Dabbling in Infrared

Over the years I’ve come to, and wandered off from, infrared photography many times. For my photographic audience there seems to be something of a love/hate relationship. It seems to be a Marmite or Vegemite situation. Those who love it seem to embrace it strongly while others, rather than having a take-it-or-leave-it view, often seem thoroughly dismissive of it. Me, I blow hot and cold.

Today my infrared images are usually dramatic, even extreme. They’re punchy, contrasty and usually quite striking. While that might sound all to the good, it’s actually more of a bug; a legacy of my early ventures into the medium that I sometimes think I need to get clear of.

My interest in infrared originates from my early black and white days, and particularly the days when my black and white images were nondescript and truly lack-lustre. Over the years since I’ve come to realise that the black and white work I did was this way because it was itself poor, not because it was black and white.  But a poor image is laid bare when it’s black and white and its lack of redeeming features is its most notable feature of all.

So, in an attempt to make my black and white images more interesting, rather than upping my photography game with better composition and more interesting subject material, I ventured into the infrared. It seemed to work. At least, to me.

Infrared photography is…

Most photographs you see capture or encapsulate a scene, envisioned by the photographer. They’re usually captured with visible light. Infrared photographs encapsulate scenes which are not, by and large, visible light. Instead, they are photographs capturing often recognisable scenes – trees, lakes, buildings etc – in a slightly unfamiliar way, collecting the light from the sun which passes in the high frequencies of the infrared end of the light spectrum. At this end of the spectrum, things look somewhat different, contrast is different and colours are not how you’d normally see them.

Visible Light image (same location, slightly different composition):

Colour infrared photos out of the camera look like monochromatic red images. Here’s an example:

Using an image editing program, it is possible to separate out the colours in the scene in many ways in order to create an image which is appealing or striking. The results are very much up to the photographer, in the choices made in the editing environment:

Colour Infrared:

Black & White Conversion:

Challenges in infrared photography

Infrared photography is much more difficult in the digital era. Cameras today don’t do too well with light in the infrared part of the spectrum. It’s not that they can’t see it – they see it all too well – they just don’t want to.

One of the curious features of infrared light is that it doesn’t focus at the same point as visible light. An autofocus camera that sees infrared light can be tricked into focusing badly, often several feet too far distant. To solve this problem, camera manufacturers fit an infrared “cut” filter over the camera’s sensor during construction in order to cut or block infrared light, leaving largely only visible light entering the sensor. The reasonable presumption is that viewers of photographs from the camera are only interested in seeing in-focus images of things they themselves would/could see.

Amateur infrared photographers like myself usually use what’s called an IR “pass” filter on the front of the camera lens. This filter seeks to exclude visible light and only allow through light in the infrared spectrum. There are several popular infrared filters, ranging from around 590nm (really yellow, not infrared) to 950nm (deep infrared), the frequency of light in the spectrum below which the filter seeks to exclude. The most popular filter frequency among infrared photographers is 720nm, which is edging towards infrared but is technically still within the band of visible light.

Infrared digital photographers, therefore, are working with equipment which is working against them at the outset. The photographer is filtering out visible light and the camera is filtering out non-visible light. How does this conflict resolve? With long exposures! In order to correctly expose a photograph with these two mutually exclusive modifiers, infrared images may need to be exposed for anything from 15 seconds to 2 minutes, and potentially even longer depending on set aperture and available light.

And to top it all off, because the IR “pass” filter attached to the front of the lens is almost completely opaque, this makes it virtually impossible for the camera to focus and almost impossible for you to see in order to focus too. To be sure of your composition and focus, it is necessary to either perform these functions before attaching the filter, before taking the image.. or to fly by the seat of your pants, make educated (or otherwise) guesses, manually adjust to compensate for infrared focusing differences, attach the filter and take your image. Chimping (the colloquial term for checking your results on the LCD screen at the back of the camera) only gets you in the ball park and more often than not you don’t really know what you’ve achieved until you’re home at your computer and reviewing your images on a large screen. The process of capturing an infrared image is as close, today, to that of the original work of the pioneers of photography as exists in any form of photography. It’s arduous and uncertain.

So what’s the appeal? I think it’s the challenge inherent in the endeavour. There are cheques and balances in IR photography. When things work well, you can genuinely create drama out of a mundane scene, and create interest where there shouldn’t be. But it isn’t an easy process, in fact it’s fraught with challenges. When you get a well composed image, with an interesting subject AND it has the added drama or mystique of a surreal infrared scene, the results are thrilling. Literally thrilling. The difficult process of capturing the infrared image is in fact immensely rewarding. And even though not everybody likes the results you get, those that do so REALLY do.

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