Seeing beyond the “real”-explorations in infra-red

Seeing beyond the “real”-explorations in infra-red


Tree near Waipara, HurunuiIt is paradoxical that many educators and parents still differentiate between a time for learning and a time for play without seeing the vital connection between them.

-Leo Buscaglia

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Hamlet Act 1, scene 5, 166–167

Infrared photography is, in some ways, like HDR. People who do it love it, but judging by many of the results I have seen, if not used judiciously and for a reason, the results can end up belonging in the Garden of Tack, over-processed work which ends up saying only this of its author: because I could.

It is easy to take a stand on either of these technologies and reject them out of hand, without thinking about what was going on in the photographer’s mind at the time. To my mind, outright and immediate condemnation without consideration is just as bad as looking at work and saying: Gee, that’s nice. “Nice” must surely be the ultimate condemnation. The work is neither good nor is it bad, it’s just, well, nice…

Not long ago, just before the winter, my dear friend Ray Cho, a very talented photographer from Taiwan, offered me the opportunity to play with one of his infrared cameras, a Nikon D80 DSLR which he had sent off for conversion so that it only responded to infrared wavelengths of light, and completely ignored the visible light which our eyes are able to record and decode. It was in autumn, just before we left for China, and looking around the forest, with the little I know about infrared photography, it seemed a better idea to wait for spring, with new foliage, rising sap and all the rampant energy of photosynthesis. So I put it to one side and waited…


You may be interested to know something of the history of Infrared photography. It is older than perhaps we think. In fact, according to an article in Wikipedia, it was first mentioned by Robert W Wood in 1910. Wood’s photographs were taken on experimental film that required very long exposures, and they are the probably the first surviving examples of this type of photography. Later they became popular in World War II, with the introduction of Codec Ektachrome Infrared Aero film in the 1940s, and like most wartime technologies, was used for lethal purposes, in this case camouflage detection. I first learned about the technology from a friend who had been a jet fighter pilot in the New Zealand Air Force, who told me of working as an aerial photographer in the Rotorua area of the North Island of New Zealand, using infrared film to detect diseased trees, which give off less infrared light than healthy ones, and as a consequence record a lower tonal value. Interestingly, he told me of how they would often reveal the presence of plants with a much brighter infrared signature, growing in small plantations in the forest. Once they realised that what they were looking at were cannabis plants, they would quickly forward the photographs to the local constabulary. He also told me of how infrared film was used in the Vietnam war to detect heavily camouflaged North Vietnamese battalions in the jungle, this information being used to direct squadrons of B-52 bombers to the area. Some of the great photographers, like Minor White, undertook explorations using infrared film. So the technology has been around for a long time.

When photographers began using more digital than film, infrared film, which had been a pretty niche product, fell out of favour, and Kodak discontinued sales of it.

That was then and this is now.

How it works

it is easy to assume, because our eyes only respond to a very narrow portion of the electromagnetic spectrum, specifically between about 350 nm (deep blue) and 650 nm (very dark red), that the visible light our eyes are able to detect is all that there is. Of course of course we all know about ultraviolet light (which our eyes cannot detect) and infrared light (which our eyes are also unable to detect). Because we are unable to detect it with our eyes, it is therefore easy to assume that it isn’t there at all. What happens then when we begin to explore what we cannot see and make the invisible visible? Surprises, more surprises, and much room for exploration.

It is also interesting to note that while human beings cannot detect infrared radiation, some insects and animals are equipped to do so. The pit viper, for example, has a separate infrared sensor built into its forehead, which it uses to detect prey, combining the data with what is transmitted by its eyes. Memo to Indiana Jones: enclose self in ice when descending into pits of vipers. Some species of beetle are also equipped to detect infrared radiation, along with a number of butterflies.

Thus infrared radiation is constantly present, to a greater or lesser degree, in the world around us. Now we have the technology to detect and record it. It works like this:

You may be interested to know that many camera sensors are able to record radiation well into the infrared portion of the spectrum, sometimes as far as 1500 nm. Camera manufacturers, aware that their sensors are capable of seeing into the infrared, and through some clothing, place blocking filters in front of the sensor, to cut off the spectral response of the sensor at the upper end of the visible spectrum (650 nm or thereabouts), thus giving us a result which approximates what the human eye thinks it sees. But what happens when we remove that block, and replace the blocking filter with one which blocks the visible light and allows the sensor to respond only to present infrared light?

Happy surprises.

Back in my film days I remember shooting numerous rolls of (expensive) infrared film, including false colour infrared film. I found the colour to be totally over-the-top, and after a couple of rolls, i gave up working with it. The results were far too weird for me. Black and white infrared photography (film-based) was another matter altogether. I suddenly found myself with black skies and white trees and, on the odd occasion I tried it with human beings, producing a result which none of the models ever liked, because it made them look as if they belonged on the set of Zombies, Dawn of the Dead. But it was fun to play, for play is the seed of innovation.

After shooting enough rolls of black and white infrared film, i began to see trees as something other. Trees in bright sunlight give off huge amounts of infrared light (depending on the species) as a result of the whole process of photosynthesis. Trees with large leaves (like cannabis plants) give off monstrous amounts of infrared radiation, which the film records is a very light tone, while conifers emit much lower levels of infrared and thus record a tonal value closer to middle grey. Blue sky, which gives off almost no infrared radiation, records as a very low tone, closer to Zone Zero, or black. Once you realise what is going on, it is possible to previsualise the scene in infrared terms, to begin to see it as if you had your own infrared sensors, and to adjust your perception of the tonal values to fit what is before you.

So, Spring had come, and all the naked willows in the Valley had put on their clothes again when I went out with the camera to begin to play. Because I could was not enough reason to do so, and I needed an underlying philosophy to inform my photography.

The interesting thing about continually working (or working continually) is that, sooner or later, you will begin to be able to identify the threads which weave the tapestry of your own photographic practice. And, even more interesting, is the fact that there are usually only a few consistent threads you will ever use. You may move on for a time to another thread, but inevitably you come back at some point to one or more of those core ideas/threads. Using the camera Ray has loaned me brought me back to a project and an idea-thread.

My tree project has languished for a while, but now it seemed the opportunity had come to add another sentence or two to my essay on trees.

And the thread. A long time ago, i unknowingly began the journey to my photographic associateship. When I began, i had no sense of ever submitting for my letters, because I was entranced by an idea, a question I wanted to solve. The idea came one morning after breakfast, when I was reading a copy of the Reader’s Digest, and I became engrossed in an article about the war which goes on between plants for resources and food. I learned that some plants have developed poisons to kill off any plant which might have the temerity to think about growing within their root zone. Eucalyptus trees are a species which have evolved herbicides to deal with intruders. Plane trees are another species which will not tolerate intrusion as well. The next time you pass one, have a look at what grows beneath them. Almost nothing.

It seemed to me at the time, as I looked out into my garden, that I was no longer looking at sweet plants happily cohabiting. I was looking at a battlefield, and my perception of the intrinsic nature of a garden changed abruptly. Later that day I went out to cut some roses for the dining room and put them in a vase of water. When I woke the next morning and went out to the kitchen for breakfast, I looked at them and something seemed to have changed. It was as if some indefinable quality had vanished and that all the freshness they had had when newly cut had evaporated. They seemed somehow… less.

I thought about it for several days, then went and bought 20 rolls of slide film, because I wanted to explore the idea that plants might contain their own life force, and I wanted to explore the idea of somehow documenting and expressing that life force. 20 rolls of film later, i moved on to another thread.

When I picked up Ray’s converted DSLR, that thread returned, and I wanted to explore the idea of somehow expressing all the energy of a tree, the process occurring within it, as it drew sustenance from the ground through its roots then passed it up the trunk to the leaves, and back again. It seems to me that to stand there and photographed a  tree in such a way that the comment you make is a literal, descriptive one which really details time, place and species is not enough. One might as well stand there and observe the tree and enjoy it for the simple fact of its being there. An expressionist seeks to convey the trees intrinsic nature rather than its extrinsic one.

So, armed with the little Nikon D80, i set forth to make a series of explorations of the energy of what, to our eyes and illusions, is essentially an inanimate object.

Of course trees are more than this. Much more than this.


I shot in raw plus JPEG, and made the conversions using a raw converter I am testing at the moment (and will review in the next week or so) called photo Ninja. Then it was a case of taking the rather odd looking files across to PhotoShop, and applying an action which essentially switches the colour channels.

The result was what I had previsualised, what I had seen in my mind’s eye. A mysterious, invisible but nonetheless present landscape, inhabited by species we don’t really understand.

The image below shows ( left to right)

  1. The visible light rendition
  2. The “raw” file from the camera
  3. after conversion in Photo Ninja and CS5.


And I was reminded of those wonderful lines from Shakespeare’s Hamlet:

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.



3 Responses

  1. sandy says:

    Hello Tony – you have written about two things dear to me – trees and IR photography – a most pleasent article. Could you expand on your swapping colour channels as I have tried it but not very happy with results. Reckon its my lack of understanding so would love to here how you go about it.

  2. Tony Bridge says:

    Hi Sandy:
    Glad to have been of service!
    I have a couple of actions (CSx) which do the heavy lifting. Drop me an email and I will send them to you.

  3. Virginia Gray says:

    I am intrigued at your revisiting with infra red Tony, with as you do, a twist!

    Trees are magnificent. We were down on the Cam last evening photographing yet another mood.

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