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A Comprehensive Guide to Black and White Infrared Film Photography

Updated: Mar 6

Black and white infrared film photography is a captivating technique that opens up a world of artistic possibilities beyond what the human eye can see. In this article, we'll take a look at this fascinating niche, and look at examples from two infrared films from two ends of the infrared sensitivity spectrum: Kodak HIE and Washi D, as well as exploring their particularities.


While there are still a number of films that touch the infrared spectrum to a greater or lesser extent these days - Ilford SFX, Rollei Infrared, and Rollei Superpan for instance - these are nowhere near as sensitive as the infrared films of old, like Efke IR820 (sensitive to 820nm, surprisingly), and Kodak HIE (sensitive to ~900nm).


What is Infrared Film Photography?

Infrared film records light that is invisible to the human eye. The human eye is only able to see a portion of the electromagnetic spectrum, known as visible light, which ranges from 400 to 700 nanometers in wavelength. Infrared light has a longer wavelength, from 700 to 1000 nanometers, and is therefore beyond our visual perception.


A black and white infrared photograph of an avenue in Greenwich Park.
An avenue in Greenwich Park. Washi D, Olympus OM-1, 28mm f/3.5, Red 25 filter, developed in Xtol.

Some photographic films have been manufactured which are sensitive to infrared light, and can record it on their emulsion. Infrared films produce images that are very different from what we normally see. They can reveal details that are obscured by haze, fog, or smog, as infrared light can penetrate these atmospheric conditions better than visible light. They can also create dramatic tonal contrasts, as infrared light is reflected differently by various objects and materials.

 

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For example, vegetation, such as grass, leaves, and flowers, reflects a lot of infrared light, and appears bright or even white in infrared images. On the other hand, water, sky, and some synthetic fabrics absorb most of the infrared light, and appear dark or even black in infrared images (thus, a white sky is rendered in heavy contrast). Human skin also reflects some infrared light, and can look pale or ghostly in infrared portraits; in fact, infrared films can render blemished skin as smooth as if it were unblemished.


A black and white infrared photograph of the London Skyline from Primrose Hill
The London Skyline from Primrose Hill. Note how the sky is notably darker than it would be on normal panchromatic film (where it would be a white sky); the sky was deep blue with willowy clouds overhead. Note the buildings are practically shadows, since they reflect so little infrared light over such a distance. Kodak HIE, Olympus OM-1, 50mm f/1.4, R72 and CPL filters, 1/30s at f/11, developed in DDX.

How did Infrared Film Photography start?

Infrared film dates back to the early 20th century, when scientists and photographers began to explore the potential of this invisible light. The first infrared photograph was taken in 1910 by Robert Williams Wood, an American physicist who used experimental film plates that required very long exposures to capture enough infrared light.


Infrared film photography became more accessible in the 1930s, when Kodak developed film emulsions that were responsive to infrared light. By 1937, more than 30 black and white infrared film stocks were available to consumers, brought to market by five different manufacturers. Infrared film photography gained popularity among enthusiasts and professionals alike, who were fascinated by its unique aesthetic and creative possibilities.


Infrared film photography also had practical applications in various fields, such as military, scientific, medical, and forensic photography. During World War I and World War II, infrared film was used for aerial reconnaissance and camouflage detection, as it could reveal details that were hidden or distorted by haze or smoke. Infrared film was also used for studying plant physiology, detecting diseases and injuries, and identifying counterfeit documents.


What filters do I need to maximise the infrared effect?

Since infrared films are not only sensitised to the infrared spectrum, you need to attach filters to block all or some of the visible spectrum for the IR energy to be visible on the film, otherwise the visible light spectrum will simply crowd out the IR spectrum.


For instance, when you use an R72 filter with Kodak HIE, you'll get a strong and distinct infrared effect, with white foliage, black water, and dark skies. On the other hand, trying a red 25 filter with Washi D can produce a different artistic look, with more subtle tonal variations and less contrast. The beauty of working with these filters lies in the artistic possibilities they offer.


A black and white infrared photograph of a view up a hill  in Greenwich Park.
Greenwich Park on Washi D. The Sky is dark, the trees have some IR reflectance but the main IR reflectance is in the grass at the bottom of the image, to the point where it got blown out in spots. Washi D, Olympus OM-1, 28mm f/3.5, Red 25 filter, developed in Xtol.

There are two main types of filters that are used for infrared film photography: infrared filters and contrast filters. Infrared filters are designed to block most of the visible light and transmit only the infrared light. They are usually dark red, orange, or black in colour, and have a high filter factor. Some examples of infrared filters are the Hoya R72, the B+W 092, and the Lee 87.


Contrast filters are designed to enhance the contrast between different colours in the visible spectrum. They are usually lighter in colour, such as yellow, orange, or red, and have a lower filter factor. Some examples of contrast filters are the yellow 8, the orange 21, the red 25, and the red 29.


A black and white infrared photograph of people enjoying a picnic in the park.
Picnic in the park. Notice how the sky here is particularly black. I presume the angle of the sun has something to do with it (combined with the polarizing filter). Kodak HIE, Olympus OM-1, 50mm f/1.4, R72 and CPL filters, 1/60s f/8, developed in DDX.

The choice of filter depends on the type of film you use, the scene you shoot, and the effect you want to achieve. Generally speaking, infrared filters work better with films that have a higher sensitivity to infrared light, such as Kodak HIE. Contrast filters work better with films that have a lower sensitivity to infrared light, such as Washi D. However, there is no definitive rule, and you can experiment with different combinations of films and filters to find your own style.


Remember that the more visible light you block, the greater the IR effect; but also remember the extent of the sensitivity into the IR spectrum for the film you're shooting - if the film you're shooting only goes to 720nm, then if you put an R72 filter on, which blocks everything under 720nm, you will get a blank exposure, no matter how long you expose for, as the film will be blind to any of the energy reaching it.


Finally, if you really want to amp the contrast up, try combining the IR or contrast filter with a circular polariser. Just remember to meter for the polariser before adjusting the exposure for the IR filter.


How do I meter for infrared film photography?

With infrared photography, light meters become unreliable, because they are geared for the visible spectrum. Because most light meters are incapable of metering infrared light, and because infrared energy varies in proportion to visible light energy significantly based on time of the year, position of the sun, and reflectance of the objects you are photographing, relating the sensitivity of infrared film in terms of an ISO number is not particularly useful, and so light meters can only be a guide, not an exact science. For instance, HIE has a notional ISO of 400, and Washi D a notional ISO of 500, when exposed to visible light. But if the level of infrared light vs visible light is not proportional, then those numbers mean nothing.


A black and white infrared photograph of an ancient tree in Greenwich Park.
The Ancient. One of the ancient trees in Greenwich Park. Washi D, Olympus OM-1, 28mm f/2.8, Red 25 filter, developed in Xtol.

For example, with a film like Washi D which is only sensitive to near infrared, you would use a red 25 filter, which allows some visible light to be recorded on the film alongside the infrared. So a meter reading adjusted for the filter factor of the red 25 filter (typically 3-4 stops compensation) is usually fine. My rule of thumb is to expose at f/5.6-f/11 1/125s in full sunlight, adjusting the aperture based on the amount of likely infrared reflectance (i.e. a wider aperture where there is more sky, more buildings, less vegetation, and vice versa).


With a film like Kodak HIE, however, you will use an R72 or stronger filter, which blocks all visible light. Light meters will not behave well metering through an R72 and will not give a good exposure reading. Here, you need to experiment based on the subject you are photographing, A meter reading can only be a viable starting point for your exposure, combined with the knowledge you have experimenting with different subjects at different times of the year, in different lighting conditions. A summary of Kodak's data sheet for HIE is - start with a meter reading based on a notional film speed of EI 25 with an R72 filter, and then make exposures in half stop increments from -1 to +1 stops either side. When you've built up enough knowledge of how the film handles in various light conditions, then you can start to be faster and looser with bracketing.


A black and white infrared photograph of a copse on Primrose Hill, with a runner exiting stage left.
Runner on Primrose Hill. Luckily, having bracketed 2 of my 3 bracket shots, this runner arrived in the last shot, and fortunately that was the shot that showed the best exposure. Kodak HIE, Olympus OM-1, 50mm f/1.4, R72 and CPL filters, 1/60s f/8, developed in DDX.

One additional note on the difference between films like Washi D and Kodak HIE is this - with Washi D, you can typically compose and focus through the lens, without removing the filter and re-attaching it. This means you likely won't need a tripod. With HIE, using an R72 filter, you will absolutely need a tripod, as you will need to compose, focus, adjust focus to the IR mark, and then attach the filter and shoot. Keep this in mind when deciding what sort of IR photography you want to do.


How do I focus when capturing infrared shots?

The infrared spectrum of energy focuses differently through camera lenses, typically a little behind where the visible spectrum focuses. This means that, where you are using a stronger contrast or full IR filter, you need to focus differently, otherwise your images will be slightly blurry.


There are two ways to handle this. You can either use a wider angle lens (28mm or wider), and stop down to f/8 or narrower, which would usually counteract any minor difference in focal plane because of the depth of focus at that aperture with that focal length. Or, if you have an older manual focus lens with an IR mark on it (this tends to be a red dot that is just past the focus mark on the depth of field scale on the lens barrel), then you can properly adjust the infrared focusing point by focusing with the visible light, then moving the focus from the focus mark to the IR focus mark.


If you are shooting a weaker filter, the presence of more visible light in your image will compensate enough usually to bring enough focused light onto the film so as to negate the need to compensate the IR focus.


Do I need to handle infrared film differently to normal film?

Infrared film is exceptionally sensitive to light, so it requires careful handling during loading and development. With Kodak HIE, it's crucial to load the film in complete darkness to avoid any light exposure. Unloading should also be done in a light-sealed environment. This is due to a number of factors: firstly, the felt light trap on the 35mm canister does not block IR light as effectively as it blocks visible light; secondly, the film is on clear PET base, which allows any and all light (IR or otherwise) to travel through it very effectively, so the leader acts as a funnel into the canister; and thirdly, the film has no anti-halation layer, so any light that does penetrate through the leader is then free to bounce around inside and expose the inner parts of the film.


A black and white infrared photograph of a copse of trees at the bottom of Primrose Hill.
The Jury. A group of trees at the bottom of Primrose Hill that stand facing towards London, they looked like a jury when I set up this shot. Kodak HIE, Olympus OM-1, 50mm f/1.4, R72 and CPL filters, 1/125s f/11, developed in DDX.

Washi D is more forgiving and doesn't demand complete darkness during loading. You shouldn't necessarily load it in full sunlight, or even in subdued daylight, but you don't need to be as precious about it.


However, both films should be kept in their original packaging until ready to use. Following these handling procedures ensures the best results and prevents unwanted light leaks.


A black and white infrared photograph of a line of trees in Greenwich Park.
Trees in Greenwich Park. The line up of these trees was pleasing as a composition. Note the blowing out of the sky towards the horizon. Washi D, Olympus OM-1, 28mm f/3.5, Red 25 filter, developed in Xtol.

What are the unique characteristics of Kodak High Speed Infrared film?

Kodak HIE possesses some distinctive traits that set it apart from other infrared films, quite apart from its extended sensitivity to close to 1000nm. Notably, it lacks an anti-halation layer. This is a layer that prevents light from reflecting back from the base of the film or the pressure plate of the camera. Without this layer, Kodak HIE can produce intriguing halo-like effects around bright areas in your photos. These effects are also known as blooming or flare. These quirks add a touch of unpredictability and uniqueness to your images. However, if your pressure plate is not smooth, then you can get some rather undesirable dimple spots on your images that are hard, if not impossible, to eliminate completely. One way of combating this is to take the backing paper from a roll of 120 film and stick it to the pressure plate, creating a smooth surface over the dimpled pressure plate.


A black and white infrared photograph looking down on the Regent's Canal from a footbridge near London Zoo.
The Regent's Canal near London Zoo. The dimple effect is noticeably prominent in the sky in this photograph. Kodak HIE, Olympus OM-1, 50mm f/1.4, R72 and CPL filters, 1/60s f/8. Developed in DDX.

Kodak HIE does have some drawbacks that you should be aware of. First of all, it has been discontinued since 2007, which means it is hard to find and expensive to buy. It also has a fairly coarse grain (quite coarser than a typical 400 speed film) and relatively low resolution, which means it can lose detail and sharpness if enlarged too much. Therefore, Kodak HIE is not a film for everyone, but rather for those who appreciate its challenges and charms.


What are the artistic effects I can achieve with infrared film?

Infrared film introduces a new dimension to your photography, transforming ordinary scenes into captivating, otherworldly landscapes. The sky takes on a mysterious dark tone, foliage appears bright and almost surreal, and buildings adopt a deeper, more dramatic look. People often seem ghostly in infrared images due to the way their surfaces reflect infrared light. These effects combine to create a surreal and intriguing atmosphere that can capture the imagination of viewers.


Infrared film photography offers a fresh perspective on the world around us. By revealing what the naked eye can't see, it invites us to explore new avenues of beauty and artistic expression. Whether you're an experienced photographer or a beginner, experimenting with infrared film can be an exciting journey into the realm of hidden wonders and uncharted creative possibilities.


A black and white infrared photograph of a line of trees on Primrose Hill, with two particularly highlighted.
The Chosen Pair. The light seems to have picked out the two trees to the left of the middleground. Kodak HIE, Olympus OM-1, 50mm f/1.4, R72 and CPL filters, 1/60s f/11, developed in DDX.

Some of the artistic effects that have been illustrated in the images above, and that you can achieve with infrared film photography are:

  • Wood Effect: This is the effect of making foliage appear white or bright in infrared images. This is because chlorophyll, the pigment that makes plants green, reflects a lot of infrared light. This effect can create a striking contrast between the vegetation and the sky, and can also highlight the texture and shape of the leaves and branches.

  • Halo Effect: This is the effect of creating halo-like glows around bright areas in infrared images. This is caused by the lack of an anti-halation layer in some infrared films, such as Kodak HIE. The anti-halation layer prevents light from bouncing back from the base of the film or the pressure plate of the camera. Without this layer, some light can scatter and create flare or blooming around bright areas. This effect can add a touch of mystery or magic to your images.

  • Infrared Portrait Effect: This is the effect of creating portraits with infrared film. Infrared portraits can have a very different look from normal portraits, as human skin reflects some infrared light and can appear pale or ghostly. Infrared portraits can also reveal details that are not visible in normal light, such as veins, scars, or tattoos. This effect can create a haunting or ethereal mood, and can also reveal something about the personality or mood of the subject.


 

Infrared film photography is a rewarding and enjoyable hobby that can unleash your creativity and expand your horizons. By using different films and filters, you can experiment with various effects and styles that suit your vision and mood. Whether you want to create dramatic landscapes, haunting portraits, or abstract compositions, infrared film photography can help you achieve your goals.


In this article, we have explored the fascinating realm of infrared film photography, with a particular focus on two popular films: Kodak HIE and Washi D. We have covered the basics of infrared energy, the history of infrared film photography, the tips and tricks for mastering exposure and using filters, the proper handling of infrared film during loading and development, the unique characteristics of Kodak HIE, and the artistic effects of infrared film. We hope you found this article helpful and interesting, and that it inspired you to try this technique for yourself.

 

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