Photoshop: Changing the Game for UFO Research Since 1990

Over the past 25 years, Photoshop has enhanced the way work is done across industries as diverse as fashion and marketing, architecture and app design. In fact, it’s difficult to find a field, no matter how obscure, that hasn’t been touched by Photoshop in one way or another. But sometimes it’s been a mixed blessing.

Consider, for instance, the plight of the UFO researcher.

Before Photoshop arrived on home computers around the world, investigating images of unidentified flying objects relied on some fairly traditional methods of photographic analysis. Negatives could be inspected for tampering or double exposures, and prints could be scrutinized with a magnifying glass for signs of strings suspending objects from lampposts or power lines.

But once Photoshop and its image-editing ilk arrived on the scene, researchers were presented with a double-edged sword: UFO photos, once scanned and uploaded, could now be analyzed on a computer more thoroughly and easily than ever before.  Yet ordinary pranksters would soon grow equally adept at creating fake UFO photos using the same tools. What was a diligent UFO researcher, or ufologist, to do?

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This photo was taken in Michigan on January 9, 1967. (Credit: Project Blue Book, US National Archives.)

Dr. Bruce Maccabee, author of The FBI-CIA-UFO Connection and perhaps the world’s leading expert on UFO image analysis, has seen his share of strange pictures since he began working in the field of ufology during the late 1960s. He admits that today’s image-editing software has made his job both easier and a little trickier at times.

“Digital technology certainly helps more inexperienced researchers find the faults that seasoned veterans can spot from a mile away,” Maccabee tells us. But he admits that even his well-trained eye has benefited from the powers of software applications like Photoshop. “Recently, I was able to use histogram equalization to analyze some daylight photos of a bright object overhead in Chile. I managed to bring out some details in that image that ended up looking like a plate with a ball on top of it. I’ve also used edge sharpness to analyze and find tampering in frames of a 1997 video from Mexico City.”

We ask him if he’s found that fake photos and videos have been on the rise since Photoshop has been around. He explains that hoaxes have accompanied the UFO phenomenon ever since the first big wave of sightings in 1947, but it’s certainly easier to modify photos in 2015. “Sometimes,” he says, “a hoaxter will have a photo rejected for a certain reason and, a few days later, send in another photo that has been adjusted as per what you told them was wrong with it!”

At a time when every other Millennial is a sophisticated Photoshop wunderkind, Maccabee believes that context is everything when it comes to evaluating an alleged UFO sighting.  “A photo does not a UFO make,” says Maccabee. “The easiest photos to eliminate are those from anonymous sources. You might be able to create a photo that fakes out the experts, but without a convincing story it’s not going to go anywhere.”

Using data from the National UFO Reporting Center, Chris Pearson produced this animated map of all UFO sightings in the US since 1933. (Credit: Chris Pearson, QuantBait.)

Peter Davenport, director of the National UFO Reporting Center (NUFORC) in Seattle, agrees. He has dedicated the better part of the past two decades to collecting detailed eyewitness accounts of inexplicable things seen in the sky, and, now more than ever, photos and videos are not necessarily persuasive on their own.

“What is submitted to the National UFO Reporting center is best characterized as a mixed bag,” he says. “We get telephoned reports, reports submitted by our online report form, and emails that include photographic attachments. Naturally, one is always confronted with the question as to whether a photograph is the real thing or might have been doctored through the use of Photoshop.” He pauses, adding: “But you know, I think ufology is no different in this respect from other fields of endeavor, like law or business. When someone tells a story, you’re always weighing a number of factors to determine whether or not they’re telling the truth.”

And based on everything Davenport has seen and heard—starting with his own initial sighting in 1954—what does he think the more trustworthy and genuinely inexplicable UFO stories and photos represent?

“The biggest question that we try to answer is: Are we alone or are we not alone?” he says. “My unambiguous answer to that is no, we are not alone. I believe that we live in a galaxy teeming with life. And my best guess, based on twenty years of work, is that from time to time representatives of these species pay a visit to planet Earth.”