Nathan Ziegler wore an inquisitive but puzzled smile as he studied the picture on his laptop computer.
In front of him was the image of a shadowy figure, seemingly of a man leaning forward in a walk at Old Pioneer Cemetery on a hill outside of town.
A figure that wasn’t in the time-lapse frame 30 seconds before or 30 seconds later, meaning perhaps that whatever it was just dropped in and then disappeared or was passing by at an inhumanly fast clip.
Whatever it was and how it appeared, it took the 35-year-old Ziegler, an accomplished photographer and videographer, by surprise.
He and his wife, Tennille, who grew up in Milton-Freewater, visit the Walla Walla Valley every summer from their home in Minneapolis, where he is principal at Hope Academy.
The Valley boasts beautiful sunsets, so on July 23 Ziegler was anxious to capture one with a new camera. He hiked nearly a mile uphill to the town’s oldest graveyard, a site he knew he could count on for its sweeping views.
Amid wheat fields, the small cemetery is high above the city on private land, maintained only by sporadic volunteer effort. Placed at an intersection of the Oregon Trail, it was established in May 1878, according to Frazier Farmstead Museum information. The last known burial is thought to be in the early 1940s.
Ziegler mounted his new GoPro Hero3 camera on his tripod, placed it front of a tombstone and started the 30-second time lapse function at 8:13 p.m. He left it for two hours, then returned from his family’s house pack things up and go to bed.
The next morning he downloaded the pictures to his laptop to add to his blog.
He noticed nothing unusual until he showed the pictures to his father-in-law.
“Something caught my eye,” Ziegler said. “I zoomed in to take a closer look.”
There, at 9:08:30 p.m., at what appears to be several feet back from the lone tree in the frame is the fuzzy image of a humanoid shape walking, leaning or standing still, it’s impossible to know.
The shape is seen in no other exposure before or after.
“I’m really curious about it.”
So were people who commented on the sequence after he posted it on his Facebook page. They offered a slew of possibilities a tree limb fell, a bug on the lens, a human visitor to the graveyard.
But no limb was on the ground when Ziegler and his brother-in-law returned to the cemetery July 24, he said. The shape of the small camera’s lens makes it highly unlikely a bug could be the mysterious image, and the frame was shot as darkness neared. “It’s not likely a family member visiting a grave, as they would be dead by now also.”
The two men then checked on whether a person could have walked across the distance in the exposed frame in 30 seconds or less. A person could if he were considerably closer in the foreground, in front of the tree. But the mystery image appears behind the tree in the only frame it is seen in.
A second round of a time-lapse recording of the Old Pioneer Cemetery, set up the next evening at the same time to capture more of the graveyard, revealed nothing unusual, he added.
“I still haven’t figured this one out,” Ziegler said.