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Orbs Explained

Updated August 25, 2001

Copyright © 2001 by Paul Sandoval

There is nothing paranormal about so-called "orbs". I've been a photographer for many years and I do understand the technology. Orbs are not ghosts. They are perfectly normal photographic artifacts, as the examples below will show.

This first picture is of John R. Benneth.

For background information regarding this photo, please see these Usenet articles by Winston Wu:

Skeptics, 7 ghost orbs around John Benneth

Winston/Benneth's Ghost Hunt in Virginia City

Johnonstage.jpg - 47kb

The digital photograph is displayed here in exactly the form it was received via email. It is underexposed and moderately compressed, resulting in significant loss of detail. Apparently it is not the orginal photo file, but it will have to do for now. It was reportedly taken with a digital camera, which was not identified, but Winston Wu's descriptions are consistent with the Sony Mavica. Most digital cameras are fixed at the film speed equivalent of ISO100. It is difficult to be certain, but the darkness of the photograph and other features indicate that the photo was taken in one of two ways:

  1. Available light without flash. If the aperture was wide open, the shutter speed would have been approximately 1/60 of a second, enough for a dark exposure, but not enough for a good exposure. Harsh shadows are evident along the edges of the curtains, indicating a flash.
  2. Flash used, but with the lens stopped down to approximately f/16. This would account for the obvious underexposure.
The various circles or "orbs" surrounding Mr. Benneth are most likely unfocused reflected light from dust particles close to the lens. Multiple "rainbow colors" inside the "orbs" result from the JPEG compression algorithm. It is not possible to know exactly what caused the bright spot to the left, but this could have been an insect or large particle of floating dust.

Other possible causes of the "orbs":

  1. Reflective objects near the lens. The extent that they are out-of-focus suggest that they were within the closest boundary of the camera's depth-of-field, too close for the lens to focus the objects. Although the picture is dark, the harsh shadows indicate that a flash was used. The flash has brightly illuminated one close object, possibly causing refractions within the lens grouping inside the camera.
  2. Bright point source located out-of-frameThere may have been a bright light to the upper left, out of the imaged area, which caused a bright lens flare and other less bright refractions in the lens group. This possibility seems more likely. A single spotlight would suffice. The fact that the photo is so dark and that the color is so poor indicates that the photo could have been taken in available light. Digital cameras often are fixed at the equivalent of ISO100 film speed.
  3. Deliberate digital manipulation. The raw digital file from the camera was not available to us. This photo had been renamed "John on stage.jpg", and may have been otherwise altered. Dimensions are 640x480x144ppi. It is possible that the orbs were added using a bitmap editor. To be fair, we'll have to give the photographers the benefit of the doubt and assume that they didn't. From what we can see in this photo, it seems unlikely. It's much less work to get orbs to appear with the camera itself, and requires no skill.

The next photograph displays similar artifacts. This was taken using a Kodak digital camera, model unknown. Flash was used, as evidenced by the strong illumination of the arm in the foreground. The photo is a direct conversion from the original KDC format and has been resized to 640x480 and moderately compressed. The photo was "flipped" horizontally to roughly match the Benneth photo situation. No other editing was done.

constpic.jpg - 79kb

Once again, there is a strong point source in the photograph. Please note the similar orbs "in orbit" around the workers.

These effects are caused primarily by floating dust near the lens and are common in small cameras which have the flash located near the lens.

In this photograph, I deliberately sprinkled some baking flour in front of the camera at a distance of approxmiately 30 centimeters. I could not get a volunteer to stand in a cloud of mosquitoes in order to test insect reflectivity. ;)

P001250.jpg - 46kb

This illustration shows what happens:

camera.jpg - 39kb

Other Effects

This photo demonstrates an "orb" and lens flare effects. The "orb" is caused by a piece of debris which is lodged behind the lens filter. The orange lights are caused by incident sunlight. The camera was deliberately held at an angle with the sun just beyond the frame in order to product this effect. The hexagonal shape is caused by the iris in the camera.

P001247.jpg - 55kb

Another example. The sun is just above the upper-right corner of the frame.

P001243.jpg - 28kb

Any time there is incident light striking the lens surface at a particular angle, "lens flare" can occur. Photographers learn to avoid these artifacts by taking care not to aim their cameras into bright light sources, and by learning to keep their lenses clean. Some probable causes of photographic artifacts are listed below. There are probably other possibilities, none of them paranormal.

Other examples on the web:

Demonstrating Dust Illumination

WARNING: the link below will load a very large image. We provide it here for those who wish to compare it to the Benneth photo. The conditions were similar, and so are the orbs.

Please see this page: Alfredo's Ghosts for more information, without large images.

These problems have been discussed on

Mavica Captures Ghosts?

White Spheres on Photos

Flash Problem w Canon-A5


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