Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Infrared Magic

I have been making infrared photographs for many years. I discovered early on that the surreal nature of infrared images made them perfect for hand-coloring.

I started shooting Kodak High Speed 35mm infrared and then found Konica's infrared which came in medium format as well as 35mm.

A simple explanation of infrared photography could be "it records wavelengths of light that the human eye cannot see". When shooting infrared film it is necessary to have a deep red filter over the lens. This filter made for very long exposures which required the use of a tripod.

I loved infrared so much that the very first digital camera I bought was a Nikon D80 that I had converted so it only shoots infrared. Information on conversions can be found at and In addition to converting cameras, there are other methods you can use to make infrared images with your digital camera. I will save that for another post.

Shooting infrared film was a challenge but it could also be magical. The film had to be loaded and unloaded in complete darkness. This could be done using a changing bag or sitting in a very dark closet. The darkness became part of the ritual.

Another "issue" with the film was, since it was very difficult to get a correct exposure, you basically did what I called "bracketing like hell" with each shot. For those that don't know -bracketing is where you shoot the same scene using different exposure settings. I would keep my same fstop and change the shutter speed a few times. After awhile I got to know approximately where to begin, but I still wanted to cover my bases with extra exposures because shooting infrared film was still basically a crapshoot. There was really no way of knowing what you got until the film was developed.

One of the things I liked about working this way was I became very picky about what I was shooting. Since it was possible to only capture 5 or 6 different images on one roll of film, and given the creativity it sometimes took to change a roll, I had to really slow down and then only shoot if I was very excited about what I saw. Using a tripod also helped to make this type of image making a meditation at times.

Because of the unpredictability of the film, I sometimes joked that I would set up a shot, pray to the "infrared gods" and click the shutter.

When I saw the negative of this image, "Tranquil Afternoon", it felt like Christmas! I was attracted to this scene because of the fence line but I had no idea the sky would come out like it did! One of the characteristics of infrared is the black sky and the amazing clouds. Since it depends on so many factors, including the position of the sun, it's really impossible to know for sure what you recorded so it's almost always a surprise!

Making infrared images with a digital camera has eliminated most of the challenges associated with shooting IR film. Since it's no longer necessary to use the red filter (on a converted camera), you can shoot without a tripod (although I always recommend using a tripod whenever possible). In addition, you get to see exactly what you got as soon as you take the picture. This can drastically cut down on the amount of exposures you have to make. Of course not having to deal with the fragile film to begin with makes life easier, especially when traveling.

As much as I love the ease and predictability of my digital infrared camera, there are times when I feel the need to slow down, think carefully about what I am shooting, and "say a little prayer". After that you might find me sitting quietly in a dark closet...........

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