What is Kirlian Photography? The Science and the Myth Revealed

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is a professional photographer and creator of Presets Galore.
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Kirlian photography, although the study of which can be traced back to the late 1700s, was officially invented in 1939 by Semyon Davidovitch Kirlian.  The Kirlian photographic process reveals visible “auras” around the objects photographed.  These photographs have been the subject of much myth and controversy over the years.  Interestingly, much of which was initially put forth to explain the Kirlian photography phenomena was put forth by the inventor himself, along with his wife.

The process of taking a Kirlian photo is a fairly simple one and does not even require the use of a camera.  First, a sheet of photographic film is placed on top of a metal plate.  Then, the object that is to be photographed is placed on top of the film.  To create the initial exposure, high voltage current is applied to the metal plate.  The electrical coronal discharge between the object and the metal plate is captured on the film.  The Kirlian photograph, which shows a light, glowing silhouette around the photographed object, becomes visible as a result of developing the film.

Although the Kirlians invented this photographic process in 1939, they didn’t publicly release information about their experiments until 1958, and Kirlian photography wasn’t a well-known phenomenon to the general public until 1970.

quarter3 by nebarnix, on Flickr

The Myth of Kirlian Photography

The first mythical explanations put forth about Kirlian photography were suggested by the Kirlians themselves.  They believed that these photographs were depicting the actual life-force or “aura” that many people believe surrounds all living things.  New Age spiritualists attribute huge importance to the aura and believe that specially trained aura-readers can provide important insights into a person’s spiritual, emotional and physical state.  The Kirlians were convinced that these photos could accurately predict emotional and physical states and could be used to diagnose illnesses.

The assertion that Kirlian photographs could depict emotional and physical states was quickly adopted by energy practitioners.  While the use of Kirlian photography has largely fallen by the wayside as a diagnostic tool these days, there are still alternative practitioners who believe in it as an accurate way to help those who seek their services for healing all kinds of conditions both emotional and physical.

Kirlian photography has been a staple of paranormal research for some time as well.  In the 1960s and 1970s paranormal researchers connected it to many types of unexplained phenomena, one of which was telepathy.  Researchers proposed that telepathy was the result of people’s auras communicating together.

The Science of Kirlian Photography

It can be hard to separate the fact versus the fiction when it comes to Kirlian photography, since these photos are very real and do clearly show some phenomenon at work.  However, the fact that these glowing auras are seen around non-living objects as well as living objects in Kirlian photos is often simply ignored by those who want to believe in the supernatural explanation.

fingerprints by nebarnix, on Flickr

So if the glowing auras seen in Kirlian photography aren’t really caused by something spiritual, paranormal or our “life-energy” then what are they caused by? 

The answer is water. 

The high-voltage frequency applied to the metal plate rips the electrons off of atoms.  The air around the photographed object becomes ionized.  If that air contains any water, the resulting image will show the glowing silhouette around the object, which scientists actually call a “corona plasma discharge”.

When a person is sweating more due to being overheated, or excited in some way, Kirlian photographs taken of their hands at that time will show a larger more intense glow due to the increased moisture.  Conversely, cold dry hands will produce an image which shows a weaker glow.  Despite the ready availability of this accurate scientific explanation, New Age proponents of Kirlian photography will still argue that the person whose hands showed a larger, brighter glow is a natural healer when they are really just sweaty.

fingertip by nebarnix, on Flickr

Factors other than humidity which can influence the final image include the pressure and angle of your hand touching the metal plate as well as the amount of voltage.  Kirlian photographs taken of the exact same person can be very different taken only minutes apart due to these variables.

A very well-known Kirlian photography experiment documents a leaf as it slowly dies.  The initial photograph was taken when the leaf was freshly cut and shows a prominent glow.  As the leaf gets older more photos are taken, which show that the glow is starting to weaken.  This was once explained away with the life-force theory.  However, we now know that the weakening of the glow is simply a result of the leaf losing water and drying up over time.

Ivy Leaf by nebarnix, on Flickr

In another experiment involving a leaf, an initial photo is taken which shows the usual strong glow or aura.  Then, part of the leaf is torn away.  Surprisingly, a ghostly glowing trace of the missing part of the leaf showed up on the film.  For years this result was considered more proof of some sort of “life-force”.  In reality though, it was simply a result of some moisture residue left on the glass.  If the residue is completely removed prior to photographing the leaf again, the phantom glow does not appear.

One final scientific observation to point out is that the Kirlian effect simply doesn’t happen in a vacuum since there is no water vapor, which prevents ionization.

In Conclusion

While the mystical and paranormal explanations for the glow in Kirlian photographs have been debunked, the truth may be just as interesting as fiction to the more scientifically minded.  Its potential for studying certain aspects of life are being explored scientifically.

Also, there are a few artists using Kirlian photography to create beautiful images of what has been called “living art”.  Like other forms of artistic expression such as traditional photography, this should and will be explored to its fullest.

life force in a quarter by nebarnix, on Flickr

33 thoughts on “What is Kirlian Photography? The Science and the Myth Revealed

  1. Jim Newberry

    “It can be hard to separate the fact versus the fiction when it comes to Kirlian photography, since these photos are very real and do clearly show some phenomenon at work.”

    Is it really difficult to separate fact from fiction regarding Kirlian photography? I think you’ve done it well in this post.

    1. Fahrertuer

      It’s quiet easy to seperate fact from fiction in this case, as the author proved.
      You just have to be willing to accept the truth, do some research and have a basic grasp of physics.

      1. Profile photo of Kathleen RyanKathleen Ryan

        I was a Registered Nurse for 45 years. I am also a Healer and I has Kerlian photos taken of my hands. We did 3 photos, before, during, and after Therapeutic Touch treatment. In TT touch I pull energy into my hands and transfer it to a patient working in the Aura. I can also scan the Aura with my hands and find areas of pain, internal bleeding, and many other areas of dis-ease. Anyway the first photo showed a nice aura around my fingers and the palm of my hand. The 2nd one was done during the treatment, the Aura on this was about 2to3 times the size of the first. I did not have sweat or any water on my hands. The 3rd one was after the treatment and I had shut down the energy flow by having cold water wash over my hands. The Aura on this one was almost the same as the 1st. What I do by working in someone’s Aura has nothing to do with whether my hands might have water on them or not.

        1. serge

          I am puzzled how as a RN you can ignore the fact that you cannot (while still living) rid the moisture totally from your hands or any other body part. As a RN you must also be aware of powerful the placebo effect is. The most comprehensive studies I’ve seen, in this case of Acupuncture, showed that treatment of Rhinitus and Arthritis by Acu achieved only a 5% better result than the Placebo. The slightly superior result being due most likely to the administrtors of the ‘fake’ Acu treatment not displaying the confidence and professionalism of the ‘real Acu practitioners. I would put it you that if u achieve any success in yr healing work, then you using a powerful placebo. (Depending on the application, Placebos can produce good effects of some degree to anywhere between 40% and close to 100%.) So good luck to you ‘mam, you are doing good, but I suspect not for the reasons you may think.

        2. jebus

          This is why the internet is great, people love to lie through their teeth about having magical powers, sorry but if you did you wouldn’t be an RN but some healer in a palace in India or something. To be frank how about instead of “telling us stories” about your super powers, you end the debate and take on James Randis 1million dollar challange to anyone that can prove anything metaphysical and or supernatural… this challenge exists because of ppl like this RN who seem to have no scruples claiming things science has yet to detect or prove totally exit and they can do it… Because since its inception 30 years ago despite many attempts not one person got the prize, in fact usually by very emberassingly realizing that they are delusional when the experiment would be set up in such a way that there was actual measurements instead of speculative analysis of things getting better or worse based on opinions instead of facts.

      2. tonyspiers

        Well, I can’t see she’s provided any proof. Beyond mere assertion, I’d like to see the experimental evidence for her assertion that “In reality though, it was simply a result of some moisture residue left on the glass”.

        Without evidence, this “disproof” should also be treated as conjecture, an alternative theory (albeit very plausible) no more valid than the “aura” hypothesis.

  2. Marian Majik

    Very interesting article. If I understand it well for taking shoot of fingertips with this method there have to flew an electric current from a hand to the metal plate below photographic paper. What did you mean by high voltage current? Maybe more details will be helpful. High voltage for me is over 1kV so there you need really limit the current and the time otherwise it can be too dangerous.
    I’d like to try it so it’s here a good start point? Thans

  3. Curios Mind

    I have seen images of Kirlian photography using fruit and vegetables. two images side by side showing the first as a raw fruit or vegetable and the second image of the same subject but had been cooked for say 3 minutes, resulting in a considerable energy lose. After reading this article, seems to be due to the lose of water, I’m curious to how these vegetables or fruits were cooked, baked yes would back the evidence of losing moisture but if boiled surely they would gain liquid. Just a rant, curious mind would like to see controlled experiments to prove this.

    1. KGlyphics

      I agree. The author just seems to use the water example since it fits the bill. I did this photography for a senior art project for college (I was an art major) and noticed things that had nothing to do with water as well as a fellow art professor who was sensitive to subtle energy see the energy patterns from the photographs.

      1. JackH

        Ah yes, of course that professor was “sensitive to subtle energy.” Only people “sensitive to subtle energy” can see certain things in the photographs.

        I’m so glad art majors are around to debunk science with anecdotes about paranormally observant professors.

          1. jonchang

            There is actually subtle energy known as holographic coherence which is emitted by the pineal gland which transfers energy through the vagus nerve. That’s the supernatural phenomenon of telepathy seen in some animals too but through lightwaves. There are peer-reviewed studies proving “chi” to be a real healing phenomenon even for HIV lol, tell me that is a placebo hahaha.

    2. Chibiabos

      That’s because things tend to dry out when you cook them.

      The science is a hell of a lot weirder than the mysticism. The only problem is that you can’t describe 99% of it in conversational language and a statement about how the world works ends up looking like soap opera written in Martian.

  4. Dorian

    Very good explanation of the ‘kirlian effect’. One problem with the explanation of the ‘phantom leaf’ experiment is that generally the leaf is cut prior to ever making contact with the discharge plate. Consequently, there is no precedent contact to leave behind moisture residue. Something to think about I guess.

  5. Ted

    Interesting article. I’ve known for a long time that the photographs people can get at the new age fairs with their auras (the Kirlian Effect) require the subject to place their hand on a plate with metal nodes, and it’s that ‘aura’ being ‘photographed’ than the subject him/herself. This article reinforces what I’ve always thought was a trick of one effect being superimposed over another.

    However, I’m more interested in learning how an aura can be photographed (if it can) when the subject/object is not required to touch a surface.

    1. ro

      A kirlian photo does not have nodes on the plate, that is the aura camera which works on galvanic skin resistance, the colours being put in my man according to the gsr. The Kirlian image can be a flat hand/foot, finger tips or objects. The angle of the finger tip is relevant . Peter Mandels work in Bruchsal Germany is probably the best long term application and study available.
      Unfortunately the exhibnition work is frequently not properly applied and the atmosphere not the best to do anything; also the level of curiosity and glamour of the environment can , repeat, can distort the information or need of the client.

  6. Wolf

    Science has already proven that everything in the entire universe is made of energy. Everything, including inanimate objects like coins or rocks, are made of energy, even you and I; so why is it a surprise to you all when someone discovers a way of photographing that energy?

    Your idea that water is the cause of these phenomena is absurd. However I’ll concur that the addition or the increase of water on an object will increase the glow of the energy.

    I am not religious nor am I a scientist but I know about both. It just frustrates me when people try to explain something when they do not take into account the entire spectrum; the bigger picture so to speak, like you have with this article.

    Did you even consider the fact that all material, no matter how solid it appears to us with our limited senses, is really just vibrating energy?

    Go to the core of any atom in any object and you will discover the energy that connects all things. We are all in reality energy beings; our physical bodies are comprised of atoms which are made of energy and the only thing that prevents us from all reconnecting into a big confused mass of chaos is the different vibrations of the energy mixed with time and space. It’s basic stuff that the majority of people are ignorant to, which is really sad.

    I think you should go back to the drawing board with this article. Carry out some experiments of your own and then rewrite the article along with your findings.

    1. JackH

      “Science has already proven that everything in the entire universe is made of energy.”

      No, it hasn’t. Science has done nothing of the sort.

      “Go to the core of any atom in any object and you will discover the energy that connects all things.”
      Actually, you will discover protons and neutrons, and within them, quarks and gluons.

      “the only thing that prevents us from all reconnecting into a big confused mass of chaos is the different vibrations of the energy mixed with time and space. It’s basic stuff that the majority of people are ignorant to, which is really sad.”
      Speaking from personal experience, I see.

    2. Chibiabos

      No. There’s a mass-energy equivalence that comes out of relativity but that’s very different from what you have in mind. I’d go more in depth about it but I need to study my particle physics more before I can do much else besides confuse you.

      Energy isn’t a life force and it’s not an extension of Eastern religion. It’s a mathematical concept that’s really useful for describing the properties of a physical system. Same with entropy.

    3. ro

      The article is quite comprehensive and pretty accurate although biased in some aspects of application. Kirlian has been used to monitor the energetic state of an individual for thirty years plus and consistent follow up has shown the state of the individual at any particular time. Yes the environment etc is relevant, do you not respond differently to different circumstances.
      One innaccuracy is it cannot be done in a vacuum, Victor Adamenko presented a paper showing his work in a vacuum. It is the capacity to earth of an object at whatever frequency or voltage is being used. The wave form is also relevant. Photographic paper etc are also a factor. Colour is a distraction as it can be affected by pressure and blue is the basic colour, the others, red especially are frequently light leakage or the gap between the object and the paper if the finger tip is at an angle and the person is pressing. The photographic emulsion has layers and the visible spark is blue.
      Before and after treatment allows one to see the degree of response, withdrawal or relaxation response to how they process their treatment. Blood pressure also changes over a period of five minutes, breathing etc, we aree alive after all. |Inanimate objects are also capable of being photographed by virtue of their content whther metal or tissue, if the appropriate earthing is provided. Work with voltage sensitive liquid crystal is a further development for example with bloods or fluids, a drop being placed with earth wire on a glas slide. first done by Alfred Benjjaminin 1976 funded by Kodak ( see medical photography) repeated in 1983, with cancer patients before and after surgery to see if it had been eradicated.
      The psychic research is frequently as said performed by people who have a set requirement and are unaware of parameter containment. However using it to monitor people in various states, ie hypnosis etc can be co related with other measurements, ie galvanic skin resistance, eeg etc and can lead to other levels of enquiry.

  7. VAL


  8. Mary

    Very good explanation! Aura photos are fun, but I don’t put a lot of stock them, as a “healing” or “revealing” tool. A group of friends and I went to an aura photo event last night. Most of the group had attended a vigorous dance class right before coming. I had to work late, so did not dance beforehand. All the dancers had very vivid, glowing “auras.” My colors were very subdued. So, sweat, body temperature, etc. seems to have played a part. If I had another $25 I would have had a second photo taken. Very sure it would have been different, as so much in our bodies changes from minute to minute.

  9. Byron

    Serge- In your humble wisdom, what is the root cause of the effectiveness of the placebo effect? Also, statistically speaking, to achieve 5% more than the placebo, or any other treatment for that matter, is pretty significant in the context of medical/pharmacological experimentation.What I really want to know is why non-scientific forms of therapy raise such ire in folks such as yourself? Why should it bother you or anyone else that accupuncture, massage, roots, herbs, chanting, meditating or any other form of healing actually effect positive changes in some peoples lives? Seems pretty childish, to me.

    1. JackH

      It’s interesting that you mistake disagreement for “such ire” in a comment dripping with passive-aggressive condescension.

      “Why should it bother you or anyone else that accupuncture, massage, roots, herbs, chanting, meditating or any other form of healing actually effect positive changes in some peoples lives?”
      For one, Christian Scientists (i.e. members of the Christian Science sect) have killed more than a few of their children by denying medical treatment, based on their belief in “non-scientific forms of therapy.”

      The placebo effect is a fascinating and very real phenomenon, but pretending that praying directly causes a specific healing effect based on actual divine appeal is, at best, smarmily deceptive, and at worst, medically dangerous.

      1. Ginko

        and “scientific” healing has maimed and killed millions! Ever hear of thalidomide? Vioxx? Tuskegee syphilis experiment? frontal lobotomy? Mercury in vaccines? Forced sterilization? etc ad nauseum….. Science is not better or even good. It just is and you have decided to worship it as your religion.

  10. Chibiabos

    Kirlian photography does not show “life energy”, energy in terms of physics is not a bastardized concept that a bunch of acid-heads mistranslated from Chinese and nobody here has a clue about physics.

  11. Carol Watson

    Can you explain this.i had a kirlian photo taken last week.i sat down and placed my hands on metal plates either side. Then they took a photo of me from the waist up and it came out swathed in colors. No torso contact.also the leaf experiment is incomplete in that they don’t state whether they left the leaf on the plate when they cut it, or put the cut leaf onto a fesh dry plate.so disappointing when people will not do these tests properly

  12. Anonymous

    Superconductivity of monoatomic and diatomic elements is involved in any “aura” or whatever else you may want to call it. This is the stuff a human body runs on(what did you think, you have copper wires running through your nerves?). This is the same stuff the rest of the planet runs on, it’s present anywhere a molecule exists that could house a monoatomic or diatomic element. People who don’t know what monoatomic means call it “prana, chi, zhiva, manna, ki etc.”. People who don’t know how the “spiritual/intent” world works call it “nothing” because they can’t detect it(yet), and in some lab tests of certain materials there is a certain percentage of “absolutely nothing”.
    The mistake most people make is separating the “new age quackery” too harshly from “solid proven science”. There are seriously downfalls of both, historically and presently. They tie in somewhere, otherwise one of them wouldn’t exist and the other would have reached perfection. Finding the Boson was one good step towards some real progress. Do your research. For a long time.

  13. james heonakos

    Jaime Hoagland at the Center For The New Age in Sedona Arizona can ‘see’ peoples auras & has a $10,000 digital Kirlian camera that has duo hand feeds to measure energy in & out & is the most credible place to get a photo complete with a card explaining your colors..
    The photos taken at the new age fairs are done using a single hand feed & are not as good & will not capture your full aura.
    I caught the lady at the Conscious Life Expo in Los Angeles running her thumb over her ancient Polaroid Kirilian Camera’s Instamatic film & just after she peeled it back said “oh look here is your angel” at that particular spot.
    So my suggestion is to see Jaime as she can certainly ‘read’ you before taking photo.
    My aura photo is next to my name.

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