About Orbs ... My Thoughts

By Jim Shorney, 6-1-2008

Since the advent of inexpensive digital photography over the last decade, "orbs" appearing in photographs have been getting a lot of attention in paranormal circles. But what are they? Popular opinion seems to hold that they are spirit events, most commonly ghosts or spirit entities about to manifest. But I have my doubts. I know of and have heard stories about credible people who have witnessed what they call spirit orbs, so I don't doubt the possibility of the existence of these diffuse energy phenomena. But I question whether such a spirit event can even be captured by a camera, digital or film. It's entirely possible that those witnessing these phenomena firsthand are sensing them psychically or spiritually, with the "third eye" if you will. As such, it doesn't seem likely to me that they could be imaged with an ordinary camera.

So what is it that people are capturing in photographic images? There are several explanations; dust in the air, insects, and reflective objects are some. Another related phenomena is energy vortices or trails that usually turn out to be the camera strap hanging in front of the lens, an insect flying through the air, or even the photographer's hands shaking or unnoticed movement of the camera while the shutter is open. Please consider where paranormal photography typically takes place - often outdoors at night, or in dusty old buildings which have sometimes been closed up for months or years. A recent TV program comes to mind, where the investigators were exploring an old hotel that had been closed for years and was in disrepair. They were excited about how many orbs showed up in their photographs. Well ... DUH! There has to be a lot of dust in there, stirred up by their activities.

To make matters worse, it was DARK when these photos were taken. A camera's shutter is open for a small, but finite, amount of time. We seem to get into the frame of mind that a photograph is capturing an instant in time, but it is actually capturing a slice of time - 1/30 of a second, 1/60 of a second, or whatever amount of time the shutter is open. That doesn't sound like a lot of time, but if you are walking at a speed of 2 miles per hour (an average walking speed), you will move just over a half an inch in 1/60 second! That is enough to visibly register in the image, especially if you are very close to the camera. In low-light conditions, the shutter is necessarily open for a longer period of time than in broad daylight. During this time, the light from a bright camera flash will reflect off particles of dust in the air that are very close to the camera or highly reflective objects in the field, which will appear larger and/or brighter than they actually are. The camera can't cope with such abnormally bright objects in a darkened environment - pixel bleeding and other distortions can occur that produce some truly interesting looking image anomalies. A moving object, even moving at speeds less than 2 MPH, can leave quite a trail - especially if it is very close to the camera. Another phenomena is the "lens flare", which is related to the optics of the camera itself. An explanation of lens flare can be found on this Wikipedia page, along with an example that looks like it has some really cool orbs in it!

So what about moving orbs? You have to think small. The image sensors in digital cameras are often no more than 1/4" across, and we are taking pictures of scenes that are several feet wide at the minimum. Even a fractional movement in the camera while the shutter is open can cause a bright, highly reflective object to leave a visible trail in the image without imparting any noticeable blurring to the darker background. This also applies to insects in the field of view, as they are often closer to the camera than the subject matter and can travel a respectable distance across the image plane while the shutter is open. If the object happens to be moving towards or away from the camera quickly enough, or is rotating more or less reflective surfaces towards the camera as it moves, it will appear to vary in size during the time of the exposure.

But orbs are not limited to dust and insects. I quite accidentally reproduced an image on the Ghost Research Society's web site one night while we were exploring a small local cemetery. This wasn't an actual investigation, it was more of a "field trip". When I reviewed my photos, I found one that had a beautiful red "orb" in it:

Copyright 2007, J. Shorney

In the reduced size shown here, and definitely on the small LCD screen of the camera, it does look very much like a bona-fide orb. I always take photos at the highest resolution possible, so it was easy to zoom in on the orb to see more detail. Click HERE to see what it really is.

Click HERE to see the GRS photo that shows the same scenario. I had seen this page some time before our "field trip",  but it wasn't on my mind that night. I had no knowledge of the sign down the road, as we had come from the other direction. This illustrates how sensitive the CCD image sensors in digital cameras are. When you consider the distance and relative size, the amount of light coming back from the sign is small. But that light started out as a bright camera flash, and the return was still significantly brighter than the ambient light.

Digital CCD sensors are subject to overload, and can do some strange things under certain conditions - as can be seen in the GRS enlargement. A camera will set it's exposure and flash parameters based on the average amount ambient and reflected of light in the area, but it cannot react while the shutter is open to the sudden presence of a much brighter object that is outside the dynamic range of the sensor. To see an example of one type of overload effect, look at this image from NASA's SOHO spacecraft. As the image text explains, the bright dots that are Mercury, Venus, Saturn, and Jupiter have horizontal anomalies extending away from them that appear to be ring systems - but are actually horizontal pixel bleeding caused by overload of the camera CCD sensor. Now, imagine what the anomalies in the SOHO image would look like if they (or the camera) had been moving! Even the big dogs can have problems with image anomalies.

Camera optics and electronics can also be affected by temperature and humidity, which can potentially cause their own unique distortions. And let's not forget about dirt on the lens!

The final factor in the recent surge in orb photos is the proliferation of digital cameras themselves, and the internet. Previously, using film cameras, we would take our 12, 24, or 36 exposures per roll, drop them at the lab, pay our money, and then FINALLY get to look at them. This paradigm created a certain frugality in photography; we composed our shots more carefully, didn't take as many pictures, and pictures were more difficult and costly to submit for publication and dissemination to interested parties. This has all changed. Digital cameras are everywhere; almost all of us have at least one. We can take literally hundreds of photos in an evening, view them instantly, and put them up on the World Wide Web for the whole world to see when we get home. So it stands to reason that there are a lot more orb photos today, and they are much more available for people to see. It's not magic, or an increase in spirit activity, it's just simple math.

Here's another pic, just for fun...

Copyright 2007, J. Shorney

What do you suppose it is? Dancing spirits, doing the Macarena? No, this is one of my experiments in available light photography. It is an attempted cloud photo taken on the way back from storm spotting one night last year. Movement of the camera while the shutter was open, mostly from vehicle motion, caused nearby building lights to leave trails in the image.

It it my belief that most orb photos can be explained by ordinary physical phenomena. There may be genuine spirit orb photos in existence, but they seem to be a lot less common. I'm skeptical of most orb photography that I have seen, and I hope this article has helped to explain why.

The above article is my own opinion, and does not necessarily represent the opinions or policy of NPS or it's members.

Here are two interesting articles that I found on orbs and digital photography:

Trouble With Orbs - Troy Taylor

Digital Cameras - or, Ghost Hunting at its Worst! - Troy Taylor


Text and images included in this article are © Copyright 2007-2008, Jim Shorney

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