"Glad someone is finally addressing this bogus issue of orbs properly. I've been preaching
against orbs being paranormal for years."
- Dale Kaczmarek
Ghost Research Society (on 'The Orb Dilemma')
SUBMITTED BY KEN DE COSTA
The presence and origin of "orbs" continues to be a topic of debate among paranormal
enthusiasts all over the world. What are these spherical anomalies that continually reveal
themselves in photographs taken at allegedly haunted locations? Despite almost overwhelming
evidence to the contrary, many believe these glowing balls of light represent the discarnate
spirits of the deceased that still wandering the Earth. Many point to orbs as globules of energy
that serve as a kind of vehicle necessary to transport the entity in and out of our physical
realm. This premise seems to match up with another popular theory that spirits are comprised
of energy and employ it to manifest themselves.
On the surface, this certainly seems to be validation of their existence, especially to those
anxious to display proof of the supernatural to a public clamoring for it. But do orbs exist as
actual objects, or are they merely photographic misinterpretations brought about by the
limitations and functions of the device used to capture them? Why do many (including yours
truly) remain skeptical of what is being presented as photographic proof of the afterlife? Using
some of the most commonly asked questions or proclamations about these anomalies, let's
examine some of the more probable alternatives to orbs being clear-cut paranormal entities.
You hear about orbs being nothing but dust or moisture particles, but here is a picture taken in
a place with seemingly no dust or moisture present. Therefore, how could anything anomalous
showing up on film be anything but by definition, paranormal?
(Photo by Andy Ford)
This is a recurring theme and a common misconception among many who feel they have
captured this "phenomenon" on film. For the most part, it is relatively simple to determine that
orbs are primarily reflections of dust, insects or moisture particles that are extremely close to
the lens and have been illuminated by a camera flash. Stomping on a rug and snapping a quick
picture or taking a photo outdoors during or after a rainstorm will easily reproduce such effects.
Particles of dust most often appear to be transparent, with a smaller percentage giving the
appearance of being quite solid.
Here's a quick test you can perform while reading this to see the effects of objects close to
a visual source: Place your finger very close to your eyes and look directly at it. Does it appear
you can see through it? This is much the same as when an object is very close to a camera
The reality is that dust is everywhere, whether we can see it with the naked eye or not.
Turning on a flashlight in a dark room or watching dust cross a ray of sunlight coming through a
window will show you this is true. Even in the cleanest spaces, dust particles are all around us.
In fact, a great deal of these particles are comprised of flakes of skin that naturally and
constantly shed from all living things. While that may be an unpleasant illustration, it is very
much a fact of life. As far as snapping pictures outdoors in locations such as cemeteries, there
are so many natural explanations for what might appear in a photo or what may have caused it
that it is difficult - if not downright impossible - not to dismiss it as being a valid paranormal
Dust remains in the air and will redistribute because of air currents, whether caused by
wind, human movement, static electricity or convection (the difference in air temperature
between two surface areas).
Moisture particles, which appear for the most part as solid white dots, may have what
looks like a tail behind them as they move though the air (above). Such particles won't form
unless there is residual moisture in the atmosphere or on objects (trees, buildings) that
retained it from, say, a rainstorm. The exception is when relative humidity reaches 100
percent, at which point it is probable that a mist or dew will form, resulting in the presence of
such particles. Some images show moisture particles with the tail on the bottom, creating the
appearance of upward movement. Again, wind (or simple air flow) can move moisture or dust
particles in any number of directions quite easily. They may also abruptly change direction.
While you may appear to be in a very calm environment, air actually continues to flow all about
The length of the flash is also an important factor in creating the appearance of leaving a
trail. The farther away the target is from the camera, the longer the flash will take to illuminate
the scene properly. As the flash begins to fade after its initial flare, the continued movement of
the moisture (or insect) will be captured as a fade hence the tail or streak behind the more
solid object that was caught at the initial flash.
If these "orbs" are dust, insects or moisture and all of those have very irregular shapes, why
do they always appear to be circular?
The circular shape (above) is based on the fact that your camera has an aperture that is
also circular. What you shoot will take on the same form. Some cameras may have an aperture
that is diamond-shaped or hexagonal, therefore causing the orb to take on that same shape
(above right). In a nutshell, it is not necessarily the true shape of the object you are seeing,
but the camera lens itself causing it to take on that form. A second, but no less important
factor is the distance from the lens to the object in question. If an object is too close to the
lens, it projects itself onto the CCD (the chip that records the picture in digital cameras) as a
flatter image, thereby becoming distorted. Conversely, an object farther away within the
prescribed camera range (or "depth of field") projects itself onto the CCD as a sharper, more
pointed image. This, in summation, is what orbs generally are: distorted images caused by
their close proximity to a single-lens camera.
Multiple photos were taken in rapid succession, but orbs only appeared in one. If dust, etc. is
always present, how can this be explained?
Trickier question. Just be aware that because dust is always present doesn't necessarily
mean it will be in the same spot each time or show itself every time you take a shot. Dust is
always moving through the air and will do so in a cluster for the most part, but certainly not
always. Also remember that when looking through a lens you are looking at a very small field
If dust indeed travels in clusters, why do we see many pictures with only one orb in them?
(Photo by Spooky Southcoast)
Because dust is in a constant state of movement, its location and dispersal will always
vary from shot to shot. It is not inconceivable then that a single particle of dust may show up in
any particular photograph. And remember, when taking any photo you are only capturing one
area of an entire room. Another thing to bear in mind is that many single-orb photos are of
insects. The orb's circular form, as previously stated, is determined by the shape of the camera
aperture and the distorted appearance is produced by its distance from the camera. The closer
to the recommended depth of field it is, the more defined its shape will be.
Please note: Insects and moisture are very reflective objects when a flash is used and can
create single orbs from a greater distance from the camera than dust, which is duller and does
not reflect light as well. Insects and moisture particles tend to show as solid, white objects
(above left) while dust particles emerge as more transparent for the most part (above right).
Other bits and pieces you should be aware of in regards to orb photography are:
The use of a flash. Almost all orbs show up when flash photography is used, thereby causing
the necessary illumination to reflect against them. This does not mean they will only show up
when a flash is used. Sunlight may also be a great source of illumination in daytime orb
Orbs tend to show up better on dark backgrounds.
The type of camera being used also plays a role: Orbs tend to show up more on compact
models rather than digital single-lens reflex cameras (DSLRs).
With a common handheld camera, exposure and focus variances occur automatically within the
camera itself from shot to shot, even when it's moved so slightly that it seems imperceptible.
The zoom features, amount of light present and the distance to the object you are shooting
cannot be easily (if at all) controlled by most people using digital cameras, which are for the
most part the camera of choice these days. Not surprisingly capturing orbs with film cameras is
much rarer, yet not impossible.
Shooting pictures around reflective objects like windows, picture frames and even glossy walls
can cause a reflection back into the lens that can easily be misconstrued for something
Some orbs appear to be partially obscured by objects. Does this not prove that these objects
aren't close to the camera lens and have noticeable mass?
Digital cameras have a drawback to them inasmuch as details within the photos they
produce tend to get a bit distorted when taken in areas that are too dark or too bright or where
one color tends to dominate the setting. The more compact models are especially susceptible to
this. You should always look closely at the anomaly when this happens. It almost always will
appear to be very faint in color compared to the object that appears to be obscuring it. The
orb, in essence, is being overpowered by the color or brightness of the object it is in front of,
creating the illusion that the orb is obscured. If you enhanced the image with the proper
photographic software, you would be able to see that the orb is in fact positioned in front of the
object that appears to be partially blocking it out.
How do you explain orbs that appear to have faces inside them?
Distance to the camera plays a large part in this. Usually those orbs that have been shot
closer to the lens produce this type of detail as they show up larger. The size of the orb will
influence how much structure appears within it, as does the condition of the camera lens itself.
A camera lens is actually made up of a few separate lenses, and all models of cameras tend to
vary somewhat. If you have a smudge or speck of dust on the lens, or two pieces of debris that
cross over each other at the time of the shot, it can affect the appearance of the photo
drastically by making the already-distorted image appear as if it has detail inside it.
In the end, the single most important facet one must always, always be conscious of is
something parapsychologists refer to as pareidolia. Our brains have an instinctive ability to try
to make sense out of visual chaos. We all are familiar with those Rorschach tests in which a
psychologist shows patients an ink blot and asks what it represents to them. A more common
example we're all familiar with is perceiving a distinct shape in a random cloud formation. (Any
object that appears to be something other than what it actually is is called a simulacrum.)
These are all very normal reactions and in fact may have a great deal to do with the human
survival trait of being able to recognize faces from a distance using only a small amount of
detail. This trait may also come into play when presented with varying shades of light or
random images. Below is one of the more famous examples of mass pareidolia: the "demonic"
face that emerged from the World Trade Center during the 9/11 attack on New York City. This
particular photograph of merging smoke and shadows has been circulated around the world and
labeled by millions as positive proof of a higher power at work during this catastrophic event.
THE ORB DILEMMA