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Created: May 16, 2009
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bridging science
and parascience

What is an Orb? We don't mean to spoil the ending of this article for you, but it's not a "spirit."

Well, maybe not. But it may not be "dust, moisture, etc. too close to the lens" (as skeptics assert) either. Part of the problem is that there are multiple definitions of the same word, so let's start by defining what an Orb is for the purposes of this article:

Orb - a discoloration (usually relatively small and circular) in a photograph.

As I said, there is more than one definition - people also define orbs as physically visible balls of light - but the two are not necessarily related! This discussion refers only to the photographic anomaly (except when noted otherwise), so the definition must also. If you try to add anything to that definition, you are probably making an unwarranted assumption. "Orbs," irrespective of what causes them, are photographic anomalies - abberations, defects, elements of light which were not visible to the naked eye when the image was captured. It's not the definition that's in question. It's determining their cause.

This definition is very important. We are referring to a photographic anomaly, not a physical one. If the light was visible in situ, then the camera operated exactly as it should - it captured an accurate image of something that was truly and observably present. This would represent a whole different class of phenomena, more akin to the Brown Mountain Lights, Marfa Lights, etc. - all fully worthy of separate consideration and investigation, but not necessarily "orbs" of the same breed. In fact, those previously named phenomena are very unlikely to be related, as they are routinely visible to the naked eye, and are identified with specific locations - while orbs appear to have no such restrictions. They may turn up in a photograph any time, anywhere.

Orbs

Before continuing, however, we need to point out our "qualifications" for the conclusions we've drawn, and the explanations we put forward in this article:

  •   We investigate frequently and thoroughly, and we've encountered more "orbs" in a single night than most amateurs have seen in a lifetime.
  •   We have used a very wide range of equipment, both still and motion, to collect visual evidence.
  •   We do more than just "collect" that evidence. We are a Research group. We test it as well.
  •   We have considered quite a number of theories, from as many perspectives as we've been able to gather. All were considered before forming an opinion. This article is a summation of what we've found to date ("Last modified" date listed at the bottom of the page).

We aren't carrying grudges here, or trying to debunk anything. We've made some observations, and they don't match up well with either side of the debate. All we're doing is pointing out the discrepencies.

Much has been said on the topic - very little of it true - so let's start by discussing some of the myths about photographic orbs.


  • Orbs are spirits, or spirit energy, captured on camera.

Maybe. But how would you know? You can't use one unaccepted phenomena to assert the parameters of another. That would be kind of like saying "the oceans are pouring off the edges of the Earth because the Earth is flat." And "because George the Medium" or (worse!) "his Spirit Guide says so" is downright absurd. It's taking the unaccepted to the nth degree.

Perhaps we should add here that KRI founder Andy Kitt has an extremely high level of confidence in Medium Beau Esby - even to the point of taking her word at face value for some of the most bizarre statements you can conceive - and yet he refuses to allow her claims regarding her belief in a positive correlation between orbs and spirits as anything approaching evidence. No matter how good you think "Joe" is, "because Joe says so" cannot be considered a "standard of proof." At least, not without a substantial amount of duplicatable baselining, testing, and verification.


  • Orbs show up mostly at "haunted houses," or other kinds of spiritually active places.

First, there is absolutely no evidence to suggest this is true. The very few people who've tested this came up with "no correlation," or their testing methods were outrageously unscientific. If the test photos aren't stringently compared for things like f-stop, depth of field, light intensity, etc., you don't know if you're comparing apples to apples or apples to oranges. Procedures were flawed. Premises were flawed. Additionally, there also exists the problem with alleged scientific testing by amateurs in that there is no adequate "peer review." They don't have qualified people checking their procedures or data, and generally poor record-keeping makes it difficult to duplicate their experiments and confirm their findings.

Our own experience is that the only two occasions in which our investigators have physically seen an orb was during the recording of a religious ceremony! In one of those instances, there were multiple observers and the ball of light should have appeared on video... but didn't!

Second, the statement itself is flawed. How do you determine a house is "haunted?" We are back to the problem of accepting someone's word for it. Even the best minds who consider haunting a possibility believe there are variables involved in defining the nature - and the manifestations - of the ghost phenomenon. Similarly, what is the test you use to confirm that the control group - the non-haunted houses - are indeed not haunted?

And third, most Mediums will tell you that every living person has some kind of "spirit accompaniment," or Guides, around at all times. If this is to be believed, there should be more orb activity in crowded places than abandoned ones.

'Orbs'

  • Orbs only appear at night, under poor lighting conditions, when using a "flash."

The above photo - although it also helps illustrate the previous myth - clearly demonstrates this one. Orbs can appear anywhere, and have. This photo was taken as a "shift photo" at a local business. No one even noticed the two anomalies until one of the individuals in the photo began investigating hauntings, and this is probably true for most people. You very likely already have a large number of "orb" photos on hand (relative to the number of "normal" photos), which may also help explain why ghost hunters seem to find so many - investigators do three things that greatly increase their chances of finding orbs:

  •   They take a very large number of photographs - often hundreds, depending on the group's level of reliance on still photography for evidence - in a very short time frame.
  •   The photos are very frequently taken in relatively dark environments or other "high contrast" situations, making a certain kind of orb easier to see (note how much easier it is to see the anomaly on the gentleman's dark shirt than the one over his head).
  •   They scrutinize photos very carefully, looking specifically for anything out of place. Let me remind you, the above photo was circulated and displayed for a substantial length of time without anyone noticing the anomalies.

The photo below is perhaps even more interesting. Not only was it taken in daylight, but the flash was deliberately disabled. To test the theory that orbs may be out of focus dust particles caught in a camera's flash, Andy Kitt took this picture under the specific conditions listed below it.

'Orbs'

  • Orbs are out of focus dust that wanders just inside the focal length of the camera being used.

In the above photo Kitt specifically photographed a visible piece of dust (threadlike, less than one mm long) as it passed through a beam of direct sunlight. No flash was used, and the camera's automatic focus found range at one meter (the floor), recording a five mm focal length in the original photo's EXIF data. The target - the piece of dust - was halfway between the lens and the floor when the shutter was snapped (about half a meter, or a hundred times the recorded focal length).

This photo is particularly interesting because the centered "anomaly" was known to be an airborne piece of dust. The second (smaller, up and to the left) anomaly was discovered quite by accident, but Kitt is certain he saw more than one piece of dust floating in the beam of sunlight at the time. He simply selected the largest for his "test." The plan for the test Kitt intended was to progressively take closer and closer photographs of the same piece of dust and compare the shots later, but his movements created air currents sufficient to move the particle out of range of the beam of light which highlighted it - he only managed two. However, upon review of the shots, he deemed the remainder of the test unecessary - he had already successfully demonstrated that dust can appear orb-like even when well past a camera's focal length, and without the use of a flash.

But this creates another problem: the "out of focus dust" theory seemed reasonable, and yet now seems untrue. Kitt didn't take any precautions to ascertain with 100% certainty that the particle he photographed was the same as that which he visually observed, but even so, the nearest piece of dust that could have been highlighted by the sun was still at least a 30 cm away from the lens. So what causes the anomaly? The following are additional test shots made by Kitt. The first two were made by spraying a plant mister before the camera as the shutter was snapped (one outdoors, one in), the third a pinch of flour (outdoors).

In each case, the targets were introduced at about half Kitt's arm's length from the camera, which was stabilized against his chest.

'Orbs'
'Orbs'
'Orbs'

So, a problem remains. Many people are making assertions about what orbs are, but none of them are particularly persuasive in their arguments. Simple testing proves the "skeptic theory" false in its mechanics, but possibly true anyhow. Simple logic shows the "new age theory" has absolutely no foundation, and yet preliminary testing of a demonstrably skilled Medium suggests it also may have some validity. The KRI has yet to make any directed efforts to conduct satisfactory and effective research into the orb phenomenon, yet has still accumulated sufficient data to make the above observations. Although the length constraints of this article prevent us from addressing fully the great many aspects of the orb phenomena here, we feel certain we'll be offering a full-length book on the topic in the near future. Until then, some points to consider:

  •   Orbs clearly have more than one "cause," and the overwhelming majority (if not all) of these causes are likely very mundane.
  •   After a year of research (as Kitt had time), he has yet to find even one arguably valid method by which to separate a "mundane" orb photograph from one caused by "paranormal" means.
  •   Until a reliable method of separating mundane photographs from paranormal ones can be demonstrated, all orb examples must be considered mundane.
  •   We at the KRI are continuing to consider the problem and test hypotheses.

In closing: let us remind you, the readers, that we've seen and recorded tens of thousands of examples of "orbs" during the course of our investigations - some of which display rather remarkable behaviors and characteristics. Never have we recorded one demonstrating behavior which could not be explained mundanely - on video, in fact, the motions of orbs are so reminiscent of dust following air currents we find it difficult to believe they could be anything else.

And yet, we've seen them. Just not on film.