Orbs: The Ghost in the Camera

Are orbs really ghosts, or a common artifact of photography?

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Paranormal

Skeptoid #29
February 24, 2007
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Also available in Spanish
 

Orb
Orbs!

Next time you pick up a camera, watch out. You're holding in your hand the very device responsible for tens of thousands of the most bizarre and unexplainable type of ghost photographs: Orbs.

Orbs, formally called Spirit Orbs, are those semi-transparent white balls seen floating around in many photographs taken in ghostly locations. Orbs are among the class of paranormal phenomena that are visible only to cameras, and not to the naked eye.

The usual hypothesis presented by believers is that orbs represent spirits of dead people, though some support variations on that. The science behind this hypothesis is not clear. For example, there are no plausible hypotheses that describe the mechanism by which a person who dies will become a hovering ball of light that appears on film but is invisible to the eye. There are lots of other things that a dead person might become, presumably; and the only reason believers have chosen orbs seems to be that orbs are the most common unexpected objects seen in photographs. If there was any good science behind this, there would at least be some plausible proposals for what the orb might consist of, how and why it is generated by a dead body, why it floats in the air; and also some good predictions about who will become an orb after they die, what size and color that orb would be, and where and when it can be found. I welcome any hypotheses that would explain how orbs could be a real phenomenon, but I haven't been able to find any. The only evidence is anecdotal reports and, of course, the obligatory photographs, found on the Internet by the thousand.

Orbs most often appear on camera when a piece of airborne dust, an insect, or a water droplet is close to the camera, outside of the depth of field, and the flash source is no more than a few degrees away from the axis of the camera lens. This causes the object to be brightly light but way out of focus, resulting in a semi-transparent whitish circle. If the flash or other light source is significantly off of the axis of the lens, you won't get nearly as much light reflected right straight back to the camera. If the object is within the depth of field it will be in focus and generally very small, and probably not noticeable. If the object is not very close to the camera, again it won't pick up enough light from the flash.

I'm often challenged by believers that if orb photos are so easy to take, why don't I do it then? I don't because many people have already done so. If you want great step-by-step instructions for taking an orb photo, go to assap.org and click on Paranormal Photos. You will get all the examples, instructions, and explanations that you could ask for. I do have a couple of orb photos that I took by accident inside an abandoned mine shaft — doubtless the hapless spirit of a murdered miner — and you can find those pictures online at Skeptoid.com. Post your own orb photos in the Skeptoid.com forum if you've got them.

Now, it would not be correct to state that orb believers don't accept this explanation. Most actually do; in fact, many web sites that archive ghost photographs no longer accept orb photographs, with the explanation that orb photos too often show false orbs produced by the photographic effects described above. Nevertheless, most believers still feel that there are legitimate orb photos that do show ghosts or spirits or energy or whatever they want to call it. One differentiator that I've heard several times is that a false orb photo will have a blue edge, while a real orb photo, showing spiritual energy, will not. Once again, there's a simple explanation that's well known to photographers. Basically, cheap optics and certain sensors will produce this blue edging. To see some examples, go to a high end digital camera review web site, such as dpreview.com, and look through some of the photographic tests of cameras that they review. A good place to see the variance of cameras producing blue edges is the resolution test chart. The effect can also be caused artificially by the camera's image processing software when certain luminance and chrominance settings are in effect. Finally it can also occur with even a high-end camera with the right white balance adjustment when using a flash of a certain color temperature. In short, blue edges on orbs can be added or subtracted by the camera, and often are, and so should not be considered a reliable indicator of whether a given orb is actually a ghost.

I've also found statements attempting to debunk the evidence that orbs are caused by the flash reflecting from dust outside the depth of field. These claims are based on multiple successive photographs taken immediately one after the other, where an orb appears in one but not in the others. Presumably, if there's dust in the air, there's dust in the air; and it's not going to float away in a split second. Fair enough. But I've never seen such a series of photographs. Thus this is purely an unsubstatiated anecdotal report, from someone who probably has an agenda — judging by their pro-orb web site. I find it hard to believe that a dust particle would remain in exactly the same place for the second or so that a fast digital camera would require to take two pictures. It only needs to move half an inch or so if it's close to the lens, and even the movement of your hand on the shutter will make enough wind to move it. The slightest breeze or air current would move it well out of the way. And even in a perfectly still room, Brownian motion is by itself more than enough to make that dust ancient history by the time the camera takes a second shot.

Orb
More orbs!

Another hypothesis about orbs is that they are not the spirit at all, but rather energy being transferred to a spirit. Suppose that a spirit is hanging out near a power source, be that a person, a powerline, a warm fireplace, or something else. The spirit, by its nature, draws energy which moves into it in the form of glowing, hovering balls. I read from one source that supports this idea that "the laws of physics say that energy transferred like this would naturally assume the shape of a sphere." Hmmmm. Refer back to my favorite Skeptoid episode, #1, New Age Energy. Energy is not a hovering, glowing, physical substance that goes around and does things. Energy is simply a measurement, so it's hard to imagine what law of physics he was talking about. Perhaps these hypothesizers mean to say that the spirit is drawing heat, or electricity. Well, neither heat nor electricity are ever seen to move around in the form of gently hovering transparent white balls. And don't say "ball lightning", because you bet your ass that every ghost hunter in the room would know if there was a wicked ten million volt ball of death banging around; they wouldn't have to wait until they got home to check their film to find out about it.

So, in conclusion, I basically came up short seeking a plausible hypothesis for the existence of orbs. If you've heard of one that makes some sense, please post it in the Skeptoid.com forums, or send it to the Skeptalk email discussion list. Until that happens, I'm satisfied that the evidence shows orbs to be merely a well understood and commonplace artifact of photography.

Tip Skeptoid $2/mo $5/mo $10/mo One time

Brian Dunning

© 2007 Skeptoid Media, Inc. Copyright information

References & Further Reading

Gilbert, James. "Digital Photography and the Paranormal." New Zealand Skeptic. 1 Jan. 2010, Number 94, Summer 2010: 7-9, 12-13.

Howard, Philip. "Confessions of a Ghost Tour Guide and Skeptic." Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, 18 Dec. 2006. Web. 5 Jan. 2010. <http://www.csicop.org/specialarticles/show/confessions_of_a_ghost_tour_guide_and_skeptic/>

Nickell, Joe. "Ghostly Photos." Skeptical Inquirer. 1 Jul. 1996, Volume 20, Number 4: 13-14.

Radford, Benjamin. "The (Non)Mysterious Orbs." Skeptical Inquirer. 1 Sep. 2007, Volume 31, Number 5: 30, 46.

Townsend, Maurice. "How to take great orb pictures." Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena. ASSAP, 1 Jan. 2008. Web. 17 Nov. 2009. <http://assap.org/newsite/htmlfiles/Greatorbs.html>

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "Orbs: The Ghost in the Camera." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 24 Feb 2007. Web. 21 Nov 2014. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4029>

Discuss!

10 most recent comments | Show all 121 comments

So now Venus and even the Moon are being brought into the "field of view" statement. Anything else you would like to change in your mind before your next post ?

"And explaining how Venus could be tracked on radar as targets (sometimes multiple) with trajectories corresponding to actual sightings by several others besides the pilots, should be a piece of cake for a scientist of your calibre."

You haven't answered to the above as yet. 6) is not an answer.
I'm quite happy to receive an opinion, even one based only on personal observation or speculation.

7) & 8) Unproven opinion, nothing more.

Macky, Auckland
July 7, 2013 1:18pm

1) You are now exhibiting a lack of experience as an observer..the truck has one hell of a presence in your visual frame of reference. Venus or the moon can be anything if you arent acutely aware of them.

2) venus cannot be tracked on terrestrial radar, nor has any alien spacecraft. But My 6) still stands and in light of your recent proclamation ()2/08/13) I doubt if you could ever look up credibility otherwise.

Wrt 7).. I really dont care how you like your biscuits..You are the one who makes and breaks your own claims.

Its the back pedalling that is tres magnifique!!

Mud, sin city, Oz
August 6, 2013 10:56am

But you still haven't explained how orbs have been seen on photos that have been taken without a flash, and orbs that have been seen without a camera at all. If you haven't got an explanation that's ok. Just say so.
Speaking of biscuits, how are the Dutch cookies tasting lately ?

"Its the back pedalling that is tres magnifique!!"

What back pedaling are you referring to ? Or is this more Mud fabrications ?

Macky, Auckland
August 7, 2013 1:03am

My next door neighbor not only attracts spirits, but demons! I have felt their presence only twice, but the Aug. 25th 2013(3-4am this morn)presence in my home, I had the Nikon point & shoot! I caught orbs in my kitchen & a demonic face in a small living room mirror! Then it changed into a black mass up close & way too freaky! The other night I was taking pics of the blue moon & captured many orbs, all while facing her place as the moon was above. Away from her place all pics were normal & no orbs!

Richard, Seattle
August 25, 2013 4:20pm

Damn good cameras with motor drives and film being so inaccesible..

By which nomenclature did you assign these entities? The modern film noire or ancient text.

Most people taking part with spirits report having demons on nghts off with the fairies..

Single lens orbs dont count anymore.

Mouse Drip, Greenacres by the sea Oz
August 26, 2013 1:04am

Well now we've seen tons of these orbs in many, many amateur video feeds and on a lot of baby monitors. You do not have the same issue of light source, and the orbs move around somewhat intelligently. I am seeking a non-paranormal reason. Flying insects possibly? But people in person see these things and do not think they're insects. In order to keep your argument about orbs in photographs plausible, I think you need to address the presence of orbs in videos.

Greg, Berkeley
December 23, 2013 12:45am

orbs foto http://fenomene-stranii.weebly.com/foto-2014.html
orbs video http://fenomene-stranii.weebly.com/video-2014.html

atti, Romania
February 12, 2014 8:14am

Hi.
I ran across this website and discussion because my wife and I just came back from taking night photos across the street by the lake...at app. 9:45 pm. We went there because we wanted to get a nice photo of the moon on the water. We used a small, inexpensive Canon 12.1 Mega Pixel camera. We took photos with and without the flash, both in front of our building before crossing the street to the lake, and then in the park itself. It is a clear, cool night. Only two vehicles went by, and we did not take any photos until the cars and their lights were no longer visible.
We just came back in to download the photos to our laptop to email a few to my sister and her kids. We are a bit surprised to see orbs in several of the photos taken in the park. None appeared in the photos taken in our yard. I would really like some feedback on this, and we have never seen orbs in any of our photos in 25 years.....not photos taken inside with no artificial lighting, not at night in our yard, not at night anywhere else under any conditions. What makes this particularly interesting is that since we have lived in this building, my wife has said that on many occasions when she looked across the street at the park, in daytime and at night, she automatically "saw" transparent images of both Native American and White individuals, in friendly atmosphere.

Is there any info we can provide that would help with analyzing this more closely?

Steve, Toronto
March 16, 2014 7:29pm

It is not dust because i took 30 pictures one after another with the same camera without cleaning it. The few pictures which are loaded of orbs were taken in a tumb in the valley of the king and another one in a graveyard at night. There were over 20 of them. Otherwise i did get the odd one on a few occasions over 2 decades...

sonia, Egypt
March 21, 2014 9:16am

I have 4 inexpensive security cameras w/infared leds & mics to keep an eye on things outside my warehouse/garage. 2 are b&w, 2 are color, all diff brands ($15-35). They are wired to a switcher then to a large hdtv. For years, every so often, usually early AM in one bw a floating orb appears. It usually floats very slowly. No pattern, but it does somtimes move around all four edges of the screen before floating away. NOW what is VERY SPOOKY/STRANGE the last couple of weeks I have turned CC on. I awoke early for no reason, looked over at the screen and there was a bunch of letters in purple across the tv. Only stayed up a few seconds. Since then have seen CC gibbersh displayed several times in early AM. Most of the time letters are white, tho have seen two colors. Last night was the first time ...well.... first letters were... hi ....then bunch random letters last symbol either ( or ) .......then repeated again. CC doesn't stay onscreen long & there is no dvr,vcr for my setup. Did capture a screen shot of tv with my phonecam. Will try to see if letters are readable. Very weird... I would really like an explanation for occasional CC random text generation from a $ 35 security camera usually about 2-3AM only.

dave, fredericksburg
April 11, 2014 8:02am

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