Infrared Series

Black and White  /  The Farm  /  NYC  /  Technical Details

Infrared Photo Number One

The photographs in the Infrared Series were taken between the years 1981 and 1989, during which time I occasionally experimented with color and black and white infrared film.

For those not familiar with it, infrared film is sensitive to long wavelengths of light that lie just beyond the red part of the visible spectrum (hence infrared). The film is also sensitive to visible parts of the spectrum, but these can be eliminated with filters, leaving only the infrared radiation to expose the film. Objects reflect infrared radiation in ways that are different from what you would expect based on their apparent luminosity. All green plants reflect a tremendous amount of infrared, making them glow bright white in black and white infrared film. Clear, blue skies pass infrared, rather than reflecting it back to earth, making them (and outdoor shadows) appear black. Skin is slightly transparent, giving faces an eerily soft texture.

Color infrared film is slightly different. Infrared radiation shows up as red in a color infrared transparency, so that vegetation, which glows bright white in a black and white infrared film, instead appears bright red. Regular red appears as green, green appears as blue, and blue light is ignored. Obviously, this creates unusual color shifts.

The above photograph was one of the first black and white infrared images I made. It shows the harsh, contrastly sunlight, black sky, and pasty skin tones characteristic of the medium. Most people who use infrared film, including me, use it for these exaggerated otherworldly effects.

Each black and white infrared photograph in the series was taken with a Canon F-1N and a visibly opaque infrared filter on the front of the lens. I made about four bracketed shots for each subject, using an estimated ISO of about 25. The black and white shots required a tripod because of the slow film speed, bracketed shots, opaque viewfinder, and infrared focus corrections.

Color infrared shots were made either without a filter, or with only a yellow filter. None of the color infrared pictures in the series was taken with the yellow filter. I never did like the overly yellow effect it produced.

Note that the NYC pictures have extremely unusual color shifts. I'm not sure why they look so different from all other infrared pictures that I've taken or seen, but it could simply be that there weren't a lot of plants in any of the pictures so you don't see the typical red glow. I left the colors exactly the way they appear on the chromes. Despite this strangeness, the effect somehow fits the subject.

Some of my favorite work was made with infrared film, but I no longer shoot with it. Many recent film cameras use infrared light-emitting diodes inside the body to make sure the film is loaded properly. I never tried testing it myself, but urban photo legends say that the LEDs are too much of a risk to infrared film.

Now all of my equipment is digital, which presents its own problems. Many digital cameras have a built-in infrared-blocking filter permanently attached to the image sensor array, so only a minimal amount of infrared radiation gets to the sensor. This filter makes regular images much cleaner by restricting the sensitivity to the visible spectrum, but it's a huge disappointment for infrared photographers. I can only hope that in the future this filter is removable on most cameras so that this art form can move into the digital realm with the rest of photography.

My current camera, the Canon EOS D30, does have a color filter and a low-pass filter in front of the imaging element, but my own tests have shown that it still passes enough infrared radiation to the image sensors. I'll be doing some work with this camera in the near future. Be sure to return here for the results.