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FAQ

QUESTION: What are 'orbs'?



ANSWER: The word "orb" tends to make most parapsychologists cringe. The vast majority of these photos (like the one I humorously use to your right) are due to perfectly normal artifacts. Al Rauber put it best when he noted: "You go on the internet and you see all these different ghost groups and everything and they're putting out all this 'proof' of ghosts, and the proof is nothing. It's nothing. There's a reason for that photograph to look like that, and it has nothing to do with ghosts. I am constantly amazed at how often artifacts are touted off as ghost photos."

So, let's look at some photos that were screwed up in perfectly ordinary ways, where I know no ghosts were involved. Let's start with the classic: dust motes. You know those little pale white (or other color) circles that show up on pictures? They aren't ghosts. No camera is immune from problems, but digital cameras are particularly prone to them, and haven't been around long enough for the population to recognize when it's something truly interesting or just another boring artifact.

For film cameras you can have problems with:
  1. Old or heat-damaged film
  2. A dirty lens, or one with a tiny water droplet on it
  3. Wrong exposures
  4. Lens reflections (with any light source, including other cameras or their autofocus assist beams, but especially with the sun)
  5. Movement during the exposure (either of your camera or the recorded image/light source)
  6. Flash and lighting problems (a major cause of artifacts)
  7. Film development issues
  8. Printing problems
With digital cameras, you may eliminate the film development phase, but they tend to be far more sensitive to dust, fine hairs, etc. on the lens. Furthermore, there are problems with CCD malfunction (the electronic sensor in the camera that needs to translate the image into the final picture) and conversion issues from analog to digital and back again. It is the CCD malfunction that may most often cause the so-called "orbs" that appear in pictures by so many digital cameras. As one parapsychologist recently noted, the cheaper the equipment, the better your odds at getting "anomalies" -- whether "orbs" or what you think are "EVPs."

Common artifacts include getting a comet-like tail from a reflections (often made worse by a bit of movement). Add dust and water droplets (which digital cameras are more sensitive to because of their small apertures) and you can get quite a creative mix. However, the dust and droplets tend to be easier to recognize. They tend to be round and may look slightly unfocused. What can you do? You can't always prevent other sources of light (especially with the sun, artificial lights, and other cameras), but using a tripod and avoiding a flash will help eliminate at least one source of problems. You can get linear streaks or the round classic "orbs" with a bit of movement. And the light source may be an unseen infrared focusing beam from a camera!

Dave Manganelli has humorously noted "Many AF illuminators will throw out a visible red/black pattern of some sort, so beware others on a ghost hunt who become convinced that that pattern is YET ANOTHER SPIRIT FORM!!!! (Who can take photos, anyway, with all that terror breaking out around them?)"Streetlight Artifact

The picture of a smiling Halloween pumpkin (at the top of this page) was taken with a cheap digital camera. It shows the classic artifact you get when you have a point source of light and movement of the camera. There are also some odd reflections on the right which match the weave of the sweater I was wearing when taking the photo. A point source of light can be particularly problematic if you are ghost hunting with a group of others. The flashes and autofocus assist beams pointed at your camera lens can create just such intriguing lines in white, pink, or red. Of course, movement artifacts can be a lot more subtle. Let's look at a classic "orb" (seen on the right side of this page), which is nothing more than artifact caused by a streetlamp.

And we aren't done with the artifacts yet. It only takes a very slight camera movement in low-light conditions to get a double exposure effect - very cool and anomalous looking but NOT paranormal. In essence, the flash cycle is too short for the needed exposure time. This causes the area in the center, where the flash is brightest, to have the equivalent of a double exposure, while the outer edges, where the flash is more dim, will look normal. An example of this is below. Alcatraz Island was the infamous home of many of the worst criminals ever convicted. The picture below was taken of the Alcatraz dining hall at the time that Chris Fleming, the sensitive co-host of the British TV show, "Dead Famous," was sensing a food riot from the past. The outer portions of the picture appear to be sharp, while there is an odd blurring in the center.

AlcatrazPhoto experts say this image is the result of a flash artifact from camera movement in low-light conditions -- and trust me, the camera doesn't have to move very much. In essence, the flash cycle was too short for the needed exposure time. The area in the center, where the flash is brightest, had the equivalent of a double exposure while the outer edges were less sensitive to the slight camera movement after the flash had finished (but the aperture was still open). Now, let me add that Chris Fleming was picking up a lot of energy and place memory at the time, had seen a ghost in the dining room earlier, and felt like a spirit was in front of him. I believe him, which leads to an important point. Just because you take a photo that is completely normal, or has an artifact that can be explained as reflection, flash bounce, movement, etc., doesn't mean that nothing paranormal was present when you took the picture. The fact is that we don't have a camera yet that can truly photograph ghosts. So, a normal picture means only that you don't have paranormal "proof" to wave around and show off to strangers -- ghosts may, or may not, have been present. To be honest, people's experiences, rapid battery drainage, and equipment malfunctions are far more reliable indicators of paranormal activity.

Odd reflections can also occur with any kind of film camera, but they tend to be a bit less sensitive to dust artifacts than are digital cameras.

Flash artifacts are just one of a nearly infinite number of ways you can get "anomalous" photos. This is true even with an expensive film camera. You can get artifacts from the film itself, to the flash, to reflections, to development, and even the actual printing of the photo. And don't forget the possibilities of microscopic drops of water on the lens, or even a dirty lens. Of course, the last one tends to be easy to spot. You get the same artifact on every picture the camera takes. Loyd Auerbach sums the situation up best when he says:

"No matter what one does, not all factors can be accounted for or controlled when taking any kind of photo .... By "factors" I mean anything from problems with film (or the developing process) or the camera or the photographer or unseen influences in the environment. I've seen way too many photos with "mysterious" streaks of light that can be tracked back to point sources of light at the fringes of the camera frame (a little shaking of the photographer's hand is all it takes) .... Finally, photos are subject to manipulation .... What it all boils down to is this: photos are evidence, NOT proof of the existence of ghosts or hauntings."

Some ghost investigators have experimented with infrared photography. Unfortunately, this has it's own set of problems. And if you have infrared focusing beams from other cameras (or reflected back to you by your own) then you're really in trouble. It's artifact city. Another thing worth mentioning is that it is not heat sensitive. Thermal imaging devices are extremely useful in an investigation, but then you're talking a multi-thousand dollar system from someone like Flir. Infrared film will merely see a slightly broader spectrum of reflected light than the human eye can perceive. As with any scientific process the more control of the environment you can have, the less chance for human error adding anomalies to the data. If you want to shoot with infrared, it's important that you be the ONLY one with a camera, turn OFF the auto focus, and use an older manual focus lens. New lenses no longer have an infrared focusing index, slightly different from what we see as sharp. The down side is that this is all time consuming and working with the tripod today was really inconvenient. The only other thing I can suggest is to take something with good optics. The cameras that are suggested for "inexpensive ghost hunting," (and which result in the kind of pictures most people show off as anomalous) have some of the worst optics in the world... little point and shoots that are prone to flare and dust and hazing over in cold temps. And that doesn't even take into account the issue of flare from a flash reflecting off of something (TV, mirrors, and window glass can be particularly notorious for creating suggestion images that are absolutely meaningless). The average person can pick up a cheap used SLR with an excellent lens for about $200 and avoid lots of these problems. I'm told by camera experts that it is good to avoid zooms too... All photographically speaking of course. It is not heat sensitive in the way you'd need to have for it to pick up ghosts, so while you might get some interesting and artistic shots, they aren't likely to give you any better proof than other cameras.

Am I saying that ghosts never effect cameras? Of course not. But what I and other ghost investigators have found is that it usually shows up as batteries draining or equipment malfunction. Too many ghost hunters miss out on the real evidence because of being sidetracked by artifacts. As Dave Manganelli notes:

"The most common weirdness that has occurred in my own investigations is equipment failure/malfunction. Now that -- if properly vetted -- is the true puzzling anomaly in all this."

Finally, one last word about orbs on video. As with still photography, you can get reflection and other types of artifacts. However, video has one big advantage over it's SLR and digital brethren; you can study the behavior of the photographic anomaly. This can be interesting indeed. If it behaves like dust kicked up by movement you don't have to waste your time on it. On the other hand, if it seems to behave in an inexplicably intelligent fashion, then perhaps you have something interesting. Video, not still photography, may become the standard for serious ghost investigators in the future. There is more about 'orbs' and camera artifacts on the FAQ page here.

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