The Orb Phenomenon

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In recent years a number of people have reported finding anomalous circular images, often called "orbs," in photos taken at night with a flash, under seemingly ordinary conditions. The photos have been taken both outdoors and indoors. These photos were not taken under "conventional UFO," conditions, i.e., there were no strange lights or objects visible to the photographer. These images first turned up in photos taken for various reasons other than to photograph "orbs," i.e., photos of home scenes, outdoor scenery at night, etc. Subsequently numerous photographers have simply taken pictures "into the dark," even though they didn't see anything that could make orb images, in order to find out if "orbs" would appear in the photos. (Note: I should point out that there have been numerous photos of unusual lights at night which were seen before the photos were taken and which have also been called orbs. Photos such as these are not the subject of this discussion. The subject of this discussion is orb images which appear in photos taken when there was no observed cause for them.)

The images discussed here are rather diffuse or "transparent" areas of the film that are generally slightly brighter, but sometimes much brighter, than the (generally dark) background. For many cameras the orb images are round, but for at least one type (Polaroid Model 600) the shape is nearly rectangular. Figure 1 shows an example of such images in a flash photograph of an outdoor nighttime scene. If one examines the dim circular images carefully one sees that they have a bluish tint. Images such as these appear at random locations in photos. Similar images obtained by other investigators can be found at Photos have been taken at many different geographic locations. Some outdoor locations produce more, perhaps many more, of these images than other locations. Therefore the occurrence of these images raise the following questions: (a) what are they or what causes these images, (b) why do they occur in some locations and not (or rarely) in others, and (c) why are they (apparently) a recent photographic phenomenon? The investigation reported here has provided answers to these questions.

This investigation was prompted by several correspondents who reported to me that they had found these round images in their own digital photos. They had not seen anything when the photos were taken, yet here were the distinct, reasonably bright round images. They asked for my comments on their photos and photos of others.

My first impression upon seeing images such as these (see Figure 1 for example) was that they were unfocused images of small, bright reflectors of light. However, I could not prove that there were such reflectors present at the times of the photos. The photographers didn't see anything. At the same time, an alternative hypothesis presented itself. So far as I knew, the first photos in which these images appeared, or at least the first in which they were noticed, were flash photos that had been taken with consumer-grade digital cameras. This raised the question of whether or not these images were some sort of strange artifact of the digital camera like some unexpected light leak. (More recently similar images have turned up in flash photos taken with recyclable cameras, such as the one used to take Figure 1. Other photographers have found similar images in photos taken with 35 mm cameras.) On the other hand, if the cause did not lie with the camera, then it must be something outside the camera. Perhaps the flash had illuminated something very small that was close to the lens. Perhaps a few small flying insects happened to be close to the camera lens when the flash went off. This hypothesis (tiny insects very close to the camera and lit by the flash) seemed acceptable for photos taken when such insects would be present (outdoors in the spring, summer, fall) but not when such insects would unlikely be present (very cold weather,e.g., winter, or inside buildings).

Since I did not have a digital camera (they have been quite expensive until recently) I was not able to do any experiments myself to determine whether or not these anomalous images could be an artifact of the camera and so there the matter rested until recently when a correspondent reported finding some images in digital photos he had taken inside his house using a new Olympus camera. He was worried that his new camera had some sort of strange defect. He wrote, "The (anomalous images) look like lens flares, but there appear to be too many of them, and they don't seem to be in the right position for lens flares." He offered to send me some of his pictures and wanted to ask my advise as to whether or not he should return the camera.

He emailed the pictures to me and I, too, was puzzled. They showed scenes in a house where insects would not likely be flying around close to the camera lens. About the only thing I could do was suggest some experiments to determine whether or not these images were caused by something outside the camera or inside the camera. One of the experiments was to take flash pictures with his hand over the lens to block light. This would test whether or not the images were coming from inside the camera, as, for example if there were some bizarre hole in the camera structure that would allow light to leak directly from the flash to the film. For comparison I asked him to take pictures in some area where there were no surfaces to reflect light, for example, outdoors where the nearest object was far away. I pointed out that if he got anomalous images when his hand was not on the lens and got no such images when his hand was on the lens then the anomalous images were coming from light reflectors outside the camera. The correspondent noted that there was a bright metal ring around the lens aperture and thought that perhaps that might cause some unexpected images. I suggested that he cover it with black tape. To my suggestion that there might have been tiny reflective particles in front of the camera he replied,

The tiny, shining objects idea is an interesting one. Most Christmases, my kids make various things with glitter, which they bring home. This stuff sheds into the carpet and can be quite difficult to get out. I believe this could be the explanation for the (anomalous images which appear to be silhouetted against) the carpet. I'll take some repeated shots from the same position and see if they move--if not, then we've got the explanation for those, at least. As for the 'floating' (images), perhaps some minute particles of glitter can float on air currents--but would they stay around for a year? Again, some sequence shots might help here, too.

It is clear from what he wrote that he thought the anomalous images that appeared silhouetted against the rug might have been caused by bright reflections from tiny pieces of reflective material - glitter - on the rug. He also wondered whether or not floating glitter could explain the images which appeared to be above the rug, e.g., silhouetted against the walls or ceiling. I did not believe that "Christmas glitter" in the rug or floating in the air would explain the images, but I didn't know what would.

About a month and a half later he wrote again and this time supplied the first good suggestion as to the source of the anomalous round images:

I have followed the experiments you suggested, as well as done a few of my own. I can definitely state that the (images) are the result of the illumination of dust particles in the air by camera flash. I was able to produce a (picture) image with hundreds of (round images) by having the kids run around for several minutes on an unvacuumed carpet! Most of the dust particles seem to be intrafocal, although even those at greater distances can produce quite a convincing small (image). I borrowed a professional flash, which fires several times a second, and was amazed at just how much 'junk' is stirred up in the home environment by ordinary activity. I could see hundreds of quite brilliantly-illuminated particles with my eyes.

When I read the above I knew that what the correspondent said was perfectly logical. I already knew that reflective particles so tiny that they could not normally be seen by the naked eye could make circular, defocused images if they were close enough to the lens. What I didn't know was the nature of these particles. The correspondent supplied that answer.

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© copyright B. Maccabee, 2000. All rights reserved.