Let me preface this post with this: I’m not a believer or disbeliever in the supernatural world. I’m open to the idea of everything from God to earth-bound spirits. Sensational headline aside, I can only internally settle on my experience last Saturday while shooting my first wedding at Tarpy’s Roadhouse in Monterey as – unexplainable, curious, and fascinating. As I’ll explain, several things happened independently that, at the time, didn’t bring to mind “ghostly presence” of their own merit. It was only two days later, after coming across a strange photo while sorting through images, that my brain led down the path that has arrived at this blog post.
I’ll begin with the moment that I realized something unexplainable had occurred. As I said before, this alone didn’t originally strike me as particularly odd; and I possibly could’ve overlooked it completely had I not put it in context of other things that had happened, or with what I would learn a few minutes later. It was Monday morning, two days after I photographed this awesome wedding, and I was at The Buttery in Santa Cruz sipping my Americano and sorting through the 1600+ photos I’d shot two days earlier, picking which ones to keep or throw out. I was looking at a series of images of the bride and groom dancing with some friends. They were on the outdoor upper patio (next to the “Library”), which served as a small dance area next to the bar at Tarpy’s Roadhouse in Monterey. Since it was dark, I had two off-camera light sources illuminating the scene – a 30″ softbox camera right as the key light, and a single speedlight clamped to an elevated garden/fence area that was providing backlighting to the dancers at about hip height.
The thing that caught my attention in the photo was the distinct white vapor cloud illuminated by the single speedlight. My first thought was “Did my flash explode?” But no, it continued to work normally in subsequent shots. I was taking photos pretty much every second for this series, so I backed up in time by one second. In this first photo (below), you can see the “mist cloud” forming around the periphery of the brightest part of the flash, but it clearly hasn’t coalesced yet. Keep in mind the time between this shot and THE shot is only one second. The frames immediately thereafter were blocked by people, but no evidence of any smoke cloud can be seen in between. The first clear shot I had after the cloud had fully formed was 12 seconds later, and there was no evidence of it at all in that shot. Keep in mind that without the flashes going off, you really can’t see anything as it was so dark. Here’s the series of photos, my comments beneath each (note: all images shot on a Nikon D800 w/ 50mm lens @ F2.8 1/50th sec ISO 800; off-camera Nikon speedlights are triggered and synced by Pocketwizard Flex TT5 units; RAW files edited in Lightroom, but only with basic exposure tweaks):
Of course my culling process completely came to a halt at this point as I went back and forth through this series of images. My mind naturally sought explanations for the visual anomaly, and every one I had to discount.
- Was it caused by the flash physically exploding or malfunctioning? No, it was manually set at its lowest setting of 1/128th power, and continued to operate and expose the scene consistently before and after.
- Was it caused by someone’s cigarette? No, there was nobody standing there, and nobody smoking anywhere anyway. Plus the cloud appeared at hip/chest height.
- Was it caused by someone exhaling? No, again no one there, not high enough in the air, and it was a warm evening.
- Was it caused by the vapor from the heat of the flash? This seemed like the most rational explanation, given it happened near the same height as the speedlight, BUT barely any heat is given off at that power setting, and even at full power the heat can only be felt an inch or two away. Plus, it was not. Cold. Out.
Perhaps the strangest factor is how quickly it appeared and disappeared. If it was smoke, it would have lingered and dissipated, likely floating up in the process. This white cloud appeared at a specific location, not at head height, without any implied directional movement, and disappeared just as quickly. It reminds me of the photos you see of the cloud around a jet fighter formed by a sonic boom. And even though there were periodic low-flying aircraft given our proximity to the airport, that by no means explains this phenomenon.
OK, so back to the “other things” that, in their context, led me to consider more supernatural explanations for the visual conundrum I’d captured on my camera. Earlier in the evening, I’d walked out to the patio to set up my lights for the dancing that was going to happen, and the bride and groom accompanied me. The couple were standing together about 8 feet from me and we were talking. Then the bride exhaled and noticed that she could see her breath. So of course both her and her husband started breathing out so we could see their breath forming in the air. We all just kind of laughed about it, thinking it was weird as it wasn’t cold out. I asked her later (after finding the weird photo) if she remembered that moment, and whether she felt cold. She said she did remember, but that she didn’t have a sense of being cold at the time. Anyways, when I recalled this event, it took on a different context given the photo I’d found – and of course the photo by association became even more mysterious. Which leads me to the third “thing” that really solidified things in my mind as a possible-supernatural-occurence.
The Buttery doesn’t have wi-fi, so I got out my phone and performed a quick google search for “Tarpy’s Roadhouse Ghost” – and guess what? Turns out the place is considered haunted by many people, especially those who have worked at the property. I didn’t go into this situation knowing Tarpy’s has an interesting history, I only knew it was an old building that used to be a house. After a little online research, I discovered the original owner had been lynched in 1873 for murdering his neighbor, and that over the years there’s been quite a few “tragic deaths” on the property. I watched a seven minute YouTube video filled with interviews from employees’ stories of “chills,” seeing a ghostly female apparition, strange voices, and even poltergeist-like presences making a mess in the kitchen. Take all this with a grain of salt, as I do, but keep in mind my experience began with a strange photo, and I made my way to the ghostly/supernatural presence only based on my direct experience. I had no idea about the history of the house when I shot the wedding, and I can honestly say that the whole experience on the wedding day was awesome. The staff at Tarpy’s are all incredibly nice, the food is insanely good – so I don’t want to tarnish the image of the restaurant in any way. I’d happily shoot there again, although I would definitely be on the lookout for weirdness!
So was it a ghost? I don’t know. It was a cloud of mist that was most definitely there, captured in high-resolution and well-lit. Given the strange breath-clouds experienced earlier in the day, and now knowing a little about its haunted history, I’m definitely open to the possibility that I photographed a unexplained presence that night. I find the whole thing fascinating, and will leave it to you to draw your own conclusions. Until next time…