Kirlian Photography

"In this article we explore the mysteries of Kirlian Photography and show you how you can investigate the phenomenon yourself!"

 by Tony van Roon

Kirlian Photography Semymon Davidovitch Kirlian was born on February 25 of 1898 in the city of Krasnodar, in the South of Russia. Semymon Kirlian could have been inspired and to have taken interest in the study of unusual and natural phenomena by a visit by Nikola Tesla to Yekaterinodar in 1917 where he gave a conference just before the 1917 revolution. Kirlian attended this conference and went away deeply impressed.

Semymon Kirlian used his experiences along with trial and error to verify the correctness of his own ideas, and coupled with his stubborn and laborious method of work, proved successful with the creation of a device for photography and visual observation by means of high frequency, high-voltage, low-current electricity.

Kirlian was more interested in technical matters such as equipment or investigating characteristics of metals and non-conductors. Valentina Kirlian, on the other hand, was more interested in the study of life processes.
Then In 1939, while repairing medical equipment used in d’Arsonval electrotherapy, Kirlian discovered that the electrical discharge between a vitrified electrode and particles of human skin changed color. Trying to discover the cause of this, he photographed the electric charge without the use of a conventional camera, that is, exposing the film directly to the current.

This experiment led to the invention of a system of high-frequency electrical photography. During the next ten years of work at home and in the workshop where he repaired medical and other types of equipment, Semymon and Valentina Kirlian were repeatedly successful in photographing by means of high-frequency currents.
They devised a non-standard but simple apparatus, and in 1949 they received an "Author's Certificate" (Soviet patent for "A Method of Photographing by means of High-Frequency Currents").

Their simple device and the photographic method was completely revolutionary and unprecedented. Semymon and Valentina subsequently received hundred from letters from scientists and research institutes from all the parts from the Soviet Union.

Kirlian began his work in electro-photography in 1939. Now, over 65 years later, that work is still the source of much speculation and controversy. That's because it has been claimed that Kirlian was able to use auras that surrounds the objects in his electro-photographs to detect illness in plants and animals before any other outward symptoms were visible.
Whether those claims are true or not, they sparked a good deal of interest in the field of electro-photography; so much so that electro-photography is today commonly called Kirlian photography.

What is it?
In Kirlian photography, a variable frequency high-voltage source is used to produce images on photographic film. It does so without the benefit of a camera, lenses, or light, so it can, in some ways, be likened to X-ray photography. The resulting photograph is a recording of the cold electron emission created by the high-voltage source. How the emission is modified by the subject or object used in making the photographs is the focal point of Kirlian photography.

The Cabinet Many of the theories used to explain the effect read like excerpts from a science-fiction novel. One theory put forth by Dr. F. Cope, who was investigating the Kirlian aura at the Bio-Chemistry Laboratory at the Naval Air Development Center, in Warminster PA, felt that all substances and, in particular, living organic matter, contains and are surrounded by what can best be described as a matter energy field. When a high-voltage charge is introduced into that field, it becomes or behaves like a superconductive plasma. The laws of physics that pertain to such a plasma are complex, involving an extended form of Einstein's Theory of Relativity. It is possible that the aura recorded around objects may be a physical manifestation of that matter field.

Unfortunately, when Dr. Cope died, the research unit disbanded. While Dr. Cope was alive, though, he was one of the few scientists with the courage to do research into what is considered, at best, a fringe science.
It is that fringe-science category that impedes research into the filed, in addition to quickly become associated with quacks, phychics, and pseudo-scientists that permeate the field. It is easy to see that any scientist wanting to seriously investigate electro-photography is going to be met with serious opposition, and could possibly lose their standing in the scientific community.

But is the opposition justified? Is it possible that the procedure has no merit whatsoever? I don't think so and, to make my point, allow me to draw a few analogies. We analyze light from stars to determine their composition, and their doppler shift to determine speed. Those two facts have created a foundation upon which modern cosmology in the last century stands. We typically perform spectrographic and colormetric analysis to determine a compound's composition. It is therefore my belief that the Kirlian effect may provide a tool with which we can probe nature.

Automotive Ignition Coil Despite the opposition to electro-photographic research, Kirlian images have been used experimentally, as a diagnostic tool, in medicine, and for non-destructive testing of materials in engineering. One interesting aspect of electro-photography is that, while all objects appear to produce an electro-photographic aura, the aura of inanimate objects appears constant over time, while living creatures give off an aura that is time varying. In humans, emotional stress, illness, and alcohol of drugs all appear to have an effect on the aura.
One of the U.S. government's studies in the area involved using the Kirlian aura to ascertain the physical and mental health of military personnel, and to determine their level of fatigue. That was done by measuring the diameter of the aura or corona, at the fingertip. At the end of the test, the results were analyzed and two statistically valid conclusions could be drawn. One was that the corona of those suffering physical stress (fatigue, etc.) had coronas that were smaller than the test average.
It may appear obvious than those test results could be due to the dilation or constriction of the blood vessels. Another study proves that assumption incorrect. Compounds given to individuals to dilate or constrict blood vessels do not produce a statistical difference in the corona diameter, according to a report.

While the results of the tests were interesting, there is still not enough data to hail Kirlian photography as a "fool-proof" diagnostic test. Although other similar tests have been reported, the results have been incomplete. For instance, in one study, the fingertip coronas of 120 adult humans were photographed. Of the sample, 20% had a corona diameter that was markedly below the average. It was later determined that 50% of that 20% suffered from some sort of medical problem.
There are several obvious flaws with that study. For one, no reports was made on the health of the 80% whose coronal diameter was not reduced; it would have been informative to know what percent of those whose corona diameters were decreased and show had no ascertainable medical problems. It would have been interesting to see how many of them developed some kind of difficulty, and in what time frame following the experiment.
The most dramatic experiment in Kirlian photography, and one that has garnered the most attention, is the so-called phantom-leaf phenomenon. In that experiment, a small part (approximately 2% to 10% of the total surface area) of a leaf is cut off. Electro-photographs subsequently taken will sometimes show the energy pattern or aura of the missing section. The reason for that is unknown, and it is the subject of much speculation, and although the effect is exceptionally rare, it has been demonstrated enough times by different people to prove its existence. One important fact must be kept in mind if you wish to attempt to replicate the phantom-leaf effect. The leaf must still be attached to the parent plant when shooting the photograph.

Cluster controls Making your own:
There are probably quite a few doubters still out there. To those we offer the following challenge: Why not build your own Kirlian-photography unit and prove or disprove the existence of the effects yourself? The worst-case scenario is that your will build a device that takes exceptional, beautiful, and toxic photographs of the most-common items lying around. In the balance of this article we will present a simple set up that will allow you to do just that. Although the equipment is not on par with that used in research labs, it is still more than sufficient to provide startling results. The color photographs that accompany this article showing the Kirlian aura of some common leaves, were produced using the apparatus as described.
The circuit for the setup is shown in Fig. 1. The heart of the circuit is a 555 timer in astable mode whose frequency is controlled by a double-ganged pot. The output of the timer is fed into Darling-transistor Q1. The Darlington transistor controls two TO-3 power transistors that switch the current on and off to a three-terminal automotive ignition coil, L1.
Construction is straight-forward, and the circuit is simple enough that a PC board is not required--although you can use one if you wish. Not that the transistors can get hot, so they should be heat sinked. The only other point that merits special mention is that a plastic chassis is essential, to provide adequate shock protection from the coil and is also essential to properly mount the exposure plate on top of the chassis (see Fig. 2).
Figure 3 shows the internal mounting of the components. The ignition coil is epoxied or glued to one side of the chassis so that the high-voltage terminal is lying underneath the copper-clad board on top. A single-sided copper-clad board measuring 4x5 inches is mounted on top of the unit (see photo), copper side down. Before gluing the board in place, solder a wire to the copper side, and then drill a hole through the top of the chassis for the high-voltage terminal on the ignition coil.
Three-terminal ignition coils can be obtained from any automotive supplier or an automotive junk yard. Just about any 12-volt, three terminal coil will work.
The most-costly component in the assembly is the plastic chassis. The overall dimensions are 3.25 inches high, 6.25 inches deep, and 8.0 inches wide. If you wish, the chassis, as well as wired and tested units, can be purchased from the supplier mentioned in the Parts List.
The setup used in making a Kirlian photograph is shown in Fig. 4. The film is placed on the board mounted to the top of the unit, and the specimen to be "photographed" is inanimate, such as a leaf or a piece of metal, it should be grounded for best results. Any earth ground that you can connect a ware to will work fine. In any event, the specimen is placed between two sheets of thin (0.010-inch) transparent plastic, and the "sandwich" is then placed on the film.

Never ground a living creature, including yourself. Doing so can subject the "specimen" to a very nasty shock. When dealing with living creatures, take special care to prevent any contact with a ground.

Kirlian Aura One note about the ignition coils high voltage terminal: To the uninitiated (read: unexperienced), the location of that terminal may not be apparent at first glance. It is located within the tube-like protuberance at the top of the housing. When the coil is used in it's normal application, a spark-plug wire is placed in the opening at the top of the tube so that it makes contact with the terminal inside; the wire is held in place by friction. For our application, the lead from the copper-clad board must make good contact with the high-voltage terminal.

You will note from Fig. 1, that the circuit uses two on/off switches, S1 and S2. Switch S1 is the unit's main power switch; when it is in the 'ON' position, power is supplied to the neon lamp, NE1, and the circuit is placed in standby mode. The neon lamp does more than give a visual indication of the state of the unit. Since we are working with photographic film, the circuit must be used in a relatively dark, light-tight room. Obviously, that can present problems in using the unit. IF the controls are clustered around the lamp (as shown in Fig. 5), the lamps gives off just enough light to make identification of the controls possible in a dark room without adversely affecting the Kodalith film. When your use color film, you should block the light from the film. Switch S2, the discharge switch, is a 'normally-open' momentary type.
It is used to control the balance of the circuit.

To make a Kirlian photograph, turn on the unit using S1, turn off the lights, place the film and specimen on the top plate as discussed previously, and make the exposure using S2. As a guideline, start with an exposure time of 10 to 15 seconds. It is likely that you will do a lot of trial-and-error experimentation with both the exposure time and frequency (which is adjusted using R1) before you will obtain satisfactory results.

The original author (John Iovine) has had good results with two types of film: Kodak 6118 Ektachrome and Kodalith 2556. The Ektachrome film will give you spectacular color transparencies, such as the one accompanying this article. However, it can be difficult to work with and to develop. Unless you have a photographic darkroom and are equipped for developing that type of film, you will probably want to take it to your local photo-developing store.

Kodalith 2556 ortho film type-3 is a high-contrast, black-and-white graphics-art film that may be familiar to those who make their own PC boards. The results are less spectacular, as shown in Fig. 6, but that film's light requirements are less exacting (a photographic safelight or the red neon lamp on the unit can be left on when handling the film), and the processing is much simpler, requiring just three basic chemicals. The author found the right exposure using the Kodalith first, and Ektachrome for the final exposure.
Kirlian Schematic

Parts List:
All resistors are 1/4-watt, 5%, unless otherwise noted
   R1 = 25K double-ganged potentiometer
R2-R5 = 2K2
   R6 = 1K
   R7 = 5 ohms, 10 to 20 watts

   C1 = 2200uF, 35-volts, electrolytic
   C2 = 0.1uF
   C3 = 0.01uF, 2000-volts

  IC1 = 555 timer (not the cmos type)
   Q1 = TIP120, NPN darlington transistor
Q2,Q3 = 2N3055 NPN transistor
   D1 = 2.5A/1000-volt silicon diode
  BR1 = 4A/50-PIV bridge rectifier

Other Components
NE1 = Neon lamp assembly, red
 T1 = 120volt/12volt, 3A transformer
 S1 = SPST pushbutton switch
 S2 = momentary N.O. pushbutton 
 L1 = 3 terminal, 12volt automotive ignition coil (see text)

Chassis, knobs, 4x5-inch single sided copper clad pcb plate, line cord, etc.

Note: Complete assembled and tested Kirlian unit available for $187.50 from 
Images Co., P.O. Box 313, Jamaica, NY 11419.  Plastic chassis $30.00 each plus
shipping and handling.
Tony's Note: This article is from 1992 and as such probably no longer available from the address listed above. I have not checked if it still exists or if it does, the price will have gone up.

Suggested Reading:

  • Kirlian Photography by John Iovine (2000). Published by Images Publishing Co., ISBN: 0-9677017-0-8.
    "A Hands-on Guide"
  • The Unseen Self: Kirlian Photography Explained by Brian Snellgrove. Publisher CW Daniel. ISBN: 0-8520727-7-5

    Copyright and credits:
    The original article was written by John Iovine and the editors of "Electronics Now" and "Popular Electronics" magazines and published by Gernsback Publishing, 1992(Gernsback Publishing is no longer in business). Re-written, modifications, and drawings by Tony van Roon.

    Editor's note and Disclaimer: The device carries lethal high voltage and carelessness can be dangerous to your health. Build and/or use at your own risk. The Sentex Corporation of Cambridge Ontario, host of "Tony's Website", or Tony van Roon himself, cannot be held liable or responsible or will accept any type of liability in any event, in case of injury or even death by building and/or using or misuse of this device or any other high-voltage device posted on this web site. By accessing, reading, printing, or building the unit in this article you agree to be solely responsible and agree with the above stated disclaimer.

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    Copyright © 2005 - Tony van Roon
    Last Updated July 24, 2010