Kirlian Photography

June 12th, 2010 by Sergio de Biasi

Don’t try this with a digital camera

Digital cameras are great in almost all respects, but one of the side effects of going away from film is losing touch with the raw chemical connection with reality that is established every time we take a picture with old-fashioned analog equipment. This in itself might not lead not any technical disadvantages, and increasingly it indeed doesn’t. But still, there is something romantic and vaguely more “authentic” about photographic emulsion. The original emulsion is actually physically affected by the scene being captured and it changes in a permanent way. When you hold a photographic negative, actual rays of light hit the molecules in the material in your hands and they reacted to it in a way that you can then inspect years in the future. This is not a second hand account, a distant tale of an irretrievable past; this is the real deal, it became a permanent part of that past the instant you triggered the shutter, much like a footprint or a fossil. It’s not just abstract information; it’s an object.

One of the situations where this is most obvious is with Kirlian photography. For those who don’t know, such pictures are taken without a camera, by placing the object on top up unexposed film and then forcing a high-voltage low-current electric current through the object and into the film. The resulting corona discharges expose the film and create an image of the object. Now, this is of course not possible with digital cameras. In fact, digital cameras are almost like the exact complement of this; they take pictures without film. Kirlian photography involves pictures without a camera.

It’s very unfortunate that Kirlian photography got associated with much mystical mumbo-jumbo (to a grand extent due to claims popularized by Kirlian himself), since otherwise it provides an interesting medium for artistic exploration. The fact that many people were/are willing to accept such claims (instead of discarding them as nonsense after careful consideration) is a tribute to how this method of taking pictures strikes us in an intangible psychological sense and being more “intimate” than the usual process (which in objective terms is probably as mysterious as Kirlian photography to the average person).

Just to illustrate the basic principle, that’s how I took the picture above. In it, I didn’t actually press any object against the film. Instead, I just held my finger a bit above the emulsion in the dark and I let high-voltage flow from my finger through the air and into the film (yes, you do need very high voltage for this to happen, and no, it doesn’t hurt you because the current is very low).

Don’t try this with a digital camera. :-)

3 Responses to “Kirlian Photography”

  1. Caroline says:

    Wow, very cool! What did you use to produce the high voltage and low current? A Van der Graaf generator? (I think those produce 50000 V for the “static shock”.) I hope you didn’t have your cell phone in your pocket :-P

    • Hi Carol,

      Hehe a Van de Graaf generator would work, but it wouldn’t be a practical way to do it. :-) There are actually several different methods that can be used. This is in fact a very interesting subject because we need to generate voltage that is high enough to send electrons flying at high speeds in many different contexts in everyday life – one of the most common being inside the engine of cars. So right there and then we have one method : just use a car’s ignition coil. Another very common everyday need for high voltage is inside video CRTs; so you can also disassemble an old TV or computer monitor and use its flyback transformer. But if what you’re really interested is in generating sparks and not necessarily in taking pictures, then you should just go all the way to a Tesla coil.

      In my case I didn’t do any of that; I just used a high-voltage generator made for Kirlian photography that plugs straight to a wall power socket. :-) I *did* play a lot in the past with Van de Graaf generators and Tesla coils though – I used to do physics demonstrations at my school and those were some of the student’s favorites, together with showing a heavy piece of solid IRON floating in a bowl of mercury. Unfortunately it’s much harder to get a small Van de Graaf generator really GOING in a tropical climate – too much humidity.

      And yes, definitely don’t try this while holding your cell phone. :-)


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