For the last few weeks, I’ve mostly been chasing black triangles related to infrared flash photography and darkroom printing. It’s been a pretty tough slog, not so much because I’m not being productive (I really am) as because it feels like I’m chipping away at a mountain with a toothpick.
It’s not a fruitless process, though. Aside from the little knowledge I’ve scraped together, and the lots of practice, I’ve come away with a few interesting images. Including the first digital images I’ve shot in ages that I care about.
Infrared flash is an interesting technique. I’m not doing anything original here, of course. IR flash for street photography has been around for ages, Weegee and Kohei Yoshiyuki being the most obvious reference points here. I’m not really interested in shooting movie theater makeouts or nighttime park perverts, but I am interested in the ability to fire off a flash without much visible light. It’s not really a question of stealth in my case so much as it is of wanting to experiment with flash on the street without blasting hapless strangers in the face with it — which is behavior I frown on as a matter of common courtesy.
As you might expect, this stuff is _hard_, especially for me. It’s the middle part of a Venn diagram of technically demanding photography — the intersection of infrared work and flash work. Both are tricky, both can be very counterintuitive, and both are very easy to screw up when you’re trying to work fast on the move and every shot counts.
IR is hard because you’re dealing with an opaque filter (making composition and focusing a matter of guesswork on SLRs), focus has to be adjusted if you’re not stopping down, and working ISOs on film and unconverted digital bodies is quite low. (Think ISO 1.5-12, depending.)
Flash — of the kind I’m doing here — is hard because it’s harsh, flat, and it kills anything that’s good or interesting about the natural light in the scene. It makes any kind of instinct you may have honed for spotting useful light redundant.
Combine the flash and the IR and it gets worse. Results get less predictable and more tricky to control. You need to scramble to get any kind of DOF — I’m currently using a massive handle flash just for a 1-2 stop advantage. And despite trying several flash/filter/film combos, I have yet to get workable results on film.
So, why is it worth all the trouble? I’m not sure it really is, to be honest. This may not be something I ever get really right. But there are things to be learned here that may be applicable not only to IR flash but to other types of photography.
The main thing is that using flash as the main source of illumination and working with a seriously weakened flash sort of reduces street photography to its most basic form — or one of its most basic forms. No tricks of light, no elegantly composed scenes — it’s just not practical. All you have is a person or a group, within or just outside arm’s reach, and a camera pointed at them.
Of course, I’m unlikely to do my best work this way, and even if I did, I probably wouldn’t appreciate it. (I’m not a fan of Bruce Gilden’s work along these lines, for example, and there’s no way I’ll ever do it as well as he does.) But I suspect in years to come I’ll be glad that I’ve done these experiments — if only because my curiosity will have been satisfied…