The Brutal Truth About Orbs

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On our page about cameras, we mentioned that there are two basic body types of camera construction : the all-inclusive box design created by the introduction in 1900 of the first Brownie camera from Kodak, followed by the SLR (single lens reflex) design by Nikon in 1948 with a design for looking specifically through the lens, which introduced new technology for better focusing and aperture control in photography. Then, in 1991, Leaf introduced the world’s first digital camera call the ‘Brick.’ Leaf was a small company later purchased by Kodak , and once again, it was a “box” design, although thinner, sleeker, and easier to carry.

The technology of digital wizardry includes a different methodology for recording an image in what is actually a series of dots (called pixels), not much different from the methodology in which photographs are printed in newspapers, or a television displays an image on a cathode ray tube (CRT).

Now you may ask yourself, where we’re going with all this? Well to be frank, we’re going to focus (pardon the pun) on the placement of the flash unit on the box style cameras of today (which digital photography did not change, and only adopted). The DSLR (digital single lens reflex) cameras and ‘near’ DSLR cameras of today still employ an ‘add-on’ accessory option of external flash units, or a built in “pop-up” flash unit, lifting the flash away from the lens.

In short, it is the single most important design flaw of the camera that accounts for the anomalies that sparked the “orb” controversy in paranormal circles. Orbs are a topic still being hotly debated. Once we explain what we’ve discovered as to what causes this digital phenomenon to occur, you too may form the opinion that orbs are no longer acceptable as concrete proof of the paranormal as many serious paranormal researcher believe. However, understand that we are NOT saying ALL orbs are contamination in digital photography; there are VERY few exceptions, which will be defined later in this page. Simply put, they have to qualify as ‘empirical’ evidence.

Catching the Light

There are two basic factors at play with any digital camera. Light and focus. How your camera is built has a lot to do with the anomalies you may encounter in digital photography . Even the most expensive DSLR cameras have auto-focus systems, but the advantage of the DSLR over the Ultra Light, Compact, and Advanced Digital Cameras is the small viewfinder. This is because with Advanced Cameras like the DSLR you can see what’s in focus by directly looking through the lens. That brings to mind another important feature of the DSLR and near DSLR cameras from the lower end cameras; the distance from the end of the lens to the flash unit.

Knowing what will appear to be in or out of focus is one of the most basic considerations when taking any photograph. So without confusing you any more than you may already be, let’s take a look at what is known as the “principal focal length.” There are enough math calculations involved in this for the serious photographer to confuse even Albert Einstein.

Take a look at the left and you will see the extreme foreground and far background are out of focus, with the text in the center being perfectly focused. This is because the text in focus falls within what is called the “depth of focus.”

What the Camera Lens Sees

The closer the dust particles are to the camera lens, the more blurred, spherical and translucent they become, taking on the familiar shape of ‘orbs’ in digital photographs . Yet the dust particles beyond the focal point are clear and focused. Pollen, rain, mists, powders, and other contaminants in the air all produce similar effects, as you will soon see in some examples further into this article.


Add to this the placement of the flash unit on the camera being used and the brilliance generated by the flash will determine just how ‘lit up’ the contaminant is. The less expensive Ultra Light, Compact, and even Advanced Design digital cameras with a familiar ‘box’ design are usually closer to the lens (green line). The more expensive DSLR and “near” DSLR cameras (red line) have a pop-up flash unit that puts and points the flash higher in a different direction to better match up with the expected ‘focal point’ of the lens; diffusing the light more efficiently. Thus, the appearance of dust contamination in your photographs diminishes accordingly, but is not eliminated entirely.

Again, let’s go back to the human condition of paredolia. When this anomaly occurs, we tend to analyze the contaminated photographs by giving them dimension and depth that is non-existent. All this is determined by the amount of light being absorbed by the contaminant (brilliance generated by the flash) including a perceived size and color and shade to establish distance in our mind.

Wikipedia has some really good examples of orbs and their cause:

Dust Orb Multiple Dust Orbs Rain Orbs – Normal Rain Orbs – Zoomed
Charcoal Dust Floating Charcoal Dust Rain Orbs w/Coma Rain Orbs Close w/Fringe

Are Orbs Ever Paranormal?

This is where the line is drawn that can define the difference between a ‘paranormal investigator / researcher’ and ‘ghost hunter.’ Some people want to believe so badly that an orb is a ‘genuine’ spirit or entity that they will not listen to reason or logic. They often argue that the brightness of the orb or the orb’s size is proof enough that the orb is in fact a “spirit,” when closer inspection may reveal it is actually an insect caught on film. This is another excellent reason to verify your camera is set to the highest possible pixel resolution, because magnifying a photo shot with 12 mega-pixels can often reveal a fast moving ‘orb’ actually has wings and legs on it!

Some investigators and researchers also believe that infra-red (IR) photography and night vision will eliminate the contaminations caused by dust, pollen, and moisture. However, this is not true because it doesn’t matter if the camera is configured for night or day vision (or using flash or IR), if you are in an area that is susceptible to dust and pollen, odds are the photos will get contaminated by dust or pollen orbs. This is especially true if the IR light is used as a flood light to your night vision equipment (not unlike the brilliance generated by your camera flash).

Setting Guidelines

Over the years I have established a strict criteria as a standard in the determination of if an orbs is indeed worthy of calling a ‘paranormal’ event.

That position is that orbs are 99% contamination and those that have no explanation, simply cannot be proven to be a ‘spirit, ghost, entity, alien, or dimensionally,’ and are thus paranormally meaningless. In other words, NO we do not typically accept orbs as any type of proof regarding paranormal activity; and normally scrutinize orbs as all false-positives by a very strict set of rules. This does not mean that it is impossible for a spirit, ghost, or entity to manifest itself as an orb! It is however nearly impossible to classify them definitively as one! For this reason less than 1% of the orbs we’ve seen could be classified as ‘paranormally compelling,’ and only 1/10 of 1% ever get called ‘paranormally significant!’ Even then, ONLY if they meet the following standards, with each case reviewed on a case-by-case basis:

Seen unaided with the naked eye by at least two credible witnesses in addition to photographic evidence.
At least one Class 1, 2, or 3 EVP (on the KM Scale) is recorded at the same time the orb is witnessed (see EVP).
At least a Class 1 or 2 (on the KM Scale) for video or photographic evidence is suspected.
Measurable and substantial temperature changes not attributable to any natural source.
Measurable and substantial EMF readings not attributable to any natural source.
Other potentially significant (but not necessarily provable) criteria:
If the orb shows a flight path on a still photograph resulting in a vortex like image, it may be considered in the light as corroborating evidence.
If the orb is on video, it must have a decidedly intelligent flight pattern, e.g., it must move, hover for a substantial period (such as several seconds), and with apparent ‘intelligent intent.’

Our Strict Policy Regarding Orbs 

Acceptable arguments to determine if an ‘orb’ could be an entity, in order to classify the photograph “paranormally significant” or “paranormally compelling,” it must pass this strict criteria:

1. “Does the anomaly demonstrate Intelligent Intent?” – The orb must show a curiosity or awareness of its surroundings and be trying to get the attention of the living in some fashion. For example, it could be hovering around an individual,moving on, and either returning to its original hover position with the same person or hovering around another person in the same room.

2. “Was the orb caught on video?” – In order to verify intelligent intent unequivocally, the anomaly must have been captured on video as well, proving that the movement could not have been attributed to air circulation (such as a furnace, open window, or a ceiling fan). Without a video as supporting evidence, our team also understands that proving an orb has intelligent intent or is “paranormally significant” or “paranormally compelling” is difficult at best.

3. “Was the orb caught on different cameras at the same time? – If it can be substantiated that the subject orb had been captured on different cameras simultaneously, that could be demonstrative of intelligent intent, especially since it is nearly impossible to have a dust or pollen contaminant pollute different cameras in a similar manner and have the same relative position in the photos (which is precisely why the EXIF information from all photographs being considered must be intact before they can be accepted as “paranormally significant” – but more on that later in this article.)

Does this make the photographic evidence that is “paranormally significant?” No, nor does it make it “paranormally compelling.” But it would be considered a “False Positive,” because it is NOT irrefutable, yet can still invite serious debate. No proof exists that it is not contamination, nor can it be substantiated as a paranormal event such as a full apparition. In the absence of additional information, remember “Occam’s Razor” prevails, “The simplest explanation is most likely the correct one (paraphrased).” In other words, multiple theories will compete that are equal in some respects, thus this principle recommends selecting the best theory, introducing the least amount of assumptions, that postulates the fewest entities.

Orbs simply cannot be proven to be spirit-related and in that sense are paranormally meaningless. In other words, we do not typically accept orbs as concrete proof of paranormal activity. We scrutinize orbs as if they are all false-positives in a very strict fashion. This does not mean that it is impossible for a spirit to manifest itself as an orb! For this reason we usually ONLY classify them as “paranormally compelling” or “paranormally significant,” and ONLY if they meet the following standards, and then only as the circumstances warrant it on a case-by-case basis:

  1. Seen unaided with the naked eye by at least two credible witnesses in addition to any photos.
  2. At least one Class 1, 2, or 3 EVP (on the KM Scale) is recorded at the same time the orb is witnessed.
  3. Measurable and substantial temperature changes not attributable to any natural source.
  4. Measurable and substantial EMF readings not attributable to any natural source.

Other potentially significant (but not necessarily provable) criteria:

  1. If the orb shows a flight path on a still photograph resulting in a vortex like image, it could be considered corroborating evidence providing camera-shake is not evident anywhere else in the photograph.
  2. If the orb is on video, it must have a decidedly intelligent flight pattern, e.g., it must move or hover for a substantial period (such as several seconds), and then move again in an intelligent way with intent. The value of it being definite, would be if the orb passed behind objects and in front of objects in the room…or perhaps pausing to examine a person in the room.

Understanding the Facts

Fact 1 – A camera is more likely (unless a DSLR) to capture dust contaminants than a ghost; however, it cannot eliminate the paranormal entirely. Anything beyond the depth of field of a camera’s lens increases the probability that an orb is a contaminate like dust or pollen.

Fact 2 – The second camera is more susceptible (especially compact cameras) to capture dust contaminants. So even though they may be captured in several photographs taken in the same proximity of the previous photograph(s); which is often mistaken as some movement of the orb in a series of photos: logic dictates us here that Occam’s razor prevails.

Fact 3 – The third photograph is riddled with a lot of dust orbs, the prominence of a photograph with a vortex could be interesting to examine further. The fact remains that cameras (especially compacts) are susceptible to capturing contaminants. Vortices with orbs are most often caused by “camera jitter” when photographs are taken in the dark using an automatic flash setting (a well known problem with many digital cameras, where the shutter does not closed completely before the camera operator moves the camera immediately after the flash – count to to three after the flash before moving the camera to avoid this issue). 

Fact 4 – The area is susceptible to wind and dust, increasing the likelihood of dust or pollen in all three cameras.

Closer analysis of the facts can easily eliminate and remove the probability that a photograph is “paranormally significant.” Additionally, it is likely that a breeze or wind could have caused the movement of dust or pollen can create the appearance of orbs in photographs, reducing the probability of the photo(s) being “paranormally compelling.” Even if a vortex is present, as it is usually the result of camera shaking. Be logical and objective in your analysis, because the evidence you present in photographs can always be refuted; and always consider Occam’s Razor when making a conclusion…Often the only conclusion left will be to classify the photograph(s) as “false positive(s)” (since they were first thought to be relevant at first glance).

Stake Your Reputation on Your Conclusion

Remember, your reputation as a serious paranormal investigator or researcher is at stake. Any time you breeze through the evidence without doing the proper research, especially when it’s an issue you’re not familiar with, you open yourself up for critique and criticism. As a professional paranormal investigator, maintain an open mind when analyzing the evidence, all of it! Insist that all photographs from your team that are submitted to you for analysis are indeed original data files, unedited and with the EXIF information from the camera readable and complete. It is your digital “negative” of the authenticity that the photograph you’re reviewing is genuine and has not been subjected to tampering.

Never assume, always confirm. This simply means, if you don’t know – find out! And even when you do know, concur with your colleagues by soliciting them for their professional opinion. But the number one rule we use with our team is “When in doubt, throw it out!” This gives our motto much more credibility, because no matter how you look at it, “The truth is always the truth, and the truth is in the evidence.”