Nov 9, 2011

TREND | Digital Infrared Photography

Gary Ayton, Eucalypt Woodland Near Melbourne, Digital Infrared
At first glance, the image above may look like a typical black and white photograph.  Then after a brief moment you begin to study the image because it doesn't quite feel right, as if your eyes are playing tricks on your mind. You slowly begin to realize what should normally be bright is actually quite dark, and the lighter tones begin to mysteriously glow.


Well, thankfully your eyes are not playing tricks on you and the reason this photo appears differently is because it is a digital infrared image captured using invisible infrared light waves via a digital camera.  


Digital infrared is actually a modern twist on an older method with its start in the early 20th century.  Infrared photography was first pioneered by Robert W. Wood, an American physicist and inventor, when he developed a filter that blocked visible light but allowed ultraviolet and infrared lightwaves to pass through.  Throughout the days of film, only a small breed of photographers continued to use this filtering method to create surreal imagery in both monochrome and color.


Traditionally this type of photography has been quite labor intensive as many challenges throughout the process make it quite difficult to get a proper exposure.  One such challenge is preventing the film from "fogging."  Fogging occurs when visible light is exposed to the highly sensitive film.  Another challenge to overcome is correctly focusing the lens for the scene.  One would think this is a simple process, but you must understand that infrared imagery focuses at a different length than an image using visible light.  This is due to the longer, slower wavelengths traveled by the infrared light.  A third common challenge is actually getting a proper exposure.  An experienced photographer can often judge what settings will be needed to get a properly exposed image based on the lighting conditions they are shooting in, but that's quite different when the infrared light you're using can't be seen by the human eye.  Photographers often have to guess and take the picture several times at different exposures and hope they get it right at least once in all of their attempts.
Kevin Stevens, Zion Canyon, Digital Infrared, 2010

Thankfully, some of these challenges have been eased through the advancement of technology, and most notably, with the digital camera.  The widespread availability of digital cameras has also opened up this type of photography to both serious photographers and hobbyists alike.  However, there is a bit of rather steep cost involved with digital infrared photography which keeps it from spreading to the masses easily.  Digital cameras are designed to block infrared light and therefore must be modified in addition to adding an infrared filter to the lens.  Often times a tripod is required as most infrared exposures last several seconds due to the longer waves in the light spectrum.

A cheaper alternative is available through the use of software such as Adobe Photoshop where algorithms are applied to the image to simulate the effect of infrared capture.  This method is considered cheap and looked down up by most infrared photography purists.


Paul Corica, Rugeley, Staffordshire, Digital Infrared, 2008

Due to the specialized method of capture and the natural properties of the infrared light, there are a few characteristics that can easily identify infrared photos.  Skies and water appear darker than normal.  Foliage develops a white glow property that is known as the "Wood effect" (named for Robert Wood).  And depending on the strength of the filter used or manipulation in post processing, obscure and unnatural colors can make an ordinary scene into an incredibly surreal image.
Eric Schwabel, Matt Brown, Digital Infrared, 2009
Digital infrared is used in several photographic disciplines with the most popular use in landscape images due to the fact that longer exposures are required and there is less likely for any movement to occur.  Digital infrared is also used in the art world to explore and document the authenticity of paintings.  Portraits are often popular as the infrared light creates and strangely eerie and strange quality to people.  Eyes dilate while skin appears to be smoothed out and highly reflective.  Stronger filters can even reveal deep veins that are normally unseen through the visible light spectrum.  An example of this can be seen in Schwabel's portrait of Matt Brown above.  



-Blake Williams

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