The Orb Controversy

Well, if they’re not paranormal, what are they?

What is an orb?
An orb in flash photography is referred to as an image artifact. They don’t seem to be present at the time, but may occur as a result of the equipment or environment and appear in your photograph. There are many different kinds of image artifacts, and they can appear in photography, videography, radiology, electrocardiography, microscopic specimens, etc.

Where do orbs come from?
Orbs are a relatively new phenomena, and were not identified as ‘orbs’ until the mid-90s, and it’s no coincidence that more and more photographs are appearing online. Orb photographs are most commonly captured by compact digital cameras because of the flash’s close proximity to the lens. Located only a few degrees from the lens, the flash illuminates particles close to the camera. Light reflects off of those particles back into the lens. This is sometimes referred to as backscatter. Since the particles are close, they’re out of focus and appear large and blurry (think of how your thumb looks in front of the lens).

The Orb Controversy Image Credit: Mila Jones

Basically, if there’s no flash, there’s no orb.
(Well, except when there is another light source… we’ll get to that in a bit.)

What about the ‘faces’ and patterns?
Orbs can appear solid or transparent. Some have interesting geometric patterns, or even look like cells under a microscope. This is caused by file compression and digital image sharpening processes. Add the optical quality and anatomy of the lens into the mix, and the result can be complex patterns and colours inside the orb. Sometimes we see things in these patterns, but that is just your brain matrixing. Matrixing, or pareidolia, is the mind’s natural tendency to look for faces and familiar shapes. Check out this article for more information:

Dust is grey… my orb is colourful!
A spectrum of colour can be caused by light passing through moisture particles like raindrops. Colour variations can be caused by the material, lighting, or as a result of chromatic aberration – a colour distortion caused by the failure of the lens to focus all colours of light to the same point when taking the image. This is commonly seen as a purple fringe, but other colours of the spectrum are possible.

Prove it!
The easiest way to prove orbs are image artifacts is to create them intentionally in controlled conditions. Grab your camera, turn the flash on, and shake up something dusty like a rug, or that throw pillow covered in dust and cat hair. Put your camera in the dust cloud and snap some photos. Smaller cameras work best as larger high-end cameras often have a greater distance from the flash to the lens which doesn’t create the large orb zone as seen in the previous diagram.

The following image was taken in my bathroom on March 22, 2011 with a Sony Cybershot DSCW310 by shaking the dust out of a sock in a low-light condition. We have transparency, patterns and colour variations.

The Orb Controversy

If this is proof of ghosts or spirits, my bathroom is haunted by dirty socks.

The Orb Controversy

On the right, you’ll see an amber colour variation caused by the material.

The Orb Controversy

In the top left corner, you’ll see an orb with some colour and purple fringing.
Other orbs appear to have cell-like structures within them.

There are a variety of particles that can create orbs with varying colours and visual effects:

  • Foreign material inside the camera body or lens
  • Dust motes and other particulates like smoke, dander, pollen and spores
  • Moisture such as raindrops, snow, condensation, and water vapour
  • Insects
  • Hair


Why do orbs seem to appear more frequently in haunted locations?
Orbs happen all the time in a variety of different conditions, however those who believe they are paranormal are more likely to look for them in haunted locations and post them online as being paranormal. Investigation locations can be perfect environments for creating orb photos for a number of reasons:

  • Flash photography in low-light allows for strong contrast between the orb and background
  • Outdoor locations can have moisture, airborne particulates and insects
  • Moving around in a room can stir up dust from carpeting, drapes, furniture, etc.
  • Attics, basements, and unkept or neglected property will contain more dust and debris


But my flash wasn’t on!
There are instances where orbs can occur without the camera’s flash. Bright sunlight, reflections and lens flares can all create circular or geometric illuminations. The shape and complexity of the flare is typically determined by the camera model. Lens flare occurs when non image forming stray light enters the lens and reflects within the lens components and hits the camera’s sensor or film. Photographers sometimes do this intentionally for stylistic effects. Lens flare can be prevented by using an attachment called a lens hood, which blocks the light from outside the angle of view.

The Orb Controversy

Stray light entering the lens.

I still don’t believe you! It IS a ghost, and I am entitled to my opinion! 
Everyone is entitled to their opinions. But, the truth is, of the thousands and thousands of traditional orb photographs out there, there has yet to be one that can’t be explained. You don’t have to take my word for it – you can experiment yourself, or contact a camera manufacturer.

For example, here is a brief article found on Nikon’s website about moisture and orbs:

It should also be noted that many paranormal investigation teams considered the photographic orb debunked over 10 years ago, and will not accept the photographs as evidence. Period. Some are so exhausted of trying to explain them, that they’ve stated on their websites that they will no longer discuss or answer questions about orbs.

So, are you saying that NO orb photos are real?
While I cannot say with certainty that a genuine orb has never been photographed, I have yet to see one. The orb photographs littering books and the internet have long been debunked, and I think it’s time to retire them permanently from the paranormal scene. After a decade of working with digital imagery, I’ve seen my share of image artifacts. Clinging to the idea that an artifact is paranormal only hurts the credibility of paranormal research. Personally, there’s something about the idea of being reduced to a random floating blob (showing up in some Joe’s Facebook photos) after I die that just seems lame to me.

You’re a skeptic.
By now you’re probably thinking I’m a total skeptic, and you’d be right – I question everything!

I also believe genuine anomalies have been captured and documented… whether or not these anomalies are actually ghosts is still up for debate. Unnatural things happen that are worthy of investigation, but we need to keep our eagerness to find evidence in check. Like any science, theories are sometimes proven wrong through observation and experimentation. Sometimes being truly open-minded means accepting it when it happens.


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8 thoughts on “The Orb Controversy

  1. This is wot I’ve been trying to explain to lots of ppl on ghost groups on Facebook,but it’s almost impossible to get them to understand that it’s dust they just refuse to believe it and I end up getting accused off all sorts of stuff or even banned from the group’s for saying it’s dust,I just can’t understand why they can’t see it’s dust but they can’t and won’t

  2. Thanks for the well presented explanation of photographed “orbs”. I agree that in most cases today, our only experience with orbs is through photographed images so this article offers a very helpful and realistic explanation of what we’re seeing.

    I would however like to point out that it is possible to witness the phenomenon of “orbs”, for lack of a better term,with the naked eye. I know of a handful of individuals, myself included, who have cultivated this ability (and no, I do not smoke, drink, do drugs, or only see them after I’ve been sitting out in the hot sun…LOL). As uncommon and strange as this may sound, the ability to see “orbs” with the naked eye is a learned and teachable skill. The Elder who taught me describes the process as “training the eye to focus on the space between objects”.

    The occurrence of these orb-like, round bursts of light are spoken of in the oral and pictorial traditions of many ancient cultures and pre-date the invention of the camera by thousands of years. So clearly this perceptual discipline is nothing new.

    Just some interesting food for thought.

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