Infrared Photography

Suwa Jinga, a small shrine near my apartment, seen in infrared. I found seeing a usually invisible part of the light spectrum adds to the sense of mystery this place already has for me, making photography there more of an adventure into the unexpected.

Early this summer, I started a new project: infrared photography. “What is it?”, I hear you cry. Infrared (or IR) photography is something you can accomplish to varying levels of success with any digital camera. The two ways I know of are either using a modified camera, with its IR blocking filter removed, an expensive process, which usually renders the camera useless for anything else, or the method I use, which involves mounting an infra-red sensitive filter, like the popular Hoya R72 (In Japan, branded Kenko), which will block out all the visual light below, say, the 720 spectrum. What remains, after a relatively long exposure, is what can be seen with infrared light only, perhaps with some visual light bleeding in, giving a touch of colour.

Stronger filters, such as a 830nm, or even 920nm one are more expensive and on unmodified cameras lead to exposure times 2-3x longer, meaning perhaps as long as 30 minutes and so impractically long. Seeing as anything stronger than 720nm tends to block out all visual light, you are left with a very contrasty, black and white image that is itself very impressive, but maybe not as interesting as the ‘false color’ images that comparatively lighter filters can give.

A false colour image, as opposed to black and white, taken with automatic white balance, will just be full of red hues. By making a custom white balance, based on setting the white point on green foliage, preferably grass in sunlight, will help things along a bit, giving the more desirable white foliage and blue or brown skies that most people prefer for these false colours. The false colours themselves, by the way, are really a means of aesthetic colour separation, much as you may see on NASA photos of space, with different bands of heat coloured differently. Having played around with them a bit, I must concur that dark buildings or tree trunks and bright white leaves and grasses, set against either a blue or golden sky looks best and brings out a ‘wow’ sensation that combinations leaving in reds and pinks fail to elicit.

These red hues are what the photo looks like straight from an unconverted camera, with an R72 filter attached.

If you like, you can convert infrared images directly to black and white, or even do so in the camera by setting B&W shooting. This gives a wonderfully rich black and white image, but arguably not as interesting as a colour conversion.

Yet even the custom white balance isn’t quite enough alone. For one thing, most raw converters won’t go down into the ‘deep blues’ of below 2000hz, so unless it’s a jpg, you generally end up with a red-hues raw file. I export that into Photoshop and then do what is called a channel swap, where you reverse the blue and red channels. To speed things up, I use this action, available (at least for now) for free online- I then tweak the hue settings at the end of the action to get those blue skies, then play around with levels to increase the contrast.

After conversion in photoshop, swapping the blue and red channels, you get these ethereal white trees and contrasty buildings. A unique image that otherwise wouldn’t exist.

Taking the photo is a lot more difficult than you might imagine…

Taking the photo is a lot more difficult than you might imagine. I’ve found my way around HDR work, which newer technologies have made a lot easier, but this is a real challenge and a half! Once the filter is on the lens, having blocked out visible light, the viewfinder is black, so a camera with live view is better. Yet the filter is extremely dark, so with a dark lens, even live view might black out, depending on how sensitive to IR light the camera is. I found my D5100 very dark nand needing much longer exposure times than my Olympus EPL-2. The latter can generally see a bright enough image through live-view and autofocus the lens that way. With the Nikon I need to focus before I put on the filter, which sounds fine, except for one little caveat… lenses focus at different points in infrared light, so I need to play around with it manually until it hits an infrared infinity position, slightly different from the usual one (I generally use this camera at infinity for this). It helps to also stop down the lens a bit to increase the depth of field for this, making more chance of a sharp image.

My Olympus EPL-2, with attached R72 filter. It can get a nice, though pretty much monocrome image right out of the camera. With a bright lens in sunlight, it can even be handheld.

For some reason, perhaps related to the greater sensitivity to infrared light, there isn’t much colour in the Olympus’ images, being mostly black and white with hints of brown or gold, very rarely blue. Meanwhile, despite the massive exposure times, which can be as much as 7 minutes, the D5100 captures some amazing false colour, making for exotic and remarkable images, like these. So whilst the Olympus can even be used hand-held at times and is much more convenient to focus, I can get a very different result through the Nikon and of course, with the larger sensor, a richer image, with far more dynamic range and also more detail.

One more thing to watch out for is lens ‘hot spots’. This, more commonly on newer lenses with special anti-reflective coating, results in a bright spot in the middle of the image in infrared photography. Here is a list of good and bad lenses for this, which might surprise you, as some kit zooms are very good for infrared, whereas expensive pro models, such as my Nikon 17-55 f/2.8 AF-S have the dreaded hotspot, if not all the time, enough to rule them out. Luckily, my Olympus lenses are all fine in this regard. Of the ones I’ve used on Nikon, the 18-55mm VR kit zoom is fine, as is my Sigma 50mm f/1.4 HSM, which while a little long, is such an excellent lens I like to use it for artistic photography whenever I can… though I’ll be trying out others when I get around to it.

The dreaded hotspot! See the bright circle in the center, that’s it. It’s caused by lens coatings blocking IR light. Concentrated in the center, it spoils such photos and can make some of the best lenses unsuited for infrared work.

A view of another world, one we’ve been living in all the time.

It may be a lot of trouble, but it brings a view of another world, one we’ve been living in all the time. Some incredible images are possible this way and since so few people have ever used this technique, especially the false-colour mode which is specific to digital (though there was a false-colour infrared film made by Kodak, which had its own special look), you are assured of unique images wherever you go. They have an ethereal, spiritual quality to them and their exotic look gives a sense of timelessness and otherworldliness. I liken to think of them as a magical dimension of our world, one we rarely see, but can be revealed this way, in many cases for the first time.

Perhaps one day I’ll get or convert a camera specially for infrared work, preferably a live-view capable DSLR. Until then, I’m quite happy to experiment with the filter and play around with the images, to find out just what is possible to see.

‘Tree of Life’, perhaps my favourite IR image yet. This striking effect and the sense of usually hidden beauty being revealed is what, for me at least, IR photography is all about.


The Zen of Photography

Recently, I’ve been writing here a lot about gear and I’ll admit, I am a bit of a gear head! But I like to think there’s more to me than that, so today I’d like to go into what going out and taking photos really means to me and what it involves (or avoids).

There are as many subjects and cameras as there are people, because what really gives them meaning is the way they are seen. In a sense, photography is like a game seen this way, with a central set of rules, mostly revolving around the rules of physics and the way light travels, with other less clear ones determining the aesthetics involved in getting a good result. A ‘good’ photo comes from awareness of these rules, but more than that, a ‘great’ photo rises when one can express something remarkable despite them, feeling no limitation. A great photo is an expression of total freedom of expression, in a universe full of limitations. It is a ‘zen like’ moment.

I’d wager that there aren’t too many truly great photos in existence, though there are a lot of good ones, which for many purposes are more than good enough. I’d also add to this that the notion of a lucky capture, which is how such great photos might seem, free from the weight of effort and struggle as they appear, will only be made the most of by someone who can consistently follow the rules enough to take ‘good’ photos. An ability to transcend the rules comes from knowing what they are and at least seeming to break through and go beyond them.

You cant be open to the wonderful, serendipitous events of life if your mind is burdened by other concerns. For me, a photographic walk is a walk in the world as if one is totally free from its burdons. This doesn’t mean you have a perfect life or a perfect mind, just that you are able to lay aside anything that would get in the way of as pure a perception of things as possible. You hear a lot about the techniques and carefully-selected equipment of photographers, but not so much about their clear, open state of mind. In terms of equipment, pros tend to like easy to use and access tools that don’t get in the way, but you hear less about what they shouldn’t be getting in the way of. You hear a lot less about their mental training, or techniques of relaxation to open their mind to an ‘unstained’ view of the world, in which their ego doesn’t get in the way of pure perception, or cloud their personality.

There’s a few reasons for this. One is that many people aspire to be great photographers and think that by following the outer forms sufficiently themselves, that will be enough. They research the equipment and even buy things sometimes way out of their range of skill to use. This state of affairs is unlikely to change, as so much of the sales of super-expensive equipment no doubt is made to people who see it as the route to ‘great’ photos, which of course is partly true as the image quality and usability it has is unsurpassed in many situations. Another reason is that, unlike sports, or arts and so on, famous photographers are a lot less well known. Even they have to do many ‘bread and butter’ jobs just to get by and no-one is too interested in the less than inspiring results this can lead to. Photography, especially fast, colour photography is a relative newcomer and has only fairly recently been accepted as an art at all.

Which all means that if you really want to be a better photographer, it is best to combine a study of the skills of it, the necessities of photography as a craft, if you like, along with some learning of what the photographers you admire most get up to. What inspires them, how they approach things, what goes through their mind as they take the photo, or conversely how they are able to focus their mind as completely as their camera, so nothing else gets in the way, if only for that moment of capture, that Zen-like moment. More to the point, since there aren’s so many acknowledged greats in photography relative to other arts, it might also be good to study the work and life of artists. Or writers. Photography as an art is just another art, one among many, with its own complex tools and traditions, but obeying the same laws of composition, perspective and needing a similarly freeing, pure perception to find anything worth looking at again in the years to come.

Straight, No Chaser.

A Traditional Photography Blog - dehk © 2016


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