Infrared photography is a curious beast. It can yield spectacular results, both in blacks & white and colour. It relishes the bright, contrasty conditions which are anathema to many other styles of photography, allowing those of us in sunnier climes to carry on clicking away during the long hot summer. And yet, how many famous infrared photographers are there ? I can actually only think of one well known photographer who’s core body of wok relies on infrared, and that’s the late Simon Marsden. Marsden’s work is so unique and recognisable that he successfully sued U2 for plagiarising him with the photo on their album The Unforgettable Fire. But most of time, infrared photography is basically just a shallow trick, a way of making unremarkable compositions look good purely due to the unearthly representation of light and shadow.
Simon Marsden needed the IR look to convey his vision of gothic decay and uneasy spirits. Some landscape photographers make good use of infrared from time to time, but sparingly. Personally I think that whenever the medium - infrared - is prominent in the description of a body of work, that work is going to fall flat. Either the work needs the look - in which case there’s little point in making great announcements about it - or the work needs to be salvaged by an unusual medium (quite often Kodak Aerochrome these days). Personally I feel Richard Mosse fits into that category, but I’m in a minority there.
I’ve played around with infrared for years, both on film, using Kodak monochrome and false colour, and on digital, using either a blocking filter on a normal camera, or more recently my Olympus E-P3 converted with an 830nm filter. Up until recently I’ve been quite unmoved by the converted camera, as the out-of-camera look is missing the appeal of film infrared. The key characteristics of Kodak EIR were high grain and strong contrast, as well as a strong glow around highlights achieved at a critical - and hard to master - exposure level. Actually getting a good exposure on EIR was very hit & miss. Of course with a converted digital camera it’s all far too easy - with Live View you can even compose in infrared. But still, the exposure can be a bit tricky, as the camera electronics are designed to deal with visible light JPEGs, and histograms and all that stuff can be a bit misleading. Also, some lenses are very prone to heavy flare in infrared, while being perfectly well behaved in visible light. I also get the impression that there is flare at sensor level too - apparently that is a thing.
Then, after you’ve got the shot, converting the purple/red tinged monochrome image to something that looks like IR as we expect it is also not that trivial. Actually Lightroom has got quite a good preset which can help to get pointed in the right direction, but it’s not enough. I’ve started experimenting with Silver EFX Pro to see if I can get a look I’m happy with. If that works out, maybe I’ll come up with some idea that actually benefits from infrared. But no graveyards - that’s been done.
Cameras get in the way of photography. That sounds like a fairly ridiculous statement, but I think it is difficult to argue against. I’d like to think I’m interested in photography, but of the far too many hours I spend browsing the web, I spend far more reading about cameras than I do about photography and photographers. But what is very noticeable is that the more engaging photographers just don’t talk about cameras at all (and usually have dull websites, but that’s another matter). Maybe they feel a stigma attached to such discussion, or maybe they’re just not interested. But anyway, when the discussion veers towards cameras, as it usually does, something is lost. Of course, ten seconds on this site shows quite clearly which camp I’m in. It’s not exactly a gear site - and after all, these do encompass quite a wide spectrum - but it hardly ignores cameras or other paraphernalia of photography-as-hobby. So I’m in no position to judge, even if I were judging, which I’m not - just observing. But coming back to the original statement, I do find that the more I think about cameras, the less interested I am in photography, and the less interesting my photography gets. Fortunately I have by and large stayed with the same principal brand and gear over a very long period, and I’ve never been afflicted by the more extreme cases of the malady which involve switching brand every 6 months. But nevertheless, if there is one thing that separates photography as art from photography as hobby, it’s the susceptibility to Gear Acquisition Syndrome.
The cycle of endless new, improved, must-have cameras has slowed down a bit, but it hasn’t stopped. It has changed tack a bit, and now we’re seeing design becoming much more prevalent in the marketing push, especially retro design sparking nostalgia for the alleged romance of the mechanical heyday of the film era.
So, what bought this on? Well, a new camera on the market, basically. Namely, the new Olympus Pen-F. It’s a nice looking piece of metal, and it is getting mainly rave reviews everywhere (although this review, from an actual Olympus employee, is strikingly lukewarm). Amongst Olympus owners, of which I’m one, there is a discernible of peer pressure to buy one. Well, yes, it’s a nice camera, but I’ve already got an Olympus Pen, an E-P5, and that took me long enough to decide to buy. The Pen-F, apart from the striking design, has 4 Megapixels more (not terribly significant), a fixed built-in EVF, and lots of new modes aimed at doing everything in camera, outputting JPEG, when for the last decade we’ve had it piled on us that we should be shooting Raw. What the Pen-F does not have, but what the E-P5 does, at least as an accessory, is a tilting EVF which allows you to hold the camera at chest level, and affords a different way of shooting and different perspectives. For some this is uninteresting, for me it’s a big plus. Also the E-P5 EVF is the same as the one on the top of the range E-M1, and superior to that on the Pen-F. Add into that an eye-wateringly high price, and well, for now at least I think I’ll pass.
This leads on nicely to the previous “upgrade” cycle, when the E-P5 replaced the E-P3. There again I dragged my feet, as I was used to the E-P3, and Olympus had moved the controls around disturbing my reflexes. But there were a couple of compelling arguments that time, so eventually, I switched. But I didn’t just abandon the E-P3. Instead I had it converted to infrared, which gives me a good excuse to water down this gear-obsessed post with some photography, a selection of infrared shots from Venice, taken back in December.
I can’t keep away from the gear, but it really is a relief to get back to photography.
I’ve been dabbling in infrared for about as long as I’ve being photographing, which is far too long. Originally I was shooting Kodak Highspeed Infrared in manual Canon SLRs. In fact my first shot ever used for commercial purposes was an infrared shot, used as the basis for an illustration. I experimented a bit with colour infrared, but never really took to it. All colour infrared shots remind me of a Van der Graaf Generator LP inner sleeve (Pawn Hearts), and most monochrome infrared shots can’t avoid recalling U2’s “The Unforgettable Fire” (which infamously plagiarised probably the best infrared photographer ever, Simon Marsden).
Early digital cameras turned out to be fantastic for infrared, as they had very weak IR filtering (by accident rather than design, I imagine), and therefore for the first time you could take out the very considerable amount of guesswork involved in exposure and focusing. The Nikon Coolpix 900 was particular good for this. Later, I experimented with IR filtering on the Olympus DSLRs I used. The results were pretty effective, although the average exposure time was around 60 seconds - which could be a creative advantage.
But I always wanted a dedicated infrared digital camera, so several years ago, just after I bought an Olympus E-P3 at a knock-down price, I sent my E-P2 off to Spencer’s Camera & Photo, in Utah, for conversion, along with full pre-payment. On April 11, 2002, they sent me an email saying “Thank you very much for your Infrared Conversion service order. We have successfully received your order and it is now being processed”. This was the last truthfull communication I got from Mr Spencer. After many long months of ignored emails, deceitful phone calls, and what I discovered through post-due diligence was a standard pattern of fake progress reports and fabricated shipping bills, I just gave up. I lost the money (which was a very big deal at the time, I’d just bought a house and lost a job, and this was my full “hobby budget” for the year) and the camera. Mr Spencer will hopefully toast a little in whichever section of hell is set aside for him.
Anyway, this year, finally, I felt like trying again. With a reliable recommendation for Advanced Camera Services in England, and a new “donor” camera, the E-P3 having been joined by an E-P5 (again at a knockdown price), it seemed worth the attempt. This time, there was no pre-payment requested, and although the turnaround time was a lot longer than I expected, and the communication very economic, the camera did turn up, with the IR blocking filter removed, and a new 830nm filter installed. Naturally, right on cue, it started absolutely pissing down in Ticino, and it hasn’t stopped yet. But I have managed to get a few shots.
It’s a very different experience, shooting with my “new” E-P3-IR. Exposure times are normal, you get full preview, instant feedback. Initially, though, I’m not really feeling the magic. There’s seems to be something missing, it’s all too clean, too clinical, too precise. IR photography was never precise. I’ve tried to come up with an appropriate recipe in SilverEFX 2, and that’s helping a bit. Also, there hasn’t been a lot of inspiration is subject matter so far. But most of all, I’m not really all that excited about IR any more. But let’s see how it goes. What is very interesting is that the converted camera works fine in overcast conditions, which IR film, nor indeed unconverted DSLRs, never did. This opens up several interesting avenues to explore, first treating the camera as a straightforward monochrome digital, and second, applying more drastic filtering. Gosh, even STREET - get that, Olivier ? We shall see.