Recently I gave an interview about my IR work to Tierwelt, a Swiss magazine that covers nature and environmental issues. As usually, only a part of the answers makes it into the magazine. So here is the complete email exchange. Good questions, by the way. Thanks Matthias!
I have translated it rudimentarily with DeepL.
What was your first contact with infrared photography? How and when did you become interested in it and try it out yourself?
That was about ten years ago. I was out in nature a lot to take photos. Normal photos with normal cameras. By chance, I came across the work of Richard Mosse on the Internet, an Irish photographer who documented the civil war in the Congo with old IR false-color film (Kodak Aerochrome). That triggered something in me. I ordered my first IR camera, a Nikon D70, and was blown away by the surreality of the images. Everything was different and yet somehow realistic.
What do you see in infrared images that you don’t see in regular photos? What is the attraction for you?
In the well-known, almost “classic” digital IR images, you see white trees, dark blue sky and extremely contrasty clouds. These are the typical features, which primarily have to do with the fact that different things in our environment reflect and absorb IR radiation differently. For example, plants respond particularly strongly to IR light, and infrared cuts through haze and cloud veils much better than visible “wavelengths,” so landscape images often have extreme distance visibility and lots of contrast. For me, it’s these features and the fact that IR photography actually allows you to look into a world invisible to the human eye that fascinate me. I am someone who looks for the special, the new, the undiscovered and the obscure. I also like to be outside in the mountains and combine IR photography with hiking. Therefore this fits quite well.
Can you describe in simple words what is happening technically?
Light is electromagnetic radiation. The color we see corresponds to different wavelengths measured in nanometers. 450nm corresponds to blue, 650nm to red. Humans can see up to about 700nm. Anything above that is called near infrared and is radiation invisible to us. Infrared also means something like “beyond red”. IR cameras “see” up to about 1000nm. After that comes thermal radiation, i.e. far infrared, which is not recorded by normal cameras.
Can I do this with my (SLR) camera? Do I need special equipment? A modification of the equipment? A special film? Post-processing?
It depends on the model. With most models, especially older ones, it is sufficient to screw an IR filter in front of the lens (it blocks the visible light and allows only radiation from about 720nm). However, the exposure time is very long because the infrared is still blocked by the internal IR blocking filter. This is present in every camera and its purpose is to create images that correspond to what we can see with our own eyes. But most cameras can be modified. Some are very easy to do, such as the Nikon D70, which can be disassembled and “freed” from its blocking filter in just a few steps. The result is a full-spectrum camera that registers from UV to visible to near-infrared. Different filters are then used to allow or block out certain wavelengths. On the computer, you can then play with the color channels to create different color palettes.
You write on your website about a “concealment tactic”. What do you disguise with your images? Isn’t it the opposite? The uncovering of the invisible?
One can definitely see it that way. But at the same time, I’m veiling the image of a landscape that is visible to us. My project “Hidden Realms” was originally designed to use IR photography to show perhaps rather unknown places, valleys or landscapes in my region, the Bernese Oberland. Today, the whole thing is no longer so clearly defined.
To what extent do you think your images stimulate the viewer’s imagination?
Perhaps they recognize that we view the world through a particular lens (our eye) and that lens does not necessarily reflect reality. Other species see the world differently. Certain animals can see IR (or ultraviolet light, which is at the lower end of the light spectrum) and perceive their environment differently. Snakes, for example, can perceive far-infrared and thus thermal radiation – which helps them hunt in the dark. Certain fish like salmon can see near-infrared, which helps them swim in murky waters. It all has to do with evolution. But my images are primarily about the landscape and making overwhelming scenery like mountain cliffs, storm clouds or waterfalls even more overwhelming. Ideally, my photos should evoke emotions or inspire art projects. But I think that the viewer must have a certain affinity for the fantastic or surreal to like it.
What do you know about the original uses of IR photography? Keyword military, but also other?
As with many technological achievements, the military was a driving factor in IR photography. In the 1940s, Kodak’s Aerochrome false-color IR film was developed specifically for the U.S. Air Force. Planes flew over forested enemy territory and captured images with it. Since healthy plants reflected infrared particularly strongly and appeared red in the resulting photos, green-camouflaged enemy positions became visible. IR photography is also used for forestry and plant studies, in astronomy, and even in archaeology for the search for remnants of human civilizations. In the 1960s, when psychedelic music and art were in vogue, photographers discovered this film for themselves. There are various covers of music records, for example by Black Sabbath or Jimi Hendrix, that were photographed with Aerochrome.
You shoot mainly landscapes. What do you think IR photography is particularly suitable for? People often look funny, don’t they? What about animals? I’ve seen the ibex and a duck on your site. They don’t look much different from a black and white picture, or am I wrong?
Yes, landscape or even architecture might work best, but you can’t say that in general. People look rather pale, the skin velvety and somehow artificial, but that can also be pleasing. With animals it depends on fur and plumage and on how much visible light (i.e. color) the filter allows to pass in addition to the IR. From 720nm the photos become increasingly monochromatic.
Does the color green change the most? I see many trees that look completely white. Another picture from Kandersteg has blood red firs. Are these completely different techniques?
See previous answers. It’s not the color green that matters, but the material (or rather here) organic properties. The effect is greatest with plants, which has partly to do with photosynthesis. And the different color palettes have to do with filtration. You can buy filters that let pass either only IR or, for example, IR and red or IR and blue. Then, depending on post-processing, firs become yellow, white, or red, for example.
You wrote about digital Aerochrome and I tried to understand it. You are trying to get the same result with digital settings as otherwise only a special photo paper can, did I understand that correctly? Can you tell me more about this?
Yeah, this is where it gets pretty “nerdy.” Aerochrome is Kodak’s IR false color film mentioned above, which has been out of production for years, and remaining rolls are trading at top prices on Ebay. Since film works differently than a DSLR, you can’t really achieve this look with modern cameras. However, I have found a filter from a US manufacturer that, with some post-processing, achieves the same results as Aerochrome: plants are shown in rich pinks, reds and purples, the sky becomes dark blue, and many things change color – red cars become yellow, yellow ones become white, and so on. I have posted various articles about this on my website. This is also a fascination for me: In IR photography you can still make discoveries and create new things.