I am happy to announce that this week’s Tips & Technique article is from one of our forum’s contributing photographers, John-Paul Palescandolo. John-Paul spends a great deal of his photographic endeavors experimenting with older and unique films. He shares his findings with us this week in this two-part article on Infrared Photography.
Article by John-Paul Palescandolo & Eric Kazmirek
One of the advantages of black and white film photography is the ability to use different colored filters to control and enhance the contrast of a scene you are shooting. While Photoshop affords one the ability to apply this look digitally, there are some aspects of b&w photography that are hard to accurately re-create in the digital realm. Specifically, I am referring to infrared film.
The infrared look is a truly unique one: skies and water can be rendered coal black, while grass takes on a bright white color. Black objects become a grayish white and human skin takes on the look of a porcelain doll. Another notable effect of IR film on the human skin is its propensity to make veins much more noticeable. These IR characteristics are referred to as the Wood effect, named after Robert Wood, who first discovered these properties.
However, to achieve an infrared look, simply using infrared film isn’t enough – one must also use an infrared filter on your lens, otherwise your images will basically look like they were taken on standard b&w film. The more visible light your infrared filter blocks out, the greater the infrared look. However, one must be aware of the infrared peak of the film one is using. If the peak of a certain film is 820 nanometers and a filter is used that only lets light greater than 900 nanometers pass through, then the film will be blank, no matter how long it is exposed for. Infrared filters can also be pricey, especially for filters which block out virtually all visible light; additionally filters for large diameter lenses run into the $400 price range. Another drawback of using infrared film is that infrared light focuses differently than standard light does. Most older lenses have a red dot on the focusing ring, which denotes the infrared focusing point so that the focus may be adjusted accurately. This is necessary because infrared filters are near opaque making it difficult to focus visually. Because of their near 100% opacity, it is recommended to compose your scene, focus, adjust for IR focus, put your IR filter on and then shoot. It also helps to stop down your lens to f/11 or f/16, so that proper depth of field may be achieved and small focusing errors may be forgiven. IR film should always be shot with the camera tripod mounted.
IR film can also be tricky to properly expose. For good measure, I always completely use black gaffer tape to seal the edges of any camera in which I use IR film, in order to protect against any light leaks that standard B&W film may not be susceptible to. It is also important to ensure your camera does not use any IR sensors to read information off the film canister, as it will fog your film. Lastly in terms of care, IR film must be kept at cool temperatures and processed as soon as possible after being shot so it does not fog. Additionally, Kodak HIE must be kept in a light-tight canister.
I had my first opportunity to work with B&W infrared film, Kodak HIE, during the summer of 2007 when I took Lighting: Theory and Practice at NYU. While it was a studio lighting class, the teacher also encouraged us to take lights on location, as well as manipulate natural light with reflectors and bounce cards. One of our assignments was to create an “alternate universe” and the first thing that jumped into my mind was to experiment with infrared film.
I shot a few rolls of Kodak HIE during the course of the summer, both outdoors and in a studio under tungsten light and while it definitely takes some experimentation, the learning curve isn’t to steep, certainly not as difficult a film to use as one might think. However, in the fall of 2007, Kodak announced the discontinuation of their black and white, as well as color infrared films. Being that the HIE look was one I had grown to love, I proceeded to buy a few extra rolls, but even then, the infrared sensitivity of HIE, even if kept frozen, means that the film will not last as long past their expiration date as standard b&w films would. Luckily, there are a few infrared films made by other companies – Ilford, Rollei and Efke. Curious about how these films would compare to Kodak’s HIE, I loaded a few cameras one day and set out shooting.
Kodak HIE is a film that has been around since the 1950s and whose original formula has never changed. It gives a soft, grainy, low contrast look that lacks an anti-halation layer, which is what gives its highlights a “blooming” effect that most of the current replacement IR films lack. Unlike standard B&W films, HIE must be loaded and unloaded in complete darkness, or one risks fogging of the first few frames. Even if light just catches the leader of HIE, the light will travel down the emulsion like fire following a gasoline trail. Another advantage of Kodak HIE, compared to other IR films, is that its sensitivity extends furthest into the IR spectrum, to 900 nanometers. Due to HIE’s extreme sensitivity, dreamy images may be created using simply a standard Red 25 filter. However, I like to use a Hoya R72 filter. In the 52mm size it costs around $40. All light 680 nanometers and below is blocked out, but there is 50% transmittance at 720nm. While this film has no set ISO value, Kodak recommends when using a Red 25 filter, to set your camera’s meter to ISO 50, set your aperture and shutter, put the filter back on and then shoot. Getting a proper exposure with a true IR filter is a bit trickier, but still can be achieved fairly easily. I used the following method with a Canon AE-1 Program, Kodak HIE and a Hoya R72 filter: Kodak lists base exposure with an opaque filter as f/11 and 1/125 sec. With the Hoya filter on my camera, I simply adjust the meter until I naturally got a reading of f/11 and 1/125, which came at ISO 3200. Please note that this particular exposure setting is for bright, sunny days. If you’re shooting in the woods or on a cloudy day, you would have to open up your lens more. I’ve found that even with the Hoya filter on my lens, I can take it into any situation, set the lens how the meter suggests and get a good exposure. However, since different cameras have different sensitivities to red, I would suggest experimenting for yourself before committing to any serious shooting. I also like using my AE-1 Program for IR work because after my eye adjusts, I can easily see through the opaque filter, something that has not been as easy to do on other cameras I’ve used for IR work, such as Nikons, Pentax and Minoltas. In addition to using HIE outdoors, I was able to use it in the studio, under tungsten lights, with no filter on the lens and still get a strong IR effect off human skin.
Now that I’ve discussed Kodak HIE, the first currently available alternative is Ilford SFX 200. Ilford SFX 200 is not so much a true infrared film as it is a film with extended red sensitivity. It is only sensitive to light up to 720 nm and has extended red sensitivity up to 740 nm. As such, SFX 200 does not need to be loaded in complete darkness, merely subdued light. It also has an anti-halation layer, so the SFX highlights do not blossom like those of HIE. It may be possible to achieve some kind of blossoming by overexposing one stop. However, being that this film is less sensitive to IR light, an IR filter must be used to achieve any sort of unique look. A Red 25 filter will not work as well, though I have gotten some less potent IR effects this way. This film is normally rated at 200 and Ilford recommends a compensation of four stops with a Hoya R72 filter. So, if your base exposure at ASA 200 was f/16 and 1/125, opening up four stops would necessitate an exposure of f/16 at 1/8 sec, requiring the use of a tripod. One could adjust the shutter speed and aperture in an attempt to shoot handheld, or adjust solely the aperture, but then must be mindful of depth of field loss and the focusing issues that IR film can present.
When I did my IR test, the roll of SFX 200 I used was three years old, though I had kept it frozen until use. I also gave five stops of compensation instead of Ilford’s recommended four stops and for some shots, I gave even more, so some of my shots were overexposed. This was because the generally accepted filter factor of a Hoya R72 filter is five stops and for some of the films I will discuss below, more than five stops was necessary. In general, I was exposing this film anywhere from ISO 12 to 3, depending. What I discovered from comparing SFX 200 to HIE was that while SFX is not as sensitive or as dreamy looking without the blossoming highlights, it is a sharper film with more contrast than HIE. It is still necessary to use the IR focus marks, though only if you’re taking IR shots. The grain of SFX is probably comparable to Kodak Tri-X, though I think the age of my film may have accentuated the grain a bit more.
The next film I tried was Rollei IR 400, which is made in Germany. Rollei’s IR film is comparable to SFX, only it’s one stop faster. Compared to SFX and HIE, it has superior grain, contrast and sharpness. It is also an excellent ISO 400 film which can be used for standard B&W photography. It is sensitive up to 820 nm, but peaks around 750 nm, as SFX does, so loading in total darkness is not required, although I would recommend it, as I’ve found that Rollei’s plastic film containers, even ones for their standard B&W film, allow fogging on the sprocket holes of the first few frames. The lower IR sensitivity also allows for milder IR effects, if one desired.
The downsides of Rollei’s IR film is the lower sensitivity does not permit any IR effects unless an opaque filter is used. The IR effect is also very limited on days when IR levels are low, such as cloudy days, which would allow more latitude if the Kodak film were being used, but there’s not much point to shooting IR film on cloudy days to begin with, since most people shoot IR film for the Wood effect mentioned at the beginning of this article. Rollei’s film is normally rated at 400 and with the Hoya R72 compensation of five stops, that leaves you with a base ASA of 12. However, after bracketing my exposures, I noticed that Rollei IR 400 prefers to be rated at ASA 6 or 3, once again, requiring the use of a tripod. This film also has an anti-halation layer, preventing the highlights from blossoming, though overexposure of one stop can help bring out some of that desired look.
The fourth film I tried was Efke IR 820c, which is a Croatian film which, like Rollei IR 400, is sensitive up to 820 nm but peaks around 750 nm. However, Efke’s film produces images closer to that of Kodak HIE due to its more linear sensitivity curve within the 750 nm – 820 nm range. This makes it easier to obtain IR effects with a standard Red 25 filter, though I would still recommend a true IR filter. Efke IR 820c is also grainer and lower in contrast and sharpness than both Ilford SFX 200 and Rollei IR 400, further strengthening it as a viable replacement for Kodak HIE in terms of best achieving the HIE look.
The downsides of Ekfe’s film are that, like HIE, it requires absolute darkness when loading and unloading. Having properties closer to HIE also makes it more susceptible to heat and increased base fog if left in the camera for too long. The fact that this film is like HIE means it is grainy and lacks contrast, in comparison to Ilford SFX 200 and Rollei IR 400, and this could be seen as a positive or a negative (no pun intended), depending on the look you prefer. Efke’s film has a base ISO of 100 without any IR filtration, meaning the fastest this film could be shot with a Hoya R72 filter is ASA 3, however, I have found that this film likes an addition stop of exposure and in some cases, even an additional two stops, making a tripod absolutely necessary. This film also has an anti-halation layer, preventing the highlights from blossoming, although Efke has just released a new IR film called Efke IR 820 Aura, which will lack an anti-halation layer, just as Kodak’s HIE film did.
Another advantage of these replacement IR films, compared to Kodak HIE, is that they are available in 120, 4×5 and 8×10 formats, with the exception of Ilford SFX 200, which is only available in 35mm and 120. Kodak’s HIE was discontinued long ago in any format other than 35mm, although some people would cut down 70mm film and spool it onto 120 rolls.
Any of this film can be purchased at B&H in New York (www.bhphotovideo.com) or Freestyle Photo in Los Angeles (www.freestylephoto.biz). Be warned that infrared film is not cheap. Even in 35mm, rolls are priced around $10. It is still possible to find Kodak HIE on eBay, but the prices have skyrocketed to around $50 per roll.
In conclusion, all of the films I tested are capable of producing different kinds of IR effects and each film has its strengths and weaknesses. Kodak HIE is the most sensitive to the IR spectrum at 900 nm and can produce IR effects with minimal filtration, but it has been discontinued and its grainy, soft, low contrast formula has not been changed since the 1950’s. Efke IR 820c can produce strong infrared images, and while it shares many properties with Kodak HIE, it is an incredibly slow film when used for IR work. Ilford SFX 200 and Rollei IR 400, while being one and two stops faster than the Efke film, produce less strong infrared images, with the trade off of the grain being much finer than Kodak or Efke’s IR film.
Join us next week for part two of this article when Eric and John-Paul go into the digital darkroom and discuss the possibilities of IR and its place in the digital world. Topics up for discussion will be optimizing image capture for IR processing, the different options for custom digital IR processing, and a look at the variety of software plug-ins available which have the ability to mimic the IR films discussed in this article.
John-Paul Palescandolo is a graduate of NYU and a film-enthusiast. Although he has allowed Eric to break him into all things digital, he still enjoys experimenting with older & odd film types. Once his film is developed, he archives all of his images digitally, scanning them with a Nikon Coolscan 9000 ensuring maximum image quality in order to tune his images in Photoshop. John-Paul maintains a personal photo blog at http://willscarlett.aminus3.com and will be a regular contributor to the Kaz Arts Photography Forum.