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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Debunking the Orb Debunkers, Part 1: The Reflection Theory

Orbs are strange circular features that have been showing up in flash photographs around the world since the invention of the digital camera. Some people think that orbs are evidence of a paranormal phenomena (which might or might not involve spiritual entities, since there are simpler paranormal possibilities such as undiscovered energy effects and “mind over energy” effects). Other people have attempted to debunk such thinking by offering mundane natural explanations for orbs. 

spirit orb
An unexplained orb from a photo

I do not claim to know the reasons for the more unusual orbs that appear in photographs. But I am all but certain of this much: the main theories that have been presented in an attempt to debunk orbs are themselves 99% pure bunk – a form of “junk explanation” hogwash that does not stand up to scrutiny. The two main theories to naturally explain orbs are a reflection theory and an “orb zone” theory maintaining that orbs are caused by tiny specks of dust very near the camera. In this post and the next two posts in this series I will debunk these two theories, showing that they cannot plausibly explain the more interesting orb photos that have been taken. I will argue that the most interesting orb photographs remain an unexplained mystery.

First, let's look at the reflection theory. This is basically the theory that orbs are caused by reflections of a camera flash, when the light from the camera strikes surfaces being photographed. The theory works (or actually, half-works) in one very obvious case: if you take a flash photo of a room or scene that includes a mirror-like surface, you may see something that looks like an orb, which is simply the reflection of the flash. For example, if you take a picture of a living room that includes a glass display case or a photo in a glass frame, and you are directly facing either one, you may see an orb in your photo, appearing in front of the display case or glass picture frame. But such cases are obvious and trivial. Only the most careless rube would take such a picture, and mistake the flashlight reflection for some paranormal orb.

Note that I use the phrase “half-works” because even in this obvious case of shooting a flash photo directly into glass or a mirror, what you will get is a bright, opaque orb-like reflection that does not have the transparency seen in most of the more inexplicable orb photos. So even in this case reflection doesn't give us something like what is seen in the more inexplicable orb photos.

Now what about indoor photos that show orbs appearing in front of some surface that is not glass or a mirror? Is there some way to explain such photos by imagining the orbs are caused by reflection? Exactly such an idea was suggested in a paper by Gary Schwartz, PhD and Katherine Creath. Schwartz seems to have the idea that circular orbs can appear in front of non-reflective surfaces when the light from a camera's flash bounces off of miscellaneous reflective surfaces. He even submits this as a general explanation for orbs in photos: “Because almost every image we have studied contains a bright reflection or light source that produced stray reflections and could produce 'ghost images,' the simplest and most parsimonious explanation for most AOls [anomalous orb images] is stray reflections.”

Now, Gary Schwartz is a fine fellow who has produced some excellent and important work in other areas. But here his methodology and conclusions are pure bunk. What was Schwartz's methodology? He took photos in some rooms that had lots of reflective surfaces, and he produced some orbs in some of those photos. He then concluded that the orbs were caused by reflections from these reflective surfaces. This methodology is clearly unsound. You might just as well take photos in a room including waffles, and then upon getting some orb photos, you could conclude that orbs are caused by waffles.

One reason why Schwartz's conclusion is bunk is that there are many thousands of indoor and outdoor orb photos taken in places that do not have a significant number of reflective surfaces. In fact, I know of an orb photographer who specifically covers up every reflective surface before taking indoor photographs, but continues to get dramatic orb photographs.

Still another reason why Schwartz's conclusion is bunk is that most orb images seem to appear in front of non-reflective surfaces. Such surfaces include plaster, cloth, brick, bark, skin, and hair. It is simply bunk to imagine that the light from a flashbulb would often bounce off of some reflective surface and then cause a circular orb to appear as a reflection on a non-reflective surface such as plaster or cloth. That isn't how light behaves.


 Translucent orb against a plaster background

To back up the claim that such images can form, Schwartz cites Rudolf Kingslake and his mention of “ghost images” in his book Optics in Photography. He even includes a diagram from Kingslake's book. But anyone who does a Google search for “Kingslake ghost image” can find the part of Kingslake's book in which he discussed what he calls “ghost images.” None of his pictures of “ghost images” actually look like the more interesting unexplained orbs that show up in flash photographs.

In fact, in his book Kingslake describes “ghost images” as something that are produced when you are photographing a bright light ahead of you (a fact Schwartz neglects to mention), and Kingslake's photographic examples match that description. Such an explanation is worthless for explaining any orbs that come up in a photograph that is not taken when the photographer was facing a bright light. Schwartz's paper includes a photo showing many orbs, and he tries to suggest these were caused by Kingslake's “ghost images.” But this is bunk, because there is no bright light (and not even a weak light) facing the photographer who took the picture.

I did some tests myself to test whether orbs might be produced in a setup designed to maximize reflections. I took about 70 flash photographs in a bathroom with a 3-part mirror, one that could be adjusted to maximize reflections. I also held a large mirror myself while taking most of the photos. So there were 4 different mirror surfaces for light to bounce around off of. I used a wide variety of different angles and arrangements of the mirror. But no orb was produced anywhere outside of the mirror surfaces.

I then took 50 flash photographs inside a closet, facing a mirror, while I was holding a large mirror. This was also an environment very good to maximize light reflections. I used many different combinations of positions and angles. But none of the photographs showed any orbs outside of the mirror surfaces.

In short, the reflection theory to explain orbs is bunk. Contrary to Schwartz's suggestion, there is no reason to think that more than the tiniest fraction of the more impressive orbs in photographs are being produced by reflection off of surfaces. But there is still another theory that skeptics can cling to in order to explain orbs in photographs: the theory that most orbs in photograph are caused by dust. In my next post in this three-part series, I will explain why this theory is just as much groundless bunk as the reflection explanation.

Postscript: See the link here for an article by a PhD researcher rebutting the reflection hypothesis and the dust hypothesis as explanations for the more remarkable orb photos.