I just spent some time writing this reply to a genuinely concerned person who took the trouble to email Strange Occurrences for advice. (This is a slightly modified and expanded version.) I hope it doesn't come across as scornful or grumpy; that's not the intention. It's just that, more than anything, I'm feeling exasperated. Why are paranormal investigators, in 2015, still hung up on orbs?
Propagating the belief that dust orbs are spiritual in nature makes the paranormal community look like idiots in the eyes of skeptics and denies us any degree of credibility.
I'm not going to print the received email, but here's my reply:
"J___, please don't worry about the orbs in photos. They're not paranormal, they're totally harmless photographic anomalies.
"Frankly, it amazes me that people who should know better (i.e. those running 'ghost tours', or people in paranormal investigation groups) still treat orbs as paranormal phenomena. Often, they're just winding people up - giving the impression that something paranormal is happening when really there's nothing except dust. This is mostly to make their commercial activities seem more exciting, when, in reality, most of the time nothing remotely paranormal occurs during paid-for paranormal investigations or ghost tours.
"These orb thingies began cropping up in large numbers early this century, about the time people lots of people started using compact digital cameras. Here's an explanation of how orbs occur. (Admittedly, this article was written a good few years ago, before there were cellphone cameras with LED flashes, which produce orbs that look a little different, but the physics is the same.)
"With each different camera model and type you use, the orbs will appear different in colour, size, texture, etc. More professional-type DSLR cameras don't show orbs at all, which is why professional photographers are often puzzled by them.
"Orbs can look amazing, especially when you zoom up on them. They don't look like anything from the natural world (except maybe microscopic organisms, which they are not). They can have strange looking surfaces, corona, patterns within them that sometimes look like something recognisable, and they can come in all sorts of colours (due in part to lens coatings) and shapes (due to the shape of the lens aperture blades - see photos below). They can even look like they're partially behind things that are far back in the photo. But it's all to do with optics, lens coatings, lens imperfections, camera design, and digital sharpening, compression and interpolation. And of course psychological factors in the interpretation of the images - see pareidolia.
"If you are lucky enough to see - with your own eyes, not the camera's - a little light source floating around in the middle of a room, then it may well be something paranormal! Take a photo of it; take heaps of photos; shoot a video. But the orbs that you can't see with your eyes but which keep appearing in your digital photos are easily explained, and they are extremely unlikely to be paranormal in any respect."
This part of my reply has less to do with the photographic orbs, but here it is anyway:
"The behaviour of your cat and dog will be totally unconnected to the orb photos. Rememeber that they have much sharper hearing than we do, and can probably hear tiny, faint sounds like maybe a beetle chewing through wood deep in the walls somewhere, or they can smell something we can't. Dogs and cats are especially sensitive to human emotions, so if you're getting a bit freaked out by something, the dog or cat will probably also react, even if it is unaware of the source of your fear. Also, these animals are intelligent and have the capacity to imagine things, just as we do.
"Once we get thinking about a paranormal reason for odd things occurring (for example; a poltergeist as a reason for something falling or turning up in an unusual place), our minds naturally make the jump to attributing other, unconnected events to the same cause. But in all likelihood these things are totally unrelated. Looking at things more objectively requires stepping back from them, which is where paranormal investigators (sensible, experienced ones) can be of assistance.
"However, in the meantime, I would advise you to take a note of anything strange that happens - the time, place, weather conditions, who was present - a detailed description, with photos. Keep a diary, in other words. Then if you decide to get paranormal investigators in, they will have specific things to take a close look at. We love it when we can go to someone's house and find they've kept an accurate record of a bunch of stuff that's unexplained. Then we can examine it piece by piece and see if we can find natural causes, and any rational connections between events. Also see 'What to do if you see a ghost'.
"Please let me know if anything else interesting happens, or you get any more intriguing photos."
is a blog by James Gilberd - leader and co-founder of Strange Occurrences. Views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the Strange Occurrences team.
James Gilberd is an amateur paranormalist, writer and musician, and a professional photographer, living in Wellington, New Zealand.