Orbs: The Ghost in the Camera
by Brian Dunning
Filed under Paranormal
February 24, 2007
Podcast transcript | Listen | Subscribe
Also available in Spanish
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.
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.
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
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.
By Brian Dunning
Please contact us with any corrections or feedback.
Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Orbs: The Ghost in the Camera." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
24 Feb 2007. Web.
30 Nov 2015. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4029>
References & Further Reading
Carroll, R. "Orb." The Skeptic's Dictionary. Robert T. Carroll, 22 Dec. 2013. Web. 22 Sep. 2015. <http://skepdic.com/orbs.html>
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>
©2015 Skeptoid Media, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Rights and reuse information