One of the few advantages – actually, the only advantage – of no longer making news photographs for a living is the opportunity for the artsy muse to take hold.
This is especially rewarding in the springtime, if one is a practitioner of infrared photography. The sun is strong and the leaves are green, the clouds puffy, and these things are what make infrared so special.
Shooting in infrared is reminiscent of the old days, when one took pictures on film and wasn’t certain of the results until the film had been processed and printed. With infrared, you might get spectacular results or flat, unusable ones, and it’s not possible in the field to predict which it will be.
That’s because we can’t see infrared. It’s not easy to gauge.
Infrared light – there are some who make the case that it isn’t light at all – is found beyond the red end of the visible spectrum, even as ultraviolet is found beyond the violet end. With trick cameras and filters you can make photographs using sensors that pick up either infrared or ultraviolet, though the latter is difficult, expensive and often dangerous. Infrared, while not easy, is an order of magnitude easier than UV.
“Light” is described by its wavelength, on a spectrum that extends, shortest to longest waves, from gamma rays through X-rays, UV, visible light, infrared, microwaves, and radio waves. Wavelengths are measured in nanometers, a nanometer being one billionth of a meter. Visible light ranges from about 390nm – violet – to 700nm – red. Infrared begins thereafter and runs in one form or another to about 1200nm, though the part used in art photography (as opposed to specialized cameras designed to detect heat leaks and such) is limited to 720-950nm.
As you learned about visible light in probably third grade, leaves are green because they reflect green light while absorbing other colors. A red balloon absorbs everything except red, which it reflects back to our eyes and cameras. Black absorbs everything while white absorbs nothing, which is why black objects get hot in the sunlight and white ones don’t.
But objects – solid things, gases, liquids – behave in infrared differently than we, accustomed to visible light, might expect. For instance, foliage, no matter its color in visible light, reflects just about all infrared, so in infrared pictures it is typically white or at least very light. Many inks and paints don’t show up at all.
Which doesn’t really matter, because there are no colors as we know them in infrared. Things either reflect infrared to some degree or they don’t. Traditional infrared film, introduced by the Eastman Kodak Company in 1930, was black-and-white, and unlike its other films Kodak provided little advice as to exposure, there being no useful rules in that regard.
Then things changed. In 1959, Kodak introduced Aero Infrared Ektachrome, a slide film. It employed “false colors” that differentiated between various flavors of infrared reflectivity. It was especially useful in aerial photographs of foliage, with live leaves showing up a different color than dead vegetation. Non-scientist photographers began to play with it. I began to play with it (though not in 1959). It was interesting and unpredictable stuff. Then as now, with infrared photography, failure is not just an option but a likelihood.
Now we have digital infrared, and even our own set of infrared “colors.” The cheapest way to shoot it involves purchasing an infrared filter for your camera, taking a white balance reading off the grass, and hoping for the best. The easiest and best, though comparatively expensive, way is to buy a camera converted for infrared or send off a camera you already have and get it converted.
With my dedicated infrared camera, I still take a white balance reading off the grass, and hope for the best. But my odds are improved, I can use my different lenses, and don’t have to lug around a tripod and cable release, because the exposure times are the same as for an unconverted camera photographing the same scene. The filter put on a standard camera is very, very dense, and often requires exposures of several seconds, if it works at all – which on many cameras it doesn’t.
The conversions and filters effectively make the cameras insensitive to what is visible light to us. A 720nm converted camera or a 720nm filter, for instance, blocks everything below that wavelength.
And a 720nm camera, either converted or using a filter, allows you to use your photo processing software – Photoshop, The GIMP, Lightroom, DarkTable, or LightZone – to make striking color photographs. The details are the same as they would be in a visible light picture, but the colors are different. The grass is whitish and the sky is dark. Flowers don’t stand out – they’re whitish, too.
It takes a while to learn how to process these pictures – they come out of the camera looking a little like color film negatives, though they’re positives – but once you’ve spent a couple hours fiddling with it and have something you love, you’ll find that it’s a joy akin to the glory days of the photo darkroom.
You can get lovely portraits, too, with skin that is porcelain in appearance – with one caveat. In some light and with some people, the veins under the skin show up and the subjects resemble science-fiction creatures. An old girlfriend of mine who was one of those whose blood vessels made themselves apparent, came up with a name for it: “road-map disease.”
It’s a tricky kind of photography, but if you have time and interest, it will produce otherworldly images you can’t get any other way.
Editor's note: Dennis E. Powell’s column appears on Mondays. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.