Understanding the different causes of ORBS

ORBS - you either love or hate them. Here is how your camera can produce the 'ORB' effect
Sarah Chumacero
19th January 2017.
2 comments.
General, Stuff paranormal investigators need to know.
2368 page views.

I recently saw a survey online where a group was asking it’s followers to choose from three options of what causes ‘ORBS’. There were 3 options to choose from – Spirits, Dust and Other. Over 50% of the votes were for dust and this didn’t surprise me. Whenever someone presents a photo on social media of an ‘ORB’ the usual response from people is that it is just dust. Yes in a lot of cases it is in fact dust that has caused the ‘ORB’ but there is also other natural phenomena that can also cause orbs thanks to your trusty camera. Flash has a lot to answer for! It got me thinking that a lot of people don’t truely understand how cameras and flash work and while it is popular to jump on the ‘orbs are dust’ bandwagon, do you really know why investigators say it is dust? Can you confidently look at a photo and be able to distinguish what has caused the orb? Are you sure it is dust and not ghosting? Why do some cameras pick up a lot of ‘orbs’ and others don’t? Here is an easy guide to help you distinguish what kind of ‘ORB’ you are really dealing with and how your camera is playing with you.

Dust and moisture ORBS

This is the most common explanation for an orb and is particularly common on photos that are taken with smart phones. In a nutshell, a dust or moisture orb appears in your photo because the flash has reflected off a particle of dust or moisture. They are common in areas where there is a lot of dirt, old buildings (which most haunted locations are) and of course if it is raining or there is moisture in the air. Pretty easy explanation, but how exactly does that work? In a smartphone or a regular digital still camera, the flash sits pretty much next to the lens of the camera. When the flash fires, the shutter on the lens is opening as well to take the photo. These cameras usually shoot with a small aperture. What does that complicated sounding word mean? It means that the the hole in front of the lens that lets in the the light is only open a small amount so that it can have a greater depth of field. Its so that the cameras are able to take a picture of a beautiful landscape and everything will be in focus, not just the object closest to the camera (which is what you use a wide aperture for).

In all smartphones today, the flash is directly next to the lens. This means the entire area that the lens is shooting is going to be lit up directly by a flash. This is why smartphones tend to pick up a lot of ‘orbs’ in dusty old buildings.

When the flash fires, the area that it is lighting up usually crosses over with the area the lens is taking a photo of. Where these two cross over, if there are any dust or moisture particles in the air, the camera cannot properly focus on them (more on this below) and it appears as an orb.


“My orb can’t be dust because it is so big in the photo. You can’t really see dust with your eyes!” These words say it all. Dust is small and difficult to see if it is not illuminated by some sort of light source. You know when you have a beam of sunshine coming through your window and you can see all the dust particles in the air. Sometimes it is horrifying to think what we are breathing in. The other thing is that the dust particles you see floating through the air are incredibly small. Why then on a photo does it show up as a big round ball? It all has to do with what photographer’s refer to as the ‘circle of confusion’. It is just that – really confusing. When a photo is taken particularly using a small aperture (remember to make sure everything is in focus) things appear to be more two dimensional there is no concept of space. When you are shooting with a wider aperture, you are able to focus more of the person or thing you are shooting and the background becomes a bit more blurred. This creates the perception that there is distance between the background and the subject you are shooting. Unless you own a DSLR (or the new iPhone 7 plus from what I have heard) you cannot adjust the aperture which means on most smartphones and digital cameras it will automatically shoot with a small apeture. Because there is no perception of depth, you can’t look at a photo and tell for sure exactly how far back into the room an ‘orb’ is. In all likelihood it is right in front of the camera. The closer to the camera it is, the harder the camera tries to focus and make it into something which means the larger it will appear in the photo. This fancy diagram I drew will attempt to explain it. Cameras can be really tricky business so this concept can sometimes take a little while to get your head around (I know for me when studying my photography course it took me a few attempts to properly understand this kind of diagram so I tried to make it as simple as possible.)

A special side note, to avoid as much as possible capturing dust or moisture orbs, a dslr camera with an external flash mounted on top is much further from the lens (especially if you bounce the flash off the ceiling by pointing the flash at an angle upwards not throwing your flash against the ceiling). The area that the lens is shooting is a lot more separate than the area that the flash is lighting up so you are a lot less likely to capture a dust or moisture orb. Moisture usually only shows up when it is raining so to avoid this type of orb, try not to shoot in the rain.

To identify a dust orb, you are looking for something that appears to be fuzzy. These ‘fuzzy’ orbs are often mistaken to have faces in them. Unfortunately these are not the faces of spirits, it is an act of pareidolia. You brain is trying to make sense of all the ‘fuzziness’ and dots inside the ‘orb’ and makes you think you can see a face. If you look at any dust orb zoomed in you will most likely eventually see some sort of face. A moisture particle orb is more solid without the fuzziness. It may be transparent or it may be fully illuminated, it really depends on how close to the flash it was. So now that you know what causes dust or moisture orbs, here are some examples of what they look like.

A ‘Dust orb’ I caught during an investigation at Milanos Tavern. We were in a dark upstairs building with no electricity so needed to use a flash to take photos. An iPhone with flash was used to take this shot.

This was a shot taken outdoors when there was a light sprinkle of rain. As you can see the flash has reflected off the water droplets. Some even look like rods which is a dead give away that it was raining. This was taken with an iPhone using a flash

Here are some general pictures which you can find online of dust and moisture orbs. I wish I knew who to credit for these because it is a great tool but this is viral all over the internet so I don’t know who the original poster of these images was.

Image not mine

Image not mine

Ghosting ORBS

This kind of orb appears in most cases as a green orb or 3 transparent orbs. It is caused by a form of lens flare which is reflecting off the camera lens at an angle. I personally find these a huge pain because if you are shooting with a camera using a view finder, you usually don’t realise that you have caught one until you review your photo and they ruin a lot of perfectly good photos. I shoot in a lot of old, rumoured to be haunted buildings as do most people who capture these photos. Most of these buildings are very dark inside and rely on strong window light or a bright lamp to light up the room. The beam from this light only has to hit your camera lens at the wrong angle and bam, photo ruined with that pesky green orb.

Just when you think you have a great shop, you end up with this green dot. It is not paranormal, it is the light from the light source (in this case the lamp in the room) hitting the lens at an angle.

A lot of people claim coloured orbs are angels or fairies. I personally believe it is more likely to be a form of lens flare because the quality of your lens and the way your camera compresses the image etc all can be a factor in this and cause the orb to have some sort of colour. To read more about ghosting, here is a more in depth article I wrote explaining it all. “Just because it is called ghosting doesn’t make it paranormal”.

It’s not just green dots that are caused by this reflection. Transparent or slightly coloured orbs (there is usually more than one) are also caused by this form of lens reflection.

Bug ORBS

The same concept as dust or moisture particle orbs is in play, a flash is reflecting off a bug. It is close the to camera, it cannot focus properly so the camera turns it into a blurry looking shape because it is close to the camera and it can’t focus on it properly (the whole circle of confusion thing). You have a pretty good understand of how this all works now so I don’t need to go on but will leave you with an image I found online which shows the different type of ‘bug orbs’ that are out there.

Image not my own

So now you know the main causes for orbs. The next time you see a photo with an ‘orb’ have a look at the conditions and instead of automatically saying ‘it’s dust’, have a real look at it and importantly the conditions under which it was shot. The most important thing to know was if a flash was fired. If you can get your hands on the original unedited image, the EXIF data will be able to give you a simple yes no answer as to if the flash was used. There are several different ways to access this data on a computer. Sometimes a simple right click and properties or get info is enough or sometimes you need to open it in a photo program to get more detailed information. It depends what kind of computer and software you are using. The EXIF data tells you what settings were used and even what kind of camera. If someone is being dishonest about what and how the photo was taken, this can catch them out. If it is all a bit too hard and you don’t know how to access this information, head to exifdata.com it is a great website where you can upload a photo or a url link if the photo is online (such as Facebook) and it will access this information for you.

When you combine light reflection, pareidolia and lens flare, you can see why photographic evidence of the paranormal is quite an unreliable source. This does not mean that shouldn’t go out and show photos. Knowing what I know about all of these elements, there a still a couple of photos I have seen which I cannot debunk. It doesn’t mean it is paranormal and it doesn’t mean it isn’t, it means I cannot explain it. As long as you are going through the process and eliminating all of these factors, you are doing the right thing as an investigator. If you are left with something you can’t explain, at least you have the knowledge to tell someone why it isn’t all of the things we talked about above, and then the REAL discussion begins

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