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Splitting the orb zone

With digital camera technology improving all the time, there are fewer photos showing a host of faint grey orbs being reported. Instead more and more photos show one or two bright orbs or a tight group of overlapping orbs. This is because 'traditional' dust orbs, associated with early digital cameras, are being replaced by rarer insect orbs from newer camera models. So what is going on?

New types of orb

In the figure above you can see the simple 'orb zone' is replaced by a split version (B and C in the diagram). Any object in zone A is, being too close, so out of focus that it cannot be seen at all, even as an orb. Further from the camera lens, in zone B, you get lots of fairly dull greyish orbs (as well as overlapping groups of brighter orbs). In zone C you get single bright orbs. Finally, in zone D, everything is in focus so there are no orbs at all. Thus, the traditional single 'orb zone' has now been split into two parts, B and C, where different orbs are produced. The duller orbs in zone B are mainly produced by dust and the bright single ones in zone C by insects.


The reason for this splitting of the orb zone is to do with how reflective different orbing objects are. Dust is much less reflective than water droplets or insects. The overall brightness of an orb in a photo depends on a number of factors, namely:

  • the distance of the orbing object from the lens (closer = brighter)
  • the distance of the orbing object from the camera flash (closer = brighter)
  • the reflectivity of the orbing object (higher = brighter)
  • the brightness of the flash unit (more powerful = brighter)
  • how long the flash lasts (longer= brighter)*
  • the size of the orb (smaller = brighter)**
  • background shade (orbs appear brighter against a dark background)

* cameras accumulate light over time, unlike human eyes, so a longer exposure will make orbs look brighter
** this, in turn, depends on depth of field which is determined by focal length, focus distance and f-stop

A highly reflective object, like an insect, will be able to produce orbs when further away (in zone C) than something dull, like dust. So dust needs to be closer to the camera (zone B) to show up as orbs. Highly reflective objects may produce orbs as far as 50cm or more from the camera whereas dust may only produce orbs up to around 20cm. These figures are only approximate as distances vary widely from camera to camera.

Insects will typically appear as large, single orbs in zone C. They may also appear as a tight group of overlapping orbs (sometimes misinterpreted as an orb moving - real moving orbs produce tails), particularly in zone B. These groups of orbs occur because insects are much larger than bits of dust and have several highlights.

Predicting when you will get orbs

As can be seen from the list above, there are many factors that contribute to whether an orb is bright enough to be seen in a photo. It does mean, however, that it is difficult to predict if orbs will be bright enough to be seen in a particular shot. This is particularly true of today's highly automated cameras where most variables are selected, to try to get a good exposure, without user control.

You can, however, increase or decrease the likelihood of getting orbs by taking photos in particular ways. If, for instance, you wanted to increase the possibility of getting orbs you could take flash photos of a distant subject outside at night. This works because:

  • focusing on a distant subject increases the depth of field
  • a distant subject at night outside makes the flash go on for a long time
  • the dark background out of doors makes orbs show up better

If you want to avoid orbs:

  • take photos without flash (turn up your sensitivity - ISO - instead)
  • avoid taking photos of distant subjects at night*
  • avoid dark backgrounds

*they won't come out well, in any case, as most compact digitals only have a flash range of around 3 to 5m.

Camera types

An individual cameras will tend to produce the same type of orbs on most occasions. Thus:

  • very small or old cameras (having zones B & C) will typically produce lots of dust orbs
  • larger or more modern cameras (having only zone C) will typically produce bright single insect orbs or none

Of course, the cameras with both zones B and C can get insect orbs as well as dust orbs. However, you may not recognise the insect orbs (unless they are in overlapping groups) among all the dust orbs. Also, even orb-prone cameras generally only produce orbs in certain circumstances, such as when using flash. At other times they will perform normally, that is without orbs.

The reason larger and / or modern cameras tend to only have a 'zone C' is because they have physically larger sensors (to fit all those megapixels in). The larger sensor size means that the cameras use lens with a smaller depth of field, more like film cameras.

The future

In the future it is likely that dust orbs will tend to die out as new camera models come out. However, insect orbs will continue to be seen in situations that favour producing orbs. Some people attach more significance to single brighter orbs. Though it is true they are produced in a different way, using insects instead of dust, they are still not paranormal.