Week 18: Rollei Infrared film

Experimenting with infrared film was both challenging and very fun. My jump into the unknown paid off with some interesting shots. Join me for a walk into the infrared spectrum!

I've been meaning to try out infrared film for a while, and I am glad I finally got round to it. It required quite a bit of research, and at times I felt like I was back in Physics class in school! As well as researching how to shoot infrared properly, I also had to purchase a special infrared filter for my camera.

Before I get into the photographs, let's have a quick look at what infrared film photography actually means. Regular black and white films are sensitive to the ultra-violet to red spectrum of light, whereas infrared film is sensitive to the full visual spectrum of light, as well as into the infrared spectrum. In simple terms, infrared is what goes beyond the red spectrum, and our eyes cannot see it!

Infrared photography refers to near-infrared, whereas far-infrared is where thermal imaging comes into play. More on the history of its development and application here.

The effect of infrared photography

It's all about what reflects infrared in your photograph, so for example anything green (trees, grass, plants), comes out very bright, whereas a bright blue sky (with little infrared reflectivity) comes out black. Infrared photography is also very good at cutting through fog and haze in a scene, as these have little infrared effect.

In my view, the real challenge in infrared photography is getting the exposure right. The film used is sensitive to infrared light but needs an additional helping hand: an infrared filter. This blocks out all visible light and only lets infrared light through the lens and onto the film. And given it blocks out all visible light, when you put it on the camera you can't see anything - it's black! Photo below showing my infrared filter with the heat of the sun coming through.

Exposure and focusing challenges

Rollei Infrared film is rated at ISO 400. However, in order to get the full infrared effect and to compensate for the addition of the (very black) infrared filter, you need to expose about 5 stops below ISO 400, so 400-200-100-50-25: about ISO 25. A "stop" means doubling or halving the amount of light you let through the lens. More on that here. I figured I would try out measuring the light at ISO 25 and see what I get.

An additional challenge is getting the focus right. Why? Simply speaking, because the wavelengths of infrared light are different than those of visible light and the lens bends them differently. This is where we get into detailed optics, and I'd rather take someone else's word for it and go shoot photographs.

Thankfully the lens I used has an infrared marking (red marking) on it showing where infinity is for the infrared scale. As I planned on shooting mostly landscapes where my subjects were far away, I just set the focus scale to that red marking. You can see it clearly in the photos below where I show the Hasselblad viewfinder and lens.

One final challenge was loading the film, which should be done in as near darkness as possible. After some fiddling around I managed to do it in full darkness, although I seem to have had some small light leaks early on in the photographs, I am not sure why.

And now for the photographs

For once I was actually seeking out the middle of a very bright day, to maximise the infrared effect. I usually prefer shooting closer to sunrise or sunset as the light is better and softer. My first attempt below, with some light leaking issues. This was taken in the very north of Germany, outside a town called Norden, in East Frisia. Some IR effect, but not as much as I would have hoped for.

Attempt #2 and a bit better, some IR effect from the green grass, but not really bringing out the black sky I was expecting. Next time I try out this film I will likely expose at ISO 12 or even 6.

The following shot was also taken in the very north of Germany, enroute back to Frankfurt. Remember that the Hasselblad viewfinder reverses the image, it does take a while to get used to that, especially when you move the camera!

I was interested in a before and after shot - I also composed the image first and then put on the infrared filter (as you can't see anything through the viewfinder then!). Starting to see better results, I thought this one came out well.

This was taken next to a small town just outside of Frankfurt and right across the Autobahn from the airport. There is a big lake that is used extensively in the summer, but of course now it is completely empty and I figured it would have some interesting subjects to try out for their infrared look.

These shots are where you can really see the infrared effect coming out,  it certainly has a bit of a spooky effect to it!

The far end of the lake, I though there would be a bigger contrast between the bright vegetation and the dark sky/water. As for all of these, probably needs the lens to be open a bit longer and let more light in.

The next shot is my favourite of the roll. The sun was also behind me, which must say something about how to shoot with infrared film. The IR effect is very visible here, look how bright the leaves are - very cool!

A church right next to my house, some IR effect but nothing to write home about. Also probably not the best position with the sun right behind the church.

I quite like this one as the sun was hitting the very green building and it seems to have had a strong effect on the final photograph. In real life it is actually a very nice building, but in IR it looks like it fits right in a horror movie!

Overall impressions

I am very satisfied with my experimenting with IR film, and the extensive research beforehand paid off - it worked! There are not that many true IR films on the market, and even fewer professional developers who will process it for you. That being said, if you know what you are doing and can find a reputable lab, then it can be a very fun experience indeed.

I am definitely trying this film again. I will probably change my exposure settings, but I should be able to get some good results in the warmer summer sky. There is plenty of green areas around Frankfurt, so I don't need to go far. I think having a half clear and half cloudy sky will really bring out the IR effect. There is also an "infrared effect" film by Ilford (SFX 200) that I am going to try out (it is waiting patiently in my fridge!).

So there you have it, you probably know more about infrared film than you would ever need to or want to know! But it goes to show you, life is all about trying out new things - and sometimes it pays off!

So get on out there and try to see the world through a different lens - and snap away!