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Kirlian Photography: What It Is and How It Works

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Kirlian Photography.
Quick summary

Kirlian photography represents an unusual method for achieving strangely beautiful aura photography. If you want to combine your passion for picture-taking with an esoteric edge, or if you just want to challenge yourself for the sake of fun and discovering something new, Kirlian photography is definitely a worthwhile experiment at any experience level!

An exciting abstract field, an object of fascination for occultists, and a surreal photographer’s dream. All of these and more may serve to describe Kirlian photography, which can produce wonderfully abstract photographs.

Images produced using this technique seem to emanate from another world, showing aura-like patterns commonly described as the Kirlian effect.

But what exactly is Kirlian photography? How does it work? And what gear do you need to start taking Kirlian images yourself? All of that will be the subject of today’s guide. Strap in and prepare to be awed by the magic and the science behind Kirlian photography!

What is Kirlian Photography?

To really understand Kirlian photography, we need to start at the very beginning. Not just the bare bones of the technique, that is, but at the very beginning of photography itself.

A wave-like discharge of visible electrical current emanating from a classic tesla coil. An example of corona discharge, a crucial element of Kirlian photography.
This so-called corona discharge emanating from a tesla coil was one of the first major discoveries that led to the principles behind Kirlian photography.

During the late 19th century, long before digital cameras or even photographic film were commonplace, photography and electrics were both cutting-edge fields that fascinated millions.

It is worth noting that both of these technologies were largely limited to scientific research at the time. The average amateur could simply not afford the immense cost nor the technical know-how required to dabble in photography or in complex electrical circuitry.

This is the backdrop that Kirlian photography was born out of.

The Origins of Kirlian Photography

The very first examples of what some might call Kirlian photography appeared towards the very end of the 19th century. In multiple experiments, scientists managed to recreate photographs using high-voltage electrical energy. These would be dubbed ‘electrographs‘ by the year 1889, long before that term began being used in reference to modern EKG scans.

However, the real history of Kirlian photography does not begin until later, during the 1930s. During that time, a Soviet electrician with a passion for his field named Semyon Kirlian was heavily invested in the kind of research that his role model Nikola Tesla had pursued already a generation prior. That is, the almost magical quest to represent electrical energy fields in pictures.

In 1939, Kirlian and his wife visited Krasnodar Hospital in Russia to observe the then-radical treatment of a patient by means of a high-frequency electrotherapy device.

Concept of a female patient undergoing electrotherapy. Electrodes and high-voltage power supply visible. Contemporary setting.
Electrotherapy is a standard practice nowadays. But during Semyon Kirlian’s time, it was a rare cutting-edge practice that aroused curiosity in many.

During the visit, they both noted the visible glow that appeared when the electrodes came close to touching the patient’s skin. This is what is nowadays known as a corona discharge.

The startling appearance of this phenomenon made Kirlian and his wife curious. Soon, they looked to find out how to document his electrical discharge in pictures.

With time, they perfected a technique whereby anyone could take photographs of electrical coronal discharge on a standard photographic plate.

The setup involved was not too expensive, complicated, or excessively dangerous (for the time’s standards in particular). So perhaps it was only a natural reaction that Kirlian photography would soon spread and become known as a burgeoning niche within photography.

How Kirlian Images Ventured Out Into Paranormal Research

Concept art of stars in outer space in geometric alignment. Stars forming colorful circles. New age, spiritual artwork.
Especially in recent years, Kirlian photography has become strongly associated with movements like the New Age and belief in the supernatural in general.

The story of Kirlian photography does not end there. Some would say it only begins quite a bit later!

Throughout the 40s and 50s, Semyon Kirlian and his wife engaged in increasingly complex and controversial experiments seeking to elevate the potential of their craft to ever greater heights. With increased press attention throughout the Soviet sphere came greater interest from enthusiasts.

Soon enough, a great movement of ‘Kirlians’ emerged.

From this point forward, Kirlian photography became strongly associated with paranormal research into fields such as energy healing and parapsychology.

The Kirlians engaged in numerous attempts to demonstrate that photographs taken with the Kirlian method indeed showed some kind of life force or living aura. One of these, dubbed the torn leaf experiment, would go down in history.

To many amateurs and historians alike, it continues to define this period of early Kirlian photography fascination.

The Torn Leaf and Divided Opinions

An illustration of a fresh leaf subjected to electrical current. Kirlian photography of a leaf.
Images of leaves with prominent auras featured extensively in the Kirlians’ publicized attempts to legitimize and prove the supernatural claims behind their method.

In many of the earliest published Kirlian photos, leaves are the most prominent subject. Commonplace, naturally conductive, and easy to handle, they were the perfect medium for displaying the magical visuals of the Kirlian effect.

Kirlian photography enthusiasts would take leaves of different species and photograph them repeatedly, both when fresh and when already withering. The latter photographs would exhibit continuously weaker, less visible light discharge. This is what Kirlians would cite as prime evidence that their technique captured real, paraphysical auras or energy fields.

As the leaf withered, so did its life force. That makes sense, right?

However, these initial leaf experiments were not the only ones. In later versions, Kirlians would present photographs of a fresh leaf’s electrical discharge before tearing it up and rephotographing it. The resulting Kirlian image would still show the ‘aura’ of the whole, untorn leaf.

For many, this was pretty damning evidence that Kirlian photography indeed did capture something metaphysical that science could not quite explain.

Of course, modern research did eventually catch up. It turns out that a key factor involved in the conductivity of the leaves is natural moisture. When all residual moisture is removed from the leaves under clinical conditions, the effects seen in the Kirlians’ widely publicized photographs of the experiments are absent.

Despite that, an undercurrent of supernatural claims surrounding Kirlian aura photography has remained consistently strong.

Especially in New Age communities and others affiliated with metaphysical belief systems, Kirlian photography remains popular as a visualization of the supposed life force, even the soul of all living things.

Applications of Kirlian Photos in Serious Scientific Research and Beyond

High-key scene of a young woman leaning over a windowsill. A small air purifier sits in the foreground.
High-tech ionizing air purifiers have become remarkably popular in recent years. At their core, they rely on a small-scale application of the same corona discharge reactions that make Kirlian photography possible.

In some ways, the association between Kirlian photography and supernatural beliefs did taint its reputation in the scientific world. It did not entirely extinguish interest in it, though – something we can now be thankful for in the present day! Like many discoveries behind the Iron Curtain, Kirlian photography remained almost unknown in the West until the end of the 20th century.

Still, curious minds found ways to read up on what the Kirlians had been experimenting with the past decades. Some in the global scientific community found genuine potential in the technique.

It turns out that the phenomenon of corona discharge is not just an immensely powerful one in nature. It can also be harnessed and utilized artificially with great results. For example, a thorough understanding of corona gas discharge has led to the development of the now-standard process by which large swimming pools are electrochemically sanitized.

Deliberate corona discharges also occur within modern photocopying machines and power the ion thrusters that help satellites stay in orbit. They’re also part of the magic behind those compact air purifiers you might have spotted on your colleagues’ desks lately.

While Kirlian photography did not prove truly revolutionary in such developments, it did spark curiosity about the spatial qualities of the corona discharge phenomenon.

And that, ultimately, is what led to the countless advances we owe to the research of Semyon Kirlian and his wife!

How to Create Kirlian Photographs?

A Kirlian photograph of a strawberry resting on a spoon. Color Kirlian photography.
Stunningly colorful Kirlian photos are easy to take if you know how to navigate the pro.

Now that you know all about what Kirlian photography is and how it came about, let’s take a look at the gritty bits and see what photographic techniques are necessary to take a Kirlian photograph.

At its core, the prerequisites for any kind of corona discharge photography are not very demanding, which actually makes it quite beginner-friendly. Still, safety precautions apply as you will be working with high-voltage equipment. You will also need to heed the fundamentals of Kirlian photography closely to avoid mishaps or wasted shots.

Constructing a Basic DIY Kirlian Photography Device

Scene of a young man using tongs in a darkroom. Traditional photographic printing process illustrated in color.
When working with Kirlian photography, a proper darkroom setup is best.

If you’re starting out, there’s almost no easier way to practice Kirlian photography than to do it in the way that Semyon Kirlian and his wife originally did almost a century ago. This method is very light on gear. In fact, a camera and lens aren’t even necessary to take a Kirlian photograph using this method!

However, you will need access to a darkroom of some kind. In a pinch, you can convert your own bathroom into a dark lab for Kirlian photography as well!

Prerequisites

The original aura photography device requires only a few basic components. First, you need a medium to print your Kirlian photograph onto. The traditional choice is photographic plates. Convenient and easy, they’re an excellent beginner’s choice even today.

The other main component of a Kirlian photography device is a conductive plate called the electrode plate hooked up to a power source. This will feed the electrical discharge that we need in order to generate the Kirlian effect. The simplest possible electrode plate consists merely of an additional layer of glass with a metal plate (usually copper) beneath it.

The power source needs to be capable of delivering very high-voltage electrical current to a coil. While not for the faint of heart, it is feasible to make such a power supply yourself if you are confident enough working with electrical components.

Copper inductors on a PCB. Elements of a commercial-grade high-voltage power supply.
These inductors are a small-scale example of the copper coils you’ll need for the power supply to your Kirlian photography device.

To mount the setup safely, you will also require some high voltage insulators. There’s no need to splurge on expensive lab equipment here – plastic cups work just fine.

You will further need to fill the electrode plate with a conductive solution. The simplest homemade option that still works well is a solution of table salt in distilled water. Make sure to add as much salt as it will dissolve without introducing a cloudy haze to the consistency of the water.

Assembly

Add the solution to the plate using a small syringe. When you’re ready, the next step is to affix your subject to the photographic plate. Leaves and plant matter are some of the most popular choices as mentioned earlier. They combine natural conductivity with ubiquity, ease of handling, and low levels of danger.

If you’re feeling a bit more adventurous, you can use other kinds of subject samples. These can range from fingers to coins, jewelry, or anything else that is at least somewhat electrically conductive!

Attach your subject to the photographic plate using transparent tape. Next, establish an electrical connection to your subject using a piece of wire run through to the power supply. Run another wire from the metal plate of the electrode layer to the ground.

You might need some extra tape (and a pair of helping hands!) to do this properly.

The DIY Device in Use

Once all setup, the only thing that’s left is to kill the lights and expose them! Because this technique employs the same principles as traditional contact print photography, and because electricity itself is what generates the light we are capturing, the power switch on your power supply essentially acts as a shutter release.

Assuming a light-tight environment, you should aim for an exposure of anywhere from 10 to 30 seconds. As with many other skills in photography, judging the correct Kirlian photography ‘shutter speed’ comes organically from many cycles of trial and error.

Other factors that affect the outcome of your Kirlian photographs include the positioning of the subject on the photographic plate as well as the proper level of immersion in the conductive solution.

Kirlian Aura Photography Using a Digital Camera

Kirlian photography of a steel fork radiating a colorful aura.
The distinct angle and depth in this Kirlian shot would not have been possible without the use of a dedicated digital camera for perspective control.

The old analog method is not the only way to take amazing Kirlian photos. Nowadays, you can get the same stunning aura photography out of your digital camera gear!

In fact, going digital comes with its own advantages. Using a DSLR or mirrorless camera affords you the freedom to capture your subject from any angle relative to the plane of the electrode plate.

Of course, with this added freedom comes a lot of additional room for tinkering. Without some practice, you might not be able to intuitively tell at first where exactly to shoot from to get a good corona discharge in the frame.

In principle however, digital Kirlian photography is quite simple. Simply construct a setup as described above, leaving out the direct-contact film or glass plate medium. Instead, place your subject on the surface of the device, on top of the electrode plate.

You will need to assemble your digital camera on a tripod to have a good chance of capturing well-exposed, sharp pictures. Because there is no light-sensitive medium directly in contact with the subject, exposure is more straightforward.

You can dim the lights in your working space and turn on the power supply right away.

Composition and Camera Settings for Taking the Photo

Compose through your camera’s viewfinder as you would normally. Let the visible corona discharge guide you – there won’t be much else to see with the naked eye. As before, use bulb or timed shutter speed settings to achieve a long exposure of at least a few seconds in length. Different ISO settings can make it possible to shoot much faster, but even then, I would highly recommend staying with the tripod to avoid camera shake.

The digital Kirlian photography process is also a lot smoother and safer if you can afford to have two people in charge. While one person operates the camera, the other can check and maintain the power supply independently. This can prevent accidents and reduce the need for overwhelming multi-tasking during the crucial moments of composition.

Kirlian Pictures on Photographic Film

Two prints of analog Kirlian photographs taken in color. Abstract photography using electromagnetic effects.
Shooting the Kirlian effect with a film camera gives you another means of capturing magical-looking photos, as these two prints show.

If you don’t want to use a digital camera but are interested in an alternative to the glass plate contact print process, there are plenty of options at your disposal. One of the most straightforward is to use a substitute for the glass plate in the form of large-format sheet film.

The more daring among you can even go further and use photographic paper in place of film. Though more flexible and potentially more forgiving in terms of exposure as it can be pulled to much slower speeds, shooting photo paper is a discipline all of its own. I highly recommend reading up a bit on the relevant technique first to increase your chances of a successful Kirlian photo using this method.

There is another way of getting Kirlian energy fields on film as well. That would be by applying the same method that we went over for digital Kirlian photography, but with an analog camera!

Remember to use fast film that copes well with high contrast. Otherwise, you may find that the final image looks far too overblown due to the strength of the Kirlian effect and the resulting corona discharge.

Making Your Own Kirlian Images With Great Results

Kirlian photograph of a hand balled up into a fist. Colorful radiation visible emanating from skin. Black background.
Even just using your own body as the subject, you can create fascinating results through Kirlian photography techniques.

Kirlian photography is a lot of things to different photographers. Some see it as a way to combine their passion for the pictorial with an occult, otherworldly edge. Others see in it an aesthetic or even a photochemical experiment that’s fun to toy with.

No matter what it is that drew you to Kirlian photos initially, know that there is no substitute for due diligence and plenty of practice.

Kirlian photography technique is not as wide as it runs deep. That is to say, we practically covered all the basics you’ll need to start with in this short guide. But perfecting your skills may take a long time.

This especially holds true if you are looking to delve into some more experimental techniques. That could be shooting on photographic paper or documenting the energy field of unorthodox inanimate objects. You can even combine the Kirlian process with a passion for videography and capture the corona discharge with a video camera.

No matter where your path will lead you, studying the Kirlian phenomenon in the flesh can be a fascinating experience that I recommend every photographer to try at least once.

Good luck with your experiments! Remember to stay safe and have fun while you’re at it.

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Jonathan is a writer and photographer currently based in Poland. He has been traveling the world, taking pictures, and writing about his experiences for over five years. His favorite subjects include landscapes and street scenes.
Jonathan is a writer and photographer currently based in Poland. He has been traveling the world, taking pictures, and writing about his experiences for over five years. His favorite subjects include landscapes and street scenes.
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