by Karen Frazier

If you pay much attention to popular subjects in the paranormal, then you may notice there’s quite a conversation going on about orbs. The subject of these little round balls of light is quite controversial in the paranormal field. I believe, however, this controversy comes from a simple misunderstanding about what the term “orbs” actually means.

A friend of SSPR, Darren Thompson of WSPIR (Washington State Paranormal Investigation and Research) is a frequent speaker at paranormal events. During his talks Darren, who is an engineer, shares a well reasoned presentation that includes a discussion of photographic orbs. At the end of that section of his presentation, Darren frequently says, “Can you imagine, though, what a shame it would be if the only way a ghost could present itself to us visually is to form into a circle of light?”

Darren is right, and therein lies the basis of the entire orb controversy. Fortunately, it’s one that can be simply solved with a little bit of understanding. An orb is a very specific type photographic artifact. A ball of light you can see with your own two eyes may be something else altogether.

Orb Zone Theory

Photographic artifacts from objects outside of the camera's depth of focus.

The Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena (ASSAP) has presented a comprehensive study and explanation of photographic orbs, which they call the Orb Zone Theory. You can read a case study about Orb Zone Theory in its entirety here.

In a nutshell, here are the findings that led to the theory:·     

  • The proliferation of orb photographs became prevalent only after the widespread use of digital photography was adopted.
  • While orbs do appear in 35mm film photography, they are much more common in digital photographs.
  • Digital cameras use focal length lenses that are much shorter than 35mm cameras - the focal length is about half as long.
  • Digital cameras also use a wider angle lens than a 35mm camera in order to duplicate the viewing area. This results in a greater depth of field in the digital camera.
  • An increased depth of field means the area out of focus is much closer to the camera for digital than 35 mm.
  • This allows the flash to illuminate tiny particles of dust and other material that are very near the camera so they aren't in focus.
  • The result is a well-known photographic artifact called a circle of confusion

A bug on the move?

What does this all mean? Objects outside of the camera’s depth of field appear blurred. In the case of orbs, small particles such as dust or bugs appear as a single orb or a series of overlapping orbs.  These orbs always appear as 10 percent or less of the entire frame size in photography, unless lens flare is at fault. Then the orbs can be larger.

Lens Flare

Lots of lens flare

Lens flare can manifest in many different ways, including brightly lit orbs (in multiple colors), a haze in one portion of the picture, a starburst, other shapes, or even a decrease in the photo's overall contrast.  

My gorgeous nieces - and some serious lens flare

Lens flare occurs when a bright light causes photographic artifacts. Some objects that can cause lens flare include the camera's flash; the sun; reflective surfaces such as glass, metal, polished wood, marble, and tile; and lamps or other light sources in the room.

Are Orbs Ever Paranormal?

Nearly all orbs in digital photography can be explained away as a photographic artifactBecause orbs are so common and easy to recreate in digital photography, it stretches credibility to ever conclusively state an orb in a digital photograph is paranormal evidence. Because of that, presenting photographic orbs as evidence of the paranormal puts us on shaky ground. While I’ve seen some interesting orbs in photographs that have left me wondering, I would never state a photographic orb is conclusive proof of the paranormal phenomena, period.
Balls of Light

Many paranormal investigators have reported physically seeing balls of light. These are not orbs, and I believe this is where the confusion comes in. Many people call these balls of light that they physically see orbs. They aren’t. As previously discussed, orbs are photographic artifacts.

Periodically, balls of light come into play on paranormal investigations on two ways: (1) Witnesses physically see balls of light with their own light source that move about purposefully; and (2) digital video recorders pick up balls of light with their own light source and purposeful movement.

Let's start with the recordings of these balls of light. In many cases, bugs and dust show up on DVRs as orbs. We see this all of the time on our DVR system. You can tell it’s dust, however, because there will be several of these balls of light, and they’ll move in a pattern that mimics the airflow in the room.

Bugs are a little bit more difficult. In general, a bug won’t maintain a steady round shape, but there will be some irregularities in the circle. While infrared (IR) lighting will cause the bug to appear to have its own light source, the quality of that light is different from a ball of energy. Likewise, bugs move about in an erratic pattern (think about the bugs you’ve watched fly around. While they may know where they’re going, it never seems to make much sense to the person observing them.)

Energy balls, on the other hand, tend to be brightly lit and perfectly round. They often move in a purposeful pattern that is different from the pattern of dust appearing on camera. For instance, I once sat a DVR and watched a ball of light circle around a group of people sitting in a circle on the floor. It then moved into the middle of the group and began circling in an inward spiral. While the ball of light was moving, the group was picking up anomalous readings on EMF detectors, as well.

The Bottom Line

Orbs are easily explained photographic artifacts. Because they are so common and easy to produce on digital photography (and also appear on 35 mm photography), it is extremely difficult to ever consider them evidence of the paranormal. If, however, you have a personal experience in which you see a ball of energy that seems to emit its own light and moves about purposefully, it may warrant more investigation.