The Orbs Controversy

Author: SPI Mathwizard

Disclaimer: The opinion below belongs to the author and does not represent views of Singapore Paranormal Investigators (SPI)

What are orbs?

“What are orbs?” This is the question that most people who have little knowledge of paranormal research will likely to ask when others talking about taking orbs photos. Orb is the term coined by Dave Oester and Sharon Gill of the International Ghost Hunters Society in the 1990s. It refers to globule or ball-like anomaly that show up in both digital and film photographs. Although usually white and transparent, orbs can also be very solid, and come in different colours, like red, green, purple and even multi-coloured.

The leading theory in paranormal community is that orbs are in fact ghosts or other spirit entities in their simplest form. As energy life form, they naturally take up the shape of an orb, rather than always be in humanoid shape, which may cost them more energy to maintain. Another possibility is that orbs are energy that is associated with the presence of certain entities but are not the entities themselves. But what is the evidence to back up such an extraordinary claim?

In fact, many natural phenomena can be mistaken as orbs, and since it is virtually impossible to tell apart a real orb and a false positive with 100% accuracy, I do not consider orbs as valid evidence in favor of paranormal phenomena.

Digital Cameras Create Orbs?

One of the leading theories among the orb debunkers is that orbs are nothing but artificial artifacts created by digital cameras. Even paranormal investigators and ghost hunters are still debating among themselves as to whether the use of digital cameras should be encouraged. Troy Taylor of The American Ghost Society writes that “the negative points to digital cameras outweigh the good ones,” while Dave Oester of The International Ghost Hunters Society “fully recommends without reservation the use of digital cameras for field investigations.”

Digital cameras use either CCD or CMOS technology. Both CCD (charge coupled device) and CMOS (Complementary Metal Oxide Semiconductor) are an array of pixels combined together on a chip designed to react to light. When exposed to light, each block collects one pixel of information about the image which is sent through to the processor to be assembled into an image and saved. The quality and resolution of the image is determined by the amount of pixels on the chip combined with the internal processor of the camera. CMOS is similar to CCD but these chips are not as sensitive to light and may produce a lesser quality image in low lighting, therefore CMOS sensors are less costly to produce, and most cheaper cameras use them instead of CCD.

It is said that orbs are caused by pixel blow out or misfire. But that means many pixels would need to misfire in a circular pattern to create the orb effect. This is very unlikely to happen because the electrical charges are read from top to bottom. A pixel misfire may affect the pixel on the top or bottom of it, but is not likely to affect those on its left and right. Therefore it is more likely to have a straight line created by pixel misfire than to have an orb.
So it is safe to assume that most orbs are not camera artifacts. Therefore, we must look at the environment itself to understand the phenomenon of orbs.

The Annoying Dust Particles

Dust particles are everywhere. Shine a beam of light and you will see them dancing happily all over the place. A common misconception is that orbs are caused by dusts on or inside the camera lenses. This is NOT true. Most orbs are light reflection from air-born dust particles directly in front of the camera lenses when the flash is used. There is a distance known as the focal point of the camera, of which objects need to be past in order to be in focus. Hence dust particles that are beyond the focal points do not cause any trouble, but those nearer to the lenses will be out of focus and often show up as orbs when they reflect the camera flash. The same principle applies to night vision or night shot cameras, in which the Infrared light illuminated the dust particles and make them look like orbs. I have seen a lot of dust particles flying around, sometimes in very interesting patterns under IR night vision scope. And there is no doubt that some people may actually claim that these are all ghosts! Orbs under IR are white since IR does not enable use to see colours. However, under normal flashes, orbs can be of various colours depending on the reflecting angle and the wavelength of the light that is reflected back.

Dust orbs have certain characteristics, such as possessing some sort of nucleus, and elongation around the central axis towards the edges of the photos. The latter is caused by a lens curvature error known as “coma”. Cameras with very small lenses and short focal lengths (such as digital cameras) are more prone to coma than other cameras with longer focal length lenses, such as SLR cameras.

Usually there will be more than one dust orbs in the photos, and you get them most of the time at the location. Note that dust orbs are more likely to show up in a large number when you disturb the environment, such as when you just step into an empty house. This explains why the first few photos usually contain more orbs.

Also, digital cameras are more sensitive and therefore more likely to capture illuminated dust particles than a film camera.

1. An example of dust orbs at construction sites, taken by digital camera. Notice the “coma” effect at the edge of the photograph.
Photo credit: SPI Agent Abductboy
2. Amplification of one of the central orbs shows the nucleus structure, which is often a characteristic of dust orbs
3. Notice the faint large orb at the top center portion, a bright orb, and another faint orb partly visible at the top right corner.
These are how dust orbs look like to other type of digital cameras. They are usually flat. Photo credit: SPI Agent Mathwizard.

Other Contaminants

By contaminants, we mean things that may contaminate the data that we collect during paranormal investigations. Besides dust particles, the most common contaminants are pollen, air moisture, water droplets, and snow. Different cameras will create different kind of orbs when these contaminants are presented. Therefore, by taking control shots with your camera, you will know how these contaminants look like in your photos, and not confuse them with paranormal images. Also avoid taking photos when it is raining, snowing, or when the air is very moist for obvious reason.

One thing to notice is that rain or water droplets may cause what we term “comet orbs” where the orbs seem to be traveling upwards instead of downwards.

1. This is an example of a comet orb, created by rain droplets
2. Water droplets may also appear as orbs with holes in some type of digital cameras, as shown in this photo.
Photo credit: SPI Agent Mathwizard

Another source of false positive orbs is light reflection in the camera lenses. Many beginners in paranormal research are likely to mistaken light reflection as orbs. Light sources such as spot light creates internal reflection in the camera lenses which produce the orb effects. This is the reason why orbs photos in a concert hall or any well illuminated places should not be considered as paranormal in origin. Sun light causes similar phenomena often called a lens flare, but can easily avoided by not taking photos facing the sun or other light sources. In a concert hall or other artificially illuminated areas, however, there are multiple light sources and therefore it is more difficult to take precaution to avoid false positive results.

Spider web is also something to look out for while taking photos. A spider silk near the lens will reflect the flash and look like a streak of light that some people mistaken as orb in motion. Of course, even your own hair in front of the lens will create similar effect!

Facial Expression in Orbs: Real or Pareidolia?

Some orbs seem to have faces, but is this really paranormal? We shall look at a possible psychological explanation.

1. This is an example of orb with facial expression. Photo credit: SPI Agent Abductboy
2. Here is another example of orb that looks like a human face with wide opened mouth. Photo credit: SPI Agent Abductboy

Pareidolia is defined as “misperception of an ambiguous stimulus as something specific.” For example, we may be able to “recognize” faces in the clouds.

Astronomer Carl Sagan claimed that the human tendency to see faces in many things such as shadows, clouds, moss, and such, is an evolutionary trait. He writes:

“As soon as the infant can see, it recognizes faces, and we now know that this skill is hardwired in our brains. Those infants who a million years ago were unable to recognize a face smiled back less, were less likely to win the hearts of their parents, and less likely to prosper. These days, nearly every infant is quick to identify a human face, and to respond with a goony [sic] grin (Sagan, 45).”

While not everyone agrees that this ability is an evolutionary trait, it is well known that when we see something, the brain will try to identify the object by matching it with the information stored in our memory. When the information is close to a specific object in our existing memory but not entirely sufficient, the brain adds in more details so that we may recognize what the object could be.

This is a well known figure in psychology that demonstrates how human brains perceive patterns
We tend to see a dog here while in fact, there are only black patches.

The tendency for human mind to perceive patterns while there are none could explain many so-called paranormal photos, for example the famous devil faces of World Trade Center as shown below.

Photo credits: CNN

So it could well be that facial expressions of orbs are nothing more than optical illusions. They may be random patterns created by the lightning condition, and are not paranormal

Do Ghost Orbs Exist?

1. SPI photo that shows several orbs in motion in weird configuration. What exactly is this?
Could it be a real anomaly or just light reflection of some bugs near the lens?
2. A yellow ball of light that seems to be rather dense was photographed in a room that is reputed to be haunted.
This photo is taken with film camera with ISO 400 film speed, and the anomaly is clearly on the negative.
What could have caused this anomaly since there were no reflective surfaces and other light sources beside the camera flash?
Photo credit: SPI Agent Mathwizard

3 & 4. Here is a day time SPI investigation photo that shows a purplish orb. Is it lens flare or a real orb?

The dust theory does not explain some orbs photographs that were taken without using flash. Also it is unlikely to illuminate and photograph dust orbs in day time, and yet there are day time orbs photos (although they are relatively rare, more examples can be found at In fact many witnesses claim to have seen orbs with their naked eyes. My mother happened to be one of them. She claimed to have seen a red orb hovering over bushes at night when she was young. But there is no way to determine what these orbs are. We can make a lot of hypotheses, such as orbs are ghosts, orbs are extraterrestrial probes, or a form of electrical discharges that is normally not visible to human eyes etc, but none of them is as yet testable. To make matter worse, as we have seen above, many orbs are false positives, and our data could very well be contaminated without we knowing.

Based on the evidence so far, the existence of real orbs cannot be ruled out. It is logically invalid to conclude that orbs do not exist simply because there are many false positives. But unfortunately, there is also no conclusive evidence that orbs exist. If they do, then we must consider a wide range of possible physical explanations, not just associate them with ghosts.

SPI Agent Mathwizard
September 28, 2003