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Photos of dust 'orbs' taken with compact cameras - see diagram below.

ORBS : Most Are Not Paranormal

There are still many paranormal investigation websites that show photos of orbs as evidence of paranormal activity. We generally disagree. Why is it that these 'orbs' only show up on photographs; you don't actually see them? If they were little bundles of energy floating around, they would be just as visible to the naked human eye as to the camera.

Actually, it is usually only cameras with a flash positioned close to the lens that show up orbs. If the flash doesn't fire, no orbs. And orb photos are more common with digital cameras than film. This is not because of the digital recording device, but the compact optical design of the cameras, the short focal length and small aperture of the lenses and the close proximity of lens and flash. On my Cyber-shot U, the gap between the edge of the flash and the edge of the lens is only about 7mm and the fixed lens has a focal length of 5mm, f2.8. So, as you'd expect, it produces great orb photos.

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The reason for this is that the flash illuminates dust particles that are drifting very close to it. These reflect light back into the camera lens, but they are too close to be in focus. A lens sees an out-of-focus point of light as a 'circle of confusion', and the more out of focus it is, the larger the circle. It is the circle-of-confusion image on the film or digital photo that appears as an orb. When the flash is close to the lens, the cone of light that it puts out intersects with the conical-shaped coverage of the lens. This overlapping area is where dust particles (or airborne water droplets, tiny insects etc) will become 'orbs'.

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Lately I have been using an SLR digital camera with a large flash that sits up about 20cm above the lens. In a room where a compact camera photographs orbs (dust), the SLR shows nothing. This is because the dust particles that are close to the flash are actually way above the lens, out of its coverage area (as above).

You will also see orbs drifting across in video footage, but usually ony when there is a light source (Infra Red or visible) situated close to the video camera lens. In the case of IR surveillance cameras, the IR LEDs surround the lens. These will show up-close dust particles as 'orbs'.

Contributing factors include the JPEG file compression employed by most compact cameras and the application of digital sharpening in the camera. These processes, as well as the optical quality of the lens, enhance colours and patterns "within" the orb, making them seem more than what they are: that is, specular flash reflections of the highlights of airborn motes.

Dust particles move on air currents, which alter when you open a door and walk into a room or hallway. Human movement stirs up dust. Dust photographs as little bright circles of light on film or digital cameras, when illuminated by light sources close to the camera lens. This explains nearly every 'orb' photo you will ever see.

'Nearly' because we are open minded and regard each new instance of an orb as a separate case. There can be other explanations, such as lens flare, marsh gas, static electrical activity; or other point light sources such as a glowing cigarette, fireflies, glow worms, flashlight reflections etc.

If an orb in a photo is none of the above and is not from any other discernable natural or man-made source, then it may be supernatural, a spiritual energy of some kind. But you need to go through the entire process of elimination to reach that conclusion, which still should not be regarded as absolute. It may, however, add up with other evidence collected at a site to the possibility of paranormal activity.

- James Gilberd, 2008

Dust orbs, ©J.Gilberd 2009
Dust orbs created by fluffing a cushion in front of a digital compact camera, with flash.

Some afterthoughts: I have seen a lot of photos where there is a person 'pointing' at an orb, which seems to imply that the person could actually see or detect something in the vicinity of the photographed orb. Actually, because photography reduces the world down to the two dimensions, it is not possible to tell how far from the camera the orb is. There is almost never (in the case of dust orbs, at least) any spatial clues. In most cases, the person will be pointing at something in the middle or far distance and the dust orb will be mere centimetres from the camera!

The book "How to Photograph the Paranormal" by Lenore Sweet, Ph.D. is full of such woolly thinking. By her own admission she is "mechanically inept", but photography is a subject that requires an understanding of physics. From the opening chapter where photos clearly showing the camera strap in front of the lens are paraded as photographic evidence of the departing soul of a pet dog, the book is unmitigated twaddle, especially the claims about orbs!

Actually, I said above that you don't actually see the orbs. Well, here's an experiment you can try safely at home: try stirring up some dust from a cushion or something then fire a camera flash in the cloud of dust. You will briefly see the dust near the flash lit up, and it will appear in the photo. Voila, there are your orbs! Typical result shown below.

More orb photos on this site here.

Sean Aitkin from Wellington Photographic Supplies went on the TVNZ Breakfast show to explain some televised orb photos. See the item here. - a whole website dedicated to explaining orbs!

The Paranormal encyclopedia has a good article on Orbs, as does ASSAP (lots of info there).

If you have an opinion on this topic, or you have your own orb photographs to submit for our review, please email us: - James Gilberd. We are very interested in hearing from you.

A zillion dust orbs, ©J.Gilberd 2009

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