May 30, 2016

Are Orbs and Vortexes Ghosts?

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As an author of the book The Case for Ghosts (Llewellyn Worldwide, 2006) and a frequent radio show guest who is asked to speak on the subject of the paranormal, I am frequently sent photos of what people consider to be “ghosts” for my opinion. Occasionally someone tries to fool me by sending a hoaxed photo, and every once in a while I receive something that’s more difficult to explain, but most of the time I’m sent what are known as “orbs” and “vortexes”. In fact, these two types of photos probably account for 95 percent of all “spirit” photos sent to me (and, I assume, to other paranormal investigators as well).

Typical “orb” shot on left; classic “misty vortex” photo on right.

So what are these mysterious pinpoints and swirls of inexplicable light? Some consider them evidences of spirit energy (especially when, in the case of vortexes, some claim to be able to see “faces” in the mist). The theory is that orbs and vortexes are collections of spiritual energy in the process of forming a full-bodied manifestation. It is believed the orb is the simplest manifestation (it apparently being easier to hold a spherical shape than any other) while the vortex is a more complex or sophisticated manifestation of energy.

The problem, of course, is that many people who see either shape in a photo usually took the photograph at a cemetery or some other “haunted” locale and so it is not remarkable that they might jump to the conclusion that they have captured a “spirit” on film. Additionally, with the advent of the digital camera, the number of photos that are being taken nowadays has jumped exponentially compared to what they were when all we had available to us was the trusty old 35 and 110 MM cameras and the occasional instamatic. Not surprisingly then, we are seeing a massive uptick in the number of “spirit photos” out there, with all the “gee whiz” emotions that entails.

So is there a natural explanation for such anomalies or do they remain a mystery? The truth is that both are similar anomalies that work in very similar ways: in the case of “orbs”, the object is almost invariably a free floating airborne dust particle which the camera’s flash is reflecting off of. The reason it looks round is because the dust particle is so close to the lens that the camera can’t focus on it, so it renders it as a fuzzy circle of light. Orbs can also be the flash reflecting off of a flying insect or, especially in the case when a photo is taken in a light rain or drizzle, droplets of moisture captured by the camera’s flash. In the case of the misty type vortex, the explanation is nearly as simple and involves the human propensity to breathe. In effect, it is usually exhaled condensation from one’s own breath—especially common on cold nights—or, in many cases, cigarette or cigar smoke originating either with the photographer themselves or with someone just off camera. The problem is that in many cases the anomaly isn’t noticed until later, by which time the person taking the photo completely forgot that they had a cigarette in one hand when they took a picture or didn’t realize how cool the night was—which is what made their exhaled breath turn into a “vortex”.

But what of the “faces” and “forms” one can sometimes make out in the swirling clouds of mist? How can those be so casually explained away as nothing more than exhaled breath? The propensity to see faces or figures in a cloud of mist is the result of something called “matrixing” (technically known as pareidolia), which is the brain’s attempt to identify recognizable shapes where none exists. In effect, people see what appears to be a face/form because that is what the brain is wired to do when confronted with random patterns of light and shadow. This is the same phenomenon we experience when we see faces or animals in the clouds, and is also the reason that the more one stares at the picture, the more clearly defined the “face” becomes. It’s really just an optical illusion.

There is one other type of “vortex” that is frequently thought to be evidence of the paranormal as well, which is known as a “solid vortex”. These are not misty objects, but much more solid and unusual, and so more difficult to explain. Here are a couple of good examples from my collection:

Two examples of “solid vortexes” commonly caught on film.

Clearly these can’t be attributed to exhaled breath or cigarette smoke, but what might account for them? The explanation is really quite simple and again involves viewing an item from extremely close range. In the case of the vortex on the left, the swirling lines are caused by a bit of human hair that has fallen in front of the lens, while the one on the right is the camera’s own strap. (Notice the “weave” in the vortex; a dead giveaway there.) Being so close to the lens—and the flash—gives them an almost “other worldly” glow that can be a little unnerving to someone who hasn’t dealt with such a thing before or wasn’t expecting to see it. This is why one always needs to be sure when taking a photo to keep their hair or some other object from falling in front of the lens.

So what’s the final conclusion? Does the fact that orbs and vortexes can usually be explained away by dust, bugs, exhaled breath or camera straps mean there are no such things as ghosts? Not at all. Simply because one has captured a common photo anomaly doesn’t mean there may not be ghosts about (any more than does mistaking a big, dark bush for a bear proves there is no such thing as a bear). It just means that one needs to be aware of the idiosyncrasies of their cameras and the human tendency to jump to conclusions before exhausting all the possibilities first. Take a few basic precautions, make yourself an expert as to what sort of mischievous effects your camera is capable of, and take account of the weather conditions and the fact that you might be shooting at a dusty location (where “orbs” are likely to predominate) and you, too, can become a first-class ghost hunter. Keep your camera handy and good luck! (Oh, and if you do get something a bit unusual that you can’t easily explain, send it to me at the website below.)

Jeff Danelek is a Denver, Colorado author who writes on many subjects having to do with history, politics, the paranormal, spirituality and religion. To see more of his stuff, visit his website at

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