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Orbs: It's all over but the crying or...

Why we (the Ontario and Toronto GHRS) are not accepting orb and mist photos anymore unless they meet very strict criteria...

Before I get started here, for those not in the know, "Orb Photos" and "Mist Photos" are relatively recent things being proclaimed as "ghostly phenomena" caught on film and video. These images, in some cases, make up ENTIRE ghost websites and books as being "Ghostly Evidence". Below is what seems to be our final look at these two types of phenomena.*

Update: April 20th, 2003 We have added an addendum to this article with more "questions answered". Please see the link at the bottom of this article when finished reading.

Update: December 4th, 2004 We have added another possible criteria (or at least, suggestion) to those that still view orb photos as a viable form of evidence of the paranormal. Please see the link at the bottom of this page below the last update from April of 2003.
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It all started (for me) with a rant. Recently, a group of "ghost hunters" in the UK proudly proclaimed that "orbs" were the ONLY way one could photograph a ghost. Needless to say, I was not only not amused but almost in a high state of dudgeon.

"Oh sure!" I said aloud, "Let's toss all the images of full and partial apparitions in the dust bin! The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall, garbage! The Tulip Staircase, nonsense! Even those two images (one from our Nevada group and one here in Ontario), cr@p! What is WRONG with these people!?!"

Luckily(?) for me, in the room while I did this was Sue Darroch, and my housemate who is a photographer of some note with OCA (Ontario College of Arts) experience.

The poor fellow... I turned on him as the resident (and close at hand) expert...

"Other than that ridiculous hoax with the Polaroid orbs that actually spelled out words, why do we only see this nonsense cropping up in the mid to late 90's??? Where are the orbs from the 70's??? What's changed???" I imparted rather... um... passionately.

I started my list...

"Is it the film?"

"Not really." he said.

I came back with "Yes, that's correct... why else would orbs happen on digital as well as film. So much for the film idea."

"Is it the lenses?"

"Not really," he said, "except possibly that they are made a little cheaper now."

"Would that cause orbs?" I asked.

"No, I don't think so." he informed me.

"What about the flash?" I asked...

"Yes." he said.

Sue and I were stunned.

"Of course," he told us, "flashes are now built in much closer to the lens than before."

"That would illuminate any very small particle directly in front of the lens!" As I said this, I admit... I felt a heady rush of finally fingering the problem!

These particles COULD be (and usually are)...

  • Dust
  • Pollen
  • Rain or dew
  • Snow
  • Insects
  • Hair
  • Ash
  • Other semi-microscopic particles

Then I started going through possible "torpedoes" to this great set of concepts...

"Good" 35mm cameras with flash guns... Nope, don't pass the test! New cameras (built after the mid 1990's have the gun mounted on top or JUST to the side facing towards the lens and down to avoid "red eye".

Polaroid Cameras... Still no good. The original cameras used a "flash gun" or "Flash Bar" that was mounted behind and on top of the camera BUT the 600 model and late 1990 models have the flash on top and again, slightly aimed down and towards the lens again.

"infra-red no-light" Video Cams... Nope. The infra-red bounces the rays of the light off ANY object making very small things appear "white" and bright... This would include dust, pollen and insects making them "glow" white even though they are extremely tiny.

Before this time, "flash cubes", "flash bulbs", "Flash Bars" and even the older 35mm "Flash Guns" were mounted back and away from the lens. Honest! Check it out! Grab your old unit out of the closet or keep reading and hit the sites by Dr. Bruce Maccabee and Fuji below.

Oh yeah, if anyone is saying anything about "Digital/Analog(Film)" and preferences or whatnot, please click here and read the bit about Digital vs. Analog part of our EVP information... it is pertinent.

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Okay, now let's address those rare "old" orb photos. On one site, I found one taken with an old Kodak 120 Instamatic camera and looked... It was highly overexposed and then I looked into it...

IF the illumination was right (say with a "sun gun" or other mass light source or with the sun directly behind the photographer and very bright) it too would be enough to cause the "orbs" to appear.

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Science to the rescue!

NOW, as I was getting ready to visit Henry's Cameras here in Toronto (a well known and accepted expert group in photography) as well as penning(?) e-mails to Kodak, Nikon, Polaroid and Fuji, I saw an article by Dr. Bruce Maccabee which can be seen by clicking here.

Dr. Maccabee is primarily a researcher in UFOlogy but one should remember... Before that awful TV show in the early 1990's with the "orbs", when paranormalists said "orb", it usually meant round balls of light in the sky... a UFO... so Dr. Maccabee, amongst others in UFOlogy, started wondering what all the hubbub was with the ghosty folk stealing their lingo.

Well, the images peaked his interest and recently, Dr. Maccabee had the same thought... Lens position with flash + particles = orbs.

Look at his site... He covers it with scientific data and re-producible experiments.

[Quick Note] Overheard on a radio interview last year, a very large U.S. 'ghost group' said that they had "coined the word orb". I thought this rather funny as people interested in geometry and those who called round "things" orbs (such as spider webs and whatnot) for as long as Latin has been around might be amused by this claim. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, the etymology of the word "orb" is "Middle English orbe, orbit, from Old French, from Latin orbis, circle, disk, orbit".

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Fuji just says no to orbs...

Next, FujiFilm (Fuji) has now put up a webpage about orbs. They, too, have the same findings as Dr. Maccabee and our own hypothesis.

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Let's kill some of the other "mythos" about orb photos while we're here though...

Orbs of different shapes, opacity and colours prove they are not all dust.

Not at all. Snow looks different than 'dust from sand' then 'dust from human skin' than 'pet dander' than pollen... you get the idea. They also will show markedly different looks/compositions depending on the particle's (whatever causes the orb's) rate of speed just like any other photo of more 'normal' things in motion. Also, Dr. Maccabee found differences between the appearance of orbs (in shape) with the shape of the lens and the shape and position of the flash.

But my photos were taken in a ________ free environment! (Dust, Pollen, Snow, etc.)

Speaking with some authority of my own here as a computer technician who was around in the late 1980's... There is no such thing as a completely 'dust free' environment except outside of the earth's atmosphere... and even then, there are random particles to find. You can come pretty close to getting rid of all the dust and whatnot from a particular spot but you'll never completely do it. Remember those whacky pictures of us techs wearing lab coats, plastic bags on our shoes, masks. etc? I did this for one year and you know what, the only thing we proved in that lab was there is no such thing as a completely dust or particle free environment. You can "seal" an environment completely (like those high-toxic disease labs) but that means in order to impress us, you'd need to be wearing a fourth level "HazMat" suit and have a 'ghostly' environment sealed as well as a high-emergency toxins lab. Even then, sorry to say, it won't be 100% perfect. Ask NASA and the CDC.

Also, certain particles can stir up and blow around a space with no more movement that a simple breath of one of the photographic team (or the photographer themselves).

But these were taken in a haunted location!

That may be true but if a pet cat wanders into a photo taken at a haunted location, is the cat a ghost? No... neither is the dust, pollen, snow, rain, ash, etc...

But I have an orb photo that I didn't use a flash on!

What light source did you use? Was there a BRIGHT source behind the camera? Sun? Flash-gun? Sun gun? Infra-red gun? Fire?

If it truly wasn't "lit" by conventional means, what are the possibilities of reflective particles in the air? In order to have a "viewable" image, some sort of light MUST be at hand. (There is no image, electronic/film/eyesight viewable in absolute darkness... either infra-red (or similar 'rays') or 'regular' light must be present.) Certain leaves, insects, dust, pollen, ash, etc. are HIGHLY reflective and could even use moonlight to cause some sort of "orb" in a photo. Again, you would have to eliminate all particles in the air which is, honestly, a virtual impossibility.

But there are faces and shapes in my photo within the orbs...

Are you 100% sure they are clear, distinguishable faces or forms or is it a case of trying to spot something within a smudge? Sort of like seeing shapes in a cloud. I'm not saying this is the case but make sure, before you claim this, that when you look at it, can you say "No, I'm not working hard to see something that might not be there. Like seeing a face or shapes in the clouds."

Again, do not take this as me belittling your beliefs or views, just saying that there seem to be many cases where people have to CAREFULLY point out the features of a face or form to us (and many others) that they see that we missed(?). When seeing images like those mentioned at the top of this article (the Brown Lady of Raynham, for example,) it seems that indeed, sometimes, it doesn't take that much "sight work" sometimes to see something ghostly or paranormal in origin. Can 'ghosts' be stealthy? I don't see why not but I do find many people trying very hard to place the "three dots" to create a face or see the outline of 'something' where, often, there isn't one to be seen... especially when looking into the imperfect surface of a particle causing an orb.

Related Word to Define The Above: pareidolia (payr.eye.DOH.lee.uh) n. The erroneous or fanciful perception of a pattern or meaning in something that is actually ambiguous or random. (adj. - pareidolic) See: Open Dictionary

Also, have a look at this page (click here) to see another image... I would as would almost all the photographers and paranormal researchers that I've shown this image to, say this image shows some strategically placed branches and leaves of a tree that have managed to form a "face" by accident, not design, in the reflection on a window. Is there a paranormal factor in this face, most of us say "No, not likely" although, as accepted, some think otherwise and indeed, the 'face' is... something. Let the folks at ParaResearchers know if you see something in this photo.

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So, are all 'orbs' useless then?

I would certainly say NOT! But, in fact, visible orbs (or one's seen doing their thing) are a semi-common reported phenomena and that, for most of us, is very interesting. There are POSSIBILITIES (even with these) that natural phenomena can be mistaken but it's not always a given. Please, if you have SEEN an orb, send the report to your local ghost, UFO or paranormal group! Only those traditional "orb" photos that are in question here.

What about 'ecto' mists? You mentioned them at the top of this?

Yup. Again, these are a case of where some "normal" things are being taken as "paranormal".

Anyone who's spent time north of Simcoe will tell you that on semi-warm nights, weird natural 'fogs' and 'mists' do develop on lakes and streams. They can drift inland. You have to eliminate these first.

Next, people submitting pictures like these in urban exterior conditions have to do the following... Eliminate 'normal' fogs and mists, take the image in temperatures above fifteen degrees Celsius. If it is above fifteen degrees and you have eliminated hazy conditions (a quick look at the weather report can do that), you have to eliminate all smoke or pollutants. Next, you have to eliminate all chances of 'human' process... such as cigarette smoke and breath vapour. In talking with photographers, I have come to realise that hearing things like "I held my breath" or "I turned my head before taking the image" would not be satisfactory for them.

Lastly, in an internal environment, you'd have to eliminate smoke and vapour from cooking, Next, cigarette, pipe, cigar and incense smoke would have to be eliminated as possibilities. Lastly, mist and 'fog' from running hot water or showers as well as vapour from hot food and candles.

Basically, again, these conditions are next to impossible to get.

For example, on a hot summer night, a "mist" or "fog" photo taken at Sunnyside Beach... Well, you would be about 100 yards from Lakeshore Boulevard and 120 yards from the Gardiner Expressway (two major road arteries) and you're right beside Lake Ontario. There are too many naturally occurring 'possible' mists, smokes and fogs to say it's bona fide.

Next, a family picture at Christmas with no smokers and no fireplace. Hot food? Hot water? Candles?

Lastly on this, calling them "ecto" or "ectoplasm" is a HUGE misnomer. Please click here for "Ecto" info.

Quickie Update:
To address another thing that has come up here. One person suggested that chewing on ice would help prevent breath vapour. Again, with some experience from the RLSSC (Royal Life Saving Society of Canada) I can state that this, at best, is a 'stop-gap' measure solution. In order to completely rule out breath vapour, you would need to reduce the temperature of you lungs to very close to freezing. The problem is, once your lungs reach a mean temperature of less than seventy-six degress Faranheit, your chances of survival aren't that great and hypothermia would set in. The "chew on ice" method would only cool the mouth and possibly eliminate some breath vapour but most certainly not all. Also, in this vein, most hockey players (and environmental scientists) will tell you that "ice" can "smoke" (give off a fog) when it's temperature is greater or less than the surrounding atmosphere.

Basically, this type of phenomena (mist/fog) is a minor case of advection fog.

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So, you (the Toronto and Ontario) GHRS are no longer interested in 'orb' and 'mist' pictures?

Yes and no. Not unless they meet a pretty strict set of environmental controls or physical descriptions. We are still looking for a particular type of 'orb' photo and so far, no luck. You can read the note on this by clicking here and scrolling down to the "Half Obscured Orb" part.

As for mists, it is witness testimony but we will not be posting them nor can we "authenticate" them for you unless we were there and intimately involved with the photographic process from loading film to development. Sorry.

Also, PLEASE do not send us your "orb" shots to show us how WRONG we are unless you have met all the criteria above and again, we cannot "authenticate" with the same problems as above.

Then why do so many people proclaim these things 'ghostly' in nature?

As Bertrand Russell said, "The fact that an opinion has been widely held is no evidence whatever that it is not utterly absurd." In other words, just because many people say something is so does not make it true. As proven by a film company, several photographers and a scientist above, it looks like orbs are indeed, not that spectacular.

As for the people that will and do "fight-Fight-FIGHT!" for the "truth" that orbs are ghosts, I ask them to debunk the information above BEFORE going on the attack. Also, please attack the data, not the people. I'm sure that Fuji Film is NOT out to steal your thunder.

To quote Karl Pflock now... I do have to change his first words with Orb Photo studies are "beset by True Believers ('They must be, therefore they are!') and True Unbelievers ('They can't be, therefore they aren't!') Rare are those who pursue evidence wherever it may lead, no matter how the results may square with their cherished hopes and dreams. Ironically, both the TBists and the TUists see themselves as champions of objective analysis and critical thinking, when in fact they are defenders of their respective faiths and, not incidentally, their egos."

The only thing to note with the above quote is that as of now, the 'facts' are behind those of us who have questioned the phenomena and not those that promote the belief that orb photos are 'ghostly' in origin.

Why should I listen to a sceptic like you!?!

First off, I'm not a "sceptic" in the MODERN sense of the word. I'd consider myself a mild "Moderate Truzzian" (see this page for information on Truzzi).

In other words, I do believe in ghostly phenomena. I've experienced things I don't have a good answer for so I am NOT a "sceptdebunker" (combination of "Sceptic" and "Debunker"... otherwise known as an "auto-debunker" or "remote-debunker".) I believe, but when, in 1997, I saw the "rise" in orb photos being claimed as "ghosts", I started saying "Hey! Wait a second! That's not a real good claim of 'ghost photography'!"

Basically, and I do understand this, people WANT to believe and they WANT to believe that THEY have captured something really interesting, cool and affirming and therefore, for these people, they didn't need "scientific proof" or "rational evidence". The blob on their picture was good enough and they'll fight to the (almost) death to proclaim that their images are genuine... despite the alternative evidence.

People that believe in the paranormal often use Galileo Galilei as a reference by stating questions like 'who remembers his (Galileo's) name versus the name of the cardinals that refused to look through his telescope?'. In this case, it's those of us of the 'We Believe In Ghostly Phenomena' group that looked through the telescope despite all the ghostly 'experts' and said "But the evidence is so!" and were told, very often, that we were wrong. Now, it seems that science and the camera companies are backing us up. Granted, we still will have people that will argue but then again, we've gotten used to it.

Are these people who believe in the "photo-orb" phenomena stupid? Not at all. Are they being "fooled"? No... not really, because many 'authorities' seemed to back up their claim. It's just that in the face of the evidence, it seems that indeed, "orb photos" are not as ghostly as they might have hoped they are.

What about the "Flashlight In The Sky" Test? Y'know, put a beam of a flashlight into the air and look for particles and if none appear, it's all good!

Apparently, according to three of our photographic folks here at the GHRS, you would need two to four million candle power to produce the intensity of most of the common flashes used by cameras and then you'd still have to allow for dust, pollen, moisture and insects that might after the tests come into the frame.

Also, after speaking to an optometrist, we discovered other flaws with this. The main one would be not allowing your eyes to adjust to a bright light of such a flashlight. The average person would need to expose their eyes to the light for about three to five minutes which, according to our expert, would damage the cornea and iris of an eye badly. Basically, the doctor we spoke to did not recommend this.

Also, you may not see particles that tiny even with a flashlight that the lens will see as the lens could be literally millimeters from the particles that produce orbs and anything that small as close to your eyes would be "focused out" by the optic nerve.

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So, it seems that according to Fuji Film and Dr. Maccabee (using repeatable experiments) as well as some discussion with photographers, "orb photos" are not 'ghostly in nature' (unless it's ghostly dust or pollen) and "mists" (we really shouldn't call it "ecto") photos are very difficult to "authenticate".

Are they both complete write-offs? No... but one should be very careful about proclamations of "proof" and should eliminate all possibilities of the 'natural' before jumping to the 'supernatural'.

Should we STOP taking photos? NO! Look at the Brown Lady, the Tulip Staircase and our own photos in Ontario and Nevada... It does seem that photographing a ghostly figure MIGHT be possible.

Keep taking photos but unless it's a SOLID, half-obscured behind an EASILY spotted item orb or your mist comes with a complete list of environmental controls, sorry, please don't send it to our group.

I know this will probably upset some people but in all honesty for me, it seemed a matter of time before the orb photo phenomena was to a lesser degree completely debunked.

Remember, this is ONLY one type of phenomena! Ghosts and hauntings, in my opinion, are out there but this one type has had it's day and it's time to say "Okay, let's move on."

Matthew Didier (February 6th, 2003)

* - For the record, the Mackenzie House Orb which is linked at the top of this page was taken with a flash AND the window to the direct right in the image had the sun streaming in quite brightly. The mist photo was taken outdoors in swampy conditions where the photographer had to wear hip-waders and admitted to "possibly" smoking during the taking of the photo. Both remain "possibilities" but extremely unlikely as paranormal "proof"... By the way, they were BOTH snapped by GHRS staff members in 1998 and 1997 respectively so no hard feelings and not intentional "frauds".

Comments? Critique? Kudos? Send comments to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and please mention that this is about the February 6th orb article. Also, PLEASE do not send orb or mist photos unless they meet the above mentioned criteria.