I have a theory that everyone, and certainly everyone reading this, has at least 2 old books of ghost stories sitting on a shelf somewhere collecting dust. And these won’t be fictional ghosts, these will be books detailing apparent apparitions witnessed by real people in real places across the world. And somewhere among those pages will be many photos of ghosts mostly, if not all, in black and white. There will be ghosts in upstairs windows, climbing stairs, peering over peoples shoulders, sitting on sofas, playing on the beach and crouched in the back of a car. Well maybe not playing on the beach., but you will be hard pressed to find any photo of an apparently paranormal phenomena that isn’t described as a ghost. And then there’s all the bygone TV programmes, telling tales of apparitions like grey ladies and hooded figures, monks, soldiers, dead queens and beheaded riders. But these old books and TV shows all share one missing element that sets them aside from the mass of ghostly media that is appearing with more and more regularity today. And that’s orbs. They were unheard of. If, as you flick through some of the photos in these books, you spot an orb or two, you can put money on it that they won’t be mentioned in the text, or if they are they won’t have any appreciable paranormal connection. So why are orbs so popular today? Why are orbs constantly being shown as evidence of the paranormal and, if they do exist as spirits, why didn’t they show themselves to us before? And another intriguing question, how come they can only be seen by the camera?
So what’s an orb? A ghost hunters approach.
There are thousands of photographs in existence showing orbs with their colour, shape, size and brightness varying from picture to picture. Some of these pictures show countless orbs in the same field of view, others show just one or two orbs, some show orbs pictured around people, who are seemingly oblivious to their paranormal visitors. But unfortunately photographic evidence is all we have. The interpretation of this evidence and the opinions of what orbs are vary enormously. But all the websites that I visited while researching this topic seem to have one thing in common. They all express the view that orbs are indeed paranormal and that you can get confused with other more simplistic explanations the like of which I will delve into later. Some of the more common conclusions are that orbs are entities, physical manifestations of the dead that have somehow managed to form a sphere and appear to us. They may bring along a message (for orbs emit sound), and this may be picked up as EVP if you’re lucky. To visually record an orb you may have some success with an ordinary 35mm SLR but this is rare. A digital camera or camcorder is best suited to the task.
You may have noticed that I haven’t explained what an orb actually is, just what it represents. And here is where the spirit theory starts to break down because no-one actually knows for sure. There are many, many opinions over what orbs are. The most common is that it is a sphere of energy, presumably light or at least generating light, but that’s where the evidence sort of tails off into contradictions and personal opinions, being described as anything from ‘separate life forms’ to ‘elf lights’ to amazing structures that have a magnetosphere and an ‘ionic displacement layer’, whatever that is.
To be or not to be…….
There seems to be an increasing number of sites stressing the reader and future orb hunter to be careful when sorting fact from fantasy. Dust, pollen, moisture and small flying insects can all be misinterpreted as orbs. So how do you spot an orb? Well it’s orb shaped and shows up when you take a picture, simple. Well you’d think so but you’d be wrong. As previously mentioned orbs come in a variety of colours and shapes, but are these all genuine orbs or something else? One website describes ‘true’ orbs as ‘….bright and consistent in brightness throughout’. Another states that they are ‘….invisible to the naked eye but showing up on film’. One website says ‘….they can be completely transparent’ while another states ‘….false orb's are easily identified by the fact that they are very pale white or blue in color and/or they can be transparent.’ And another says ‘….orb light is so faint and delicate it isn't visible to the naked eye when there is another light source in the vicinity and background visible.’ True orbs can’t fit all these descriptions surely. Most websites stick by their own interpretation of course and go on to warn about orb pictures you see on other websites.
The popularity of orbs
So why are orbs so popular nowadays, whatever happened to misty ghost photos? Well they still exist but orbs, it seems, are captured much more easily on film. And here I must pause and make the distinction between film and a CCD. Ordinary, regular 35mm cameras use film, sensitive to light in the visible spectrum. A digital camera uses a CCD or charged coupled device which is a light sensitive chip. The majority of orbs are captured using digital cameras, 35mm cameras have been known to capture orbs but photos are few and far between. A digital camera is a necessity nowadays, because of portable interchangeable memory media it can capture an almost unlimited number of shots which can be reviewed and deleted or stored on the spot. No more waiting around picking out the best shot and wasting valuable time changing films. And no more anxious hours or even days spent waiting for your photos to come back from the lab, possibly ruined by an exuberant lab tech. The digital camera is definitely the way to go and anyone who’s anyone in the world of the paranormal has one, not to mention the ordinary man in the street who cares not one jot about spooks but upon capturing strange happenings on his camera decides to investigate and ends up uploading them onto a paranormal website. But apart from the sheer weight in numbers of digital cameras out there could there be another explanation for the rise in orb photos? Surely ghosts are now no longer camera shy because they like the idea of appearing on the internet?
Problems with your spook snapper.
Let’s get one thing straight. Most people whether they believe in orbs or not are agreed that anomalies can creep in to your photographs. Dust particles are a favourite so I’ll try not to go into too much detail here explaining this one. Particles of anything close to the lens will be out of focus (see Fig.1)
The area between the lens and the focal plane inside of which particles are out of focus varies with the lens that is on your camera but can vary from a couple of inches to a foot. Unless you pay out for a top of the range model, digital cameras invariably have the flash situated very close to the lens so illuminating everything within it’s immediate field of view. When the flash goes off, these out of focus particles are illuminated and picked up by the camera as orbs, or out of focus fuzzy round blobs to you and me. The same thing happens with flying insects except they may be captured as fuzzy blobs with motion blur and are generally brighter as there is a solid body and shiny wings for the light to reflect off. Other anomalies can be reflections from other objects in the field of view as well as internal reflections and optical aberrations within the lens including refraction. All this shows why it’s no coincidence that orbs really came into the limelight after digital cameras came on the scene. So why are orbs constantly being put forward as evidence when these problems are known to exist? That’s easy, because real orbs are being photographed. So with that in mind let’s get down to some serious ‘real orb’ investigation.
Why can’t we see real orbs with the naked eye?
Any orb supporter will tell you that real orbs cannot be seen with the naked eye, they can only be picked up by cameras. So to start with let’s talk a little about the human eye. The sensitivity of film in a camera, or the CCD in a digital camera, is measured as an ISO number. The higher the ISO, the more sensitive the recording plane. ISO 100 is generally okay for photos outside on a bright day. Move up to 400 for a dull day and 600 or even 800 at night. Digital cameras will usually choose their own ISO depending on conditions and will use flash whenever possible. The ISO of the human eye during the day is a measly 1 but at night, once the eye becomes dark adapted (after approximately 30 minutes), it shoots up to abut 800.1 The eye detects differences in contrast with a huge dynamic range whereas a camera is an absolute detector over a much smaller range. The upshot of all this is that unless you go for a time exposure with a high ISO the human eye is much more sensitive than a camera. It also has a much wider field of view than a camera which results in an effective megapixel equivalence of nearly 600.2 Consider the sharpness of photos you get from your 6 or even 3 megapixel camera and you can see that the human eye really is an impressive light recorder.
But of course that still hasn’t answered the question, why can’t the human eye see these things but the camera can? Well when we are talking about dust or insects, the human eye can see them as long as it’s given a chance. With flash photography the duration of the flash itself isn’t usually long enough for the eye to find and focus on its target. As far as the visible spectrum is concerned film cameras cover the same range and can see the same visible light that we can. The same goes for digital cameras. So if it’s a real orb shining with it’s own visible light we’d be able to see it just as easily as the camera. If it’s picked up by the cameras flash or other source of light, then the ‘orb’ is reflecting light and isn’t an orb at all. Of course some orb hunters know all this but that doesn’t put them off. They put forward an interesting argument which is: digital cameras see into the infra red, optical cameras don’t and neither does the human eye, therefore real orbs must be emitting light in the infra red. So let’s take a closer look at this one.
Near and far nanometres
Stay with me, this looks a little complicated at first glance but it really isn’t, just remember the figures, that’s what’s important in this bit. The wavelengths of visible light, that is light which is detectable by the human eye, range from about 390 nanometres (nm) to about 720 (see Fig.2).
Below 390 is the ultra violet range and above 720 is the infrared range (IR), we cannot see these ranges except with special equipment. The range we are concerned with here is the near IR as the CCD in a digital camera can ‘see’ the near IR range of 720 to about 1200nm. At around 1200nm the sensitivity of a CCD drops off abruptly and from 1200 and up we are hitting the IR to far IR ranges. These ranges are concerned with light that is produced by the emission of heat, anything from lava flows to the human body and is outside the scope of digital cameras and this discussion. So, a CCD in a digital camera can detect visible light from 390 to 720nm and the near IR from about 720 to 1200nm.
IR light is everywhere, mostly in sunlight reflected off the objects around us, we can’t see it but your digital camera can. Of course this could play havoc when trying to use your camera to take ordinary everyday photos of the kids or that strange looking dog from down the road that keeps sniffing your gate, so you don’t want any of this nasty reflected IR contamination finding its way onto your photos. Well, the clever camera people got round this by fitting an IR filter behind the lens. This is called an Internal Infrared Cut Filter (IIRC) and blocks out the vast majority of IR light. You’ll find the newer digital cameras let in less IR light than do the older ones but none of them let in enough so as to mess up your holiday shots.3
But if some can get in then why can’t the supposed IR light from an orb?
Well, the only IR light that’s going to get through your filter is a very bright source. You can test this out with any TV remote, these operate at 900 to 950nm. Point your camera at the business end of your remote and press a button. The LCD screen on your camera should show the remote with a flashing light at the centre (see Fig.3).
If the light appears white and is very bright then your camera is probably an older model that hasn’t got a top notch IIRC. If the light is fairly dim and appears red then you’ve got a very good IIRC filter fitted, one that’s letting in less than 0.1 per cent of the emitted IR light from the remote.
But doesn’t that prove that your camera, however good, is registering some IR light and is therefore able to take pictures of these infrared orbs?
No. The remote is a very bright IR source which is why the camera picks it up and displays it on the LCD (note that the picture had to be taken in the dark for the light source to show up properly). If orbs were indeed emitting IR they would have to be so bright that they too are picked up on the display. Alas this is not the case. Orbs are only discovered when the picture is taken, more often than not while using flash which is another reason we know they’re not emitting IR. You can test this principle out for yourself as well. While you have your camera pointed at the remote which is still happily flashing away, take a picture of it without flash. You will get a picture of exactly what you saw on the display, a remote with a small bright light source at the centre. Now take the same photo but with the flash enabled. You’ll get a nice picture of a remote but with no flashing IR light (see Fig.4).
That’s because visible light washes out the IR light source. And we all know that the vast majority of orb pictures are taken at night and so need a flash. Any resulting orb pictures taken cannot therefore be of objects emitting IR. (For comparison Fig.5 is the same as Fig.4 but without the remote being activated).
So what does all this mean for spirit orbs?
It means that the orbs that you capture with your camera are not entities and are not emitting any light, visible or otherwise. They are anomalies, dust, aberrations, insects or other particles caught inside the field of view of the camera, lit up by reflected light and recorded onto the cameras CCD. There is absolutely zero evidence supporting the theory that orbs are physical manifestations of spirits. But if one day you happen to spot a bright, moving source of orb shaped light be assured it won’t be dust and it probably won’t be an insect. Get that camera out, you never know, it just might be your great aunt Edna popped in from another dimension, take a few pictures and get them on the net.