The Orb Myth

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I’m sorry I don’t have an orb photo of my own to use on this article but the truth is I’ve never taken one. This one is really straight forward. We’ve all seen the photos showing supposed orbs posted by countless paranormal groups as evidence of the presence of spirit activity.

Most investigators should know by now that these photos contain nothing more than dust, moisture, pollen, pet dander or insects reflecting off a camera flash. Why they continue to be posted as evidence is simple: Anyone can get these photos. It’s the low-hanging fruit that is easy to insert in place of actual evidence. It’s how many groups justify not only the reason they should be investigating your place but also proof that you made a wise choice in selecting them to do so. You have ghosts. According to some of their photos, you have hundreds of ghosts, all in one spot.

A camera flash does one thing, it produces a very bright flash of light in a fraction of a second. Everything floating in the air near the lens is going to reflect that light back at the lens. The closer the object is to the camera, the greater this reflection and larger the orb artifact.

The actual term for this is backscatter. Portions of articles on Wikipedia clarifies this in easy to understand terms that even a child should be able to grasp:

Backscatter in Photography

Main article: Orb (photographic)

The term backscatter in photography refers to light from a flash or strobe reflecting back from particles in the lens’s field of view causing specks of light to appear in the photo. This gives rise to what are sometimes referred to as orb artifacts. Photographic backscatter can result from snowflakes, rain or mist, or airborne dust. Due to the size limitations of the modern compact and ultra-compact cameras, especially digital cameras, the distance between the lens and the built-in flash has decreased, thereby decreasing the angle of light reflection to the lens and increasing the likelihood of light reflection off normally sub-visible particles. Hence, the orb artifact is commonplace with small digital or film camera photographs.

Orb (optics)

The term orb describes unexpected, typically circular artifacts that occur in flash photography — sometimes with trails indicating motion — especially common with modern compact and ultra-compact digital cameras.

Orbs are also sometimes called backscatter, orb backscatter, or near-camera reflection.

Orb artifacts are captured during low-light instances where the camera’s flash is used, such as at night or underwater – or where a bright light source is near the camera.

The artifacts are especially common with compact or ultra-compact cameras, where the short distance between the lens and the built-in flash decreases the angle of light reflection to the lens, directly illuminating the aspect of the particles facing the lens and increasing the camera’s ability to capture the light reflected off normally sub-visible particles.

The orb artifact can result from retroreflection of light off solid particles (e.g., dust, pollen), liquid particles (water droplets, especially rain) or other foreign material within the camera lens.

The image artifacts usually appear as either white or semi-transparent circles, though may also occur with whole or partial color spectrum’s, purple fringing or other chromatic aberration. With rain droplets, an image may capture light passing through the droplet creating a small rainbow effect.

So basically these photos are taken by individuals that haven’t taken the time to learn even the most basic aspects of paranormal research. My guess is that these are the same groups that refer to what they do as ghost hunting and travel in packs.

By claiming to have taken photographs of orbs, you are basically admitting you took pictures of dust. This not only reflects badly on a team in the eyes of a client (or potential client) but on the wide network of those involved in paranormal research as a whole. Your only real hope is that you are dealing with an individual that actually knows less about paranormal research (or photography) than you do. If you are willing to take pictures of dust and share it with the world, you are calling all evidence you gather into question.

I know a lot of researchers that as soon as they hear about your group will look at your online presence just to see if you have posted any orb photographs. As soon as they find a photo taken with a flash they are basically done with your team and file you in the ghost hunters/thrill seekers folder.

I have taken literally hundreds of IR/UV photos yet never had one of them show any orb artifacts. I wonder why this is the case. The infrared camera also catches the visible light spectrum. You’re simply adding a range of light to your photo (the infrared and/or ultraviolet). If anything, this should increase the amount of orbs you catch in your photos, yet it doesn’t. The only thing missing from the equation is the flash.

Still not convinced you’re posting photos of dust, moisture, pollen or insects? Why are these orbs not visible to the naked eye? The camera flash is only providing more visible light which your eyes can already detect. You should therefore be able to see these orbs with the naked eye and a flashlight (which is simply a longer lasting, less invasive version of a camera flash). The fact is, you can see orbs with the naked eye, if you know where to look.

A standard digital camera with a flash is not adding anything other than more visible light in a quick burst. There’s nothing extra the flash adds that will “pulls these spirits into the visible light spectrum.” There’s no reason you shouldn’t see these orbs with nothing more than a flashlight and your own eyes. You can see orbs with the naked eye and a flashlight if you look directly in front of the flashlight lens. You will see particles floating in the light. Those are your orbs.

A digital camera with a flash going off isn’t a magical device that in a brief instant makes the invisible suddenly visible. If you simply refuse to believe your photos contain nothing more than dust, moisture, pollen or insects, then I have a simple test you can run to verify your claims that these are, in fact, spirit energy.

The test:

Set up a standard digital camera with a flash on a tripod. Next to it, set up a camera capable of taking infrared (or full-spectrum) photos with an IR or UV light source on another tripod. Take 10 flash photos and 10 infrared/UV photos without flash. Compare the 20 photos and see what you get.

If the flash camera shows any orbs then there’s no explanation for the infrared/UV camera (which is also catching visible light) not to catch them as well. The camera that can see into 2-3 light spectrum’s will not catch any orbs while the camera that can see only visible light will. The only difference (besides how much of the light spectrum they can capture) between the two is one used a flash and the other one didn’t.

Common sense tells you that the camera that can see the visible light as well as the infrared/UV should, if anything, catch even more orbs yet oddly will not catch even one.

If you’re looking for a group to investigate your home or place of business, you’re far better off going with the one that doesn’t use a flash and present these orbs as evidence of spirit energy. Again, the reason they do is because anyone can get an orb photo using a flash.

The latest defense of orb photos I’ve seen is that once a team is called out on a photo, they claim the orbs aren’t the reason they posted the photo, it’s the subject matter (building, cemetery, etc.) that they were sharing. However, they fail to understand that it’s the use of a flash at all that is actually being brought into question.

If you’re a paranormal research group you simply shouldn’t be using a flash at any time. No exceptions. If you’re talking walk-through photos in the day time you don’t need a flash and one should never, ever, be used during an investigation. If you don’t have a camera capable of taking photos in complete darkness, using an infrared or wide-spectrum light source and no flash, then you shouldn’t be taking photos until you do.

While this reflects poorly on the paranormal research genre as a whole, it does come with a plus side. Orb photos are a red flag to clients and other paranormal research groups to avoid you. So if this is your intent, please, keep sharing photos of dust with the masses.

Take a look at the following image. This is from a user manual for a digital camera and explains how to avoid this mistake. Even the camera manufacturers are aware of dust orbs. Oddly enough their solution is to not use the flash. [click to enlarge]


The cameras I use are a Konica/Minolta Dimage7 DSLR (which does not contain an IR cut-filter), as well as two full-spectrum camcorders capable of taking still photos. I generally use (with the Dimage7) 2-3 SIMA IR lights and always use a tripod and a shutter release cable so that the camera remains completely still and is never touched during the process of taking photos. With the full-spectrum camcorders I use either the PhantomLite Full-Spectrum or UV Illuminator. Again, not one orb has ever been captured using this method.

One of the biggest obstacles in regards to groups resisting the fact they have been taking photos of dust is pride as well as time. Once a group crosses a certain line with their orb photos, turning back is not an easy thing for them. They basically have to go back over their entire web site, evidence reviews, social media sites, YouTube, Soundcloud, paranormal forums and anywhere else their findings reside and attempt to clean up the mess.

For many of them, the orb photos could constitute the bulk of their evidence and they are simply unwilling to erase the majority of what has made them who they see themselves as. This is similar to teams that have the words Ghost Hunters in their name. Most claim to be too well established under that name. When I first started I called myself Portland Paranormal Investigations. I had a domain name, email address and a lot of other things tied to that name. Once I decided to change it to Portland Ghosts I just did it. In hindsight it wasn’t a big deal and happened very quickly. So this excuse simply isn’t valid. Maybe if you didn’t have all those t-shirts already it wouldn’t sting so bad.

Over the past year or so I have noticed a lot more of a push towards what I have always done. Smaller teams (or as in my case just one individual), more people not using the phrase ghost hunting (and being more vocal in regards to speaking out against it), more people against flash photography, stricter peer reviews and a stronger push against the failed paraunity movement (which was an utter joke). More individuals are starting to come around to the way I have always viewed researching the paranormal. There are fewer yes men that will praise every piece of evidence or every experience you share. People are becoming a lot more skeptical when viewing other researchers data, as it should be.

Soon I believe that orb/flash photography will become so taboo that it will eventually phase out completely as more and more people become aware of the simple and common characteristics associated with it. One day people will look back and laugh at that time when when there were actually people taking flash photos and fully convinced they were spirits. Unfortunately for them, the Internet never forgets. The Google will always find your dust photos.

One final thing to consider. Of all the data gathered in regards to paranormal research, by far the least compelling is the photograph. Today it is simply far too easy to manipulate an image using software or by environmental conditions such as flash, other forms of light, shadows, poor quality, movement, or just plain fabrication. I personally only take photos today for use in articles or as a still image to incorporate into the research video. During an actual investigation it is extremely rare for me to take even a single photo.

The best way that I have found to use an infrared or full-spectrum camera is to set it on a tripod and configure it to take self-timed exposures. Simply set it and forget it. This way you end up with dozens of duplicate photos that you can cycle through looking for any changes. Other than that I have better things to do than take photos that will prove absolutely nothing to anyone.

The photo at the top of this article was taken in infrared, in complete darkness,  in a dirt floor basement.

No orbs were captured during the writing of this article.