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.

Optical system[edit]

The basic 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 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.

Variations and application[edit]

Variations on the optical schlieren method include the replacement of the knife-edge by a coloured "bullseye" target, resulting in Rainbow Schlieren which can assist in visualising the flow. 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.[1] 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 can not be seen directly), but form optical density gradients, which become visible in Schlieren images either as shades of grey or even in colour. Optical density 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. Typical application in gas dynamics is the study of shock waves. With liquids, the flows caused by heating, physical absorption[2] or chemical reactions can be visualised.

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. ^ Settles, G. S., Schlieren and shadowgraph techniques: Visualizing phenomena in transparent media, Berlin:Springer-Verlag, 2001.
  2. ^ 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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