What Are Orbs? Here’s The Real Deal Behind Those Ghostly Apparitions In Your Pictures, According To Professional Photographers

It's fairly common to find an orb, or a glowing circular speck of light in a dark area of a photograph you've taken — and yet many of us aren't really sure about what it means. If you turn to the internet to find out what the orbs in photos are, you'll likely be directed down a trippy metaphysical hole that will have you believing that the spirit world is responsible for the presence of light matter in dark places. But, you'll also find the word "backscatter," which is a term used in the photography world to describe the way that light can capture particles in the air that are nearly invisible to the naked eye. So which explanation makes the most sense? Are orbs inexplicable pieces of evidence proving there's an afterlife, or are they just technicalities that though mystical in appearance, are logical in reality?

Perhaps as with many things, like persistent butterflies and loose door jams, there's an explanation that lies in the scientific world, and an explanation that lies in another realm. To get to the bottom of the orb phenomenon without any help from the internet — which can be a confusing place when you're talking about ideas that are outside our general understanding — Bustle spoke with professional photographers around the country to get their take on orbs. Are glowing balls of light in photographs merely pieces of dust or dirt enjoying a brief moment in the spotlight thanks to a flash? Or is it something more... ghostly?

Michael Weiss, Photographer, Westchester, New York

Michael Weiss

"Although it would be fun to imagine that this is caused by some otherworldly phenomenon, it's most easily explained on a technical basis. It's just a reflection of flash, and nothing more. That said, when I do notice that I've captured an orb, I am excited by the idea that I've caught something on film that I wouldn't have otherwise seen. There is something special about that."

Sam Rosenholtz, Photographer, Boston, Massachusetts

Sam Rosenholtz

"It's a weird accident, for sure. Light has this quality of being way faster than we can process with our brains. That bit of dust that caught the light is gone faster than we could see it, but that's all it is. Honestly, I wish I believed in ghosts."

Claire Eliza Smith, Photographer, San Diego, California

Claire Eliza Smith

“I love finding orbs in my photos — they’re caused by retro-reflection of light on dust particles or mist, but they give the pictures a ghostly-like feel to them. And if anything, the beauty of a photograph is to capture everything we can see with our own eyes and that which we can’t. They’re often edited out of photos, but I always prefer to leave them in. I like the imperfection, the evidence that we’re surrounded by so much more than what we can see with our own eyes.”

Michael Isenberg, Los Angeles, California

Michael Isenberg

"Orbs are mostly specks of dust in the air that catch the light of a flash. Besides that, dust pollen, bugs, rain, and snow can be culprits too. Orbs happen when these particles are close enough to lens, so they appear out-of-focus. Even grime on a smart phone lens can cause ghostly artifacts. Think about how often you wipe the camera on your smart phone — build-up is common.

"For example, think about a photo from an evening wedding reception. When the lights in the background are unfocused, they turn into little spheres. When it comes to orbs, the dust is doing the same thing, but it is out of focus because it is so close to the lens. The flash in digital cameras and on cell phone cameras are often very close to the lens, too, so this causes more light to bounce directly back to the camera rather than off in another direction."

Samantha Snitzer, Baltimore, Maryland

Samantha Snitzer

"I definitely never think of orbs and ghosts or anything like that, it's just dirt or dust reflecting off the sensor and nothing more."

Wilmot Kidd, Brooklyn, New York

Wilmot Kidd

"An apache once told me, 'leave a little chewing tobacco behind when you take a picture, or the spirits will be disturbed and become restless. But don’t leave too much or they’ll follow you around and grow in number saying, ‘hey this guy gives out free tobacco!'' I suspect orbs come from giving out too much tobacco. The spirits get excited and start to lose their cover."

So, it seems the consensus is that orbs equal dust or something similar reflecting off of the flash — not a ghost. However, if you see a figure or apparition of a human in the background of a photo where there was no one... well, that could be another story.