The Orbs Issue in One 1910 Photo

Orbs are a hotly contested topic. Are they ghost orbs… or something less interesting?

ghostly orbs at gilson road cemetery
One of my own orb photos

My message today is: In ghost hunting, the most reliable person is yourself.

When anyone (including me) assures you that something is true, verify it.

Most orb debates would resolve quickly if people routinely tested their own cameras to see what dust, pollen, rain, fog, reflections, breath, and insects look like in those photos.

Do this yourself. Test every camera you use for ghost hunting. Deliberately stage “false orb” conditions.

Then, analyze those photos. Could you confuse them with truly anomalous orbs?

When I stumbled onto this discovery, I was embarrassed by how simple it was. For nearly 10 years, I’d kept insisting that most orbs were caused by dust, pollen, insects, reflections, and so on.

Then, after a heated argument with a long-time friend who insisted that all orbs are ghosts, I was irked. I set out to prove my theory. I really wanted to show him that he was wrong.

But then…

I discovered that it’s more difficult to create convincing, fake orbs — with dust, pollen, smoke, insects, etc. — than I’d realized.

The key word is “convincing.” Until you know what you’re looking for, most orbs can look alike.

I’ll explain more about this in the future.

For now, I’ve stumbled onto a great, old photo that shows some easily identified issues, as well as orbs that might be ghostly.

The following is a photo of the Custer Battlefield National Cemetery. The picture was taken in 1910, when photography was very different from now. But, the issues remain the same.

Sunrise at Custer Battlefield Cemetery - orbs

I’ve enlarged some of the orbs to show what might be an anomaly — also called a “ghost orb” — and what’s probably a glitch in the photo.

Processing Mistakes

First, an obvious glitch. In the photo above, the following area is in the lower right part of the picture, to the left of the white writing.

chemical spatters

That photo was processed in a lab. Chemical splashes and spatters could happen. That’s the most likely explanation for those irregular, somewhat circular areas.

Even in the 1990s, when I was taking film photos at haunted sites, I still had to examine the negatives for splashes and lab errors.

False Orbs – Dust and Insects

The next enlargement shows what could be pollen and insects, as well as some possible anomalies. In the original photo, this area is in the lower half of the picture, and just left of the center.

Orb #1 includes a clear dot. In a color photo, it might be yellow or orange. When it is, the orb is almost always caused by pollen.

But, I see other similar, small dots nearby. So, the orb might be real and the dots might be a glitch from the developing or printing process, or damage to the print during storage.

Solution: When you’re taking photos, ask a friend to stand to one side and in front of you. He or she can tell you if anything in the air looked highlighted by your flash.

Orb #2 is an odd shape, and part of it is more solid looking. That’s often a flying insect.

Solution: When you’re ghost hunting outdoors, regularly look up at streetlights, or have a friend leave a flashlight on for several minutes. Many insects are attracted to light.

If you see bugs flying in front of a light, keep them in mind when you’re analyzing your photos, later.

Miscellaneous Items

The next enlargement is from the sky area in the Custer photo. It’s near the top and to the right of the middle.

Irregular shape #1 is probably damage to the print or something that spilled on the negative.

Shape #2 could be almost anything, including an insect or two, or a printing glitch.

Possible Ghost Orbs

After ruling out things that look like false anomalies, I still see several orbs I can’t explain. Not entirely, anyway. (I am mindful that sunlight may have been streaming directly towards the camera.)

I’ve indicated a few possible orbs from the sky area of the photo. But, a closer examination of the original photo may reveal more.

ghost orbs at custer battlefield cemetery

Of course, they could be processing errors from the darkroom. They could be insects or pollen, or something else that’s perfectly normal.

I have no idea and, frankly, no one can be sure whether anything I’ve said is accurate about this photo.

We’d need to test the camera the photographer used.

That’s my point.

For the past several years, I routinely test every new camera. I want to see how dust, pollen, moisture, breath, smoke, and other issues may affect my photos.

It’s a semi-scientific approach to ghost photography. More importantly, testing each camera is the only way we can tell whether our photos include possible anomalies… or probable dust, insects, and so on.

This is important, as well: Even after those tests, we’ll have unanswered questions.

Never to assume that the logical, normal explanation is the only explanation. Something that “looks like dust” could still be an anomaly.

And, even if it is dust, you may have another mystery: What causes dust in that area, but nowhere else at that location or nearby?

In other words, the orb may not be the anomaly. Maybe the weird dust is.

Are Orbs ‘Paranormal’?

cameraNow and then, the word “paranormal” seems to take on a life of its own.  In a recent discussion about orbs, a couple of people insisted that orbs aren’t paranormal.

Well, I can’t argue with a skeptical critic.  He or she has already made up his or her mind.  The skeptical critic is usually a bottomless well of explanations, no matter how extreme or preposterous.  (But, to be fair: Anyone absolutely, positively determined to interpret everything as ghostly… he or she can be equally defensive.)

I think skeptical critics feel a little more secure in their uncertainties, if they think they have a nice, normal reason for everything.  (Since they simply want to argue with people like me, I’m not sure why they’re involved in ghost hunting.)

However, I’m not convinced that yesterday’s critics meant what they said.  I think they meant that orbs aren’t ghosts.

THE DEFINITION OF PARANORMAL

“Paranormal” does not mean “ghostly.”

Para-, the prefix, comes from the Greek.  It means beside (not part of) or beyond.  So, “paranormal” is something beyond what’s normal.

The Free Dictionary defines paranormal as, “Beyond the range of normal experience or scientific explanation.”

Dictionary.com says it’s “of or pertaining to the claimed occurrence of an event or perception without scientific explanation.”

Merriam-Webster says paranormal means, “not scientifically explainable.”

Most definitions refer to supernatural phenomena as an example, but the basic definition comes down to:

  • Para = Beyond or outside.
  • Normal = Standard, not deviating from the norm, or average.
NOLA - Pirates Alley, on a foggy, rainy night
New Orleans on a foggy night, after rain, with lots of lights & reflections. No orbs.

So, avoid using “paranormal” when you mean “ghostly.”

A photo of an orb can be paranormal. So can a photo of a flower, a cat, or your shoe.  It all depends on what’s normal, and what can’t be explained within the range of normal.

NORMAL AND PARANORMAL ORBS

An orb I can identify as pollen artifact is normal.  

An orb that I can’t reproduce by normal means (setting up the lighting, dust, moisture, etc., in a certain way) is paranormal.

  • It’s not necessarily a ghost.
  • It’s not necessarily energy.
  • It’s not necessarily an angel, your great-granny, or the Tooth Fairy.

It’s just an orb that — at the present time — can’t be explained, and can’t be reproduced using similar photographic staging.

I may apply other descriptions to that orb, but they relate to the experience at the time the photo was taken. I’m looking for other phenomena, what investigators were sensing at the time, EVP, EMF spikes, sensory phenomena, and so on.

The orb photo itself… it doesn’t prove anything.  All by itself, it’s supporting evidence, at best.

Here’s my story:

For years, I was guilty of insisting that most orbs are dust, pollen, moisture, reflections, insects, and so on.  And, fed up with saying that to people who just wouldn’t believe me, I decided to prove it.

I planned to create some great, convincing-looking, fake orb photos.  Frankly, I didn’t think it would be very difficult.

I set up my cameras — multiple film and digital cameras — and used things like:

  • Ragweed (pollen).
  • My Swiffer (dust).
  • Flour (denser dust).
  • Very fine, powdery sand and dirt from unpaved roads (more dust).
  • Spray bottles (moisture).
  • Mirrors, shiny glass, and chandeliers (reflections).
  • Stop signs, traffic cones, other street signs (reflections).

I trekked to swampy areas with wall-to-wall mosquitoes.  I walked down dirt roads at night, and waited for a car or truck to drive by, stirring up the dust.

I visited damp locations on humid and foggy nights.  I even went to New Orleans shortly after Katrina, when everything was pretty soggy.

NOLA-reflect-cone
Flash photo of shiny glass, lights and a traffic cone in New Orleans’ French Quarter… on a damp evening. No orbs.

Sure, I got photos that included orbs. The problem was, they didn’t look like the orbs I photograph at haunted locations.  They weren’t convincing orbs.

A beginner might be fooled by them… but not me.  Not after all these years in ghost hunting, after tens of thousands of photos.

But, after spending years insisting (with no proof) that most orbs were the product of the environment, I wasn’t going to eat crow quite yet.

In fact, I spent six years trying to stage photos that would produce orbs identical to the orbs photographed at haunted and spiritual sites.

The one and only thing that produced convincing orbs — orbs that looked like “ghost orbs” — was breathing (or talking with a lot of exhaling) while taking the photos.  And even then, I couldn’t get real-looking orbs in more than half my photos.  Most of them still looked fake.

Toulouse Street, New Orleans.
A street corner in New Orleans at night. Bright lights. No orbs.

Some researchers claim that all orbs — even those with logical explanations that you can see — are evidence of spirits.

I’m not one of those researchers.  Sure, maybe a ghost floated that particular fleck of pollen in front of my camera exactly when I was taking the picture. Maybe he did that just to get my attention.  I can accept that as a possibility.

However, I’m not going to state, categorically, that any orb represents a ghost.

It’s just something paranormal… and it seems to happen most often at “haunted” sites.  That’s all I can state with confidence.

That and the fact that believable orbs are amazingly difficult to fake.

Having been a skeptical critic of “ghost orbs” for many years, I’m regretting that — as the author of some of the earliest ghost hunting articles online — I led people to believe that most orbs can be explained by dust, pollen, reflections, and so on.

Sure, I can still spot an orb that doesn’t look right.  I know that, either inside the frame of the photo or just outside it, there’s a likely explanation.  If the photographer revisits the site, he or she will usually see what caused the lens flare or refraction.

But, there’s a different quality to the orbs we usually can’t explain.  And, to replicate those… well, except for breathing while taking a flash photo — and even that isn’t a “sure thing” — I can’t seem to create convincing-looking orbs with staging.

Fake-looking orbs are easy.  Real-looking ones… no.

But, my point in this article isn’t just about orbs.  It’s about how people misuse the word “paranormal.”

If you mean “ghostly,” say so. 

If you just mean something that — at this time — can’t be explained by anything normal in that setting, at that time… that’s paranormal.

There is a difference, and it’s an important one when we’re discussing research techniques and results.

Ghost Photography 101 – An Overview

Cover of Ghost Photography 101, by Fiona Broome - 1st EditionGhost photography is a fascinating subject.  Ghost photos are also among the easiest ways for paranormal investigators and ghost hunters to find evidence of hauntings.

In the following articles, you’ll learn more about how to take ghost pictures, and what to watch out for.

Most of these are excerpts from the first edition of my book, Ghost Photography 101.  (That first edition is now out-of-print.)

Ghost Photography Articles

In these articles, you’ll see photos — mostly in color — from the book.  Some are real anomalies, others are explained as false anomalies… things to watch out for when you’re taking pictures at haunted sites.

These articles and photos aren’t intended as the last word in ghost photography.  They’re a starting point for each investigator.

Try similar experiments with your own cameras, to see what real and fake results look like.  Then, you’ll feel far more confident about your ghost photos.

Tips for the Best Ghost Photos

Ghost Photography Tips

The following is an edited excerpt from the first edition of Ghost Photography 101, by Fiona Broome.

Man in Blue ghost photo - Fort Worden, Port Townsend, WA
Fiona’s famous ‘man in blue’ photo. (Ft. Worden, WA)

If you simply bring a camera to haunted places and take lots of photos, you’ll learn the ins and outs of ghost photography on your own.  Trial-and-error is fine.

However, the following tips might make the learning process easier.

If you take pictures at random, you won’t return home with as many ghost photos as you could with a more focused approach… no pun intended.  First, learn where the “hot spots” are at the site.  Ask others where they’ve felt the most chills, found the most EMF activity, or taken the best ghost photos.  That’s a good place to start.

Take cues from your ghost hunting tools

If you have ghost hunting tools such as an EMF meter or a pendulum, you can use them to help you identify the best locations.

For example, if your EMF meter detects energy spikes — or drops lower than it should — that’s a potential location for ghostly photos.  Try taking photos standing directly at the location where your EMF meter indicated something odd.

However, sometimes when you’re in the middle of an anomaly — or a haunted spot — your camera won’t record anything unusual.  So, step away from that spot. Turn around and take pictures of it from a distance and from several different angles.

Unexplained photo - Gilson Rd. Cemetery, Nashua, NH
One of many strange ‘ghost photos’ taken at Gilson Rd. Cemetery, Nashua, NH

Several ghost hunting tools can detect EMF-related anomalies.  Of course, an EMF meter — especially a sensitive meter such as the K-II — can reveal the most electromagnetic anomalies.

You may identify equally good, active locations using a hiking compass, dowsing rods, or more specialized tools such as an Ovilus or any real-time paranormal communication device.

If you have a hiking compass, the needle points in the direction of magnetic north.

However, if you’re near electromagnetic fields (EMF), the compass needle will point away from magnetic north and towards where the highest EMF is. (Movement can easily affect hiking compasses, so I only pay attention to needle variations more than 30 degrees from magnetic north.)

Likewise, dowsing rods can behave strangely around elevated EMF levels. For many people, the rods cross each other at the point where the EMF is at its highest.  For others, the rods separate or even swing in circles.

Keep in mind that dowsing rods may also detect underground springs, buried pipes or electrical wires.  So, if the rods continue to behave strangely along a straight line, you may be walking over underground pipes or wiring.

The Ovilus is one of many tools that became popular during 2009.  It seems to respond to EMF surges by talking.  Using a pre-programmed vocabulary — plus additional words and names that baffle many researchers — the Ovilus “speaks” out loud.  Similar tools include the Frank’s Box, the Shack Hack, ghost radar apps for mobile phones, and “ghost box” devices.

If you’re using one of these tools and it starts talking, take photos.  Take lots of photos.

If someone’s camera or cellphone suddenly stops working, that’s another cue that EMF energy is interfering.  Take photos right away.

This ghost photo is actually breath on a chilly night.
This eerie photo is probably just breath on a chilly night.

Remember to take photos inside the area where the EMF or other electronic signal occurs, but also step away and point your camera so you’re looking at the location, from a distance of at least a few feet.

Your “gut feeling”

Your “gut feeling” is the single most useful tool to help you identify spots for ghost photography. Whether you get goosebumps, the hair goes up on the back of your neck, or you simply feel prompted to take a photo, pay attention to those subtle cues.

Share those feelings with others. You may be surprised by how many people will confirm what you’ve felt.

I believe that everyone has some psychic sensitivities.  They’re often felt as a “gut feeling.”

Few people are sure of their intuition at first.  If you mentally note how you feel when you take good ghost photos, you’ll soon recognize those “gut feelings” more confidently… and then take more pictures when you do.

It’s important to learn to identify real anomalies and the normal things that can look like them.

However, it’s not as easy to create fake ghost photos as skeptical critics insist.  When it doubt, trust your gut feeling.

Sparkles and Other Surprising Anomalies

The following is an excerpt from the first edition of Ghost Photography 101, by Fiona Broome.

Your camera can suggest “hot spots” for good ghost pictures.  One of the best indications is a phenomenon called sparkles.

In the late 1990s, my research team noticed bright, sparkling lights that slowly drifted towards the ground after I took photos in haunted areas.  They appear to flare when the flash goes off, but the lights linger for about half a second afterwards.  On rare occasions, they fade over a period of nearly two seconds.

I called them “sparkles” in my earliest ghost hunting website articles in the 1990s, and the term is now used throughout the ghost hunting field.

If we could capture those sparkles in photos, they might look like the following photo. (It think it’s actually a spiderweb or some hair.)

Sparkle-type image
What sparkles can look like. (Actually a spider web or hair.)

Sparkles usually appear about 20 – 30 feet away from the camera.  They look about the size of ping-pong balls or walnuts.   We see dozens of them, sometimes all at once and sometimes in a subtle sequence.

Usually, the sparkles are white or pale pastel colors.  Some researchers report more vivid colors.

Sparkles seem to have mass, or they wouldn’t drift towards the ground as if pulled down by gravity.  However, people standing immediately underneath them don’t see or feel them as they fall.  So far, we have no idea what causes sparkles.

We know what they aren’t.  They aren’t bugs (including fireflies), dust or pollen.  They aren’t rain or moisture.

Note: Insects immediately in front of your camera can also seem like bright lights, but only when the flash highlights them.  In addition, if you’re in an area with fireflies, we’ve noticed that some fireflies “answer” the flash on the camera by flaring their lights as well.

Remember, the anomalous sparkles never show up in photos.  (I wish they did.)

They’re best seen through the camera’s viewfinder (or lens), but most spectators (about 80%) see the sparkles whether they’re looking through a camera or not.  Both film and digital cameras seem to highlight sparkles.  Some cameras are better than others.

My oldest camera is among the best to reveal sparkles.  It’s an Olympus AF-1 Twin that my mother bought me, many years ago. It uses 35 mm film. Today, you may find cameras like it at thrift shops for just a few dollars.  (I recently found one at Goodwill for $1.50.  It works well, too. You might find something similar at Amazon.com.)

Once you see sparkles, you’ll know exactly what I’m describing.

Take as many photos as you can when sparkles appear. There’s an increased likelihood that your photos will include anomalies… just not the actual sparkles you saw.