Archive for the ‘infrared’ Category

Infrared Rays of Faith

Wednesday, April 3rd, 2013

WERE one asked to characterize the life of religion in the broadest and most general terms possible, one might say that it consists of the belief that there is an unseen order…

– William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience

Since we’re on the subject of infrared photography, two posts touching on IR crossed in my RSS reader recently:

Faith | n j w v-1

Kohei Yoshiyuki, ThePark

The first post references a sermon given by Father Raniero Cantalamessa, the Preacher to the Papal Household, in which Cantalamessa compares faith to infrared photography and particularly infrared satellite imaging:

Today, from artificial satellites infrared photographs of whole regions of the Earth and of the whole planet are taken. How different the landscape looks when seen from up there, in the light of those rays, compared to what we see in natural light and from down here! I remember one of the first satellite pictures published in the world; it reproduced the entire Sinai Peninsula. The colors were different, the reliefs and depressions were more noticeable. It is a symbol. Even human life, seen in the infrared rays of faith, from atop Calvary, looks different from what you see “with the naked eye.”

It’s interesting that Cantalamessa chooses for a symbol of faith a kind of image that is so totally artificial and dependent on technology, not only in terms of imaging equipment, but also in terms of actual rocket science. I suppose it speaks to the persuasive quality inherent to the photographic medium: even something as arbitrary as false color infrared not only retains the persuasive quality of documentary evidence but even acquires an aura of higher reality by virtue of its very disagreement with the evidence of our own eyes.

The other post is at Slate’s Behold blog, discussing Kohei Yoshiyuki’s The Park, in which Yoshiyuki used infrared flashbulbs to photograph perverts who gathered in the park to watch (and sometimes grope) amorous couples.

After he worked to become a familiar fixture to the spectators, he began to capture the scenes with Kodak infrared flashbulbs. Reflecting on the project, Yoshiyuki wrote via email:

“As I was so amazed at these scenes, I was dying to record what was happening in the darkness and I was strongly hoping to capture them with my camera. The couples had been entirely unaware of their surroundings and the presence of voyeurs. They were young couples with a lust for love and probably had nowhere else to go. If they had noticed that the voyeurs were next to them, I’m sure the couple would not continue their lovemaking actions … they would come to the park just to take a walk and have a good talk….

“The voyeurs always approached the couples from behind because they had to be out of the man’s line of vision. … there was a kind of community in which the voyeurs lived. ‘To touch up a woman’s body’ was a kind of a competitive game for them in the society. It was risky, but it was something very thrilling for them to do, just like an exciting game to play. So when a voyeur was able to touch the woman’s body, it was a success story among them and the guy could be a hero of the night as a voyeur.”

In Yoshiyuki’s photographs, it is the invisibility of the infrared light cast by his flashbulbs that is essential. By using it, he is able to operate unnoticed by his voyeur subjects and entirely unseen by their oblivious victims. The infrared spectrum does not provide specialized new information here in the way that it does for aerial/satellite surveys, but it nonetheless — by virtue of stealth — shows us a whole community of otherwise invisible people.

I find it interesting that infrared photography lends itself so easily both to the transcendent and to the transgressive. One way or another, it is showing us things we shouldn’t be able to see. And this is on top of the longstanding contradiction that IR photography enables both the ethereal, dreamy visions of, say, Minor White’s infrared landscapes, and the harder but no less surreal views of infrared military documents.

I suppose it isn’t surprising that a technology for seeing the invisible should have this paradoxical appeal to science, war, reverie, and religion. It expands our ability to collect and represent information about the the world we see, and it also disrupts our habitual assumptions about the primacy of our unaugmented sight. I think there is always something phenomenological about it, because it always poses questions to the viewer about the nature of their experience.

This is equally true of UV photography (for example, the UV portraits of Cara Phillips), but I think it is not true of X-Ray imaging, FLIR, and many other methods of scanning, because they are alien enough in appearance that they seem wholly different from vision. They sit comfortably apart from our default view, while infrared and UV photos often seem to hip-check it.

Infrared Strikes Back

Tuesday, April 2nd, 2013

As you doubtless know if you follow me on twitter, tumblr, or flickr, I have returned to infrared with a vengeance. For many months, my IR usage has diminished, for a variety of reasons — the main one being that I don’t have darkroom access presently and have not yet set up for film development at home or made other arrangements for black and white.

Given this, and given that even the lesser tier of IR film stocks is thinning, it made sense to finally go back to digital infrared in a more thorough way. (I’ve shot a lot of digital IR using unconverted cameras, with often acceptable results, but it’s a somewhat frustrating way to work when you don’t want to use a tripod — and my progress with IR is tending strongly toward the handheld and to IR flash street shooting.)

Complicating the matter slightly is my love for the 2.8cm f/3.5 H — a lens that is around half century old, cost me about $30, and has become totally definitive for me as the way to see the world in infrared. And using it with the Nikkormat and no ability to see through the viewfinder, I’ve pretty well trained myself to a certain angle of view…which I was reluctant to give up by going to a DX format converted camera.

So, after much poking around online and no shortage of hand-wringing, I bought a used Canon 5D and shipped it off to Lifepixel for conversion. (Using the “standard” option, which is the closest to the 72R/89B filtration I’m accustomed to.) I went with the 5D because it’s cheap (relatively), and because there are issues with the D700 for IR under some circumstances, thanks to some sort of shutter monitoring gizmo Nikon introduced.

New IR Kit

For most IR users, a 5D MkII would have been a better choice, because Live View will offer much improved flexibility and precision for IR focusing. In my case, that was irrelevant, since I’m interested almost exclusively in one lens and I only ever intend to scale focus it.

Lifepixel was fast and did a great job with the conversion, but I ran into two slight speed bumps:


Using an F-mount lens with an adapter on the 5D means that focus sales are off. This isn’t that big a deal — I just had to do some testing to figure out what the shift was. In the case of my lens/adapter/camera combination, it moves the IR index to a spot just to the left of the left-hand f/8 index on the DOF scale. For now, I’ve got this marked out with a bit of gaffer tape, because gaffer tape makes everything better.

2.8 cm f/3.5 H

More problematic: on some Nikon lenses, and the 2.8cm f/3.5 H is one of them, there are back-protruding bits that prevent the lens from mounting properly on the 5D. This is unrelated to the AI/Non-AI/AIS standards, and seems to be specific to certain lenses. I did not know this at the time I bought the 5D, or it would have given me serious pause.

In the end, I girded my loins, taped up the lens, and used a metal file to remove a couple of MM from that protruding part. This was very, very stupid on my part, and the correct procedure would have been to remove the back portion of the lens before modifying it, to prevent any filings from migrating to the interior of the lens. It seems to have worked out okay for me, but I certainly do not advise anyone else to do it this way.

The result: an IR kit that is a fairly close digital approximation of my old IR kit. Same (wonderful) lens, same flash (with same options of using hotshoe or side PC connection), with vastly higher working ISO options available — which means more flexibility and greater working range with the flash — and the ability to look through the viewfinder when I feel like doing so.

I haven’t gotten fully accustomed to it yet, and I don’t know it as well as I knew Rollei IR400. But it seems to be more or less a Sunny 11 situation, exposure wise, and the auto mode on the SB-24 seems to work well enough without much (if any) compensation for most situations.

I’ve already shot quite a bit with it, and been pleased with the results. It will take a while for me to know quite how to process the files, though — while the filtration is similar to what I’m accustomed to, 5D’s sensor is not going to behave in quite the same way as film.

Lake Merritt

Lake Meritt Channel

Betsy Ross Flag

Flood Control Station Tour

Unfortunately, in the time between when I more or less topped shooting with the Nikkormat and when I got the 5D kit set up, I seem to have lost much of my 28mm no-viewfinder composition mojo. Hopefully that’s reversible. In the mean time, well, we’ll just have to I’m canting photos for aesthetic reasons.

Stars Headband

A Conversation about Flags

Sunday, May 23rd, 2010

A couple of weeks ago, I had a discussion about some of my work with a professional photographer and very experienced and knowledgeable printer whom I’ll refer to as “V.” The discussion was regarding a series I’ve been working on of infrared photographs of US and California flags.

V wasn’t very impressed with the work, which is not in itself necessarily interesting. After all, not all work will be to everyone’s taste, and of course not everything I produce is solid gold — far from it. But I found some of the particulars interesting:

He ranked the photographs in order from best or most interesting to worst or least interesting; this ranking was _exactly_ opposite the ranking I would apply to the same photographs. This is a pretty awesome response, because it shows that what interests me in the photographs, the direction I want to take them, corresponds to something that isn’t just in my head — even if it isn’t necessarily something that’s crowd-pleasing.

Another interesting divergence is this photograph, which V referred to as a “snapshot”:

I say this is interesting because, out of the entire series, this is the one photograph which I would say is least like a snapshot. All the others actually do have snapshot qualities — some are snapped on the fly, many are made with little to no active attempts at “good” composition, etc. I think in this case, and in many cases, “snapshot” really just means, “photograph I don’t like but I’m not sure why.” (Alternate usage: “photograph I like but don’t want to acknowledge as a good photograph.”)

V gravitated toward photographs which had what he referred to as “human interest” — the photographs I included which are more street-oriented or psuedo-documentary. His specific advice as regards the prints themselves tended to go towards making the flags more visible and identifiable as flags, and to recovering lost detail in the flag markings.

I explained that this was basically directly contrary to my intentions. What drew me to this subject is the way infrared photography effaces the markings of flags and frees them (albeit temporarily, partially) from their habitual symbolic uses. So, the tendency of the flags’ markings to wash out is essential, whereas the “human interest” content is secondary — used to give a context for the portrayal of the flags themselves.

I don’t think this clicked solidly for V, because he tended to keep hitting these points as the discussion went on, regardless. He also characterized my explanation of the project as “symbolic,” which is sort of, but not really, in the right neighborhood. What I’m interested in is the way photography can, without physically changing an object, remove or suspend its symbolic value. I tried to convey that, with mixed success; after that he started calling it “non-symbolic symbolism.” Not really an improvement.

The funny thing is, I found this whole conversation to be not only entertaining and engaging, but also strangely comforting. I’ve never felt so good about being poorly or incompletely understood.

Of course, this is not to say that we should always celebrate when people don’t like our work, or when people don’t “get” our work. I’m not interested in producing work for an elite audience, however defined. But I am pleased to have elicited a strong response which is more than casually related to what I intend for this project, and I am pleased at having been able to articulate most of those intentions in discussion to my own satisfaction.

As to the project itself, I need to continue to produce work for it and to work on refining the sequencing. The balance and relationship between the more “documentary” photographs and the more (for want of a better word) “abstract ones needs to be improved; in its current form, the ambiguity regarding that relationship weakens the sequence, because it seems like two sequences that have merely been interleaved. If I can fix that, it will hopefully provide a better stepping-off point for viewers and make it easier for them to see along with me…

IR Flash — progress!

Wednesday, April 14th, 2010

So, I finally leveled up with this IR flash mess I’ve been working on. I’ve got actual, honest to goodness results.

Warning: This is going to be very nerdy and tech-y. If IR photography isn’t your thing, just look at the pictures and move on, unless you want a serious soporific. I’ll put up a less geeky post on IR street photography later.

I’m not going to do a whole tutorial write-up thing on how to go about this, because there are already a couple of good ones here and here.

The first one does a great job of explaining how to go about putting a gel on your flash with a bit of space to prevent, you know, melting. However, the filter mentioned there has a non-optimal cutoff for IR film currently in production. The second one (which will be of particular interest to XA shooters) provides a film/filter pairing which is currently available and works great: Ilford SFX gel filters and Rollei IR400 film.

I tried this combination out with my Nikkormat FT-2, 2.8cm f/3.5 Nikkor-H (a great lens for IR work), and a Nikon SB-24.

Nikormat FT-2 with SB-24

Shooting wide open with the flash at full power produces usable exposures for subjects in the 8-15′ range, give or take, with some definite (but acceptable) overexposure for subjects close up.

This is reasonably consistent with the flash’s calculations for ISO 12 (which is what I normally rate IR400 at when shooting with an R72 filter), which suggests I may be able to engage auto mode — or, if subjects aren’t too distant, I may even be able to shoot safely at f/5.6, which would be lovely from a DOF standpoint.

With the Nikkormat and 28mm f/3.5, I’m shooting blind, because I’m working with an opaque infrared filter over the lens. (Note: for night photography, this can be omitted. However, since current IR films are sensitive to visible light, using them for flash work without a filter on the lens during the day is likely to be somewhat counterproductive.) However, with a 28mm lens, even wide open, I have enough DOF to scale focus reasonably well, and guessing the composition isn’t too hard.

BTW, if you’re curious about how scale focus works, this may be helpful:

Scale Focusing with the 2.8cm f/3.5 H

Anyway, after all that technical mumbo-jumbo, what matters is, it works!

BART, Richmond Line Commuters

I’m even reasonably pleased with that photograph as such — successful test aside.

The one downside to this setup is that it tends to let through a little more visible light than I’d like — the SFX gels are a little loose in that regard. Not so much that I’m blinding people, but it bugs me just a little.

So, I’m also still fiddling around with alternative options. One not-really-successful setup is this:

Bessa R with Sunpak 622

It’s a thick eBay 89b filter intended for Cokin-type filter holders which I’ve taped to the front of a wonderfully cumbersome and powerful Sunpak 622. This setup works quite well for digital IR flash with my unmod’d D40, and emits very little visible light, but is completely useless with Rollei IR400. However, initial tests on a less powerful flash provided some exposure with Eke IR820. (Which suggests that the eBay filter isn’t a true 89b equivalent.)

I was hopeful that the Sunpak (which I got specifically for this project) would enable me to shoot with this filter/film combination through sheer power. And it does, sort of, but unfortunately the working distance is still too short to be really useful in the majority of situations.


That was shot at f/1.7, and you can see that even just at about 8′ feet or so, it’s already significantly underexposed. So, while this is not a failure, as such, it’s obviously of very limited practical usefulness unless I’m willing to get truly in-your-face. I’ll continue experimenting with different filtration options and see what I can get on this front.

US and California Flags

Tuesday, April 6th, 2010

US and California Flags

US and California Flags

I spent much of Saturday printing this image in the Laney darkroom. (This is a negative scan; I haven’t scanned or photographed the resulting prints.) I had a fairly pleasant time of it, despite still being in recovery from the BBC plague. One of those days when my instincts lead in the right direction and the negative isn’t outside my modest printing skills. I also got some positive feedback from some of the old hands there, which is always nice.

The essential draw of the photograph, which I am somewhat ambivalent about, is its resemblance to a calla lily.

On the one hand, one of the things I love most about photography in general and about infrared photography in particular is its ability to subtly transform the familiar — to reveal the known world in surprising ways.

This is an example of that, and I believe a rather successful one; there are few objects which are more strongly locked in to their customary symbolic use than a flag; the vast majority of representations of flags fall into either nationalistic/patriotic uses or into very blunt subversions of those uses.

But here, motion distorts the flags’ shapes, and infrared light obscures their markings. Together, they allow the flags to briefly become something else.

I like that — a lot — but I worry a bit about the fact that the typical response to the image is, (a), “What is that,” and, (b), “Cool, it looks like a calla lily.” Not that I dislike the resemblance, but I’m always a bit nervous when I stray into the territory of “picture puzzles” and “fuzzygrams.” I don’t think the purpose of a photograph should be to befuddle or confuse (note: this is not a general rule for judging photography, just a personal preference for my own work).

I value the fact that this photograph documents the temporary transformation of a flag into a flower; however, that value is as dependent on the ability of the viewer to perceive what it “really is,” as it is upon their ability to perceive the way it is being transformed. And of course to say that it depends upon the viewer’s perception is also to say it depends on my ability to connect to the viewer…

Infrared Flash

Thursday, March 25th, 2010

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.

Girl with Clasped Hands

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.

BART, Afternoon Commute

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.)

Organic, Conventional

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.

Class Trip

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…


Wednesday, October 28th, 2009

The Med (IR) (Fr. 07)

So, I finally got around to shooting, developing, and scanning some infrared film. Yay!

For my first try, I used Efke IR820 Aura. This is the version without anti-halation layer, intended to mimic Kodak HIE. Of course, I’ve never shot HIE, so I have no idea whether it succeeds or fails in this regard.

Berkeley City Club (Fr. 32)

I went with this to start off rather than straight IR820 in 120 (which I also have) because I wanted to be able to both shoot several subjects and bracket my shots, so 36 exposures made more sense than 10.

I used my Nikkormat and, for the most part, my 28mm f/3.5 H — a lens which I know from experience and Rorslett’s reviews to work well with IR.

I’m using D-76 1:1, which doesn’t have a listed time on the data sheet, so I guesstimated the increase over the time for stock. (I used 9min. at 70.5 degrees). I metered for ISO 3, which is what’s specified by the data sheet for use with my filter (Hoya R72). I bracketed my shots, and in a couple of cases, I preferred an exposure two stops over that, but for the most part, ISO 3 gave the best results. (That translated to about 1/4 of a second at f/8 for the conditions I was shooting in, mostly.)

Very slow, but not too slow to include seated people, such as in the scene at The Med. And faster shutter speeds could be obtained by the use of larger apertures, at the cost of depth of field. Pushing is also a possibility, but it’s not like it isn’t grainy and contrasty enough to begin with…

Ghost Ring (Fr. 35)

Tripod, shmipod

Wednesday, February 11th, 2009

So, a couple of days ago, I left my tripod at home on a day which turned out to have some really rockin thick white clouds. Exactly the sort I’ve been wanting to try my R72 on. The R72 was in my bag, so I decided to throw it on the camera and crank the ISO to 1600 and see what I got.

Flags (IR)

This is pretty much the exact opposite of the workflow I used last with IR — careful long exposure tripod shots using exposure blending to maximize tonal range. This was scale or guesstimate focused, and composed with even less precision, and exposed at or over the limit of what I could handhold safely, and working with the very limited dynamic range at high ISO. The results — while still IR — have a very different feel. Softer (of course), grainer (of course), and overall with a bit of a toy camera feel.

Lake Merritt Channel (IR) (View Large)

One thing that sort of surprises me about these images is that I find myself cropping them far less than I do most of my images. Usually I crop at least a little to adjust framing or trim off extraneous bits — which only makes sense; none of my cameras has 100% viewfinder coverage, anyway. But some of these shots, framed without the benefit of any kind of finder whatsoever, seem to work compositionally to the point that I don’t feel any urge to crop them at all.

Lake Merritt Channel (IR)


Anyway, this definitely makes me want to get into film IR, and/or get a body conversion. This ability IR has to reveal bring something otherworldly to mundane views — or, more accurately, to reveal something otherworldly within mundane views — is getting addictive.

Clouds (IR)


Tuesday, February 3rd, 2009

In my post from a couple of days ago on black triangles, I mentioned infrared as one area where I’ve been struggling and making gradual technical progress.

I Heart Lake Merritt Channel (View Large)

I won’t go into detail on the underlying science, because there are far better explicators around than me. It was actually something that for quite a while held zero interest for me; it sounded like something goofy and technical. And certainly a lot of the IR stuff running around the internet (which is frequently of the false color variety) is less than inspiring — a lot of it suffers from the same syndrome as a lot of HDR — the technique become its own aesthetic, and people no longer want to make photographs that are good enough; they instead aspire to make photographs that are HDR enough or IR enough.

Trees and Columns

This is, of course, a pretty narrow view of this type of photography. (That’s what you get when you define a whole genre of art using just what you happen to stumble across online.) I didn’t clue into that until I noticed how Minor White used IR for some of his landscape work. (I have a note here in a prior draft of this post regarding plate 121 of The Eye That Shapes, in particular.)

Of course, I knew that slapping a Hoya R72 filter on my D40 would hardly turn me into Minor White. But it’s something that I had been wanting to try, and so a few weeks ago, I did. It’s certainly been an educational experience.

The nature of digital IR (with an unmodified camera) dictates the use of a tripod, thanks to typically long exposures and of course the need to correct focus using the IR index. (Thank goodness I use old lenses which have them.)

Lake Merritt Channel -- 28mm f/3.5 H Test Shot

Any time you’re shooting from a tripod, it forces you to slow down and think about how you’re composing and exposing a scene. This is doubly (maybe triply) so when you also have to focus, screw on a filter that blocks visible light, refocus using the IR index, and guess whether to boost exposure by eight or ten stops — then shoot, try to gauge the three-channel histogram with an eye toward the peculiarities of post-processing IR, and then repeat the whole process with the next subject.

False Color IR

This can all be very frustrating, but in some ways it’s also refreshing. The slow pace necessitated by the equipment can offer time for contemplation which isn’t present, or at least not in the same way, when shooting fast-paced subjects. And working with the camera procedurally, like a lot of darkroom processes, can become an almost meditative affair — provided you can maintain attention.