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Shadow of a Doubt: Crowdsourcing Time Verification of the MH17 Missile Launch Photo

August 7, 2015

By Aric Toler

While much open source investigation is done through crowd sourcing, the administrator of the MH17 forum has taken a unique approach: a single-blind poll to collaboratively determine the timing of a photograph. While this experiment does not have the scientific rigor of a pharmaceutical trial, the methodology of administrator “bootblack” is worthwhile of some examination.

The photograph in question is the infamous MH17 launch image, which was posted by @WowihaY after he received it from a friend shortly after the downing of MH17 (4:20pm local time). The photograph shows a missile contrail south of Snizhne and southeast of the photographer’s location. Significantly, the EXIF data on this photograph shows that it was taken–according to the camera’s internal clock–at 4:25pm local time, July 17, 2014. This time places the photograph at just five minutes after the downing of MH17; however, the internal clock’s time was likely not perfectly synced and accurate the same way a cell phone would be. The circumstances of this photograph have been hotly debated online, even though the photograph has been verified as true by multiple international experts. The Dutch criminal investigation into the downing of MH17 have interviewed the photographer, and are taking the photograph into account in its investigation. Needless to say, this image is a very important piece of evidence into the tragedy’s investigation, and a more accurate time-frame for the photograph (other than the camera’s internal clock) would further confirm its value.


The brightened version of the smoke trail photograph. The original photograph was darker, while this one was retouched by the photographer to better depict the smoke trail in question.

Bootblack, the administrator of the popular MH17 forum of, acquired numerous photographs from a local of the shadow on a particular rooftop in Torez. The administrator also received the exact time each photograph was taken. This roof in question is the same one that appears in the photograph above (bottom-left/center, to the left of a tall pole). The purpose of Bootblack’s experiment is to crowdsource the opinions of the forum to select which of the photographs most accurately depicts the angle of the rooftop shadow when compared to the July 17 launch photograph. As anyone who has ever seen a sundial will know, the time can be determined by a shadow once various factors (angle of object casting shadow, azimuth, etc) are determined.

The administrator received the time of each photograph, but chose not to share them with the forum, hoping for unbiased assessments of which photograph was the most accurate. Theoretically, with some adjustments with the azimuth and the exact conditions recorded for the day of the MH17 shootdown, we would be able to know–down to a very narrow time-frame–when the launch photo was taken without relying on the reading of a camera’s internal clock in the EXIF data. We probably cannot get the exact second of the photograph with this shadow angle method, but we would be able to refute an argument that the photograph was actually taken in the morning or early afternoon.


The house and shadow in question from the launch photo

Bootblack set out the following procedures for the thread:

1) In a joint effort (poll and comments) we will select a photo with the shadow that matches the shadow in the [photographer’s] photo. If someone’s eye fixes upon an intermediate position, just tell me.

2) Knowing the recorded time of the selected photo, we will calculate the azimuth of the shadow. The EXIF has already been deleted to eliminate subjectivity.

3) We will recalculate the obtained azimuth to July 17, 2014 and from that we will calculate the exact time the photographer shot the shadow.

One of the photographs provided by the forum administrator

One of the photographs provided by the forum administrator

For three pages, the forum users debated which of the twelve provided photographs best matched the shadow on the launch photo. Different users, including the administrator, threw their lots in to different ones, with various creative uses of overlaying lines over the given photographs to judge the correct angles:

8-5-2015 6-54-14 PM 8-6-2015 5-07-14 PM 8-5-2015 6-52-46 PM


Eventually, the administrator revealed the time of the photograph numbered 4328, which was in between the two leading vote-getters (4325 and 4330). This photograph was taken at August 1, 2015 at 4:35:46pm with the azimuth of 260.52, which corresponds to a July 17, 2014 time of 4:21:29pm. The administrator later calculated what he saw as a more accurate time based on the line alignment in the two photographs: 4:22:40pm on July 17, 2014.

If the results of the “shadow poll” experiment are trusted, the camera’s internal clock was about 3 minutes fast. It is difficult to conclusively say the exact minute–let alone the second–that the launch photograph was taken due to the margin of error in the shadow exercise and the impreciseness of the camera’s internal clock. However, this exercise in tandem with the self-reported EXIF data demonstrates that the launch photograph was indeed taken soon after 4:20pm, the time of the MH17 downing.

Aric Toler

Aric Toler started volunteering for Bellingcat in 2014 and has been on staff since 2015. He currently heads up Bellingcat's training efforts and its Eastern Europe/Eurasia research.

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  1. Pianoman

    For what reason are my posts constantly getting deleted? I’m not posting anything offensive, inflammatory, nor unusual. Yet my posts keep disappearing.

    • Aric Toler

      I don’t see any other comments from your IP. They may have gotten caught in the spam filter. Will look later when I get the chance.

    • Aric Toler

      Found one. It was put into the spam filter because you included multiple hyperlinks in a comment. WordPress defaults to put those in spam or pending because real spam messages are usually filled with trash links. Just restored your comment.

    • boggled

      In the comments of your article a person says –
      ‘ LOL This is a joke? First video is recorded in Russia (Stary Oskol area) and second in Ukraine (Krasnoarmiisk area) in Kiev government army controlled area. Billboards prove it. And “phone calls”? Second joke? The only real evidence (satellite images and radar records) so far presented only Russia.’

      Most of her statement is false, but that one fact at the beginning may be correct.
      But no, I have not seen it confirmed or geolocated anywhere offhand that I remember.

      Fare thee well

  2. David Jones

    The photo was taken at approx. 4.22. there is another photo from a different angle taken at 4.28 with no white smoke plume. Suspicious. It’s on the 7mei site.

    • David

      There’s nothing suspicious about it. The plume is on both photos, but the first picture is deliberately enhanced to make the plume more visible. 7mei is not a credible source, especially since most “proof” of fraud mentioned on that site can be debunked using basic logic, whilst the rest of the “proof” can be debunked with Photoshop and, ironically, their own video they use as “proof”. Lack of correct terminology regarding photo manipulation is also a reason to be suspicious of the content on 7mei.

  3. crook23

    OK, I have only one question – were the exact coordinates of the launch, this photo has captured, determined? I wanna put it on my personal Google Map, just to play around with it.

  4. Rod Templer

    What we need to know is whether the photo was manipulated. This is much more important. Where is the original photo?

  5. Andy Popov

    After the year of investigation there is not even one witness dweller of Ukraine who had seen the launch of the Buk missile. And there are hundreds of people who had seen the military jet near Malaysian Boeing MH-17 before the crash.
    Also I had looked several fresh video from Youtube about how burning Boeing fell. There is no even the hint on the rocket “Buk” trail. Correspondent BBC Olga Ivshina arrived into the crash area next day and she took several interview with witnesses who had seen the military jet near the passenger Boeing before the catastrophe.

    • yuri_ua

      There is a lecture of commission from Netherlands. Simply physics. There are such sciences – physics, geometry, mathematics. There are other proofs, except science. All other – from sly.


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