Schlieren photography

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A schlieren photograph showing the compression in front of an unswept wing at Mach 1.2
Shock waves produced by a T-38 Talon during flight
Schlieren image of a shotshell projectile exiting a barrel.
Colour schlieren image of the thermal plume from a burning candle, disturbed by a breeze from the right.

Schlieren photography is a visual process that is used to photograph the flow of fluids of varying density. Invented by the German physicist August Toepler in 1864 to study supersonic motion, it is widely used in aeronautical engineering to photograph the flow of air around objects.

Classical optical system[edit]

The classical implementation of an optical schlieren system uses light from a single collimated source shining on, or from behind, a target object. Variations in refractive index caused by density gradients in the fluid distort the collimated light beam. This distortion creates a spatial variation in the intensity of the light, which can be visualised directly with a shadowgraph system.

In classical schlieren photography, the collimated light is focused with a lens, and a knife-edge is placed at the focal point, positioned to block about half the light. In flow of uniform density this will simply make the photograph half as bright. However in flow with density variations the distorted beam focuses imperfectly, and parts which have been focused in an area covered by the knife-edge are blocked. The result is a set of lighter and darker patches corresponding to positive and negative fluid density gradients in the direction normal to the knife-edge. When a knife-edge is used, the system is generally referred to as a schlieren system, which measures the first derivative of density in the direction of the knife-edge. If a knife-edge is not used, the system is generally referred to as a shadowgraph system, which measures the second derivative of density.

If the fluid flow is uniform the image will be steady, but any turbulence will cause scintillation, the shimmering effect that can be seen on hot surfaces on a sunny day. To visualise instantaneous density profiles, a short duration flash (rather than continuous illumination) may be used.

Focusing schlieren optical system[edit]

In the mid 20th century, R.A. Burton developed an alternative form of schlieren photography which is now usually called focusing schlieren or lens and grid schlieren,[1] based on a suggestion by Hubert Schardin.[2] Focusing schlieren systems generally retain the characteristic knife edge to produce contrast, but instead of using collimated light and a single knife edge, they use an illumination pattern of repeated edges with a focusing imaging system.

Basic diagram of a focusing schlieren system

The basic idea is that the the illumination pattern is imaged onto a geometrically congruent cutoff pattern (essentially a multiplicity of knife edges) with focusing optics, while density gradients lying between the illumination pattern and the cutoff pattern are imaged, typically by a camera system. As in classical schlieren, the distortions produce regions of brightening or darkening corresponding to the position and direction of the distortion, because they redirect rays either away from or onto the opaque part of the cutoff pattern. While in classical schlieren, distortions over the whole beam path are visualized equally, in focusing schlieren, only distortions in the object field of the camera are clearly imaged. Distortions away from the object field become blurred, so this technique allows some degree of depth selection. It also has the advantage that a wide variety of illuminated backgrounds can be used, since collimation is not required. This allows construction of projection-based focusing schlieren systems which are much easier to build and align than classical schlieren systems. The requirement of collimated light in classical schlieren is often a substantial practical barrier for constructing large systems due to the need for the collimating optic to be the same size as the field of view. Focusing schlieren systems can use compact optics with a large background illumination pattern, which is particularly easy to produce with a projection system. For systems with large demagnification, the illumination pattern needs to be around twice the size of the field of view to allow for defocusing of the background pattern.[3][4]

Variations and applications[edit]

Variations on the optical schlieren method include the replacement of the knife-edge by a coloured target, resulting in rainbow schlieren which can assist in visualising the flow. Different edge configurations such as concentric rings can also give sensitivity to variable gradient directions, and programmable digital edge generation has been demonstrated as well using digital displays and modulators. The adaptive optics pyramid wavefront sensor is a modified form of schlieren (having two perpendicular knife edges formed by the vertices of a refracting square pyramid).

Complete schlieren optical systems can be built from components, or bought as commercially available instruments. Details of theory and operation are given in Settles' 2001 book.[5] The USSR once produced a number of sophisticated schlieren systems based on the Maksutov telescope principle, many of which still survive in the former Soviet Union and China.

Schlieren photography is used to visualise the flows of the media, which are themselves transparent (hence, their movement cannot be seen directly), but form refractive index gradients, which become visible in schlieren images either as shades of grey or even in colour. Refractive index gradients can be caused either by changes of temperature/pressure of the same fluid or by the variations of the concentration of components in mixtures and solutions. A typical application in gas dynamics is the study of shock waves in ballistics and supersonic or hypersonic vehicles. Flows caused by heating, physical absorption[6] or chemical reactions can be visualised. Thus schlieren photography can be used in many engineering problems such as heat transfer, leak detection, study of boundary layer detachment, and characterization of optics.

Synthetic schlieren[edit]

The synthetic schlieren method is a technique similar to schlieren photography which makes use of digital photography and image processing rather than optics to visualize the density variations of a fluid.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Burton, R.A., "A Modified Schlieren Apparatus for Large Areas of Field," J. Opt. Soc. Am. 39, 907–907 (1949).
  2. ^ Schardin, H., Ergebnisse der Exakten Natur-wissenschaft 20, p. 303 (1942)
  3. ^ Goulding, J.S., [A Study of Large-Scale Focusing Schlieren Systems], Masters Thesis, University of Witwatersrand (2006).
  4. ^ Weinstein, L.M., “Review and update of lens and grid schlieren and motion camera schlieren,” Eur. Phys. J. Special Topics 182, 65–95 (2010).
  5. ^ Settles, G. S., Schlieren and shadowgraph techniques: Visualizing phenomena in transparent media, Berlin:Springer-Verlag, 2001.
  6. ^ A. Okhotsimskii, M. Hozawa. Schlieren visualization of natural convection in binary gas-liquid systems. Chemical Engineering Science, Volume 53, Number 14, 15 July 1998, pp. 2547-2573

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