Ask this question of 50 different people, and you will get 50 different opinions. These photographic elements (orbs) prove to be a divisive subject to paranormal researchers, with several broad theories. One school of thought suggests that orbs are residual energies created from spirits that haunt a location. Others hypothesize that orbs are angels or indicators of intelligent entities that share our plane of material existence. Some people write them off as photographic blunders, being nothing more than dust motes or water droplets highlighted by the camera's flash. Whatever they are, they appear in photos usually as round circles, usually transparent and usually white in color.
I use the term "usually" because orbs can be any shape from round, to football-shaped, to faceted in appearance. And this just describes "static" orbs. Dynamic or moving orbs can have linear or curvilinear motion blur associated with them. They can look like they are coming towards or moving away from the photographer. Orbs can display varying degrees of transparency, from being nearly invisible (requiring photographic manipulation) to being totally opaque. The composition of orbs can have a uniform texture to having shading that may resemble lines, spots or faces. Orbs may also seem to have one-half or a quadrant appear to be faded out. They can have colors that span the entire color spectrum, with common colors being white, silver, tan, green and blue. Other colors have been noted such as red, yellow and orange.
A Word about Cameras
Before we can try to define an orb, I think it's important to know how a camera works. Both digital and film cameras work on the same principals, and only the method and medium for storing the images change. A camera is basically a closed box with an aperture to allow reflected light to enter. It has a lens system to focus this light onto the film (or charge-coupled device (CCD) for digital) at the back of the camera.
Single-lens reflex (SLR) cameras have a single set of lenses for both viewing and photographing an image, requiring a hinged mirror to redirect the image through the eyepiece. Many digital cameras and cheaper film cameras have two sets of lenses, one for photography functions and one for viewing the object to be photographed. This removes the need for the hinged mirror but does not give an accurate representation of the image being photographed. In other words, what you see in your field of view may not be exactly what appears on film.
When you line up your object to take a photograph, reflected light bounces off the object, passes through the camera lens and hits a mirror. The mirror is on an angle so it reflects light up onto a horizontal focusing surface where the object's image is formed. Light is then reflected through a piece of glass with five sides, called a pentaprism. The pentaprism corrects the upside-down and reversed image caused by the focused light. This allows the image in the eyepiece to look right side up.
When you press the shutter button, a hinged mirror moves out of the way to allow the focused image of the object to appear on the film. With digital cameras, light is recorded on something called a charge-coupled device (CCD) that replaces the film. The CCD creates an electronic map of the object photographed.
Reflected rays of light off an object are constantly spreading apart, or diverging. The camera's photography lens is a converging system, meaning the lens bends the rays of light so they begin to come together or "converge" after passing the lens. These converged or focused rays of light merge into a single point in space somewhere behind the lens. If your image is in focus, this convergence point is on the film or CCD. When you focus the lens (manually or automatically), you are moving the lens so that the rays of light come together to illuminate a single spot. The lens is then forming an accurate image of the object on the film and this records this pattern of light to make a photograph.
Many times the images that some people claim to be orbs are indeed nothing more than dust motes or water particles that have been illuminated by the camera's flash. But this doesn't mean that all orbs fall into this category.
I feel we can determine to some degree when an image is of an orb, or when it isn't by knowing the "context" of the situation during the time photos are taken. The context of the environment is a term used to define not only the environmental conditions of the photograph, but also knowing when it was taken, who was present during the photograph (even if not in the frame), the location of the photograph and if any paranormal events were occurring during the photographic investigation.
If the environment is damp, the orbs you have in your photos might be water particles. This is why I will suggest that no photos be taken when it is raining or snowing. Even the lightest misting of rain or high humidity conditions can suspend enough water particles in the air to allow the camera's flash to reflect back into the camera. If your image is saturated with orbs of varying intensity and sizes to the point that each quadrant of the image has more than 10-15 orbs, chances are these are water particles. I would personally consider a photo like this not to be an accurate representation of paranormal activity.
If the environment is dusty, the orbs you have in your photos might be dust motes. This is why I will suggest that during an investigation no one should move articles in the environment. Articles can be anything from furniture and debris, to doors and windows. By moving these types of items, you run the risk of stirring dust into the air. Another consideration concerning dust motes is below ground environments. These can be basements, tunnels and even first or second floor rooms in a multi-floor building. If you are doing an investigation and find a below ground area, try to ensure no one is above your location, or hasn't been in the location for at least an hour. This will give any dust motes a chance to settle and will help prevent having images of false orbs. Again, if the photo is saturated with orbs, I feel the images contain false orbs. The time photos are taken can also produce false orbs. During times when the temperature is changing rapidly like late evening or early morning can cause water vapor to condense. Most would recognize this condensed water as dew. If you notice dew forming in the environment, chances are there is enough moisture in the air to create images of false orbs.
Is that a Real Orb?
An orb photo is not hard to take, but taking an image of an orb that can't be explained away as water or dust does prove harder, but not impossible. I find that if there is no active investigation going on, or if there are no reported paranormal activities in the area I will not get an image of an orb, even after 100 photographs. If there is paranormal activity or an active investigation and suspect environments (dust and humidity) are avoided, and you keep your equipment maintained, chances are any orbs that appear in your images should be considered a real orb. I doubt there will ever be any consensus in our paranormal community as to what orbs really are. We can only try to use sound judgment and scientific processes to document what many people have sensitivity to, and form our own conclusions that satisfy ourselves.