Thursday, November 15, 2007

The Dubious Nature of Orbs

Everyone from serious paranormal investigators to the neophyte can capture an orb on film. Even drunken teenagers, stumbling around a moonlit cemetery can achieve the same results. Orbs seem to be as common as houseflies and yet they are the source of unending excitement and debate. These innocuous spheres, which range from translucent to totally opaque, come in every color and size. It seems these days that your ghost hunting isn’t worth its weight in gold if you don’t come back with a least a few images of these apparently noctilucent spheres. However, not all investigators believe this phenomenon is paranormal in nature and this conflict has sparked more than one heated debate. Their relatively new presence, ubiquitous nature, and dubious authenticity are what make orbs so controversial. It is this very controversy that I wish to dissect in hopes that a clearer under-standing of what constitutes a True Orb (if such a thing does exist) will emerge. As well, it is paramount that novice and expert alike learn to distinguish contaminants from orbs and establish an agreed-upon protocol, vocabulary and morphology for the supposed True Orb.

Orbs are considered by some paranormal investigators to be the spirit in its purest form. When you don’t actually see a ghost, it is thought to be in this invisible or near invisible, spherical form. An apparition, on the other hand, is the spirit adopting a recognizable shape, often the one it held during life (this is, of course, based upon the belief that the apparition is the sentient soul and not a psychic anomaly). This vestigial form is what we actually see with our eyes when we observe the “phantom down the hall” and can identify it as a person, if only in the loosest sense. However, according to orb proponents, the spirit can also shed this residual appearance and return to its pure, orb state.

Stories of glowing spheres of light have been ghost lore for centuries. They have been referred to as Will o’ the Wisps, Spook Lights, and Ghost Lights. However, in this analysis, we will concentrate only on those orbs that are considered invisible to the human eye yet appear in photographic or digital images. Therefore, accounts prior to the advent of the camera will be negated for several reasons that shall become apparent as we continue.

Perhaps the earliest image of an orb may have been photographed at Joe’s Prune Orchard in Gilroy, California sometime during August 1896. A worker was purportedly photographed with a camera obscura, also known as a “pinhole camera,” which utilizes no lenses but rather focuses light through a tiny, “pinhole” aperture. In the developed image, an orb appears to float a foot above the ground near the workers legs. Since the camera obscura has no lenses, it is highly unlikely that an out-of-focus speck of dust could have created this image, as is often the case with lens cameras (more on this later). If this image is to be believed, then orbs may very well be a real phenomenon. However, since I have no proof the image was truly shot with a lensless camera – nor have I examined the original plate negative – I cannot fully comment on the authenticity of this image.

The next interesting case of photographic orbs occurs in 1909 when Julian Ochorowicz experiments with a psychic medium named Stanislava Tomczyk. This psychic claimed she could channel the spirit of “Little Stasia.” During his experiments, Ochorowicz had Tomczyk place her hands over, but not onto, several photographic plates. The resulting spherical images produced from the developed plates are often thought to be orbs, channeled by the medium, into a sort of psychic contact print. [Rolf H. Krauss, Beyond Light and Shadows] However, it may have simply been the photographic emulsion’s susceptibility to the heat or bioelectric field given off by Ms. Tomcyzyk.

In the summer of 1972, Mr. M. R. Lyons of Nottingham, England captured what some today believe is an early orb photograph as well. Lyons had been photographing various sites in the Derbyshire Peak District and noticed nothing unusual in any of the scenery. However when he returned and his pictures were developed, he noticed one print revealed a “ball of light,” which seemed to float two feet above the ground.

Yet, these orbs were none-too-prevalent until the advent of the compact, instamatic camera with built-in flash. These affordable cameras integrated a reusable, immobile flash into the camera body itself instead of the older, detachable models with their single use flash bulbs. The flashes for these older cameras were mounted further away from the lens and could be removed altogether when necessary. However, to maximize space on newer cameras, the flash units were integrated into the body, placing them much closer to the lens. As these cameras became increasingly popular throughout the late seventies on into the eighties and nineties, the increase in orb occurrences rose. I believe this is too much of a coincidence to dismiss.

Orb Classification There are, in my opinion, two classifications of orbs: True Orbs, which may or may not be a spirit or psychic-based phenomenon, and Refraction / Reflection Orbs. Since even the “experts” cannot seem to agree on what constitutes a True Orb and no definition or models exist for one, we will concentrate on what an orb is not.

The Refraction / Reflection Orb is hands down the most common (though you will find many who will argue otherwise) and their presence has grown alongside the burgeoning instamatic camera industry. These “orbs” are not orbs at all; rather they are particulate contamination either on or very near the lens but outside the point of focus. According to experts at Fujifilm, these images can occur when dust particles, hair follicles, pollen, carpet fibers, insects, moisture and a host of other anomalous objects become illuminated by the camera’s flash unit. These flashes are tremendously brilliant for a fraction of a second and any object caught nearby will invariable reflect a portion of that light back towards the camera, regardless of its albedo. This massive reflection causes halation to form around the object (or rather, around the object as it appears on film), which provides a diffuse “glow.”

So what happens when something very minuscule rests on the lens, or floats nearby in the air? Well, in addition to the aforementioned diffuse glow, these objects are outside the camera’s point of focus so the image cannot be fully resolved. It is the same thing as placing an object too close to your eye; your eye cannot focus the image, so it appears blurred. Now when objects are blurred, they appear larger and more diffuse, so a small speck of dust or moisture droplet can appear as a translucent, “glowing” orb. These situations are especially prevalent in cameras where the lens is situated close to the flash. This proximity increases the opportunity for halation, reflection and internal refractions to occur.

The Controversy As you have read, this misidentification of ordinary contaminants poses a serious threat to the integrity of photographic orbs. Their prevalence alone gives one pause and many photographs, devoid of any paranormal activity, will exhibit this same phenomenon. Yet a proponent will simply argue that it actually was an active site or they may equally dismiss the anomalies as not truly orbs. This is done sometimes by claiming a distinction in the morphology of True Orbs. Some will claim that in True Orbs, faces can be seen or there is a three dimensional aspect to the orb. Still others will “analyze” their images by running them through filters available in common digital image editing software available for your personal home computer – software designed for specific, artistic effects and not for scientific inquiry. This software, like photography itself, is based upon values, shades and hues of color and cannot actually tell you if an object is three-dimensional or not. It is still your mind that makes the final determination and, as anyone knows, the mind can be easily fooled.In this age of digital manipulation, the danger of someone creating convincing, extraordinary orbs is simply a mouse click away. The biggest problem with this is that, aside from common sense, there is no conclusive, arbitrary way to determine that the image data has been manipulated. Although, it may seem obvious to most that a certain object as been rendered in a photo-editing program, to prove such a thing becomes more difficult.

Many are so eager to have a paranormal experience that they often overlook the obvious in their zealous pursuit of ghosts. To them, these contaminants become irrefutable proof of the afterlife. This, coupled with their own emotional investments and ambitions, fosters an atmosphere of the die-hard believer, where the infidels of sound logic and the scientific method are casually tossed aside. Placed into historical context, it all makes some sense.

In the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, spiritualism, mediums, ghosts and the occult all took on a renewed relevance. Like the Arts and Crafts movement of the same period, this was in direct opposition to the modernization and industrialization of an increasingly science-based society. During this period, photography was new and many were not entirely aware of its capabilities and idiosyncrasies, so Spirit Photography was born and hoaxes flourished. Many of these spirit photographers utilized long exposures, double exposures and sandwiched negatives to produce their evidence of the afterlife. These images almost invariably depicted the entity as an apparition of human form. But as time past and these tricks were learned, a dark shadow was cast across any image that purported to have captured a ghost.

In contrast, orbs, with their copious and instantaneous presence, had the benefit of providing everyone with their own personal ghost picture. These images were personal as well as accessible and since the photographer (and those around him) knew that no one had tampered with the negative, he had reason to believe this truly was a spirit. No longer would this individual be resigned to gaze longingly at those famous ghost pictures, now he too could catch the next “Brown Lady of Raynam Hall” or at least its orb equivalent. So dissuading true believers is a difficult task and perhaps not one worth under-taking.

But as I said earlier, what might be accomplished is a method for eliminating false orbs. We will then be left with either nothing or images that cannot be easily dismissed. Perhaps, it is within those images, that True Orbs may be found. By far, the most powerful tool “ghost hunters” employ is the mind. It is paramount that you arm yourself with knowledge. Employ the precepts and principles of science and adhere to its strict protocol. Simply because one uses the trappings and jargon of science, does not make one’s work scientific. That said, the second biggest tool in your arsenal will be your records and photographic evidence is a part of those records. It is therefore, extremely important that you familiarize yourself with photographic techniques and technology. Take a class at a local community college or read as much literature on the subject as you can. But above all, maintain meticulous standards for your photographic technique, they will ensure consistency. As I have always maintained, be your own worst enemy. Your standards should be higher than anyone’s so that when the detractors come calling – and they always do – you will be well prepared to defend your position.

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