To be orb not to be

By Phil Plait | May 16, 2010 8:44 am

orbs_soulsoepHave you heard about orbs? In a long line of silly paranormal claims, orbs are in the pantheon, the top shelf, the upper ethereal reaches of silliness.

The idea is that when you take a picture, you’ll sometimes see little fuzzy circles in it. The obvious conclusion is that these are the souls of the dead.

I mean, c’mon! What else would they be? Out of focus dust grains that are floating in your field of view? Don’t be silly!

Image from soulsoep’s Flickr photostream.


Comments (74)

  1. What’s interesting about orbs is as much as they’re online as evidence, I have found very few “ghost hunters” that will say they’re more than dust. The best I seem to get is “well, some of them might be spirits”

    Out of dozens of people that believe in ghosts that I have talked to, only one has said that they think they’re ghosts, and that guy was in a mental hospital at one point.

  2. The hysterical thing about this is, the people who make money off this nonsense create elaborate taxonomies of the various species of “orbs,” “sprites,” “spheres,” etc.

    They are just like the UFO nuts who create detailed categories of aliens (“greys,” et al) and their spacecraft (“triangles” being the hot new models).

    I’ve got a video of my late dog, Mr. Fred, munching his kibble in the morning sun. As luck would have it, I caught several orbs…or maybe they were sprites…floating around his head. Obviously, they were there to guide his spirit toward the rainbow bridge.

  3. Travis,

    You need to post that “photo flip” you and Kitty did. That was a great demonstration of an “orb” that wasn’t dust, but still totally explainable!

  4. Daffy

    “The camera of his dreams?!?!?!”

  5. Neon Sequitur

    That’s right folks, the secret to getting good photos of disembodied souls is never cleaning off your camera lens.

  6. Mmmmm….Canon…heh heh….SNORE!…..mmmm…snort! gurble!….mmmm…oh, yeah, open that shutter….oooo, don’t f-stop now! Expose it, baby! Expose it!


    What else would they be? Out of focus dust grains that are floating in your field of view? Don’t be silly!

    Not half as silly as Rods:

    In cryptozoology, ufology, and outdoor photography, rods (sometimes known as “skyfish” or “solar entities”) are elongated artifacts produced by cameras that inadvertently capture several of a flying insect’s wingbeats. Videos of rod-shaped objects moving quickly through the air were claimed by some to be alien life forms or small UFOs, but subsequent experiments showed that these rods appear in film because of an optical illusion. [more… (Wikipedia)]

  8. The best time to catch images of spirit orbs is during a light misty rain or when fine snowfall occurs. The spirits seem to prefer these conditions. «SNORT!» 😉

  9. Pi-needles

    Don’t be silly!

    Sometimes being silly can be fun! 😉

    This case of silliness tho’ ? Not-so much. Orbs? Really? :roll:

    Only if you’ve been smokin’ some “orbs” with an ‘e’ .. 😉

  10. Ed

    To be fair, any serious paranormal investigator completely dismisses the very concept of “orbs”. Anyone who even says “Well, some might be spirits” are generally not taken seriously by anyone else in the field. There is plenty of internal ridicule to go around for crap like that.

  11. My site is populated by orbs. And I featured you on the blogroll…to give people some scientific balance on the side that they’re not spirits but mere metaphors of potentialities. Or as you may be tempted to call as simply “woo.”

    According to Aristotle’s philosophy and metaphysics they’re actually “potentialities” (beings that are not yet come to be; actuality refers to beings that have come to be and are now being.) Curiously, you will find the same metaphysical theories in the Vedas. And now, quantum physics is dragged into all these.

  12. When I first saw the photograph I thought it was snow starting to fall, perhaps it’s because I’m sceptical but not for one moment did I think ‘paranormal’!

  13. @ Ridge:

    Or as you may be tempted to call as simply “woo.”

    Yup! Woo it is!

  14. Roger Gilblat

    Actually, they are not floating dust, they are on the mirror or CCD of the camera and are a common nuisance to photographers everywhere. Or maybe they are someones soul stuck to my CCD, either way a shot of compressed air gets rid of them.

  15. dee

    Remember, these guys are making television. They’re ratings whores. It’s how they make their living. I agree that orbs are ludicrous. But they can’t betray the truth that precious little happens on their ghost hunting expeditions.

  16. Mike from Tribeca

    My psychic intuition tells me the Charles Fort Institute must have the bitchinest office parties.

  17. Kris

    I’ve got to say, though, as far as backscatter artifacts go, they’re rather pretty.

  18. George

    I hate stupid people.

  19. Roger Gilblat (14): Orbs are not on the CCD itself. If you get dust on the chip you get a dark donut. If you read the linked article, you’ll that these are definitely dust motes floating in the air. If the dust were on your mirror you’d never see them, since the mirror flips up in an SLR before the picture is taken.

  20. Cowboy Dan

    It’s not dead souls. It’s dead skin! EVEN SCARIER.

  21. So now souls are turning into orbs after leaving the body? They used to turn into moths.

  22. Matt

    You should definitely do a post on “rods”…the mysterious super-fast streaks of light that people think are either aliens or some sort of undiscovered species of insect.

  23. and bosonic strings and membranes too.

  24. @ Phil & Roger:

    Except for high-end digital SLR cameras, most consumer cameras are “SLR-like”, which means there is no mirror. The light that goes through the lens is delivered to the main CCD, and from there to the viewer, whether it’s located in an eyepiece or on a small screen. The camera plays a sound effect of a shutter opening and a mirror flipping, but that’s it. There are no moving parts.

    @ Matt:

    No, no! The best ones are the cirrus clouds that are actually trails of pan-dimensional craft as they streak by our universe!

  25. Sir Eccles

    My favorite “I don’t know how my camera works” UFO was the one where people were claiming to have video footage of a bright yellow polygon that floated in the field of view, had very clean edges and was very hard to track.

    Turned out the UFO was the exact same shape as the aperture on the camera (they often had diamond shaped apertures) and they were trying to track internal reflections of the sun masked by this aperture which obviously moved in the opposite direction. Essentially a lens flare.

  26. Ah, yes, quantum physics explains all supernatural nonsense – I just LOVE it when the fuzzy headed drag that in.

    A neighbor here believes in these sprites or souls or whatever he thinks they are. He also led a “scientific” inquiry into the question of our Town Hall being haunted. Of course it turned out to be so.

    When I first moved here, I thought the area might have a dangerous shortage of fools. I am relieved to find there is actually a healthy surplus.

  27. Zucchi

    Reminds me of a couple of years ago when local tv station idiots made a big deal of a “ghost video” that was *obviously* a moth or other insect crawling around on the transparent dome over a convenience store security camera.

  28. Fritriac

    Try to take photos in a room filled with artificial fog from those fog machines (discos, concert halls, fun fair pavilions or whatever). I had to delete gazillions of pics in the last years.

    But “ghosts”? Souls of the death? WTF!

    Protip: F*ckin’ CLEAN YOU LENS after trying to take photos in such a room!

    /I hate that shiat…

  29. Mike Mullen

    “To be fair, any serious paranormal investigator completely dismisses the very concept of “orbs”. Anyone who even says “Well, some might be spirits” are generally not taken seriously by anyone else in the field. There is plenty of internal ridicule to go around for crap like that.”

    Sorry but the use of the words ‘serious’ and ‘paranormal investigator’ together is an oxymoron like ‘military intelligence’. if these people were serious investigators they would have abandoned the paranormal years ago.

  30. There was a stall at an Unconvention (the Fortean Times convention) where you could have your photograph taken with an orb. They used a plant mister, a camera with a bright flash, and some careful timing. The results were pretty good.

    I once got an excellent photograph of some spiderweb ectoplasm; I have long hair, and a few strands had strayed in front of the lens. It took me ages to figure out. I can easily imagine that a few additional strands could have caused pareidolons.

  31. The funny thing about paranormal topics is that they actually prove the concept of “undead.” No matter how many times the topics are thoroughly killed, they keep coming back!

    I’ve shot enough orbs, two of them being here and here. Both, especially the second, make it clear how it works, since you can see them “grow” as they get further out of focus.

    They’re actually a great visual demonstration of the photography term, “circle of confusion” (no comments on how appropriate that is for the orb-chasers.) Light bounces off objects in all directions, and small points of bright light (like reflections from water drops, or flash-illuminated dust and mist) still send their light out in a broad spray. The lens takes those that it captures and refocuses them down, like a cone, to a single point on the film/sensor plane, the tip of the cone.

    But, if those points are not actually the focal distance from the camera (thus out of focus,) the film/sensor plane intersects the cone away from the tip, making a circle – the circle of confusion. This happens to everything that’s out of focus, and the only reason that ‘orbs’ can be seen is that they are much brighter than the background. Astronomers see it all the time, until they get the ‘scope focused and the star or planet becomes sharp 😉

    The problem is, any decent explanations take away the magic for the person that wants to believe in spirits et al. So, even though orbs have been explained, diagrammed, and reproduced almost from the moment they first appeared, we still have the topic coming up. The believers just keep finding places where the skeptics are rare, or can be drowned out.

  32. @14 Roger: NEVER use compressed air to clean dust. The propellants can shoot out along with the air and trash your sensor. Use a rocket blower, preferably with a filter.

  33. This just in: my stupid meter is once again pegged out. Do I get an award?

  34. Jim

    Really great orbs can be photographed with a flash during a hail storm. Beautifully round with a dark center.

  35. SteveA

    A couple of years back I took my little brother to a pro wrestling event. When we got home & uploaded the pics there were literally dozens of “orbs” in every single pic. I had a coworker who was a self proclaimed paranormal investigator & was constantly showing me pics with one or two orbs as evidence of ghosts. I thought my myriad of WWE “ghost” pics would finally shoot her down & get her to shut about about the whole thing. Nope! Unfazed she told me that I may have stumbled on one of the most haunted locations in the world. She also told me that I should do some research. She was certain that the arena simply must have been built on an ancient Indian burial ground.

    Seriously people, you can’t make this crap up…

  36. Mark the Sundog

    I have a picture at home of my dog, taken in January 2009 in the pre-dawn on a snowy day. He’s absolutely surrounded by “orbs” or, as sane people call them, snowflakes.

  37. Jon Hanford

    #32Just Al said:

    “The funny thing about paranormal topics is that they actually prove the concept of “undead.” No matter how many times the topics are thoroughly killed, they keep coming back!”

    “The problem is, any decent explanations take away the magic for the person that wants to believe in spirits et al. So, even though orbs have been explained, diagrammed, and reproduced almost from the moment they first appeared, we still have the topic coming up. The believers just keep finding places where the skeptics are rare, or can be drowned out.”

    I think you hit the nail on the head! Non-critical thinking.

    To wit: Crop Circles

  38. DigitalAxis

    I saw the ‘orbs’ on night photos I tried to take of a beach lighthouse. My initial thought was that there was dust on the sensor or lens (being kicked up by the windy, sandy environment) and I worried about getting it off, but the next night when (at a different non-seaside location) there were no orbs, I realized it was just my flash reflecting off dust particles in the windy, sandy environment.

    At no point in the exercise did I assume alien spirits…

  39. Chief

    And I thought all those pictures had specks of dust. This is the first I’ve heard about this and I find the ghost side of this to be the dumbest thing I’ve heard in a long time. It’s straight forward reasoning that it is not a ghost. Come on, looks nothing like Slimer.

  40. Actually, I HAVE seen rods on film – and so can you. Watch the movie “Out Of Africa” and in several outdoor scenes you will see things whizz by that are almost certainly insects of some sort. But even watching this movie as I was, on digital betacam, stepping through at sixty fields per second (30 frames per second, two fields per frame), I wasn’t able to resolve them down below anything more than elongated sine waves. Fast little buggers!

    (I also spotted one in the submarie movie “U-571”, though that might have been one of the dreaded digital artifacts I was actually looking for in the first place.)

  41. Holy Ukulele! I have totally taken a picture of a ghost, or potentiality or whatever the “scientific” term is. See my masterpiece of paranormal vision here.
    And all this time, I thought I was just getting a bad picture! I almost deleted it. I realize now, that I was being told not to delete it(ya know subconsciously). Previously I had thought I was just too lazy to remove all the crap pictures from my camera.

    I think it might be one of the old river boat captains, cause it was a picture of Cincinnati across the Ohio River….
    sigh. I feel so…

  42. Jeffersonian

    Yet another subject I’ve argued unconvincingly with my gullible siblings.

    @20 and lenses/cameras , um, did exist before CCDs

  43. The sad thing of it is, so many of us could be making bucket loads of money selling our lousy, dust-ridden photos to the whacko crowd.

    Honesty is such a biatch.

  44. Joey Joe Joe

    Steve is a ghosthunter and a great fan of the scientific method, as part of this he is currently studying for a PhD in the effects of infrasound and its possible importance in haunted locations.


  45. I wonder if it’s difficult to get a PhD in “the effects of infrasound and its possible importance in haunted locations”?

    Do I have to collect tokens from Kelloggs University to study for it?

  46. Do I have to collect tokens from Kelloggs University to study for it?

    Haw haw! No, but if you send in three box-tops you get a secret decoder ring, thrown in for free!

  47. Muzz

    Human perception of infrasound is a serious area of acoustics. Low frequencies below the threshold of hearing have been associated with feelings of “a presence” and even halucinations. It’s often thought natural or man made infrasound might explain a lot of supposed hauntings.

    There’s a little about it on wikipedia

  48. mike burkhart

    How about a lence that needs cleaned? The souls of the dead are in the afterlife .

  49. complex field

    I once detected the soul of my remote control using a digital camera….

  50. Chris Winter

    Orbs? Nah — we’re not on Bajor any more.

  51. I really should stay away from sites like the one @ridge has (#11). It just steams my purd to read the “proofs” quoted as truths. What is it that makes people want to believe that there are conspiracies to take away their liberties concocted by scientists everywhere?

    All I want is for there to be a planet that is habitable by my daughter and her children and theirs without anyone having to wear special clothing and gas masks and live indoors all the time to prevent exposure to lethal stuff. I also want them to be able to live off of food from the Earth, not a bionics plant. (Is “bionics” the proper term for a greenhouse-type environment where food is grown to sustain human life?)

  52. jcm

    Science: 1
    paranormal: 0

  53. Joey Joe Joe


    So that takes the running total up to:

    Science: 261,904,120,304,923
    paranormal: 0

    At what point do we win? Or is this like golf, and the lower score wins?

  54. Josh

    Another explanation for at least some orbs could be moisture.

    The first time I noticed these orbs was when I was taking some pictures at night with a flash. I was on a beach and I noticed that anytime I was standing above wet sand (from the outgoing tide) I would get orbs. But if I stood just a metre away on dry sand I wouldn’t get any at all…

    Unless the water allows the sand souls to escape?

  55. mike burkhart

    Let me restate I mispelled lens.I think that what you have hear is a camera with a dirty lens .This looks like what I see thro my telescope when I don’t clean lens (tip if you have a refractor telescope keep the lenss clean to get a clear image) if we could find the camera that took this picture and clean the lens and retook the photo the orbs won’t be there.As I said souls of the dead are in the afterlife I don’t think they hang around ,of course this is my Catholic belefs,and the fact that I don’t want to hang around here after I die.

  56. Matt T

    Um. I know I could go searching, but… I’m not sure my brain could cope with the wooflux. So, anyone here know what the “explanation” is for *why* these anomalies show up on film/ccds but not retinas? Isn’t the underlying physics/optics the same? (Yes, yes, I know, don’t confuse the issue with science, but still…)

  57. @ Matt T:

    But your eye does pick them up. Haven’t you ever seen dust motes floating about in a beam of sunlight shining through a window? Violá! Orbs.

    The reason why they don’t stand out as big fuzzy blobs has to do with your brain, not your eye. If you focus your attention on an object, your brain will automatically focus your eye on it, unless you consciously keep your eye focused on something else. So when you look at those floaty little dust motes up close, unless you make an effort to throw your eyes out of focus, they will look like tiny little points of light, instead of fuzzy orbs. And if you do get them out of focus, they will be perfectly round circles of fuzz, not the multi-faceted polygons a camera, with its mechanical iris, produces.

    @ Mike burkhart:

    Let me restate I mispelled lens.

    No worries, Mike. I think by now everyone has come to expect your posts to contain massive amounts of spelling and/or grammatical errors. I’m sure it has something to do with your Catholic belefs.

  58. DennyMo

    Ha! I was trying to take pictures of a sunrise on the Hawaiian coast this winter, had these “orbs” on the first few I took. I thought my camera was broken or lens was dirty. Then I disabled the flash (not sure why the camera thought it needed the flash…) and stopped picking up reflections of all the salt spray in the air that morning.

    Taking flash photos of kids playing with bubbles results in some very interesting “orbs”, too.

  59. John Grigni

    I used to own a wood shop. That place was obviously the most haunted location on earth.

  60. Matt T

    Sorry, I wasn’t clear. How do the orbists explain this? Your explanation assumes (based on flimsy crap like logic and reason and laws of physics) that orbs are caused by flecks of dust. But working on the assumption that they are actually latent souls or whatever, is there an explanation by the believers of such things as to why they only show up on camera? Why would a soul happen to be revealed by an electromechanical gizmo designed to record a natural phenomenon (ie light)?

    I guess I’m angling towards a kind of proof by contradiction. It’s one thing to give a naturalistic explanation of a phenomenon, but I also like to think of reasons why a belief is internally inconsistent. Does it help (un)convince believers? Probably not. But I think increasing the internal tension required to keep believing something increases the probability that the belief will (eventually) be abandoned.

  61. Blondin

    Orbs are the ghosts of dead rabbits. “Dust bunnies” to be specific.

  62. @ Matt T:

    Haw. Yeah, that way lies madness. Witness occasional posts by ghost buffs who want their subjects to both exist in the natural world, and be dismissed from that same world’s physical laws.

    @ Blondin:

    Dust bunnies… Haw haw! You win.

  63. mike burkhart

    38 I was refering to my belef in the afterlife witch you problay don’t beleve in ,and thats ok by me we have a right in this country to beleve what we for my spelling frist I have a learning disably that effects me in spelling and math. Second I blame the public school system

  64. @Matt T #61

    I guess I’m angling towards a kind of proof by contradiction. It’s one thing to give a naturalistic explanation of a phenomenon, but I also like to think of reasons why a belief is internally inconsistent.

    The problem lies with the way many people think. They form a conclusion or circumstance that they want to believe in, then go looking for evidence. Want to establish that your house is haunted? Walk around at night and fire off the digital camera randomly. Sooner or later, you capture the spirit that resides there. And you can tell it’s a spirit because it’s transparent 😉

    The investigation stops there. Look, evidence, toldya toldya toldya! Determining that it isn’t something mundane is not necessary. Now, let’s run around and listen for creaks for further proof! It’s the “quit while you’re ahead” style of investigation. If you dare to question it, you’re not being “open minded” — apparently questioning is the same as dismissal.

    The thing is, there has never been a criteria within the US school systems of teaching critical thought and methods of testing, and this really needs to be established early on and firmly. Some individual schools or teachers manage to get it in there, but it’s never been a requirement. Frankly, I find it ten times as valuable as knowing what happened during the Revolutionary War.

  65. @ Mike Burkhart:

    I figured it was something like that. My compliments to you for not letting it slow you down.

    But don’t be alarmed if I continue the occasional ribbing, eh? :)

    Bewitchingly yours, Kuhnigget.

  66. Ha! Let me first say that this is an awesome topic.

    Let me then say that, as a very, very skeptical investigator of the paranormal, I think orbs are a bunch of horse crap. They are always – and I do mean ALWAYS – dust, insects, snow, moisture, etc. Really, they are no different than 95% (ballpark, folks) of the claims I and my team investigate, in that they are completely , scientifically or logically explainable.

    Oh, and in case anyone is wondering if I believe that the other 5% are deceased humans, I will say this: it is possible and I am keeping an open mind. However, I do think a simple, scientific explanation will one day be found. Of course, it could be complicated and scient like quantum mechanics….but we’ll just have to wait and see.

    I would also like to say that we do have some interesting EVP and photos we cannot explain. Perhaps one of you can help? If interested, please let me know and I will send you contact info.

    Last thing, because we get a lot of heat from people who have no clue what they are talking about: our team, at the least, does NOT get paid for what we do.

  67. ND

    Jeremy M.

    Post a link to one such interesting photo here.

  68. Here is one of Jeremy’s “interesting” photos:

    www (dot) teamprose (dot) com (slash) GEDC0864_copy_op_800x600 (dot) jpg

    While I obviously can’t say for certain what the nature of the “entity” (snicker) is, it looks suspiciously like a wad of stretched apart cotton sheeting held up close to the camera lens while a long exposure was taken.

    But I’m sure it’s something involving quantum mechanics. (snort)

  69. ND

    I think I’ve seen that phenomenon before. Looks like it’s the ego of someone taking themselves way too seriously. But QM does sound more plausible.

    Well it looks like the camera is focused on what appears to be smoke. The background is out of focus. There appears to be someone’s arm behind the “smoke”. It could be a a longish exposure but the background would show shaking from the hand holding the camera. The reflection on the black jacket implies the flash went off. No info on film or digital, exposure, camera make and model. Heck, we don’t even know if this is an authentic, undoctored photo. How can we even trust that it’s not some silly photoshoped image?

  70. Heh…maybe the dude in the leather jacket didn’t want to be photographed smoking, so he shook his cigarette at the disturbing paranormal investigator.

  71. Alrighty, folks. Let me start things out this way:

    1. Kuhnigget, there is no reason to be an immature a-hole, especially one who doesn’t know me at all. Did I claim that picture was an entity? No. Do I wonder what it is? Yes. Am I, or anyone I know, going to fake something and then ask for die-hard skeptics to look at ? Thatg would just be stupid, don’t you think? Am I trying to convince any of you that ghosts, souks, etc. are real? Not at all; all I am out to do is figure out what causes the experiences people claim to have.

    Also, Kuhnigget, ‘dude in the black jacket’ is me. I do not smoke, as I cannot stand it, and do not allow people to smoke on investigations. Oh, and I can show you pictures from all over the web of what cig smoke looks like, and it is thick, dark and wispy, which is not what one sees in that picture.

    As for the mention of QM: I am not saying that, definitively, QM is the ‘culprit’ here; nor am I saying that, beyond all doubt, QM even has anything to do with any of it. The relation of QM to the paranormal/supernatural/anomalous is simply a theory of mine I am tossing around and working with.

    2. ND: Thanks, first off, for being more mature than Kuhnigget. Second, I apologize if I come acros as ‘full of myself’. I assure you that I am not, I just have an odd way of typing, I suppose. Granted, I have a little bit of an ego and self-pride, as any healthy person does.

    And I agree, the picture is a bit out of focus. Could it be double exposure? Sure. Could it be moisture on the lens? Of course. Is it, definitively, either of those? No. And that is what makes it interesting…that is why I have brought it to the attention of you and the other skeptics of this forum; I want to see if one of you has an experience with this, or a better eye, or even better debunking skills. If there is a logicsl, scientific explanation for this, then great; that is my end goal for any ‘evidence’.

    and again, I say, we would not fake something then put it to the test. I will be more than happy to drudge up the camera info/pic info and put it up for all to see. The only ‘doctoring’ that has been done to it is us zooming in on it.

    Lastly, and this is directed at everyone, I am sick of hearing the word ‘pseudo-science’ thrown around when we mention what we do, just as I am sick of people who claim to have no faith or claim to sort out all they see/hear, turn around and, without PROOF, say none of what we capture in aido and pictires and on video, is real. People seem to forget that facts and theories in science do change and have changed many times. They also seem to forget that, at one time, things such as life on other planets, cloning, going to the moon, desktop computers, human flight, radios, etc. were all ‘impossible’ and all because a few snobs in the science community, without proof to back it up, said so. Good thing there were enough people to put up with their elitism, scorn and sneers, wouldn’t you say?

  72. By the way, here is the camera info that I promised.
    Model: A835
    Shutter Speed: 1/30 second
    Aperture: F/4.7
    Focal Length: 6 mm
    ISO Speed: 400

  73. All a____holiness aside (oh, the strain!)…

    The only ‘doctoring’ that has been done to it is us zooming in on it.

    Thereby conveniently cropping out anything that might reveal too much of that, ahem, “entity.”

    Oops, still a skeptical a__hole!


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