Early Explorations into Infrared Photography

Infrared compared

I have been interested in the concept of infrared photography for quite a while now having been introduced to it by my good friend Norma Bellini,  http://www.flickr.com/photos/norjacks/sets/72157627957482610/ who studied it in depth during her final Degree year. I am interested in its capacities to produce dreamlike/surreal images as this is one aspect of photography that appeals to me. Through Norma’s good offices I was able to acquire a converted Canon 500D with accessories and also two technical books, and decided I would do some experiments to see what type of subjects suit it best. To begin with I looked at some of the technical aspects of the use of infrared and also some photographers.

What is infrared

I thought it best, first, to write something to show my understanding so far, so please correct me on anything I’ve got wrong.

Light travels in waves and its wavelength is measured in nanometers (nm) (billionths of a meter). The light we see ranges from around 400 nm  (violet) to around 700nm (red). This visible spectrum enables us to see primary and secondary colours and their combinations.  Light at shorter wavelengths is named ultraviolet (UV) most of which is invisible to the human eye. At the other end are wavelengths longer than 700nm  which is where the Infrared (IR) spectrum begins. It ranges from around 700nm to 1,000 and is referred to as near IR because it is near the visible spectrum.

Infrared photography captures invisible light – beyond the spectrum of light that we normally see.  Far-infrared photography is used in thermal imaging techniques (to detect heat from bodies etc that are emitting thermal infrared energy).  Near-infrared photography uses subjects that reflect near infrared light and it creates images with a dreamlike or even eerie effect due to the colour distortion (either in colour or the black and white tones).  For example, blue skies will often appear almost black, whilst green leaves will appear white because foliage reflects infrared in the same way that snow reflects visible light.

Digital cameras have a hot mirror inside them, between the lens and the CCD image sensor, which reflects most IR and UV light and serves as a blocking filter.  To take ‘infrared’ images you need to filter out the visible light and only allow the near infrared and infrared spectrum through to the film or sensor and, for this, you need a special filter and long exposures as these filters are very dense and block most or all of invisible light.

Another method is to have a DSLR camera converted by fitting an internal IR filter. .  This means that external filters are not required; you can see a normal view through the viewfinder and get a brighter view if you’re using an analogue camera. You can autofocus,  manually focus and set exposure normally; use reasonable ISO settings and no tripod is required except where you would have used one for conventional photography (Busch, D (2007) p. 83)

Some Infrared Photographers

Simon Marsden

Simon Marsden,  who died earlier this year, was probably the best known infrared photographer in the UK. He lived in two haunted houses as a child, was interested in ghosts and believed that there is a parallel spirit world which we can sometimes see under the right conditions, “the mystical quality of my photographs reflects this ancient order and they attempt to reveal what is eternal”.  Upon reading about him I have, of course, wondered whether he was, in fact, hoping that he might be able to reveal a ghost in his images – certainly many of them do have a ghostly feel about them.

I have contacted the Simon Marsden Archive to ask for permission to use one of the images but as I have not yet had a reply, here’s a link and I’ll insert an image later if I gain permission.

I haven’t done much research to date regarding IR photographers mainly because I’m not sure that that’s a direction I wish to take. At this stage I am just wanting to explore ways in which it can be used to bring out qualities I’m looking for. However, another photographer whose images do really appeal to me is the Turkish photographer Reha Akcakaya. It’s difficult at this stage for me to pinpoint exactly how they are created but his images have more of a dreamlike, fluid  atmosphere. Again I haven’t yet heard back regarding permission to download an image but will include one if/when I get a reply.  ** (see edit below 23.4.2013)

Richard Mosse

I have to say that, so far, I have much preferred black and white IR to colour IR. However, Richard Mosse has used infrared film in a different way. He used a large format camera with a type of colour infrared film called Kodak Aerochrome in his ‘Infra’ series. This film (used in a discontinued military surveillance technology) renders the green landscape into hues of crimson, lavender and hot pink. This section of his website contains extracts from articles about the Series  and also a videoed interview where he explains the concept underlying his use of this type of film.  Here also is another,  You Tube,  video where he talks about the film.

The more I look at these images the more I gain that sense of the Aerochrome film’s serious use as a visual metaphor for shifting one’s visual perspective to view conflict in a different way. In some respects it reminds me of the film ‘Avatar’ which also distorts visual perspective, but in a different manner, and brings the viewer into a surrealistic world where we feel the effects of  the plundering of natural resources on a large scale  without regard for the indigent population or environment.

I contacted Richard to ask his permission to use one of his images on my blog and he very kindly agreed.

 Vintage Violence, North Kivu, Eastern Congo, 2011

(c) Richard Mosse

Personal exploration

I’ve been told that IR is very good for unusual portraits and photographs of churches, cemeteries and statues. A perfect opportunity arose when my daughter said she’d like to go to Twickenham, where there are some unusual statues in the grounds of York House.  The link explains the history of the statues so I won’t relate it here.  I decided to take my usual digital camera, in addition to the IR converted one, so that I could get some comparisons. We took a short river walk to get to York House Garden.

This is what the image looked like straight out of the camera:-

As you can see it’s very different from the images created by Kodak Aerochrome film. Advice had been to convert in Photoshop to black and white; and then play with the red filter to obtain the tones I wanted. I’ve found that the red (and magenta) filter are the only ones which make a difference.

Here are some more with ‘normal’ images for  comparison:-



The statues are certainly unusual to begin with and I think that IR actually enhances this whilst also making the statues look more lifelike. The colour ‘normal’ digital  versions somehow seem more lurid but maybe that’s because of the subject matter.

Where to from here?

I’ve continued the search for interesting uses of IR and, in a subsequent post, will describe how I became obsessed with electricity pylons.


** Edit 23.4.2013 Reha Akcakaya  Reha has now contacted me with apologies for the delay and has kindly agreed that I can use one of his images



Kutahya 1 99

kütahya 1 99 b                 Copyright Reha Akcakaya



Busch, D. (2007) Digital Infrared Pro Secrets, Thomson Course technology, Boston, MA

Sandidge. D. (2009). Digital Infrared Photography: Photo Workshop, Wiley Publishing Inc, Indianapolis, Indiana.









21 thoughts on “Early Explorations into Infrared Photography

  1. These IR images are wonderful Catherine. I find that they’re so much more subtle than B & W and have a real delicacy to them that B & W can’t quite match, in my opinion. I think you’ve found an avenue that’s really worth pursuing and the amount of research you do astounds me, as always. Good luck with this for the future.

  2. Interesting post Catherine and I’ll be interested in how your investigations develop, especially as I’m not a fan of the technology per se. Most of the images I’ve seen (over a good number of years now 🙂 ) seem to me to use the ‘tricksy’ nature of the medium to present ordinary ‘things’ in a ‘different light’, rather than viewing the ‘things’ with a different eye, ordinarily. I do think that there is a route, much as Mosse does, to use the medium to express or highlight the sense of otherworldliness in situations, rather than use the otherworldliness of the medium to present things ‘things’ or ‘situations’ in another way. Not sure that expresses how I feel about IR very well, but I am sure that your normal investigations will lead somewhere interesting.

    • I think the trick is to find suitable subjects and, so far, I haven’t found this too easy. The statues were certainly different and I know there are some more like them in the south of England somewhere.

      • As ever Catherine one of your posts has had me thinking and questioning myself about personal attitudes and prejudices and whether I should reconsider them.
        My comment regarding the apparent (to me that is) ‘tricksy’ nature of IR was one that I have held for many years. I have experimented with monochrome IR, both the Kodak and the Ilford “near IR” and can’t say that I was over impressed with my results – having said that I still have one image that I made that I still like. I haven’t ever tried the digital version that you, and others, have worked with, nor have I ever tried colour film IR.
        My recent thoughts stem from a bias that led photographers I have known and have met who like to see the “wow factor” in their photography purely from the perspective of trying to create an edge to impress judges. I hadn’t thought, during the decades since I first tried it, about any other reason for using IR, or for that matter any other photographic medium that transgresses the norm, for any other purpose than the two dimensional pictorial effect – which was most of what I was attempting at the time I tried IR, or Orthographic, lith’ etc.
        I suppose it was because I “grew up” on monochrome film and prints, that my aspirational tendencies were geared towards the “real-photographers” like Weston and Adams that I tended to gravitate towards fine grain, slow film, small apertures – and to present images that would be best represented (in my then humble opinion) as a “fine” print. Even when I resorted to fast films, I also researched and developed a process that ensured the finest grain even at 1600 and 3200 ISO’s so that the image would be the “best” I could make it. The thought that an IR film, or a process, might – merely by its use in a process – subvert either the context or the narrative hadn’t ever occurred to me, until I saw Mosse’s work. I had seen, and appreciated, how some photographers have used grain, limited dynamic range, blur and other techniques to “deliver” an aesthetic, but I had always thought they were natural choices, in a natural workflow and that the results weren’t delivered by some contrarian methodology in order to layer additional meaning to the image – much as I think Mosse does.
        I can now see that there are many photographers that will subvert the process of image making to construct an image more “truthful” to their intent; I’m thinking of Woodman, Michals, Ackerman and others, the list is long and which of course includes Mosse – but not, for me, Marsden I’m afraid.
        Keith makes an extremely interesting point about the “tricksy” nature of monochrome photography, one that I fully concur with, despite being, essentially a monochrome photographer for many years. The point is surely that most monochrome work these days is either done in camera, by “pressing” the black and white button on the effects dial – or by some “app’” on the computer or mobile phone. I don’t have any problems with this per se – after all it is about the image. But I think that the majority of all photography these days is equally “tricksy” by that measure and so, I wonder, where does that leave me in respect to how I feel about IR. It is this thought that I have had ruminating in the back of this (now aged) brain of mine for these few days.
        Thinking about Mosse and how not only has he come to understand his subject – the Congo – deeply and the mess that it’s people and land are in – but also his ability to understand his métier sufficiently to produce work that describes his feeling beautifully, by explicitly adding a contextual layer that repositions the viewers perspective of the scene in front of them. As I said previously – ‘the other worldliness of the situation, as Mosse sees it, in way that is otherworldly’; to question the viewer’s frame of reference and to suggest another, perhaps deeper, look might be worthwhile.

        So, where did I get to with all this pondering? I’m not sure that any photography can fully isolate itself from the label “tricksy”, I have written extensively about the lack of control a photographer has over the final representation of their image, so much of what the practitioner does is left to the whim of technician’s who are never going to be known to them. But to veer the end result from the cultural norm’ – which is now digital colour – will invite the scrutiny of the viewer and open them up to terminology that includes the “t” word. So much of photography these days is trusted to be fantasy, marketing and the advertising image, film effects, CGI etc. that maybe the “surreal” effect of IR is now more acceptable in the panoply of media that can be employed. I am still unsure, maybe that’s because I am still suffering from institutional bias against technology for the sake of technology – albeit that I’m a professional electronics engineer, though not a practicing one for about a quarter of a century!
        As I said earlier I shall watch your progress with IR with great interest – as ever – and look forward to more questions being raised, even when no answers seem to be forthcoming.

      • This is such an interesting, comprehensive and thoughtful response John. I’m pleased that I’ve ‘sparked’ you off. I only have a short background in photography and so I’m still at the stage of a child with a new toy and wanting to try everything out. I was seeing IR as another photography medium with interesting effects as with the holga lens, but your response has made me realise that there are differences. The holga lens is variable and harder to control, you have to search for the right light and so I think it needs skill in its use, as do the pinhole and other lenses, plus a creativity of approach. The results are more consistent with IR; the converted camera works the same as a normal camera and so here I’ve been thinking that the skill lies solely in creativity of approach although, thinking about this now, creative lenses can also be used presumably (another idea – but I don’t think I’ll go down that route!). There’s more to come on burial grounds and pylons!

  3. Interesting post Catherine. I have been following up your references with interest. I think that Richard Mosse’s work has by far the strongest critical base. He was clearly using the Aerochrome film with a purpose – to disrupt our normal somewhat hackneyed perceptions of African conflicts (and their consequences).

    It is curious that people consider IR is about exploiting it’s ‘tricksy’ nature to produce romantic, atmospheric photographs ( forgive me John but the word expresses what I wanted to say so well). I say this because there is a long tradition of black and white photography which after all is nothing more than a ‘tricksy’ method to produce graphic images. The real world appears in colour – at least for most.

    That said the tradition in black and white happened because colour film did not exist. Of course there was a period when colour film was available but was rejected by ‘proper’ photographers because serious photographers worked in black and white. These prejudices were beaten down by William Eggleston, Joel Sternfeld, Stephen Shore and a few other free thinking photographers. They used colour with a purpose. Their aim was to present the world as it is – in colour.

    Good luck with your pursuit of your interest in IR – I am looking forward to see how it develops.

    • Yes – the more I looked at that particular series the more I appreciated the concept, and listening to Richard Mosse emphasised for me both his interest in that actual film and the seriousness of his intent.. So far as near IR is concerned one could argue that it isn’t exactly ‘tricksy’ because that different light is there – it’s just that we can’t see it. Writing that made me think of people who see ‘auras’ around others and remember that I actually have a photograph taken of me which purports to show mine! I’m wondering now if it was some kind of infrared.

      • I re-discovering it only the other day and have been thinking as to how I might incorporate it into my reflections on IR – probably scan it in for a post.

      • There was one other thing I meant to mention. When I looked at your IR photographs of pylons I was struck by how strongly the pylons stood out as in this photograph of yours on Flickr:

        I think that this might be because of the contrast with the light colour of the foliage on the trees

        ….This made me think about whether it might be possible to use IR in a project/assignment to highlight elements within landscapes or urban scenes which would normally be overlooked. The idea would be to make the viewer conscious of these previously unseen elements.

        Just a thought…

  4. Norma (who set me off on this journey) attempted to post a comment but wasn’t successful – here it is as I’m sure you’ll find it very interesting:-

    “May I step in here, though I am now ‘in the past’ as far as OCA coursework is concerned? My research into infrared photography began with the work of Professor Robert Wood – often referred to as ‘the father of infrared’. The Centenary of his introduction of the process was celebrated in 2010. I don’t have a ‘link’ available at present, but I recommend that one ‘Googles’ him. This really is the first step in understanding the value as well as the aesthetic purposes of infrared.
    The question of ‘reality’ has been raised in some of the replies to Catherine’s first class post. What is ‘reality’? Is it what we actually see, or what is really there, but we don’t see? If it is the former then ‘reality’ is a variable because we see, and interpret what we see, in different ways. If it is the latter, we are being misled by what our eyes see.
    Historically, the reality of infrared has proved invaluable. Artistically, infrared is merely a ‘style’ in much the same way as other genre, to be used and/or interpreted to suit the occasion.
    I firmly believe that to fully understand the whole concept of infrared one has to begin at the beginning, research and understand the historical aspects and the changes in style. The work of Simon Marsden may not appeal to everyone, but it speaks loudly of the man himself and his beliefs in much the same way as that of Richard Mosse.
    Might I suggest that for those who may be interested, compare the works of Marsden, Reha Ackakaya, Richard Mosse and Andy Finney (plus many others), and their reasons for using the genre. Also look at the advantages of military use of the genre. Infrared is reality, perhaps more so than a deliberately posed portrait, or the choice of a particular position from which to photograph a landscape. ‘Tricky’ has entered the arena as an ‘art form’ – which leads to the interminable debate on ‘is it photography, is it art?
    That debate is for another day …. ”

    Thanks Norma.

  5. Pingback: Continuing with Infrared : The Muslim Burial Ground | People & Place

  6. Pingback: John Umney – Gesture and Meaning

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s