Co-authored by Jasenka Grujin
If you’re a curious photographer who likes the explore the lesser-known realms of photography, you have probably heard about Kirlian photography. The Kirlian photography technique is a genuinely unusual way to shoot various subjects. Many believe that it shows the auras of people or animate objects. Because of this, Kirlian photography is a mystery, especially for those who are amateur photographers.
In this article, we’ll try to explain how this type of photography works and separate fact from fiction.
Introduction To Kirlian Photography
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 used to explain the Kirlian phenomena was put forth by the inventor himself, along with his wife.
The process of taking a Kirlian photo is a relatively 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, you have to apply a high voltage current to the metal plate. Then you should capture the electrical coronal discharge between the object and the metal plate. 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. Then, Kirlian photography didn't become a well-known phenomenon to the general public until 1970.
Discovery Of Kirlian Photography
The way Kirlian photography was discovered is fascinating. Semyon Davidovitch Kirlian was famous as a rather skilful electrician, and he was regularly called upon to fix the lab equipment in various institutions. In 1939 he saw a demonstration of a high-frequency electrotherapy device, and he noticed that there was a small flash of light between the machine's electrodes and the patient's skin.
He was curious about this small flash of light, and he wanted to photograph it. He started to experiment with similar equipment at home, but he replaced glass electrodes with metal substitutes so that he could take photographs in visible light. Even though this was a dangerous procedure, he got unusual pictures of an energy discharge around his hand.
Over the next ten years, Semyon and his wife developed a machine for Kirlian photography. This machine was using a high-frequency oscillator or spark generator that operated at roughly 75 kHz.
This machine became popular among professional scientists at the time because Kirlian claimed that the images produced by this machine captured the aura of living entities. Semyon and his wife made many photographs of the leaves of various plants via this process.
They believed that this type of photography could detect plant diseases that weren’t otherwise detectable. This claim also led to unsupported assertions that Kirlian phenomenon could provide an insight into a person's physical health.
By the early 1960s, Kirlian photography attained widespread recognition – everyone was reading about it in newspapers and magazines. The Kirlians got a pension and a well-equipped laboratory. In 1961, the first scientific paper on Kirlian photography was published, and many institutions around the Soviet Union wanted to collaborate with Semyon Davidovitch Kirlian.
The popularity of his invention was unstoppable – an educational film about Kirlian photography was shown in American elementary schools in 1964.
If you’re wondering how to make your own Kirlian setup, we’ll explain the process in detail so that you can experiment with it on your own.
This type of setup consists of a few components that you can buy separately and put together. You don’t have to believe in any parapsychological claims about Kirlian photography to enjoy experimenting. You can experiment with this genuinely unusual photographic technique regardless of your beliefs related to chakras, auras, and similar terms not recognized by official science.
This is the list of things you will need to purchase to make your own Kirlian setup:
- Plasma photo plate
- High voltage insulators such as plastic cups
- A syringe for the electrode plate
- Electric conductive solution (salt and water solution)
- High voltage spark coil
- Power pulse modulator
- The object you will photograph (for instance a leaf)
- Piece of wire
You should use transparent electrodes because the electric field around the subject will become visible to the naked eye and quite easy to photograph.
Watch this video to understand better how to put these components together!
DIY Kirlian Photo Project
Once you have managed to build your own Kirlian setup (it shouldn’t be too hard), you should test if it works. If you have followed all the steps in the video tutorial (listed below), you’ll be able to get your first Kirlian photograph!
1. Prepare The Photo Plate
You need to fill the electrode or plasma photo plate with an electrically conductive solution. This solution is a simple mix of salt and tap water.
2. Place The Subject (Leaf) On The Plate
You should make sure that the plate is dry and clean – if it’s dirty, it will affect the clarity of your image. However, the moisture of your subject is an essential factor – the higher the moisture content, the more vibrant the final image.
3. Connect The Subject To The Electrode Plate
It’s best to do this with transparent tape.
4. Make Sure To Ground The Connection
You need to attach a piece of wire to your subject with transparent tape and connect the other end of the wire to ground.
5. Put The Entire Setup On Plastic Cups
You should place the plate on insulators – plastic cups are great because they are cheap and you can’t break them.
6. Connect The High-Voltage Coil
Now you’re ready to connect a high-voltage coil directly to the electrode.
7. Turn the Power On & Lights Off
You should turn off the lights and turn on the power. Also, make sure to keep the electric current flowing for several seconds at the time.
8. Finally, Take The Photo
Once everything is ready, you can finally use your camera. Ideally, you should use a lens with a large maximum aperture so that you can take great photographs in the dark. You can experiment with shutter speed to discover the best settings for your Kirlian photography.
The exposure can be anything between 10 and 30 seconds – feel free to try various combinations!
The Great Myth
The Kirlians themselves suggested the first mythical explanations about their photography. They concluded that these photographs were depicting the actual life-force or “aura” that many people believe surrounds all living things. New Age spiritualists attribute significant importance to the aura. They believe that specially trained aura-readers can provide essential insights into a person’s spiritual, emotional and physical state.
The Kirlians thought these photos could accurately predict emotional and physical states and could be used to diagnose illnesses.
Energy practitioners quickly adopted the assertion that these photographs could depict emotional and physical states. The use of Kirlian photography has mostly fallen by the wayside as a diagnostic tool. However, there are still alternative practitioners who believe it is an accurate way to heal all kinds of conditions, emotional and physical.
Kirlian phenomenon 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 American parapsychologist, Thelma Moss, popularized Kirlian photography as a diagnostic tool. It featured prominently in with her books The Body Electric (1979) and The Probability of the Impossible (1983). Similarly to Semyon and his wife, Thelma believed that the Kirlian process was the result of the “bioenergy” of the human body.
So is there a scientific explanation for the aura? It can be hard to separate fact versus fiction with Kirlian photography. You should understand that these shiny auras present around non-living objects as well as living objects. So thinking of them as a “life-force” is contradictory. If the glowing images that Kirlian photography produces aren’t something spiritual, paranormal, or a “life-energy” then what are they? There is an explanation.
The answer is water.
The high-voltage frequency applied to the metal plate rips the electrons off atoms. The air around the photographed object becomes ionized. If that air contains any water, the resulting image will show a glowing silhouette around the object, which scientists call a “corona plasma discharge”.
Kirlian photographs taken of sweaty hands show a more substantial, more intense glow. A more vibrant aura is due to increased moisture. Conversely, cold, dry hands will produce an image which shows a weaker glow. Proponents of Kirlian photography still argue that a person whose hands showed a brighter glow is a natural healer; when, in fact, they are just sweaty.
Factors which can influence the final image include humidity, the pressure and angle of your hand touching the metal plate, as well as the amount of voltage. The photographs of the same person can be very different taken only minutes apart due to these variables.
A very well-known experiment documents a leaf as it slowly dies. The initial photograph was taken when the leaf was freshly cut, and it showed a prominent glow. As the leaf got older, more photos were taken, which showed the glow weakening. This outcome was used to explain the life-force theory. However, what the weakening of the glow shows is simply the result of the leaf losing water and drying up over time.
In another experiment, which was used to support the “life-force” theory, a leaf was photographed showing a strong aura. Then, part of the leaf was torn away. Surprisingly, a ghostly glowing trace of the missing piece of the leaf showed up on the film.
For years this result was considered more proof of the existence of a “life-force”. In reality, it was merely a result of some moisture residue left on the glass. If the residue is completely removed before photographing the leaf again, the phantom glow does not appear.
One final scientific observation to point out is that the Kirlian effect doesn’t happen in a vacuum since there is no water vapour, which prevents ionization.
Aura Photography & Instagram
If you have a fascination for aura photography, you can still get your fill. Even though Kirlian photography isn’t as popular as in the 70s and 80s, nowadays you can find ’’aura photography’’ on Instagram. The New Age has been reimagined and repackaged for the Instagram age.
For instance, The Aura Dome claims to be an interactive photographic exploration of energy and colour. Interestingly, the Aura Dome camera uses a discontinued Fuji film, which makes the photos even more alluring, especially to those who are interested in vintage cameras. The Aura Dome founders offer their services in pop-up form at various events and festivals, such as Lollapalooza.
If you’d like to see more aura photography on Instagram, check out the following profiles:
There’s also a website, AuraPhoto, that sells a product line related to aura imaging, such as digital aura cameras and aura imaging machines. They also offer aura colour interpretations.
Kirlian Device Mobile
Another interesting device related to Kirlian photography is Kirlian Device Mobile. This one isn’t associated with any New Age practices – in fact, it’s pretty straightforward when it comes to its function.
This device reveals WiFi fields using long exposure photography and aural atmospheres. You can download it and use it with long-exposure photography to perform your own WiFi visualizations. This will allow you to monitor the field strength and footprint of your WiFi network.
You can download this interesting app here.
The current version of the Kirlian Device Mobile reads the WiFi manager status, looks for the Received Signal Strength Index of the current connection and transforms the value into the corresponding colour from a five-colour scheme. This app was created as part of a creative exploration project called Digital Ethereal, which sets out to understand and explore the spatial qualities and design potential of wireless networks.
Kirlian photography is fun to produce, but it isn't a supernatural event. It doesn't capture auras, and it doesn’t have anything to do with the metaphysical. It is merely a natural reaction of photographic film to the corona effect of high voltage electrical energy, which makes it a simple, but impressive, light trick.
While the mystical and paranormal explanations for the glow in Kirlian photographs have been debunked, the truth may be just as intriguing as fiction to the scientifically minded photographer. Its potential for studying certain aspects of life are also being explored.
Also, a few artists are using Kirlian photography to create beautiful images of what has been called “living art”. Like other forms of artistic expression such as traditional photography, you should explore it to its fullest.
In case this article wasn’t enough, and you still want to learn more about Kirlian photography, check out the following links!
- Kirlian Photographs: The Myth And The Science Behind It
- Mastering The Kirlian Photography Technique: A Short Guide
- Kirlian Images: Building Your Own Equipment
- Here's The Revelation Of How Kirlian Photography Actually Works
- Kirlian Photography And The “Aura”
- The Colorful And Clairvoyant History Of Aura Photography