Orbs: The Ghost in the Camera
Are orbs really ghosts, or a common artifact of photography?
by Brian Dunning
Filed under Paranormal
February 24, 2007
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Also available in Spanish
By Brian Dunning, Skeptoid Podcast
Episode 29, February 24, 2007
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.
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.
© 2007 Skeptoid Media, Inc.
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. 30 Jun 2015. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4029>