longer periods and to survive.

Test it.

Next time you are in the shower, pay attention to what happens to your heart rate and your breathing and rate of thought when your face gets wet. This can be used to your advantage by the way; why do you think so many people splash water on their faces to get woke up or to calm down in tense situations? It’s because it floods your brain and heart with oxygen, preparing you for action and this especially true for cold water. It literally shocks your body awake instinctively into survival mode, juicing up your brain for action.

The instinct and psychological priming in the instances mentioned above are equally as strong as the diving reflex and like the diving reflex it serves a purpose, to help us survive and navigate situations that are dangerous or could present a threat, even if it’s just perceived danger not an actual threat.

Our world is strange but our brains are far stranger; they can do miraculous things, such as memorize an entire cityscape and reproduce it down to the street level with just one viewing, perform rapid and extreme calculations, block pain and form a huge part of who we are but they are also prone to seeing faces in trees, trains in clouds and turning lens flares into supernatural events. The only way to navigate this treacherous and weird world is ironically to use your brain but with the caveat to be cautious.

Nearly all supernatural, religious and unusual events, including recordings, can be explained in this manner: a powerful convergence of frame of reference, pareidolia, primal instinct and the desire to see or experience the unknown with a dash of environmental help from the outside world. Not all events, obviously, can be explained this way, but a great many can.

Keep searching and keep on the journey.

— Anthony.

Anthony Justus

Anthony Justus

Anthony Justus was born in Elizabethon,TN. He has been a paranormal investigator for eleven years, starting with a small rag-tag team in 2003 and growing into the first scientific research team in his state by 2007. His team was part of the TAPS Family network, a network of objectively minded paranormal researchers that took on clients world-wide to assist those with paranormal problems. He studied at Kaplan University for two years majoring in psychology and now runs the Haunted Spots Library blog and writes for Supernatural Magazine. He lives with his husband Ben in the mountains of Appalachia.