Recently, I opened my inbox for submissions for analysis of photos, videos and audio recordings that readers feel may have a paranormal artifact in them. When I say the word “artifact”, I bet your mind jumped to an Indiana Jones-type of object from ancient history. Don’t deny it. It did, didn’t it? Thought so. It’s okay. My mind often does the same, making lightning fast associations that can be strange and weird, while at times astoundingly insightful.
When I say paranormal artifact, what I mean is “a manifestation of a supernatural event captured/recorded on a given technological medium.” Pictures, videos and audio recordings have been used for years as “evidence” and “proof” of the paranormal, mostly in connection with ghosts and the psychic world, but now with the explosion of paranormal drama shows and reality series, the included items also include cryptids, like Wolf Men (alleged bipedal canine predators stalking Wisconsin and the rest of the US, making for a hairy situation) or the Elder Children–(a term based on the Lakota Sioux phrase “Chiye-Tanka“)– coined by fellow researcher and Beyond the Forest Radio show host, Sanjay R Singhal RA referring to what is commonly called Bigfoot.
That said, what does it mean to capture “evidence” or “proof”? What do those terms mean in relation to the paranormal from a scientific perspective? As it turns out, many paranormal investigators aren’t seeking evidence or proof in their photos and mediums but rather confirmation of their preexisting notions of psychic phenomena.
This type of behavior is called confirmation bias and is seen in everything from ghost chasing to politics and even actual scientific studies. Basically stated, it means seeing what you want to see by interpreting the facts or data to reflect the outcome you desire. It is inaccurate, unfair and definitely not scientific. How can anything that comes out of such behavior mean anything in terms of evidence or proof? It cannot mean anything. Let’s redefine the terms “evidence” and “proof” in relation to our subject: Paranormal research.
From this point forward, the word “evidence” will be used to define any data or outcome that points to a conclusion, whether for or against an idea. This means whether it proves or disproves your ghost theory, it remains as it is. It doesn’t care for agendas or religious beliefs. It is truth laid bare. Now, “Proof” will become evidence that withstands testing, repeated testing and that can stand on its own as something truly unusual without explanation captured on tape. Evidence then supports proof. Does proof still mean that it is confirmation of survival after death?
No. It merely means proof of an event that defies explanation occurred. Further interpretation without data upon that event will only be subjective and not quantifiable in any way without gathering more data that supports those conclusions.
Having defined the words “evidence” and “proof” in relation to our subject and made ourselves aware of confirmation bias, the final question comes into play when looking at data. How to avoid confirmation bias and conduct a real analysis that will yield useable data?
The first thing you must do is discard ANY preexisting notions or conditions on your beliefs and frames of reference to the paranormal. Discard religion, discard what you learned on reality shows and rely purely on existing sciences to build the foundation of your analysis and adapt from there. You may not like what that leaves you with, but it will be an honest analysis and this is especially important for investigators who actually study people’s homes and businesses for paranormal events. I’ll do this in three parts to break it down. To help, I opened my research archives from my time as the lead investigator and founder of Southern States Paranormal Research Society and pulled out my work on orbs and photography.
Most of the data submitted for review is in the form of photographs. Usually photographs reported to show apparitions, mists, ectoplasms (interchangeable with mists I suppose), demons, and orbs. All the latter are very rare to get with orbs being the most common type of “manifestation” to be captured and claimed as “proof” as to the existence of psychic events and or the afterlife. Let’s take a look at orbs first.
As stated, orbs are the most common type of visual “activity” to be presented as evidence for paranormal activity and often used by amateur groups to “prove” a haunting. Let’s begin with what people believe orbs to be, then we will move on to what is actually happening.
Orbs: What Are They Believed To Be?
Orbs are believed by a large number of people, both new groups, experienced groups and people who are capturing them, aka, non-ghost hunters, to be spirits caught on film.
Another popular belief is that an orb, is a ball of energy, spirit energy that’s free floating, in the environment. It is “common knowledge” that energy is most stable in the form of a sphere, which is the limited physics background of the belief, and I do stress limited. I have also hear of orbs being spirit guides, demons, astral creatures and oddly enough ” evolved spirits”.
In reality, there is no proof or scientific back up for any of this. Energy does not exist in any form other than the potential for action. It does not exist as a state of matter. For an orb to be energy, it would have to be a type of plasma…a plasma would be very visible and burn through anything it touches. Now that we know what the most common beliefs are in regards to orbs, let us proceed onto the truth.
Orbs have been scientifically debunked as a modern inception with no pre-recorded example prior to the availability of CCD lens (digital camera) technology and it’s inferior ability to focus (this is especially true of cell phone cameras which cannot in any way compare to professional grade or even consumer grade stand-alone cameras). “Supernatural orbs” make up the predominant presence of ‘ghost photos’ on the Internet.
There are two main types of orbs reported, both of which are caused by particulate matter in the air. To classify these photographic anomalies, I made two categories. Both are reliant upon light, either from the camera or a natural source to show up. The first type is naturalistic orbs (water, dirt, bugs) and the second type is artifact-based orbs (camera effects). Two understand the difference, we need to look at the camera itself.
What Type Of Cameras Most Often Capture Orbs? Digital vs. Film.
Orbs are most commonly captured using digital cameras and built-in flash though not always.
While photographers with archives of photos report having occasionally seen “orbs” in their photos taken with film cameras, no evidence has been presented that this is not a modern light artifact error arising in CCD lenses both in standard off the shelf cameras and cell phone cameras and the recent rise in reports of orb photos may be directly related to the common availability of digital cameras and associated with the rise in the resultant number of pictures being taken. It should be noted also that the size of the camera is another consideration in the recent proliferation of orb photos.
As film cameras, and then digital cameras, have steadily shrunk in size, reports of “orbs” increased accordingly. As cameras became smaller, the distance between the lens and the built-in flash also shrank, decreasing the angle of reflection back into the lens causing less focus on small light artifacts and thus an orb like appearance.
A flash does not need to be present, though. Any light source that reflects or refracts illumination from particulate matter (dust, moisture, etc.) in the air (even though we can’t see it’s there moving on air currents) and that enters the camera’s lens (which it does otherwise you wouldn’t have a picture in the first place) can cause an orb artifact to appear.
The Main Causes of Orbs:
There are a number of naturalistic causes for orbs in photography and videography:
*Solid orbs – Dry particulate matter such as dust, pollen, insects, etc.
*Liquid orbs – Droplets of liquid, usually water, e.g. rain.
*Foreign material on the camera lens
*Foreign material within the camera lens
*Foreign material within the camera body
*Light artifacts created by reflection/refraction in the camera lens.
Common things claimed about orbs:
” But there was no dust when I took the picture! Must be a ghost!!”
There are orbs showing up without any “environmental” explanation i.e. no visible dust, no rain, no moisture, no snowing, no light reflections, etc. However it should be noted that dust particles and moisture, bugs, and other particulate matter are all small, and are present in our environment at all times and they are often undetectable to the naked eye. This is actually connected to the next point.
” …The orb appeared in this photo, but not this one taken right after, therefore, it must be a ghost! It moved! It may have been energy moving!”
Orbs are particulate matter in the air, hence they are subject to the laws of aerodynamics and air currents. In other words, they do move, but not on their own. They move with air currents and can disappear from shot to shot or frame to frame, with no problem at all due to the angle at which an orb is photographed, which can also play a factor, on whether or not the flash or the light (from any source) is hitting the piece of matter in the right way as to make it visible. Orbs do not fly in intelligent patterns. They simply follow the air currents. 99.9% of orbs that move in intelligent ways are insects, such as small gnats and airborne particulates. As for energy, energy does NOT exist in that manner nor does it work that way.
” But my orbs have faces in them!”
You are simply seeing a natural activity of the human mind called “matrixing” in lay man’s terms, which is the human mind’s tendency to find familiar images in complex shapes, patterns or colors. In other words finding a face in the shapes and shadows of a collection of objects.
An example is laying on the grass and looking at the clouds. You look at the clouds and your mind makes familiar shapes out of them…a train, a dragon, a hamburger. Most orbs have complex patterns and lines, as well as colors in their “nucleus” which gives fuel for the fires of matrixing. In psychology, the proper term for this phenomenon is called pareidolia. Without it, you could not recognize familiar objects such as a person’s face or a chair from the environment around you. The lines, colors and patterns are just the results of how light reacted with the particular particulate captured at that moment.
Solid Orbs and Liquid Orbs: Particulate Matter: How are they made?
How a solid orb is created:
A solid orb, or dust orb, is created because a reflective solid airborne particle, such as a dust particle, is situated near the camera lens and outside the depth of field–(in optics, particularly film and photography, the depth of field (DOF) is the distance in front of and beyond the subject that appears to be in focus)– in other words out of focus.
The pinpoint of light reflected from the dust particle that would be seen if it were at the hyperfocal distance, (which is the closest distance at which a lens can be focused while keeping objects at infinity acceptably sharp; that is, the focus distance with the maximum depth of field) the distance from the film or charge-coupled device (CCD) to the object being photographed whereby the object is in focus as accurately as possible, grows into a circle of confusion (the orb) with increasing distance from it. Basically it tricks the camera into creating an illusion.
How A Liquid Orb Is Created:
A liquid orb is created because a drop of liquid, most often a rain drop, is situated near the camera lens and outside the depth of field, in other words out of focus. The pinpoint of light reflected from the drop of liquid that would be seen if it were at the hyper focal distance, the distance from the film or CCD to the object being photographed whereby the object is in focus as accurately as possible, grows into a circle of confusion (an orb) with increasing distance from it. Same as the particulate matter.
Why orbs have colors and patterns:
The appearance of the circle of confusion (the orb) is modified by aberrations such as chromatic aberration (chromatic aberration is caused by a lens having a different refractive index for different wavelengths of light aka the dispersion of the lens. The term “purple fringing” is commonly used in photography due to the most common type of corona is colored purplish blue ) or coma.
Chromatic aberration is also the cause of so called “light emission” by orbs and the supposed” corona” of an orb.
Orb Control Comparison Photos:
Below is a control set of photos of different orb types, examples of what I’ve went over above.
This first and second chart shows both solid and liquid type orbs. On the charts below the first one shows the variety of colors orbs can come in. The third chat shows orbs and light phenomenon caused by insects and bugs, another unsung cause of orbs and light anomalies.
These charts were compiled in a mass experiment by the Mid-Night Walker’s Paranormal Research Society. The original experiment can be found here: http://midnite-walkers.com/site/content/view/27/41/ and I want to take the time to thank them for all their hard work and effort.
Test Orb Photos:
Part 2: Apparitions and Demons in the Shadows:
Another type of image I will frequently get is of a dark and super grainy image of a building or a person often with notes of a terrifying story and claims of having captured a demon or a dead person in the shadows or in the grainy parts of the image and will I please confirm that they see.
No. I will not confirm it. I will honestly evaluate it and that evaluation will not lean towards the supernatural. Most if not nearly all of these images are taken in low light conditions.
When taking photos in low light conditions, the camera lens needs to be open as far as possible to let more light in. However, that comes with a downside; the more open the lens is, the less of an area is in focus and you lose depth of field. Normally, in low light, if you have a single subject, that works out fine because that single subject will be in focus. The problem again arises when you have multiple objects in the frame at different distances. You’d have to choose an object or area to focus on. Most people do not have DSLR cameras and use cell phones and point and shoot cameras with auto-focus.
Any images or forms seen in the darkness or shadows of the images taken like this, would be a result of pareidolia, the human mind’s tendency to see complex patterns in random noise, like faces and shapes. Again, this tendency is an evolutionary adaption to allow our brains to recognize space around us and objects in that space.
Ultimately, these often dark and grainy images come down to four things:
1.) Low light poor shooting conditions.
2.) Using a mobile phone camera as opposed to a purpose built camera and or a point and shoot versus a professional grade DSLR with a tripod and proper lighting.
4.) Digital Noise.
So far, we’ve covered low light conditions, the mobile phone camera quality in low light conditions and pareidolia. The last thing to cover is digital noise (mentioned above) which I believe is the root of the issue and perhaps the most complicated. In digital photos, the word “noise” is used to describe visual distortion, which is the visual manifestation of a lower signal (light and shadow) to noise ratio. What causes noise?
Higher ISOs: In low light conditions you need higher ISOS but it comes at a cost. Imagine that ISO is the gain knob on an amp for an electric guitar. The more gain, the louder the sound but it also becomes more distorted.
Sensor size: When it comes to noise, sensor size MATTERS. Cameras with smaller sensors, such as a cell phones and compact point and shoot cameras have smaller thumbnail sized sensors and as such, noise on these types of cameras can become unacceptably high, even at low ISO levels. Cameras with large sensors such as DSLRs, produce less grain at higher ISOs. In short, the larger the sensor, the less grain at comparable speeds.
Pixel density: A sensor with 14 million pixels (megapixels) will produce more digital noise than an equal-sized sensor with 10 megapixels. That’s because, in order to squeeze those extra 4 million pixels, the actual pixel size has to shrink, which means each pixel will let in less light (think of smaller apertures in lenses letting in less like than larger apertures). To compensate, the “gain” is turned up, and this causes distortion. Conversely, a larger sensor with 14MP will produce less grain than a smaller 14MP sensor.
Exposure time: Long exposures can introduce static, which can also be a cause of digital noise.
Shadows: If you are shooting in broad daylight at a higher ISO, the grain might not be so obvious…unless you look at the shadow areas. Grain shows up more against darker subjects or backgrounds.
Part 3: Analysis of Images:
The hard part is already done; now you know what to look for in images and what to cast aside. Once you have cast those things aside, did the photo withstand that process? If it did not, then there is nothing of note in the image and it can discarded as “proof” as it is not “evidence” of anything other than bad photography technique and is worthless as a data point in a research situation.
If it did withstand the process of elimination, what do you have in the end? A photograph showing a strange event that cannot be explained or ruled out based on conventional reason and deduction. Did you collect data at the same time you took your image? Atmospheric measurements? Temperature? Humidity? Date and time? Location? Magnetic field readings? If you took none of these, then all you are left with is still just a strange picture. Only with the above data taken at the same time of the photo can you even begin to use it was “evidence” towards anything because without any of the above data you cannot possibly build a pattern that leads towards an interpretation of that data.
These are some things to remember when looking at an image in which something strange appears and ways to rethink that image in terms of what it may really mean in the process of understanding paranormal experiences and Fortean events.
— Anthony Justus, December 6, 2015.