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The Case of the Curious Christmas Light

Skeptical Inquiree

Benjamin Radford

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 42.3, May / June 2018

Q: A few years ago I took an otherwise normal photo of a Christmas tree hunt near my hometown. The photo is of my daughter carrying our Christmas tree with her dad. You can clearly see a strange orange orb that seems to have a distinct center—inside the tree! I am one to look for logical explanations before jumping to paranormal conclusions, but this one has me stumped. Can you offer an explanation?

—Tammy S.

Figure 1

A: Tammy sent me the photograph (Figure 1), and I then replied asking her to provide more details about the circumstances of the image. She soon followed up:

I have researched fake orbs trying to find a logical explanation for my photo. It was a sunny day, and I suspected there might be some type of reflection or refraction from my camera, but the orb appears in an area where there doesn’t appear to be anything for it to reflect off of, and my camera was not pointed directly into the sunlight. I did take a series of photos immediately before and after (the series is: one cutting the tree, the one with the orb, and then one carrying the tree farther away). Those all appear completely normal.

There wasn’t much more information, though we were able to determine when the photo was taken (Saturday, November 29 at 11:22:58am) by examining the photo properties of the jpeg file—assuming of course that the time was set up correctly when the camera was initialized.

I examined the photo and first tried to determine whether the object was emitting or reflecting light. Given the proximity of her daughter’s right hand (carrying the tree trunk) to the orange glow, at first glance it looked like it could have been a reflection, for example from a piece of amber jewelry. However, the shape of the anomaly made me suspect it was lens flare. To be sure, I spent a few minutes measuring the shadows to get an idea of where (outside the frame) the sun would be and marked them using photo editing tools in a copy of the photograph (Figure 2).

Figure 2

I replied to Tammy and sent her the photo:

You are right that there’s nothing in the outline of the tree to reflect off of; the reflection is not outside the camera but inside it. I have attached the photo showing the location of the sun given the angle of the shadows and the time stamp on the file; the mystery glowing spot is directly beneath the sun. Lens flare occurs when a point of light source (often—and in this case—the sun) is much brighter than the rest of the scene, and it either happens to be in the image (within lens angle of view), or simply hits the front element of a lens without being present in the image. It can take a wide variety of appearances, ranging from haze to round orbs and polygons. Often they are white or transparent white, but sometimes they are orange (as in your photo), yellow, red, or other colors. If you’re interested, you could probably get the same effect with some trial and error! Don’t feel bad about not recognizing it, though—it does look weird.

I was pretty sure of my explanation but also sent it to Kenny Biddle of the Geeks and Ghosts podcast. He agreed it was definitely lens flare; the telltale sign to him was the tiny cross in the center. Even a smart, skeptical person can be fooled by something strange in a photograph; though lens flare often occurs when the sun (or another bright light) is within the frame, it can also occur outside it. Another mystery solved.

Benjamin Radford

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Benjamin Radford, M.Ed., is a scientific paranormal investigator, a research fellow at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, deputy editor of the Skeptical Inquirer, and author, co-author, contributor, or editor of twenty books and over a thousand articles on skepticism, critical thinking, and science literacy. His newest book is Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits (2018).