Is Infrared Dead?


I can’t think of an article I’ve drafted, re-written, and re-drafted as many times as this one. I’ve gone back and forth on the subject so many times, but I think I’m finally coming to terms with it.
To start with, there are at least two areas of photography in which I am well equipped to tackle – even though I seldom do.
Strangely enough, I have enough macro equipment to make one think I am an accomplished close up photographer. Yes, I’ve got a nice macro lens, adapters to put enlarging lenses on bellows, extension tubes, high-grade close-up lenses, a focusing rail, reverse adapter, and other assorted paraphernalia. I guess I just like playing with the gadgets, because I don’t really do all that many macro photos.
Then there’s infrared. I have experimented long and hard with invisible light photography. I have tried different films, filters, and cameras. And yet, aside from a handful of nice images, there’s not all that much to show for my efforts.
Now I wonder if it was all in vain anyway. Is infrared photography irrelevant nowadays, despite our best efforts?
In the beginning, there was Kodak’s High Speed Infrared film. I don’t think we appreciated it as much as we should have, back then, when it was just about the only game in town. By the 1980s, it was only available in 35mm, and it was oh so grainy. And strongly-lit highlights “glowed” bright white – something its fans loved.
The amazing thing about it, was that it delivered the goods with the use of just an ordinary R25 red filter. Kodak’s clever trick was to make this film see deep into the infrared light spectrum, but made it almost blind to red light. All you had to do was stick the red filter on your lens to wipe out all wavelengths from violet to orange. You could then focus and compose through the red image the film couldn’t see, and then happily photograph those wavelengths in the infrared 700 to 900 nanometer range – where the black and white world takes on a ghostly tonal scale: deep black skies and bodies of water, luminous foliage and skin tones – but all with a soot-and-whitewash high-contrast effect. And you could shoot it handheld at reasonable shutter speeds. Nice.
Sure, you had to learn to load your 35mm camera in complete darkness, but otherwise, Kodak’s High Speed Infrared was downright convenient compared to the other films that came later. On the downside, I found exposure was downright unpredictable – I ended up with many films with thin unprintable negs, and others blown out so dense they were also useless.
I later tried Ilford’s SFX film when it first came out, and discovered that a red filter left it looking a bit too much like ordinary black and white film. A little more research showed I should have been using an R72 “black” filter to get the proper results. So with an SLR you need a tripod to compose the image first, and then put the filter on to shoot – and since the effective ISO is around 6, you need that tripod anyway.
The same applied to the Maco IR720 and IR820, and Rollei Infrared films that came later. And I found you did get a strong, contrasty effect, with black skies and bright trees, but without the “glow” of the Kodak stuff – which is gone a few years now. Ilford’s SFX is still alive and well, and I used some to good effect a couple of summers ago in the Hasselblad.
Then there was Kodak’s colour infrared film – Ektachrome Infrared (EIR), which also required loading and handling the film cartridge in complete darkness. Again, this film was really intended for the scientific/military community, but with a deep yellow filter it delivered strong blue skies with magenta foliage. Red things appeared yellow. People looked ghostly. It would have been a lot more fun if it wasn’t so shockingly expensive to use.
Once the science guys were all using infrared sensing video and digital cameras, EIR disappeared.
So that brings us to digital. It doesn’t seem all that long ago when guys with D70’s and 20D’s were revelling in the delights of shooting infrared. All you needed was that R72 “black” filter and a tripod. In bright sunlight, I recall exposures of around a quarter second. A bit of work in Photoshop, and you had an honest-to-goodness black and white infrared photograph.
In fact, excessive infrared sensitivity was a real problem with early DSLRs. I have a Kodak DCS420 (your basic 1.5 megapixel $13,000 camera – fortunately I didn’t buy it new) that I discovered would bleed magenta over the occasional photo – a strong IR-cut filter seemed to solve the problem. I can’t even use that camera anymore, because I don’t have any way to read the removable hard drive.
A few years ago, heading up north to cottage country, I decided to bring along my “black” filters, to go with a D200 in the bag, to see how the lakes and trees would look in infrared.
I just about gave up. With the ISO hoisted to 800, I still needed a ten second exposure in bright sunlight. The long exposures were noisy, and clouds drifted in the sky and branches waved blurry in the wind.
I could only conclude that the newer wave of cameras was less sensitive to IR than their predecessors.
Some months ago, I decided to prove this theory – since I had four cameras handy. I used the R72 filter, 400 ISO, F8, and a 1.3 second exposure on an overcast day – which is what a D700 needed to come up with a decent exposure. But the D200 was several stops too dark (aha!). A Pentax K-x seemed to agree with the D700, and an old Canon G2 seemed about a stop brighter overall. So, your mileage does vary, after all.
But that brings us back to the title of this posting. Is genuine infrared photography dead and pointless? Why bother with the tripods, black filters and long grainy exposures, if you can just fake it?
While we use filters and/or special film to record light wavelengths our eyes cannot see, we do have to translate what the film or sensor sees into tones, shades or colours that we can see. So, it’s not really an infrared image in the end, is it?
If all we truly want are white trees, black skies, and high contrast – then why not just process a digital file to get that result? I gave it a try with several images, trying to make a passable “infrared looking” black and white, or colour image. I got close. If people think it was shot in IR, then so much the better.
I’ve found it doesn’t take too much “photoshopping” on regular colour landscapes to shift blue skies to teal, and yellow or green foliage to magenta to get a “faux infrared” look.
“Wait…that’s fake”, you say. And I agree.
A real, honest to goodness infrared image has a beauty and grace that can’t be faked by colourizing a regular digital image. Infrared, after all, is actually a colour the human eye can’t see. If we could add infrared to our vision palette, we probably wouldn’t think of trees as being green. They are so much brighter and vivid in the infrared world.
I think the reason infrared landscape photography has staying power isn’t just because it’s a neat “party trick” effect. Infrared makes summer look like it feels, in the same way a polarizing filter makes blue skies look like we think they should.
But most of the films are gone, and putting R72 filters over our digital camera lenses results in slow exposures, even in bright light.
So that brings us to the converted cameras. I’ve converted a few now for customers, buying the appropriate filter to replace the “hot mirror” glass that normally covers the digital sensor. All have been 720 nanometer conversions (the familiar R72). But you can get weaker cutting filter to leak a bit more colour through to the image, and allow more colourful infrared images – assuming you don’t want to go straight to black and white. Stronger 850nm filters are for the purists who don’t care for colour infrared and want the most potent black and white effect.
Another bonus is that by removing the infrared-blocking filter there are no longer two filters trying to block each other out, so sensitivity is close to the original ISO, sometimes even higher. With no filter over the lens, you can focus easily and even hand-hold the camera.
With more and more photographers finding themselves with a perfectly good 8, 10 or 12 megapixel camera sitting idly on a shelf, the infrared conversion option is looking attractive.
And I have to confess it’s looking attractive to me too.
So after all, infrared is not dead, and I’m on the hunt for a digital body to convert. I’ll keep you posted.

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~ by windsorphotooutfitters on September 10, 2015.

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