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Intro to Infrared Photography

By Robert Hall


Infrared film is one of my favorite tools in photography. A little background will help you understand where I come from. I've been trained as an engineer, I take an engineering approach to most problems I come up against. Being an engineering type has been both a help and a hindrance. Helpful because there's no better training for developing a repeatable process, quite helpful in photography, but a hindrance when it comes to the creative side. That's why I've liked using alternative processes and film types like infrared, hand coloring and lith printing, these are tools that help me be creative.

As a good engineer should, there will be lots of references at the end to help further enlighten, and confuse, and make curious the most of us.

For those of you new to IR film you're in for a similar experience as your first with the computer... some excitement, some bewilderment and probably a few cuss words (choose them wisely).

We will be discussing 35mm for the most part. There are other sizes of IR film out there and I'll cover them too, but we will try to maintain focus on 35mm. No pun intended.

There will probably be some confusion as one delves deeply into the sites that are in the reference area. IR, like photography is best understood by using it. There are many things in our processes of handling, time of year, altitude, quality of air, and some would swear that "phases of the moon" affect how your IR images will turn out. So let's get started.

Infrared Light

A brief discussion of IR light will help us down the road. IR film is sensitive to light just below what we can see in the visible spectrum. As the light spectrum goes, we have blue, green, yellow, orange, and then on to red and if we keep going down the line, infrared. Think of it, perhaps, as a very dark red. We perceive different types of energy with our senses. Heat we feel with our skin, sound with our ears and light with our eyes. Our eyes are tuned to a certain area of the light spectrum and we can see from deep blue to deep red. On either side there is energy, but our eyes can't see it. Trying to describe with words to someone what light is that they can't see is exactly like trying to describe color to someone who is colorblind. That's kind of what we face. One could argue that it really doesn't have a color because we can't see it. We call something green not because it reflects green light, but because our brain perceives it as green. We'd have to invent a new name for the color below red in the light spectrum if we suddenly were able to see it. I guess that's why they call it infra-red.

I bring up this point to note that there are those who have used all sorts of devices to "preview" their IR shot to help with composition. Most of us though, tend to fly by the seat of our pants and just use a red filter and manage to do ok. But if you have a fancy new digital video camera or one of the still shot digital cameras that can see IR or possibly a night scope, you may already have an IR preview device. My video camera will do it on a sunny day and I use it from time to time just for that.

For those who may care, we as humans can see to about 720 nanometers. Several black and white films can see just about that far down, usually to about 600nm, some a little farther, some not so far. Kodak has a film that can be developed in dark red light and they also has a panchromatic film that can see quite a range of the color spectrum but perhaps not so far as infrared. Kodak's IR film can see way past what we can into the IR spectrum and can see way above blue light into what is the UV spectrum.

IR film will NOT see heat. Heat itself in no way can expose IR film. So let's get that straight right now. On the other hand an object can get so hot it start emitting light and at that point, IR film can be exposed, but there stands a good chance that regular black and white film could be exposed also.

The light that exposes IR film, the light that we are interested in hangs out in the 700nm to 900nm range. That's why we use a red filter. It cuts out all the colors above red that we don't want to expose our film. If you use IR film without a filter, it will look very much like ordinary black and white film.

Infrared Look and Feel

So how do we tell if we're looking at an IR photograph? The typical IR photo will have one or more of the following: white foliage, black sky, black bodies of water, skin has a unique luminescence, highlights can be quite delicate, and if your using Kodak IR film, halation. It's been notices by some (myself included) that you have to adjust your schema for painting IR a little also. IR prints have very delicate highlights and a light touch with color seems to bring out the best of them.

All one needs to start using IR film is a camera, red 25 filter, a roll of IR film, and dark place to load and unload the film.

I'll mention many places at the end to look at lots of wonderful IR pictures.

Infrared Film

What types of film are available for IR? Well at present we have Kodak, available in 35mm and 70mm, unless you find someone with some 4x5, Kodak stopped manufacturing this a couple yeas ago. We hear from time to time that Konica is stopping production, so we're out of luck there if that runs out. We have Maco, a German made film, available in 35mm, 120, and 4x5, and up. I shoot this in 8x10 and 12x20. Maco has a good selection of formats. It has an extremely clear base, good for reversals, I find it hard to work with. It needs at least an 89b filter to get a good IR effect (an 89b is quite dark). For those who want to assign an ASA to the film, I rate it at 1/2 ASA. That's 1//2 second at f/16 in full sun. A little hard to hand hold, and to the best of my knowledge, no IR film has contacts on the film canister for speed. We'll get into the metering through the filter or not in a minute. Kodak can be set to 50 ASA and metered without the filter, 250 ASA through a red 25, this approaches a decent speed to hand hold. (Do remember that these speeds are recommendations only and not hard and fast rules.)

Maco also has an anti-halation layer. This needs to be pre-rinsed off for a minute or two before you develop your Maco film. Maco seems to be a little slower than HIE but has finer grain and with the anti halation layer may produce sharper images. I've heard that Maco will be increasing their film sensitivity from 820nm to 840nm. This is a plus.

Keep in mind that Kodak and Maco films need to be handled in complete darkness. The thin base will act like a piece of fiber optic and send light right up the roll fogging your expensive film as it goes. I have a rubberized changing bag that I use because it's been found that others can leak light. Even my expensive changing tent has to wait till it's dark in the room to use. It's something you'll have to test on your own bag. Or if I'm going to be local I use my darkroom. Don't even think of opening the plastic canister outside of one of the above. It will fog your film from the first several shots to the whole roll. If you don't have a rubberized changing bag, make sure you're not in direct sunlight, or under bright tungsten lamps or hot lights. Many will say that they have gotten away with changing HIE outside of a bag. Believe me, they were just lucky. Most others have gotten very unpleasant surprises. Better to be safe. It's the same once you've shot and rewound your film. Just do your self a favor and handle it in the dark. Just as an example, a collogue of mine found that the black felt on the HIE canisters reflect IR like a mirror. Not a big deal if you keep it in the dark, otherwise it could be like shinning a flashlight inside the film canister. This phenomenon is the same thing that causes many man-made materials to be transparent to IR. This is the cause of the fad behind buying IR filters for video cameras in order to get the "X-Ray" effect that allows some devices to see through clothing.

Kodak HIE is a great IR film. I like it because of the halation and that you can use a red #25 and get a good IR effect. I buy it in 150 foot rolls for around $160, at least last I checked. This is by far the cheapest for shooting Kodak IR film. This gives you a roll for about $5.75. One can find rolls around from mail order for around $8-$9 and if you have store locally that carries it I've found it to be about $10 a roll, but this does vary from place to place.

When I roll the IR from bulk, I prep 30 spools and canisters, I have 30 canisters that I know are IR safe and when everything is setup I kill the lights and roll all of them at once. I stuff each completed roll in it's canister as to hopefully better protect myself from light damage. Then I stick them in the freezer.

Ilford has a film called SFX. People have actually got an IR effect from this film by using a 715nm filter (very dark red) and some incredible exposure times. So if you have all day to wait for your shutter to trip, it's cheap and may be fun to experiment with. With a red #29 or an 89B you can get some lighter foliage but nothing spectacular.

One last IR film worth mentioning is the EIR, which is false color IR. It's an E-6 process with a thick base that may make your lab squawk about mounting it, and at $20 bucks a roll, not the cheapest to play with. If you have a real hankering to give it a try, contact me directly to get exposure info and I know how to get it for about $10 bucks a roll. Because of it's thick base, your lab may scratch it as it runs through the slide mounting machine. Make sure they turn off all IR devices before they process it also.

Ilford SFX can see to around 720nm or so, Konica 750 can see to, drum roll please, 750 nm, Maco 820c can see to, yes, 820nm (and perhaps 840 soon) and Kodak can see to about 900nm.

I looked around for sensitivity curves for the films, and this is what I found was the HIE. Here is link to the Kodak web site.

Robert Hall

And this one by Ed Scott.


Camera Equipment

So let's talk about our equipment. What kind of camera do you have? Some folks have used a point and shoot, but I'd really recommend a good quality 35mm SLR. And as an important note: our focus and metering systems on our cameras can't see infrared and are calibrated for visible light. This will cause us to alter some of our practices for metering and possibly focusing.

Most of the newer Canon cameras have an IR sensor to help with the film transport that fogs the film pretty good. So be prepared to either crop or perhaps even ruin IR film in the new Canon cameras. This also tends to vary from camera to camera. It seems on some to ruin the whole frame while on others only a portion of it. Some work around this, but I'd opt for a good manual camera back that would work with my lens system. Nikon, Canon (older models like the AE-1, but check the IR FAQ for Canons that work with IR), Minolta, Pentax etc. I use a couple of Nikons, an old FM-2n and an n90s. Both work quite well and they take advantage of my lens system. The N90s has the added advantage of recording my shooting data so I can see how well I exposed my IR and have something to compare it with.

What you don't need is a camera that has a meter. I know, I know, what am I saying? One really can have good success (perhaps even better) without a meter. I just use the sunny 16 rule with HIE based on an ASA of 50.

Konica has a camera that is a rangefinder that you can put an opaque IR filter over the focusing area, meter area, and lens and it works like it was designed for IR shooting, very cool.

Some people worry about things like the film canister window in the camera leaking light, or the back itself. As long as the foam is in good repair I haven't heard of any problems with that happening. Others have found that their pressure plate reflects IR like a mirror. Most do, it's not necessarily a draw back. Although some can take a picture of the sky and see the moderate square where the camera can imprint the date or the dot pattern from the plate on the resultant image. You'll have to check your own equipment for compatibility; we have found that what the manufacturer says is not always true, like the Canon cameras.

I also use a Pentax 67. Thus far I've shot Konica 120 IR film through it with moderate success. Moderate cause I'm not a big fan or Konica. I would much prefer Kodak to make a 120 film to shoot. Rolland Elliot sells cut down IR 120 black and white and color IR from 70mm stock for a reasonable price (reasonable for what you get and the actual cost of IR film). I'll put his address at the end of the article.

Infrared Filters

On to filters. There are a number of types of filters that one can use for IR. From a yellow for the color IR to orange for both color and black and white to a red that is so dark that only IR will penetrate it. Here is a link to see what the cut off of filters are.


Keep in mind that the cut off points are gradual and you can probably squeeze an image out of film shot through a filter that has no business being used. Such as the 89b with SFX. You may end up with an effective film speed of 1 or 1/2 ASA, but it has been done successfully.

The best filter to start with is a red #25. It works well and is quite inexpensive. Some even have a hard time telling the difference between the $15 red 25 and a $50-$200 87c. There is a difference, but perhaps for hand painting a red #25 is your best bet.

One can use different filters to expose IR film, each have some effect on the film, some more than others. The lightest would be no filter at all, Orange, then a red 25, 29, 89b, 88a, 87c and there are others. The numbers represent the Wratten numbering that Kodak has used for years. We have found that just because a filter has a Wratten number, doesn't mean that it has the same optical characteristics that all others do. Quality jumps around from manufacturers and from batches of filters within the same manufacturer also. You will find filters made from several materials such as glass, resin, gelatin, polyester, and unexposed, developed slide film. For further discussion see the IR FAQ at CoCam.com.

The placement of the filters tends to vary based on your application. Yes, of course, there are the screw on types and the Cokin filters. But you can make a "between the rails filter" (or BTRF) for your camera also. I've done it with my Nikon FM. You find a Wratten 87c filter, polyester or gelatin and cut it to fit between the rails of the camera back. Tape it down to each side of the shutter opening and you'll be able to compose, focus, meter and whatever else you care to do. This can be slightly problematic though. First you may end up putting your finger through the shutter blades if your not careful. If you get past that obstacle you need to keep both sides most clean. The filter is within focus proximity to the film plane so you can get some very sharp dust if your not careful. I've gotten a wonderful hair on a roll once. But I've used it and it is a viable option. The next idea is to get a piece of 4x5 chrome film (transparency or slide). You may be able to find an outdated piece at the film store. Have it developed without exposing it. The result should be a black piece of film. If you can double the thickness of the film you approximate an 87c very closely, personally I don't always double it. I use this as a poor mans IR filter. Now it's not exactly optical quality filter material but it does have a look and feel all it's own. Another use of this is to wrap it in front your flash. You can use this as a flash at parties that no one will see or at night to do some IR animal/nature photography. This is also a good way to find out if your digital camera works to preview ir images. Take some unexposed but developed E6 film (slide film that looks black) and hold it over the lens of your electronic camera and take a look. You may find that it can see into the IR spectrum.

Shooting IR film for the first time

Now we have film, camera, filter and a changing bag. I would also suggest a tripod. I think my images are so much better when I use one. If you're using Konica or Maco film you may need one anyway. Other wise it gives you the opportunity to crank down the aperture for a good depth of field.

And for arguments sake let's speak as if we had a roll of Kodak HIE. And you've loaded it carefully in complete darkness. If it was your first time, you may have been all thumbs, don't worry, just like everything it gets a little better with practice.

So how should we meter? I use the sunny 16 rule. I pretend that the film has a speed of about 50-60ASA, set my camera on manual and shoot at f/11 and shutter speed at 1/125s then bracket +/- 1 stop (most of the time.) Then I don't care what the meter may say (remember it's calibrated for visible light anyway, not IR. I usually use a red 25, 29, 89b, and an 87c. When I use the darker filters, I have to adjust film speed accordingly. If you're curious, most of the sites have suggestions on how to set your film speed or what to set the camera at for manual. I don't use the meter because, as I have mentioned before, it is not calibrated for IR. It can give you a good approximation and many folks get good results using a meter. But as time goes by you will find yourself adjusting the way you shoot based on experience. If you shoot at f/11 and shutter at 1/125s you could take notes of the scene, what's in it, and what your meter actually says it should be and compare your result to your notes. It will teach you that what you may have thought would be a much darker scene is actually just fine and vice-versa. (Good advice I got from Laura White's book on IR, my favorite book) Here is the Amazon link:


Go out to a park and shoot your roll taking notes of your subject mater and your meter. Try a shot or two without the filter while your at it, just to give you a taste of what one looks like without. If you can, include shots with the sky, water, clouds, cement, asphalt or roadways, and of course lots of vegetation. The sky will tend to go black, water also. Vegetation is all over the place. Evergreen trees don't reflect IR very well and as you experiment with films it will look better with some than others. Buildings will kind of be a hit and miss, although oft times the white stone will reflect well, but as sure as I say this someone will find an exception to the rule. Use a decent depth of field, like f/11 or better. If your worried that IR focuses closer than standard light you can adjust 1/4% of the focal length to adjust for it. I find it much easier to use f/11 and focus at the ground a little in front of my subject. It will render a sufficiently wide field of focus and should work well enough.

Shooting people with IR film are lots of fun. The more mature ladies like IR. IR is not reflected off the surface of the skin. It's reflected down a few layers. This tends to eliminate blemishes and wrinkles. My boy, who is somewhat of a toe-head with very fair skin, can show veins at times in the images if I have direct sunlight and I'm close. Dark glasses can look like they're not even there. And as I've said, synthetic material may go translucent (so be careful). One thing to remember, you get what we call "Black Eye Syndrome". Peoples eyes go quite dark, even black. If your doing a large print you may be able to dodge this pupils a little or maybe use a little bleach. It's probably the toughest thing to deal with for portraiture.

Run back, unload your film, in complete darkness again, get it into its canister and get it developed ASAP. If you have a sunny day, and set your camera to what I suggested above, and you don't fog your film from getting it exposed to light outside your camera, you will almost certainly have success. Good Luck!

This is where you may want to experiment with your digital camera or video camera as a preview device.

While we're busy exposing our film, here's a little information on the film curve. HIE has three stops of latitude. We can't do the WYSIWYG thing because it sees light that we don't, while we are learning to correctly expose IR we tend to expose it all up and down the straight line, the toe and heel of the curve. We may get absolutely flat prints but with nice halation and grain, or we'll get prints that are so blocked up in the shadows that we spend 80% of the paper exposure time dodging the print. The cool thing is, is if we have this under control and can reproduce it; we have a great possibility for creativity.

Remember, standard rules apply. Expose more, develop less, lower contrast. Expose less, develop more, higher contrast. This stuff is expensive so very few folks tend to do a test with it, but it would pay off in spades if you were to do so.

Developing Infrared Film

If your up to developing your own, as with most films you'll get different results with different developers. The good old stand-bys are D-76, X-Tol, and Rodinal. Here is a link to the massive dev chart.


I tend to agree with most of the times except the X-Tol. Nevertheless keep in mind that these are suggestions and you should do your own experimentation. I use X-Tol and I mix it from the 5 liter packets. I've heard some people have trouble with the 1-liter packages. I cook it for 11 minutes at a 1+1 dilution, at 20C with agitation for the first 30 sec and for 5 sec every 30 sec thereafter. The spec sheet was closer to this a few years ago then all of a sudden one day Kodak reduced the time to 8 1/2 minutes. I've never had good success with such a short dev time in Xtol. So if you want to follow they're times, I'd recommend caution.

And when it comes to printing, I use VC papers. I still have surprises with IR, VC papers give me a chance to fix, uh, err, a, I mean "enhance" my IR prints. Print as you would most, print for the highlights and adjust contrast for the shadows. If you've been to my site, you'll notice that I like to lith print my IR photos quite a bit. They have such delicate highlights and the colors that the process renders are wonderful. I can print negatives with the lith process that I just couldn't otherwise. For standard printing it's possible that you may have to adjust your printing of the negs a little different than you're used to until you really get a good grasp of exposing IR. But once you have a print that you like, when it's painted, it has a dreamy like effect that just can't be gotten any other way.

I hope this will help in your endeavors and help pique your curiosity to try infrared film. Any and all questions are welcome, so feel free. I can be contacted at Robert@RobertHallPhotography.com. The reference section is deceivingly large and is a great resource. Don't be overwhelmed by it and remember that IR is very "touchy, feely" and takes some practice. Good luck in your endeavors.


Color IR images on RobertHall.com

Color IR images on RobertHall.com

Infrared photography by Andy Finney

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