Artifacts and False Positives in Digital Photos


Orbs, apparitions, menacing-looking shadows and many other paranormal-looking pictures can be caused by natural phenomena. This guide points out some of the more common phenomena that can cause spooky-looking false positives but in reality aren’t paranormal at all. I”m far from a photography expert, but I managed to make all of these pictures with a little ingenuity and a couple hours of free time. It isn’t hard to fool the camera!


Camera flash, flashlights or even external light sources can reflect back to your camera and into your photo. These reflections can be a simple white round light to strange shapes and sizes. It all depends on the light source and the reflecting surface. When analyzing a photo look for shadows or light and dark areas to determine possible off-camera light sources.

Dust and Orbs

Dust, bugs and other small objects floating in the air can look like orbs when photographed. This is an especially important concern when you are using flash in low-light conditions. The light from the flash can reflect off of the dust creating an odd-looking orb. However, this problem can even occur during the day.

Vapor, Smoke and Fog

Water vapor, smoke and fog can all appear like ghostly apparitions in a photo. Humidifiers, cigarettes, candles, smoldering fires, and even your own breath on a cold day can create ghostly-like results in a photo.


Many strange-looking shadows can be caused by everyday objects. A flashlight panning across a room can give the appearance of movement and lead the investigator to think something paranormal is in play. If you have a strange shadow attempt to recreate it to find the cause before labeling it paranormal.

Lens Flare

If you have a strong light source shining towards the lens it can cause lens flare. A light source can be off-camera and even at an extreme angle and still result in a lens flare. A lens flare can create many different strange artifacts including colored rays of light and colored or partially opaque ellipses in a photo. It can even appear as pentagons or other ” shapes with multiple edges depending on the iris of the camera. These will occur along the direction of the light rays.

Motion Blur

Improper camera settings or fast movement can trigger motion blur. Some motion blur is easy to detect as the entire image will be blurry. However in some photos certain portions of the image, especially light sources, may appear blurred than the rest of the photo while the rest of the photo is sharp and in focus. This can create a strange effects that may be labelled as paranormal when in fact it is just motion blur. This effect is usually more dramatic in low-light photographs that require longer exposure times.

Partial Lens Obstruction

All kinds of objects can get in front of your lens causing strange effects. Watch out for the camera strap, fingers, hair, even bugs or dust close to the lens. Zooming in on a distant object will amplify the effect an obstruction has on a photo.

More Artifacts

I discussed the more common types of artifacts and false positives but this is by no means a complete list. Check out these resources for additional types of photographic artifacts:
DP Corner – Artifacts in Digital Images
DP Review – Digital Photograph Artifacts
Imatest – Digital Imaging Artifacts
Panasonic Digital Camera Know-How
Rolling Shutter Syndrome
San Diego State – Artifacts in Sunset Photography