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When looking at an infrared photo, one is literally looking at the world in a different light. Essentially, infrared film can capture what we cannot see: light from the infrared spectrum. The human eye is unable to detect any light beyond the visible spectrum. Our eyes can respond to light wavelengths from 390 to 750 nanometers (nm). Infrared light, however, extends beyond visible light. Its wavelengths are longer, roughly 750 nm to 1 mm in length. There is infrared light all around us, but we cannot perceive it visually. Instead, specialized infrared films must be used in order to capture this light.
Typically, leaves, grass, plants, and flowers reflect a lot of infrared light. So, with color infrared film, those things turn to a bold red color. With black and white infrared film, they’ll glow bright white giving lots of contrast. In one of my color infrared shots, my model, Jina, was wearing all black. Yet, in the color infrared photo, her clothes turned all red. So, some clothing materials will give off a lot of infrared light. Strangely, her black hair turned purplish and the rims of her sunglasses turned red, but not the lenses. They remained black.
Beyond merely producing peculiar photos, there are dozens of reasons to shoot infrared. For one, it’s used in the medicinal field. IR photography can penetrate skin, making vein troubles easy to spot. It can also be implemented to detect health problems such as tumors or thyroid gland issues. Historically, IR photography has also been used by the military to find enemies in hiding. Also, astronomers are able to use infrared technology to capture images of far off galaxies. Botanists and farmers can use it to detect diseases or insect infestation in plants and crops. Infrared photography is even used in forensics and surveillance by forensic labs and law enforcement agencies. Yet, for most of us, infrared photography is used to take vivid, trippy pictures. Just look at the album cover to Jimi Hendrix’s Are You Experienced to know what I’m talking about.
If interested in shooting infrared film, one must keep the direction of the sun in mind. Results are best when the sunlight is focused directly upon the subject, meaning morning or late afternoon light is ideal, with the light at the photographer’s back. Shooting at noon time with the sun located directly overhead or shooting into the sun is not the best and should be avoided. If shot in proper conditions, a stark contrast will be produced with the film. Skies appear a deep blue, almost cobalt. This can make a landscape very bold, somewhat psychedelic, when coupled with smoldering, crimson foliage.
Since the photographer isn’t actually capturing what we can perceive with our eyes, yet the infrared light bouncing off everything, he or she must focus accordingly. This means that one has to focus the camera slightly closer than his or her subject. Many old film cameras have red dots and lines on their lenses. That’s for focusing in infrared. The photographer should focus the lens as usual. Once the subject is crisp, the photographer will then adjust the focus to the little red dot or line. Visually, this will make the subject blurry. Yet, in the infrared spectrum, the focus will be clear. It takes a little while to get used to, and certainly a lot of faith. How unnatural it feels to look through a viewfinder at a purposefully blurry subject and consciously press the shutter!
Kodak was the only company to ever produce color infrared film, yet they discontinued production in 2007. Now it is quite hard to get a hold of. The last I had checked only two people were selling it online with dwindling rolls remaining. Soon, color infrared photography will be a truly extinct art, for digital imitations are simply not as striking.
Although color infrared film is soon to be snuffed out, there are still a number of black and white infrared films on the market. I’ve experimented with a few, and I find Efke IR 820 Aura to be the most visually appealing.
Shooting infrared film isn’t quite as challenging as most people might think. There are only a few essential elements. First, get your hands on any old film camera that doesn’t have a barcode scanner inside. Some modern film cameras come equipped with a little infrared light that scans the film and sets the ISO number. These cameras should be avoided, for they will fog any infrared picture. Also, most photo labs can’t develop infrared film because the machines they use have infrared scanners inside. It’s best to take your finished infrared roll to a professional lab for them to process it by hand, in complete darkness. I go to Photopia in Chungmuro, Seoul, to get my color infrared processed. I develop my black and white infrared in a darkroom to which I have access. If you don’t have a darkroom to use, Photopia can develop black and white infrared as well.
Second, filters are necessary. For color infrared, a yellow or orange filter is ideal. I use a Tiffen filter, yellow #12. For black and white infrared, any dark red or visible light blocking filter should be used. Personally, I went for the Hoya R72 filter. It is extremely dark, blocking out most visible light and permitting infrared light to pass through onto the film. Since black and white infrared lenses are so dark, exposure times can be quite long. Typically, the photographer must keep the shutter open for at least one second with an aperture of f11 or f16 when shooting in bright sunlight. Therefore, it’s necessary to have a tripod for black and white infrared. For color, however, shutter speeds are regular – usually the same as standard ISO 400 film, so no tripods are needed. Other than the aforementioned items, a bit of research is all the photographer will need to get him or herself underway.
Infrared photography is fascinating to me. It gives us a completely different perspective, allowing us to gaze into a new atmosphere. Our surroundings become a new realm. Infrared photography enables us to see our world in a unique way, to capture light where our eyes fail us. So go on out, and open your eyes to a new wavelength.
This article was written and photographed by Patrick Bresnahan, a photographer based in Korea who works purely within the dying art of film. See more of incredible images in this previous post we profiled him in or on his blog.