January 15, 2021

We need to talk about ‘That’ photo. No, not about balloons.

It was Wednesday December the 2nd 2020, an exhausting year for many, filled with all manner of bad news and concern, but there was a little light in the darkness for UFO researchers. The community was abuzz with conversation surrounding an article released on ‘The Debrief‘ titled “Fast movers and transmedium vehicles the Pentagon’s UAP task force” created by investigative writer Tim McMillan.

The article took a detailed look at various comments and insight regarding the newly formed Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force (UAPTF). The primary excitement generated by the new coverage gravitated around talk of two photographs of alleged UAPs that were rumored to be circulating among the intelligence community.

Although both photographs were described in the McMillan piece, neither were actually published at the time of it’s release. However the following day, in a surprise announcement, McMillan published a second short article with a crisp, clear photograph that looks like it was taken by the co-pilot of a military jet.

For the scope of this article we will be focusing on only this photo, allegedly taken in 2018. While this seemed like a new photo for many, it had in fact been circulating widely among the intelligence community since 2019 and was being passed quietly among UFO researchers since at least as early as Feb 2020.

According to officials The Debrief spoke with, the photo appears to be the same as one referenced in our previous reporting, described as an “unidentified silver ‘cube-shaped’ object” encountered by military pilots as it hovered motionlessly over the ocean. It appears evident that the image was captured by the backseat weapons systems operator of what appears to be an F/A-18 fighter jet.

The photo is consistent with the claims that the image was captured by a pilot using their personal cell phone. Officials we spoke with said the image was captured in 2018 off the East Coast of the United States.

Tim McMillan, The Debrief, Dec 4th 2020

A similar account regarding the timing of this story was also repeated by Mystery Wire, a web site dedicated to the work of well known researcher and veteran journalist George Knapp.

In 2019, Mystery Wire was given a copy of the same cockpit photo. Mystery Wire was told the photograph was taken in 2018 by a Navy pilot using his cell phone. At this time we cannot confirm if there any other photographs of this object.

Duncan Phenix, Mystery Wire, Dec 4th 2020

The photo is fascinating to look at, despite the fact that the UAP is reasonably small in the frame, the picture was sharp, well lit and came from what many hoped was a sympathetic source within the DoD trying to get the ‘truth’ out to the greater public. The usual excitement and arguments erupted on social media with people trying to zoom in on the object in the photo, adjusting, sharpening and even using super-resolution tools to try and eek out every part of visual data they could. I even took a stab at it myself.

While many people passionately discussed the merits of what was portrayed in the photo, suggesting it was everything from a Batman style Mylar party balloon to a much larger high altitude solar balloon, others were digging deeper into the metadata or EXIF tags that were embedded into the image itself.

What is EXIF data?

EXIF stands for Exchangeable Image File Format. Every time you take a picture with your digital camera or phone, a file (typically a JPEG) is written to your device’s storage. In addition to all the bits dedicated to the actual picture, it records a considerable amount of supplemental metadata as well. This can include date, time, camera settings, and possible copyright information.

Now let’s take a look at the EXIF data extracted from the actual image published on The Debrief web site the day after the initial article.

As you can see there are lots of data points captured in EXIF information, but we only need to focus on the five pieces that I have highlighted in yellow.

Camera Model Name: Easy enough, it is simply the manufacturer’s description of the model of camera, in this case an Apple iPhone 8 which all seems normal enough.

Exposure Time: This is simply the amount of time that the ‘shutter’ on the camera opens and closes to capture the image. Our measurement of 1/1656 indicates that the shutter was open for only one 1656th of a second, which is extremely fast. This tells us that the picture was taken in extremely bright light which again fits with claim that it was taken from the cockpit of a plane, above the clouds during the daytime.

ISO: In very basic terms, ISO is simply a camera setting that will brighten or darken a photo. As you increase your ISO number, your photos will grow progressively brighter. For that reason, ISO can help you capture images in darker environments, or be more flexible about your aperture and shutter speed settings.

If we look at our ISO data, we get a measurement of 20. As you can see by looking at the graphic above, 20 is extremely low, indicating the photo was taken in very bright light. This measurement combined with the extremely fast exposure time again shows good reason to conclude that the photo was indeed taken in broad daylight.

Date/Time Original: As you would expect records the date and time that the photograph was captured. In this case is shows the photo was taken on Monday, March 4th 2019 at 3:02pm which certainly fits with all of our other data of a picture taken on a bright sunny afternoon.

Acceleration Vector: Finally we have a slightly more unusual piece of data that you wouldn’t expect to see on an average point and shoot camera, but because many cell phones have accelerometers built-in as standard we get this helpful extra piece of information. A Reddit user by the name of ‘Pomegranatemagnate’ gave the following explanation about this particular data point…

Drawing from this information we can conclude with reasonable confidence that the phone was moving when the photograph was taken, which again fits in line with the claimed story of it’s origin.

So, to recap, using the embedded data we have extracted from the photo we can reasonably conclude that.

  • The Photo was taken from a moving plane
  • It was taken by the co-pilot with an Apple iPhone 8
  • It was taken in very bright, broad daylight
  • It was taken on Monday, March 4th 2019 at 3:02pm

So far so good right? Well no, not really.

If we look back at the original articles, both The Debrief and Mystery Wire clearly state that the photo presented is from an event that happened in 2018.

So how can a photograph taken in 2019 be from an incident reported to multiple sources as happening in 2018?

McMillan was asked this question by a few people in the UFO community and responded on Twitter.

Image

But this explanation doesn’t seem to hold water in the face of the data that we have extracted from the photo The Debrief shared in their Dec 3rd article.

We have already established that the phone was in fact moving when it was used to take the picture and we have also established that the image was taken in extremely bright light, most likely daylight. So it seems highly unlikely that someone took a photo of a photo, with an iphone, travelling at speed outdoors. If you were going to do this, it would be far more likely that you would do it indoors, on a stable surface.

I would also like to draw your attention to another detail, which is literally ‘the detail’ in the photo released in the original article.

For anyone who has found themselves without a scanner at hand when they need to get a digital copy of a physical document, they know a quick and easy thing to do is simply take a picture of that document with their cell phone. If you have ever done this, you will know that although it does an ok job, it certainly doesn’t look too great, the colors tend to be off, the light distribution across the image can be very uneven and, if you are taking it by hand it can be difficult to get a perfectly sharp image.

Now let’s take a look at a few zoomed in areas of our original 2019 photo.

In the picture above pay close attention to all the fine detail captured in the very fine lowlights of the cockpit instrumentation. This is impressive detail for any cell phone camera in any situation, especially with such bright light outside. This level of refined definition and subtlety of color grade would be impossible to capture by taking a photo of a photo – especially while apparently moving at speed and outdoors (as our data clearly shows us).

In our second picture we can see how incredibly crisp the object is in the distance, as you would expect from something in focus and taken in extremely good outdoor lighting conditions. Also pay attention to the extremely fine subtle gradients of the clouds and the sky, again impressive for a cell phone camera, but I would say impossible for a iPhone camera taking a picture of another physical picture.

Below is another copy of the same Photograph that was also floating around the various communities. However this photo has virtually no EXIF data attached to it, and I’m sure you will see, this clearly is a photo of a photo – see the difference?

In Closing

We have in our possession a photograph that was passed to multiple sources in the media from a DoD ‘insider’ along with a story claiming that it was taken during an incident in 2018 where the pilot of a US fighter jet witnessed a UAP. When we question the obvious discrepancies between the alleged story and the data that we find in the supplied image, we are presented with a further story which again doesn’t align with the data we have presented here today.

It’s an age old story of trying to talk to ‘insiders’ and taking the risk that the information that they give to investigators is accurate. In this circumstance I cannot prove that the stories surrounding this photograph are true or false, all I can do is present the data as I have found it and lay out my argument that this photo was taken in 2019, with an Apple iPhone 8, moving at speed, in broad daylight.

As for ‘what’ is in this photograph, well that’s a whole other story.