Jul 25 2012

Mood Photography

Whenever I see a pretty picture of an astronomical object, like a gas cloud, or even the surface of Mars, I always like to know how much of the color I am seeing is computer enhancement. The same applies for any scientific image. Often it’s obvious, such as the color coding of brain activity or blood flow in a PET scan or fMRI. The color is just a way to visually represent the data. Other times it’s not so obvious, like the color of the sky on Mars.

At the very least, however, the source of the image needs to be transparent – what exactly are we seeing.

Several people have recently pointed me toward a form of photography that is being sold as aura photography, but actually isn’t. There is, of course, no such thing as aura photography because there is no such thing as an aura.

Believers claim that every person has an aura – a shroud of color resulting from their energy field. For example, this aura photography site claims:

An AURA is the electromagnetic energy field that surrounds, encompasses and permeates the body as well as all living things. The colors and patterns within this energy field constitute a blueprint (the results of the energy we radiate from our feelings, thoughts, and physical being). Until recently, Aura’s were only seen by the special few who had a gift to see the rainbow of colors.

This is utter nonsense. People do radiate electromagnetic energy, but this is mostly infrared and is a function of our body temperature, not our thoughts and feelings. People do not give off visible light, however. Those who belief they can see an aura around other people are largely self deluded (it is thought that some may have a visual or sensory disorder, but this is speculative). There is also no instrument that can detect what “aura readers” claim to be seeing – because it has no basis in physical reality.

This has not stopped people from trying. Perhaps the most famous form of such photography is known as Kirlian photography. This technique is just producing an image on film by applying electricity to moisture. Terrence Hines explains it well (via The Skeptics Dictionary):

Living things…are moist. When the electricity enters the living object, it produces an area of gas ionization around the photographed object, assuming moisture is present on the object. This moisture is transferred from the subject to the emulsion surface of the photographic film and causes an alternation of the electric charge pattern on the film. If a photograph is taken in a vacuum, where no ionized gas is present, no Kirlian image appears. If the Kirlian image were due to some paranormal fundamental living energy field, it should not disappear in a simple vacuum.

This is essentially the problem I identified above – what, exactly, is being photographed?

The new form of alleged “aura” photography being touted by believers is the Guy Coggins Aura Camera 6000. This technique also is not imaging an energy aura or anything else around people. What it does is use biofeedback technology – attaching electrodes to the skin – and then it use the skin conductance to determine what color to add to the Polaroid film it uses.

The “aura” and the color, in other words, is entirely fake. It is added to the film. It is not being “photographed” in any way. The major assumption of this technique is that the data from biofeedback somehow relates to the person’s aura. This is all just made up, however, without a lick of scientific plausibility or evidence. In fact the data from the skin electrodes is highly variable, from moment to moment. It’s nothing more than a mood ring. It reflects skin temperature, sweatiness, and conductance – nothing about the personality of the individual.

But it produces images of the subject with a colored halo around their head and body. It’s a clever gimmick, but nothing more.

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6 responses so far

6 Responses to “Mood Photography”

  1. SARAon 25 Jul 2012 at 2:35 pm

    Well, that was enlightening. I had one taken at a fair at the insistence of a friend. I just assumed it was an even greater scam than it is. That is was just a random coloring being added around the image of the person without reading anything in actual existence.
    I think if I provide the real explanation to my friend, she will almost certainly tell me that the ionized field is the aura and that science has just proven auras exist.
    Her head will skip right over the lack of correspondence to health/happiness and the lack predictability in the aura.
    Aura’s are as hard to disprove to people as astrology. They are fun, vague and provide hope in some unexplained spirit life. That is the core attraction of new age BS.

  2. DOYLEon 25 Jul 2012 at 3:49 pm

    Take the ruse one step further.Inevitably the aura would have to be diagnosed and plotted for psychological wellness.Then some psudo practitioner would prescribe remedial products to bring the aura to an optimum hue.Phenomenon + remedy = dollar bill.

  3. Paul Hatchmanon 25 Jul 2012 at 10:52 pm

    “Whenever I see a pretty picture of an astronomical object, like a gas cloud, or even the surface of Mars, I always like to know how much of the color I am seeing is computer enhancement.”

    Depending on your point of view, for any extended object, like a gas cloud, it is all computer enhancement. CCD cameras just don’t work like our eyes do since they don’t respond to light in the same way as our cones do. They have different wavelength responses and also accumulate light over periods of minutes/hours.

    Because the surface brightness of an object is independent of distance, even if you were just a few light years away from the relatively bright Orion Nebula, it would look exactly the same colour and brightness as it does unaided or through a small telescope (excluding atmospheric effects), it would just be bigger. You would really not see much in the way of colour, because it is emitting the same amount of light per unit area, still below the eye’s ability to detect much colour.

    It is just another of those counter-intuitive things about astronomy, that telescopes don’t increase the brightness of extended objects, they only magnify them. Why bigger telescopes make objects appear brighter than smaller ones (without actually doing so) is actually quite interesting. A good explanation can be found here: http://www.clarkvision.com/visastro/omva1/index.html

  4. KeithJMon 26 Jul 2012 at 11:52 am

    “Depending on your point of view, for any extended object, like a gas cloud, it is all computer enhancement. CCD cameras just don’t work like our eyes do since they don’t respond to light in the same way as our cones do. They have different wavelength responses and also accumulate light over periods of minutes/hours.”

    This is true, but the goal of the software in CCD cameras is to reproduce the colors as they WOULD be seen by our eyes (there are definitely problems with CCDs and the software associated, that can make purple appear blue from excess ultraviolet filtering, etc). For many astronomical photos, the telescope records infrared and ultraviolet light that is not in our visible range, and then compresses the represented range so it IS all visible to us (so we can see it in the picture).

    The process doesn’t manufacture pixels, but it does mean that the vividly colored images you see from Hubble, while representing real light captured by Hubble, don’t really represent reality in the same way a digital photo from a CCD attempts to do.

  5. HHCon 26 Jul 2012 at 2:44 pm

    Kirlian photography explained, thanks!

  6. AttacusAtlason 26 Jul 2012 at 5:13 pm

    In the paragraph following the first cited block, there is a typo. Should read “Those who BELIEVE they can see an aura around other people”.

    If only explanations like this would change people’s minds…

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