Question about optics and photography...

Silly though this may be, I have been trying to explain to some people why the “orbs” the have captured on film is nothing more than dust or moisture on their lens.

Pictures like these are littered all over the internet as “proof” of ghosts or spirit activity. Some web sites are devoted to the idea. The photos usually show small to medium spherical balls that are about 90% transparent and are always lighter than the surrounding scene.

If these were actual objects in the scene itself they would have to be glowing to be lighter right? And if they are so transparent and emitting their own light source wouldn’t they produce shadows on other objects in the scene?

Is there a better, more technical explanation for this? I have tried showing these people that the “orbs” appear in the same exact spot on scenes shot within a sequence but to no avail.

Your help would be appreciated.

At first I thought you were referring to sun flares thru the lens, but those don’t normally occur at the same place in each frame. I wonder if perhaps it is a fungal growth in the lens itself. I don’t get many “light spots” when I photograph things. I don’t use flash, so perhaps there is a relative reasoning behind that.

I wrote a paper on the camera obscura once and ran into mention of this phenomenon-- it’s called “halation” but I’m not sure what causes it.
Not much help here, except for a term.

Perhaps I should post an exmaple for you to study and then you can understand better what I mean.


Many of the orb pictures at that site look remarkably like what you get when a negative has waterspots on it or the film processing chemistry is messed up. Polaroid shots, as many of them are, can easily generate artifacts if they are handled roughly during development.

And many or those pictures look like what you get when you take any picture of anything. Wow, it looks like there’s a reflection of something in the window! It must be a ghost, since we know that real windows never produce reflections!

Seriously, if this is typical of the folks you’re trying to argue with, you’re wasting your time.

Wanna see more “orbs” than you can shake a stick at? Take a look at this photo I took one day. It’s like freakin’ Ghostbusters out there.

That’s what happens when you use a flash and it’s foggy out. I guess the light from the flash reflects off the water droplets and gives you those funky transparent glowing balls. Even if it’s not foggy, there are still occasional water droplets in the air that could cause the same effect in a much more limited way. I’d say that’s the cause in a lot of those “ghost” photos.

I appreciate your posts.

Yes, it is probably a lost cause to try to argue with these people. It wouldn’t bother me but there is such a proliferation of these photos on the web it scares me that there are and equal or greater number of misinformed people.

Perhaps your input can help sway a few.

Thanks so much.


I checked out that Karen’s ghost web site and some of those photos are truly ridiculous. That is supposed to be visual proof of ghosts?

Those “orbs” are caused by several things, some of which have already been mentioned.

  1. Improper agitation of photo chemicals. When you develop film, air bubbles can form on the neg during agitation. You’re supposed to give it a good whack to make sure they release. If you don’t, the bubble will prevent chemicals from developing your film and, thus, you will have circular shaped blobs on your negative. This doesn’t apply to all developing processes.

  2. Water marks. This was mentioned earlier. You can usually tell by looking at the neg whether it’s a water mark. Better still, wash your neg, put it in a solution of photoflo or mild detergent then dry it. If it disappears, well, that was your problem.

  3. Lens flares. These are usually easy to spot. Usually occur when you shoot into the sun. The pic of the gang documentary on Karen’s ghost was, I think, a lens flare. Seemed too big to be anything else.

  4. Reflection of water particles in pic. As mentioned before. Go outside at night when it’s snowing or foggy with a flash and take a pic. You’ll see what happens.

  5. Fogging film. This will not usually produce spherical results, but if your camera has a puncture in the shutter, you will notice an “orb” on every frame.

Out of that entire web page, nothing looks unusual at all to me. Most of those orbs are from improper developing. That’s all.