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Transforming scenes with infra-red photography

Transforming scenes with infra-red photography - Infra-red photography is a bit like Marmite you either love it or hate it and John Powell, the founder of the Infra-Red Photographic Society most definitely adores it. He started taking infra-red images in the eighties and here he tells ePHOTOzine why more people should be looking at the world in a way we can't usually see.

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Tree in infrared by John Powell
  Photograph by John Powell.

Infra-red photography is a whole new world of pictures. As infra-red sees what the eye can't many scenes which can look quite mundane and ordinary taken under normal conditions can be transformed into something quite amazing when captured in infra-red. Originally this process was done on film  and John chose Kodak's Speed film with a Nikon FA but now the digital age allows the photographer to take and present their work in a variety of ways. The process still works by capturing wavelengths just beyond those of the deepest reds of the visible spectrum (700nm). This gives infra-red photography its unmistakable deep black skies, bright white trees and the eerie diffused glow.

"For me, infra-red opens up a whole new world of photographic opportunities. Sometimes, even the most mundane scenes can be transformed when captured in infra-red," explained John.

John is a photographer who was schooled in the art of film but for the last ten years has embraced the digital age. He's a photographer who aims to create the same mood and atmosphere in his photographs that drew him to the scene in the first place.

"I've been shooting digitally for nearly 10 years; shooting digital infra-red was just a natural progression. I believe digital imaging surpassed that of film a long time ago, for me, there's no turning back. In fact, I learned recently that Kodak is about to discontinue production of its High Speed Infra-red Film. Perhaps a vision for the future would be a dedicated infra-red camera produced by Nikon, Canon or Kodak for that matter."

Images taken on film are very grainy while digital images appear smooth, depending on what settings and camera you use but not all digital cameras can be used to take infra-red pictures as John explains: "Most modern day digital cameras have what is known as an infra-red blocking filter, a cut filter, placed in front of the sensor to block out infra-red radiation. Infra-red radiation degrades normal colour images; the filter is there simply to block it out and preserve quality. Some cameras, notably Canon digital SLR's, have very strong blocking filters. Nikon's early 6 mega-pixel cameras on the other hand have weaker blocking filters and are quite good for infra-red photography, so too where many of the early compact cameras, notably the Olympus C2020, a 2.1 mega-pixel camera, circa 2002."

 Infrared photograph of a grave stone
 Photograph by John Powell.

You can have your camera converted so it shoots infra-red only. This means having the infra-red cut filter removed and replaced with an infra-red filter. Converting the camera yourself would be hard to do and the process will void any warranty you may have so it's best to leave it to the professionals.

Summer is one of the best times to take infra-red photographs as there's a lot more infra-red radiation around. Trees are a popular subject as foliage has a bright white glow under infra-red light which looks good set against as cloudless blue sky. Using objects that don't emit infra-red radiation such as buildings and cars can look interesting in infra-red images too.

"The secret is to experiment; many scenes, which under normal lighting conditions maybe considered ordinary to some, are often transformed when captured in infra-red. Infra-red portraits work quite well too, just as long as your subject doesn't move too quickly."

Infra-red photography is about using your imagination and experimenting so your photographs can be shot in either black and white or colour. It all depends on what look and feel you want.

"I shoot both but I prefer monochrome. With my monochrome infra-red I try to replicate the look of high speed infra-red film, which has plenty of grain and a lot of contrast."

Canal side Pump House
Photograph by John Powell.

For those of you who don't want to convert your camera fully you can use filters to create infra-red photographs and the most well known of all the infra-red filters is the 720nm, known as the R72. Like John, a problem you may find with this filter is it can let too much normal light in. If you find this to be true choose a stronger filter, above 750nm will block out most normal light waves.

"I would recommend a circular screw fitting filter and not the square "slip in" type. Light must pass through the filter and not leak in from behind it. If it does you will end up with very severe flare problems, which will totally ruin your image."

When it comes to camera settings John leaves his white balance on Auto and he selects a white balance point from within the image later. He can do this thanks to RAW as you can convert the white balance point with ease in most RAW conversion software packages.

"With your image open select the part of the image that you consider to be a mid-grey tone and use this as your white-balance point, click on it and the red cast will disappear leaving you with a more workable image. Try selecting other white-balance points from around your image and see what other results can be achieved."

Photographers just starting out in infra-red photography tend to lean towards landscape shots and for this John recommends you choose Aperture Priority and stop your lens down to f16-f22.  This is good for when you're starting out but to have full control over your image you need to shoot manually.

Fence in infrared by John Powell
Photograph by John Powell.

"The best tips I can give are read from your histogram, not the image on the back of your camera and adjust your exposure accordingly. Make notes as you go along and don't be afraid to refer to them often."

Bracketing your exposure one stop above or below what the camera meters is a good idea, particularly if you want to create High Dynamic Range (HDR) images. If your camera can bracket more than three images at a time you should make the most of it and again, always work in manual where possible. Infra-red images don't have to be contained to a single exposure either as John explains: "Try creating HDR images by bracketing 3 exposures over a 4 stop exposure range, -EV2 to +EV2. The three exposed images are blended together using specialist software to create a HDR image. HDR contains a range of values from the deepest shadows to the brightest highlights that exceeds the reproducing capacity of low dynamic range media such as standard monitors or prints.

To show this extra detail in print the HDR image needs to have its tonal values mapped so that they fit in the limited tonal range of the printing device. This process is known simply as "Tone Mapping". Tone mapping can be handled by using the same software used in creating the HDR image. With patience and practise High Dynamic Range images can look spectacular, but be careful not to over do the effect otherwise your images will look cartoon like and messy. By using the technique to control your exposure you won't go far wrong

When using a conventional digital camera for infra-red photography using a tripod is essential as shutter speeds will be low no matter what ISO setting you choose.

 Grazing animals in infrared
Photograph by John Powell.

"I always use ISO100," explained John.

Infra-red light waves have a different focusing distance to normal light waves.  Lens manufactures used to place an infra-red dot on the lenses to shift the point of focus within in the infra-red range but now most don't do that.

"Nonetheless, I've never had a problem with un-sharp infra-red images from a digital camera. This could be to the fact I prefer to use wide angle lenses, around 10 or 20mm. If you are worried about focusing problems, stop your lenses right down, use a tripod and remote release."

Bright sunny days are the best for infra-red work but even though this is true you will still experience shutter speeds that can last for seconds. This can alter depending on the amount of infra-red radiation around and your cameras sensitivity, a problem found with most non-converted digital cameras that are used for this sort of work.

"A typical exposure for the type of images I shoot and with the equipment I use is around 4 seconds."

John's exposures are around this time as he uses several non-converted digital cameras (cameras which still have their blocking filters in place.) He uses a Nikon D50, Canon D30 and Canon G9.

Infrared image by John Powell
Photograph by John Powell.

"Most of the early Nikon cameras such as the D1H, D2H and their compacts were good too. The D30 I use was Canon's very first digital SLR, back in 2002. This is a 3.2 mega pixel camera, which is probably 4 stop less sensitive than the Nikon D50, but I own a lot of Canon glass and like to use it whenever I can.

The Canon G9, as you know is a compact camera. Compacts tend to be more sensitive to infra-red than most D-SLRs. The other advantage of shooting with the G9 is that you can see the infra-red effect by composing and viewing your image of the back screen. The G9 is a relatively small camera, which I can carry around with me at all times. Being able to shoot infra-red images with it too is a positive bonus. The G9 fitted with a 750nm filter produces infra-red images very much like those taken with film, another reason why I like the G9 so much."

John uses wide-angle lenses - the wider the better. "My favourite has to be Sigma's 10-20mm. With Christmas just around the corner I'm hoping Santa will leave me the wide-angle converter for the G9, in exchange for a few mince pies!"

 Infrared House by John Powell
Photograph by John Powell.

Once you understand how important white balance is and how to remove the red cast, (which John told you about earlier) unless you want to make "artistic" changes to your work there isn't much manipulation needed that's any different to the processes you would use on normal photographs.

Channel swapping is a popular editing technique among infra-red photographers and this is done by quite literally swapping the red and blue channels.

"To do this in Photoshop have your chosen image open select image, adjustments, channel mixer. This will open the channel mixer and the default setting should read, red 100%, green 0%, blue 0%. Change the red source channel to 0%, green 0% and blue to 100%. Without leaving the channel mixer dialogue box change the output channel to blue and set the red source channel to red 100%, green 0% and blue 0%. The characteristics of a channel swapped digital infra-red image have an extraordinarily wintry appearance about them.  this can be accentuated by a dark blue sky and the crystal clear, frosty effect, of the white leaves.

But at the end of the day it's down to the individual photographer to choose. There is one particular technique I like to experiment with though; I call it, "Mirror Symmetric". You take your original image, duplicate it, flip it on the horizontal and join the two images together, great fun and quite creative with the right subject matter. Several examples are included in the book."

John is the founder member of the Infra-red Photographic Society, the founder of Dapa Group and has had repeated success in many of the International Exhibitions that are staged around the world.  He's currently working towards an International Federation of Photographic Art distinction (AFIAP) and his book, Digital Infra-red Photography can be looked at on Blurb. You can also visit John's website for more details.

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phiggy 16 6 United Kingdom
16 Jan 2012 12:13AM
A excellent look and introduction to the world of Infra Red capture !Smile

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