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Starting out with Infrared photography

Load up your camera with infrared film and shoot the world in a whole new light.

| Specialist Photographic Subjects
Words and Pictures Peter Bargh ePHOTOzine

We can't see infrared light with our naked eyes but it can be captured on camera using special film and has some unusual, but very interesting, characteristics for creative photographers. The reason we can't see it is because infrared falls just outside the visible spectrum, which forms just a small part of a larger electro magnetic spectrum. The spectrum is a range of wavelengths from short to long, measured in nanometers(nm) and visible light is between 400 and 700nm while infrared light ranges between 700nm and 0.1mm.

What is infrared film?
By using a special film that has extended sensitivity we can capture the infrared light in our photographs. Although Infrared films were initially developed for scientific uses, such as forensic applications, agricultural surveys and painting restoration photographers have found it's perfect for surreal creative effects. Three films can be readily found in the UK -Kodak High Speed Infrared, Konica R750 and Ilford SFX200. Their characteristics can be seen below.


Kodak High Speed Infrared Film is a high-speed film with moderately high contrast, sensitive to light and radiant energy to 900 nanometres (NM) in wavelength and a rating of ISO200. Kodak halo produces glow around subjects. It is available in 35mm and sheet film. If you want the real 'creative' infrared effects, with loads of grain and glowing highlights, this is the film to choose.

cambIR750 Konica R750 is available in 35mm (24 exposures) and 120 formats and has a 640nm-820nm sensitivity range with a peak at 750nm. It's suggested rating is ISO32. This film has anti-halation coating so you don't get the ethereal glow that you achieve with Kodak HIE film, but you can still get decent black skies and foliage goes beautifully white. It also has a lack of grain, but this can be added digitally. Taken on a Kiev 60 with Cokin red filter attached.

Starting out with Infrared photography Ilford SFX 200 is a medium speed panchromatic film, which has peak red sensitivity at 720nm and extended red sensitivity up to 740nm. It has a rating of ISO 200 and is sold in 36 exposure lengths and recently 120 rolls have been announced. Like the Konica option grain and haliation glow are lacking, but you do see other characteristics, This was shot on a Fuji 645 AF through an orange filter, stronger results are possible with red or IR filter.

Because these films also see visible light you need to block this out to prevent the photograph looking normal and here a special filter is required.

Which filter? Some photographers use a normal 8x red that is designed to increase contrast when shooting conventional black & white, but for the best results you need a special infrared filter. These are very dark and can hardly be seen through, but they block out all the visible spectrum reaching the film. They are available in glass from Hoya with the reference number R72 or in Gels from Kodak and Lee with Wratten numbers 87 or 88A. The Hoya version is available in a wide variety of screw-in thread sizes and the Wratten Gels will fit in Cokin, Lee and Jessop filter system holders when cut to size.

Handling infrared film
Kodak Infrared film has to be loaded in complete darkness so you need a darkroom or changing bag. Ilford and Konica can be loaded in subdued light.

Cameras you can use
Two types of camera will not work with infrared film. Both are fairly easy to check. Look at the pressure plate that's on the hinged film back. If it's dimpled a dotted pattern may appear on the image (Pentax K1000 is an example) and if an aperture is cut out to allow data to be recorded this will also cause an unwanted shape to appear on film. In both cases you'll have to shoot a test roll to see if it affects the film. The more common problem in the latest cameras is the auto film advance that use infrared sensor to count the sprockets when advancing each frame. These will fog the edge of the frame and it's common in many Canon EOS SLRs and a few Minolta Dynax models.

Starting out with Infrared photography Infrared style photos can be created using some digital cameras. Ones I have tried that work well include the Agfa ePHOTO1280 and the Nikon Coolpix 950. Ones that I managed to get great pictures out of with some manipulation include the Nikon Coolpix 995, Canon D30 and Ricoh i700. I've struggled with the Canon G2 and the Minolta Dimage 5; both giving limited brightness in the foliage and a huge colour cast that dulled the contrast when removed.

Starting out with Infrared photography
Here ivy growing up a tree was photographed using normal film (left) and infrared (right) to illustrate how the light affects the subject. All the green areas have reflected more infrared light, resulting in gross overexposure of those areas. This was taken on Konica R750. If it had been shot on Kodak HIE there would also be a halo around the leaves and coarse visible grain.

Choose your subject

Infrared, like daylight, is reflected from objects and certain ones, such as grass and leaves, tend to reflect much more infrared light, while other areas absorb more, so you start to see interesting effects. Foliage and skies are the two key elements of most good infrared pictures and one or both elements in a picture will make it obviously infrared. You can also get some great effects when shooting people, especially their eyes, which go black while veins can appear to be on the surface of the skin which goes pure white The following are subjects to try that combine the above elements. Grave stones, especially in overgrown cemeteries where a white carpet of grass and covering of ivy will stand out against the grainy tombstones. Stone circles and derelict building have a similar creepy effect and are one reason why Simon Marsden has spent years photographing such subjects. Simon is author of several books including Haunted Realm In Ruins and Phantoms of the Isles. A new book Venice, City of Haunting Dreams is due out in March. 

Creative portrait photographers can shoot low angle shots of models on beaches making the bright skin contrast against the dark water, bright sand and black sky. While glamour photographers get a similar surreal effect by photographing nudes in outdoor locations. Again the white skin against blue sky for contrast or laid within white foliage for a real high key effect and against dark grainy rocks are sure winners.

When is the best time of the day?
Infrared light appears at its best in bright sunlight, especially the hours just after sunrise and before sunset, because of the angle of the sunlight through the atmosphere. You will get a more dramatic effect with a deeper black sky when you take photographs with the sun either behind or at most 90 degrees to the camera. Before shooting look in the sky for the area of deepest blue and that's the area that is more likely to go black. You won't find much infrared light when the sky is overcast.


In this example, using Kodak High Speed Infrared, the exposure for most of the scene is spot on, but look at the ivy on the wall. Unfortunately this can't be seen by the exposure meter or the human eye and is one reason why results can be so hit and miss. It's the infrared waves bouncing off the foliage that's acting almost like a mirror. If you were to bracket exposure to ensure the ivy was correctly exposed the rest would be dark.

LakesIR750 In this shot, taken using Konica R750 in a Hasselblad with red filter attached, the greenery on the distant hillside is reflecting the infrared perfectly, creating a blanket of high key tones, while the tree and bracken in the foreground are in the shade and has resulted in a dull grey appearance. You'll become familiar with ways subjects react the more you use infrared film.

Tips on composition
Our eyes are naturally drawn to highlight or high contrast areas of the image so make sure these are in key positions in frame.

Try to use the rule of thirds placing the attracting points on the intersect lines of the thirds or use when shooting people make sure they're looking into the frame rather than out.

Infrared light does not focus on the same plane as daylight so this throws out the camera's automatic focusing and the pictures will be blurred. Some lenses have an infrared distance indication that you would use to compensate. First focus as normal and then adjust the lens so the indicated focusing distance is aligned to the infrared mark. If you have an autofocus camera you will need to switch to manual. If your lens does not have an infrared scale and, unfortunately, many modern lenses don't. You will have to guess the distance. As a guide set the focus so it's about 50cm closer than indicated distance and use a small aperture to ensure maximum depth of field. This does vary from lens to lens though so the best thing is to shoot a trial roll using your various lenses and make notes so you can refer back and see what does and what doesn't work.

Cameras with automatic metering will adjust the exposure to compensate for the dark filter being placed in front of the lens. For cameras without meters or ones that don't read through the lens you need to allow the following:

  • Orange 4x 2 stops
  • Red 8x 3 stops
  • Infrared R72 3.5 stops

Processing The films are processed in normal black & white developers such as Paterson Acutol, Kodak D76 and Agfa Rodinal or Ilford Perceptol. Data sheets are provided with the developers and films, but there are many web sites with users recommendations too. If you don't have a darkroom at home labs that offer black & white service, such as Jessops will process the films for you.

WoodlandIR750 If you process your own films using a darkroom you could sepia tone the results which can enhance the infrared effect one stage further. This woodland example was shot on Konica R750 film in a Hasselblad using a Cokin red filter.
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