There is perhaps no photographic evidence of the paranormal more prevalent than that of so-called orbs. Orbs are delivered up as evidence of ghostly energy at every turn, often heralded as irrefutable proof of a haunting. But are they really?

What is an orb?

An orb is a globe or ball of light that seems to hover over or amongst the unsuspecting subjects of a photograph, or against a scenic backdrop. Though often unseen at the time the photo is taken, they appear in the finished frame, in varying degrees of intensity and brightness. They are usually round, but sometimes have tails or motion trails, indicating movement. Orbs are most often photographed at night, showing up as light masses against a dark background, but occasionally they appear in daylight photography as dark or colored globes or smudges.

Most paranormal photographers agree that orbs are the physical manifestation of energy. But what that energy is, exactly, is up for debate. Many argue that orbs are the spirits of the dead, materialized to mug for the camera, while others insist that they are non-human life forms or even nature spirits.

I want to believe

These days, when nearly everybody has access to photo editing tools, it’s harder than ever to trust any paranormal photography, much less anything as simple to execute as an orb. As an example, take a look at the photograph below.

My Faux Orb

Fans of our Flickr photostream may recognize the subject of the shot as the Eunice Williams Covered Bridge in Greenfield, MA. However, the orbs can’t quite boast the same history. I whipped those up in trusty old Photoshop 7 (yes, we kick it old school ’round these parts) using a couple pre-set brushes and an adjustment layer or two.

It took me about 10 minutes.

But, you may be saying to yourself, I took MY picture on my own, and I didn’t even open it in photo-editing software, much less paint on any orbs. I can surely trust myself, right?

Well, maybe not.

But rest assured, it’s not your fault. Not entirely, anyway. The overwhelming saturation of digital cameras into the field of paranormal investigation, and into our daily lives in general, has contributed to the increase in orb photography of late. This may be linked to the small CCDs in your average point-and-shoot, as well as the resultant short focal distance and larger depth of field.

Put another way for the photography novice, small particulate matter or water droplets floating very near the lens of the digital camera will be captured in the frame, whereas they would be just outside the range of a traditional 35mm film camera. This phenomenon is compounded by the use of flash, usually mounted very close to the lens; the same problem that gives your cats and children red eyes also gives your dust particles orb-like qualities.

But this is not cause for despair, nor is it a call to drag your dusty SLR with three lenses and long-armed flash cube out of the attic and start hauling a giant bag with you on investigations. It’s certainly not any reason to spend close to $20 developing a roll of only 36 exposures, when you don’t even know if you caught anything good! Film certainly has its applications, but it’s just not practical for our field anymore.

Instead of dropping out of the digital revolution all together, we just have to be a bit more diligent in our analysis of any evidence we collect in the field.

So what do I look for?

For starters, and for the sake of argument, I’d tend to rule out any photographs with several (or many) orbs or any that show the orbs to be in the immediate foreground of the frame. Pale orbs are generally more suspect than bright ones. If, while taking pictures, you noticed dust or even fine rain drops in the vicinity, you would be wise to be skeptical of any orbs captured in that outing, as well. Reflections and light flares can sometimes look like orbs, as well.

When taking photos, it can be helpful to turn the flash off, and adjust the shutter speed (if your camera has this setting) downward to compensate. However, try this only if you have great light, a very steady hand or a tripod.

Take a look at the following photo of Chris, which I took with my little Olympus D-435 point-and-shoot, during a social gathering at a friend’s house a couple of weeks ago.

Chris with a bevy of orb buddies.

Using the suggestions above, we can rule out the orbs in this photo, because there are many of them and they are extremely pale. Camera artifacts are not evidence, after all.

But what happens when, believe it or not, the photographs look promising? For instance, the below photo, taken while we were doing EVP work at a home investigation last week, actually shows some promise.

EVP recorder with Orb

That is Chris’s hand, holding a small digital recorder. This photo was taken with the same Olympus point-and-shoot as noted above. I have not enhanced this photograph at all, except to crop some of the background out so we can focus on the detail. There were no other orbs in the frame. Although somewhat pale, the lone orb does appear to be further back in the field than most. Given that we were in the midst of some EVP work at the time, orbs around the recorder mic may be expected.

But yet, the next photo in sequence, taken within a few seconds of the one above, leads me back to doubt.

Flare off recorder 2

The glare off the recorder’s silver finish, and the resulting lens flare, are strikingly obvious here. Though part of me thinks we may have caught a genuine orb that night, I can’t help but think it is yet another trick of the light. If a little skepticism is good for one’s health, I believe it is doubly good for one’s credibility. So, in the absence of incontrovertible proof in either direction, I feel that it is wise to rule it out.

Are there ANY real orbs?

Probably. There seem to be some real photographed orbs out there. Quite a few, in fact. Some even show movement, which we would be hard pressed to dismiss as mere fine particulate matter floating in front of the lens.

My purpose in bringing to light the “non-orbs” above is most certainly not to dispel the whole subject as deliberate fakery or even simple ignorance. In fact, I think that orbs, as one of the most basic forms of manifestation, can be a valuable piece of evidence. Orbs can be a fascinating study, no matter if you think they are collected energy due to natural causes, or ghostly phenomena.

As long as they’re the real thing.

The Perils of Believing One’s Eyes
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