How the CIA Made a Checklist on Photographing UFO Sightings

Declassified is an original Phoblographer series that digs deep into historical documents to examine how the government used photography.

In the late 1950s, an anonymous man explored space from his backyard using his telescope. Just like many of you, he was fascinated by what’s out there. And what he found intrigued the CIA. Some probably thought that he was crazy. But a report details the high-resolution photography and emulsions he was using to get the photos. Strange objects were appearing not far from the moon. The CIA received things like this all the time, but the outstanding, high-resolution images this man shot began a vintage X-Files series of investigations. It concerned them enough that they started studies almost 62 years ago.

All this began with the Roswell crash in the 1940s. Since then, the public had been fascinated with UFOs, and the government acknowledged their existence. So in 1953, they held a panel to get comments and suggestions. It started with a unanimous belief that they’re not a threat to national security. A few particular cases are mentioned, like that of Tremonton in Utah. 1600 frames of video were shot on Kodachrome, documenting what happened. It later spurred details on how these things should be handled between the US Air force and the CIA. Interestingly, even though the previous panel didn’t think they were a threat, the Air Force details that they could have been.

In the same year that the CIA took the anonymous man’s photos more seriously, a lot more happened. The CIA started getting floods of queries about UFOs when they declassified a Flying Saucer report in 1953. And they attempted to keep close track of it all. Much of what they received up to that point wasn’t incredibly clear or useful. The agency had standards for measuring and obtaining information from photos, but lots of folks didn’t know those standards.

A document explains how Major R.W. Nyls of the United States Air Force investigated a UFO claim himself. He went and did the exact type of photography, exposure, and all that was first reported to the CIA. This UFO was a quarter of a mile away from the photographer. What made is very odd is the craft’s circular design and a tail section. That gave them evidence that it was probably a helicopter, but they couldn’t prove that. The CIA ended up not knowing how to proceed. There was just not enough knowledge and understanding. They couldn’t verify that it was authentic, but they also couldn’t prove it was a hoax.

In January of 1967, the CIA released a document teaching folks how to photograph UFOs. Some of the details include the following:

1. Have camera set at infinity.
2. Fast film, such as Tri-X, is very good.
3. For moving objects shutter speeds not slower than one hundredth of a second should be used. Shutter and f-stop combination will depend upon lighting conditions; dusk, cloudy day, bright
sunlight, etc. If your camera does not require such settings, just take pictures.
4. Do not move camera during exposure.

The CIA asked for as many photos as possible of the objects. But the more interesting fact is that the CIA asked for basically a panoramic image. After documenting the UFO, photographers needed to slowly turn around and photograph the surrounding landscape. The CIA thought that this information was critical. Photographers were asked to also fill out a form with extra details. They even wanted to know where the film was processed, which potentially meant that the lab would be investigated.

If you’re interested, the CIA has a massive 186-page document on UFOs dating back to 1964.

All screenshots were taken from the CIA archives.