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.