Electrophotography - Now With Added Kirlian!




Way back in May, I posted a Slideshow on this subject. The images produced in that Slideshow were for the alternative photography project in my Advanced Photography class. This semester, I'm taking Advanced Photo a second time, which means that I get to choose my projects, and I picked electrophotography because it's so darned fun.

I posted this forum topic looking for ideas back in March, and Goodhart gave me the idea to use electrophotography. It didn't work in the limited timespan I had left in that semester, but I've improved upon the process a bit to generate these.

In the first step, I'll try my best to explain what exactly this is, however, it's going to be too long for an intro.


This Instructable involves the use of high voltages, where "high" means in the thousands of volts range. This should go without saying, but if you are not comfortable working with high voltage, you should not be attempting this, as you will most likely end up in a darkroom with only a safelight to see by, holding both leads of a HV power supply in one hand as you fiddle with your subject with the other. If you do something stupid, this amount of power is potentially deadly. I am not responsible for any damage to you or anything else.

Step 1: Now With Added What?

Most people have never heard of electrophotography, including my photo teacher when I first asked him about it.

As usual, the most succinct definition I can find is on Wikipedia. Essentially, Kirlian photography, or electrophotography, is a technique that creates an image on a light-sensitive medium (sheet film or photo paper) of the corona from an electrically charged object. I don't have any sheet film, so I used photographic paper, which also allows me to use a safelight.

If you simply Google "Kirlian photography," most of the pages are about how it's "taking pictures of auras" or some such nonsense. I will say this plain and simple: that is a load of bull. If they are images of an aura, then apparently quarters have souls. I highly doubt that.

There is depressingly little information out there on electrophotography, and no pictures. The three pages that I found were the aforementioned Wikipedia article, and article from Make magazine (thanks, Goodhart), and this page from Imagesco.com. To my knowledge, this is the only photographic tutorial on the internet-please prove me wrong in the comments if you know somewhere else.

What's in a name? I have been referring to the process as electrophotography, and the result as an electrophotogram. When the word is broken down to it's roots, it has the best description of the actual process. However, the term "electrophotography" is also used to refer to the process in a Xerox copy machine. This is not the same process. I also want to point out that this isn't quite true Kirlian photograhy-that requires much higher voltages than I have at the moment, and uses film, not paper.

Step 2: Supplies

This is one of those instances where you shouldn't even try this if you can't come up with the parts. You will need:

-Power supply-I used a 2,000V power supply from All Electronics. This was just barely adequate for this purpose, so get a higher-voltage one. In my case I had to hook up a 12VDC 1A wall wart power supply, as it requires 12V input. Basically, you need something that will get you a decent-sized spark. (see image 2 below)
-Switch-No, you can't skip it. Figure out a way to turn it off.
-Metal discharge plate- Try to find a flat one, and not painted. The picture shows a steel plate from an old CD drive that I sanded the paint off of, however, I ended up using a sheet up aluminum.
-Photographic paper- No, not the inkjet paper from HP or Epson. I mean real black and white photo paper. I used Mitsubishi Gekko VC paper, but any paper will do.
-Darkroom-and the chemicals that go with it. You'll have to develop the paper eventually.
-Subject- The object that you are imaging. I've found that coins and keys make good subjects, as they conduct electricity, are flat, and have nice relief designs.

Step 3: Selecting Your Subject

I discovered that an easy first subject to learn on is coins. They are flat, so they leave very even discharge patterns. They also have intricate patterns stamped into them in relief, which pick up well because the arcs tend to jump from the high points. American coins seem to work best, because they seem to have higher relief-on the other hand, that might just be because my American coins are in better condition. Keys also work well for the same reasons, but they don't look nearly as cool.

I don't know what else makes good subjects, as I haven't yet tried anything else. I think that green leaves might work, and I might try my fingerprints if I can force myself to remain in contact with HV for that long. I'll be playing around with this all semester, so if I come up with other interesting subjects, I'll add them here. If I make any major breakthroughs, I may republish this.

Step 4: Basic Setup

This is actually very simple, so I don't know why there aren't instructions for it anywhere online.

The first thing to do is to unplug the enlarger. If you have an older mechanical timer, there probably won't be an issue, but unplug it anyway. The power supply can transmit odd feedback loops through the power cord and turn on the timer, and therefore the enlarger, exposing your paper. I ruined two pictures before I thought to unplug the thing.

Next, determine which lead is which on your power supply. Hold both wires up to something attached to the ground, but not you--I used the counter that I was working on. One wire will do nothing, and the other will have small arcs jumping from the wires to the object. Remember which wire is which.

Now, lay your metal discharge plate down. I set it on the base of an enlarger because there is no empty counter space in my school's printing darkroom, and it made it easier to attach things. Connect the wire that did not arc to ground to the metal discharge plate. There is high voltage, but very low current, so you don't need heavy cables-I used some cheap dollar-store alligator jumper wires.

Finally, place your photographic paper on the discharge plate with the emulsion side facing up. Otherwise, the arc will be on the back of the paper, and you won't get as crisp lines.

Step 5: Creating the Image

This is the coolest part of the whole thing. Nowhere else will you get to see a quarter with an underglow kit installed.

Place the coins, keys, or whatever else you decide to use on the photo paper. Keep in mind that the side in contact with the paper is what will be printed, and it will be a mirror image. After you have arranged your subject in some semblance of an artistic design, turn on the power supply, and briefly touch the free lead (the one that isn't attached to the discharge plate) to each item placed on the photo paper. If everything is working, you should see a blue glow coming from the underside of the subject. The length of time that you leave the power supply in contact with the subject will vary with the conductivity of the subject and paper, the rating of your power supply, the size of the subject, the diameter of your nostrils, and the alignment of Mercury and Neptune. In other words, experiment. Something less than a jiffy but longer than an instant was about right for me. A horrifically crappy video of the process is displayed below.

After you have zapped all of your subjects, turn off the power supply, slide out your paper, and develop it. Hopefully, you now have a really cool image of something on the paper. If it's too dark, zap it for less time, and if it's too light, zap it longer, just like you would printing a negative.

Step 6: Other Notes and Samples

As I've said before, I'm still experimenting with this process, and I'll update this as I get more pictures and more results. If anyone has any suggestions for what I could take electrophotographs of, please PM me, rather than clogging up the comments with one-word comments. I would definitely like feedback from anyone who tries this, whether you learned from my Instructable or not.

A note on the images: While I'm publishing this under a AT-NC-SA license, which I realize allows you to use these images for any purpose as long as I get credit, they are still my artwork, and I ask that you treat them as such. If you want a high-res image without a giant watermark plastered across it, PM me.



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    27 Discussions


    7 years ago on Introduction

    Very cool. My first experience with a Kirlian setup was back in the early 80's, and there was no shock involved (they photographed our hands). So there must be lower voltage ways to do this.


    7 years ago on Step 2

    I would think a momentary switch would be safer. I am a tattoo artist and I use a momentary switch activated with my foot. The default setting is in the off position. This allows me to use both hands but power would be disabled as soon as my foot came off the switch.

    Safety first!

    Great instructable. I think that Kirlian photography is not about photographing the soul, it's more the electrical charge we give off, as do all things including coins, according to physics everything is made up of light and particles.

    2 replies

    It's not the electrical charge we give off either, it's the electrical charge that you zap them with when you hook up the high-voltage power supply. If you naturally give off 2kV you'll want to contact your local power company and make a contract.


    8 years ago on Introduction

    EricPGH adds...

    Oh, and B_T_W...

    Keep your digital camera and your PC's _far_, (FAR,) away from HighFreqency/HighVoltage generators like these (Violet Ray, etc.).

    The spark-discharge they create may not be harmful to you (unless you take them into the bathtub with you), but the radio emissions from their sparking is LETHAL to your cameras and PC's.

    Remember: this is not photography (at all) so there's no need for lenses and digital CCD's - - It's just "STENCILING" * with microscopic sparks on photo-sensitive paper - and was never anything otherwise.

    - EricPGH
    * "Stenciling" ? - Y'know, like on Martha Stewart, or those caveman wall-paintings: lay your out stretched hand against the wall and spraypaint-over it. Remove your hand and, ta-da! - a stenciled (non-optically derived) image remains.


    8 years ago on Introduction

    "KIRLIAN" (KP) PHOTOGRAPHY - Facts & Secrets:

    1.) When a high voltage source's coronal-discharge grounds itself _through_ film or print paper, a small degree of visible light and phosphorescent reactive glow is created on the surface of the photographic emulsion and shows (most particularly well-so,) along the edges of the "shadow" of the object placed on the film or print-paper between the voltage source and the grounding plate. The "image" is simply the footprint of a zillion little sparks sizzling onto and through the film or print paper used... Hence, it's not really an "image" - it's a non-optical artifact of electrical discharge.
    2.) The classic full DIY instructions for a standard KP device are in the old NewAge bestseller book "Psychic Discoveries Behind the Iron Curtain". Other than the one harder to find component, the whole thing could be made for less than $5.00.
    3.) The hard to find item is still pretty easy to find at antique flea-markets: Google-up "Violet Master Ray" to see what I'm talking about. These things were basically a mini-TeslaCoil in a Coke bottle shaped handle - putting-out High-Voltage@High-Frequency - strong enough to travel over the outside of the glass bulb "electrodes" which one plugged into the handle. They delivered a mildly uncomfortable sizzle when applied to the client's skin (our coronal discharge). Run that through a light-tight paper envelope sandwiching a door-key and some print paper - develop that and voila! - a KP photo of the "soul" of a door key...

    - EricPGH


    9 years ago on Step 1

    Hmm....perhaps not "soul" photography but "Chi" or "Ki" photography?


    10 years ago on Step 6

    That's a very interesting tutorial and pretty much one of the first on the web available about electrophotography. In some other pages about it, I heard you could zap living beings, notably hands and finger. There was some picture shown also. I'm am not really sure how to zap living things and I'd rather see someone who's professional about electricity and ask him about that. Also, on the same pages it was saying to relay a ground wire to the NON-LIVING objects to the ground to get a better effect. My guess is that grounding a living thing will give you a hard shock.. Again, I'm not sure how it works. Still, I congratz you again for this very well done Instructables and projects. 5/5

    1 reply

    Reply 9 years ago on Introduction

    I really wanted to try to image my fingertips, and I'm sure I could have with a rubber mat to stand on or something. I don't know quite enough about how AC voltage works to do it safely, though, and a couple painful zaps were enough to discourage me from further experimentation.


    10 years ago on Introduction

    i am in photo now, and i would like to try it. the school might frown on my playing with high voltage, do you know if a car battery would do the trick?

    6 replies

    Reply 10 years ago on Introduction

    No. It would most likely burn off your finger without creating an image. You need volts, not amps.


    Reply 10 years ago on Introduction

    How about some contraption like a car-battery and an ignition-coil from same type of fourwheeled contraption? Possibly check out instructables on flybacks.


    Reply 10 years ago on Introduction

    That would then cease to be a low-voltage power source. You'll notice that the little 2kV box I'm using has 12VDC input.


    Reply 10 years ago on Introduction

    It's not, that's my point. This project requires a high-voltage power source. If you rig up an ignition coil and driver, that is a HV supply as well, capable of putting out upwards of 50kV. My point was that my PSU, with the 2kV output, has the same 12VDC input that a 50kV ignition coil-based PSU would have.