Friday, August 8, 2008

Introducing the InfraRebel

Flushing Meadow

I've been working with single-lens reflex cameras for over 26 years now, and in that time I've had a chance to work with all but a few of the films and processes that interested me. The films I've shot have included Tri-X and Plus-X, of course, the two legacy black and white emulsions from Kodak. I've kvelled before on these pages over my beloved Panatomic-X, the ISO 25 b/w film so cruelly discontinued in the late 1980's, but never mentioned another 25 speed film, the virtually grainless Ektar color print film, part of a line of print films that Kodak introduced around the same time they killed Pan-X. Ektar 25 was the best color print film I ever shot, but like most of my favorite Kodak products, was discontinued within a couple of years.

Kings Park

I've shot all three flavors of Kodachrome while they were available, as well as the various consumer and professional Ektachrome emulsions in all their various speeds. Not to mention Fujifilm, print and slide (I shot Velvia back when it was just a 50 speed slide film) and a really neat, high-speed and grainy (but grainy in a good way, in a Georges Seraut pointillism way) slide film made by Agfa that clocked in at 1000 ISO, which was pretty good for 1986.

For high-speed black and white I liked Kodak Recording film, which I would push to 1600. After that left the shelves I started using Ilford’s XP film, a chromatic black and white film. Chromatic b/w is based on a color emulsion, so it produces its grayscale with color dyes, rather than silver halide crystals. This eventually became the film I bought by the brick throughout the 90’s since, as a color film, it could be processed by any minilab, and I could over- and under-expose it at any point in the roll, effectively changing the ISO speed mid-roll, which is impossible to do with conventional black and white film.

Rye Playland

I got a Polaroid Spectra when it first came out. The Spectra was the first one-piece instant film in a horizontal format. I got it mostly for the novelty of an instant camera, never having had one, but there are a number of prints from that camera I’m quite proud of. Around the same time, a friend gave me an original SX-70 that was lying around one of his closets. That then laid around one of my closets for a few years, until I put it to work. Something many people may not know is that today I have a collection of nine or ten Land cameras from the 1960’s and 70’s, including two Model 150’s in mint condition: one a complete kit with leather carrying case, instruction manual and warranty card, even the receipt from Sears, Roebuck. (I think it was for $125. In 1961. That’s around $900 today.)

A couple of things I never got around to doing were Polaroid transfers, or lifting the emulsion of the older style peel-apart films and fixing it on another substrate, like watercolor paper, Bristol board or even clear acetate. Always wanted to, just never got enough time to get all the materials together and experiment. And now I guess I never will, nor will anyone.

Rye Playland

The other thing I always wanted to try was infrared photography, but was more put off by the PITA factor and the expense. Not that the film was expensive, maybe a bit more than others in the 80’s, but not ridiculous. It was the filter that was costly, necessary, and the secondary pain in the ass. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Infrared film, if you don’t know or haven’t Wikipedia’d it yet, is sensitive to both the visible as well as the infrared light spectrum. Without a filter, infrared negatives differ from conventional negatives only in contrast, with the IR giving a flatter image, a lower contrast. Blocking most of the blue spectrum from the exposure, and thus leaving only the near-red and infrared is done with dark red filters, to block the entire blue and visible-red wavelengths requires an opaque IR 72 filter.

It’s the filter that’s the PITA and the expense. Opaque filter. Long exposure. Tripod. Composing and focusing, then putting the filter on. Did I mention that there’s no real guide for exposure times? You bracket like hell, take notes and match everything up when the negs come back. Oh, and the film has to be loaded and unloaded in total darkness, processed as soon as possible (with special development times, ergo custom processing prices) and lots of newer cameras had infrared film counters that would fog the film while it was in the camera. The film would fog itself just from common background radiation. Some older cameras weren’t light tight enough for it. And the filters cost hundreds of dollars.

Freeport, New York

But the pictures were gorgeous. And now it’s relatively easy to accomplish, though still pricy. And it enables you to take handheld IR pictures without a filter or a tripod. It’s also a modification that disables the camera from doing any other type of photography, so my original Canon Rebel was an obvious choice. While it would have been nice to have the controls and features of the 20D, I needed that as a backup for sports. It’s actually been fun using the Rebel after all these years, although I’d completely forgotten that there’s no way to select a metering mode.

Digital sensors, unlike film, see the infrared spectrum just as well as visible light; to counter this a low-pass IR filter is placed over the sensor to block the infrared spectrum. Modifying the camera entails the removal of this filter, and replacing it with an IR 72 filter. This puts the filter behind the lens and meter, enabling a photographer to hand hold, see, compose, and allow the camera’s autofocus to work. In short, a miracle: Infrared for the masses. I hope you all enjoy these as I'm enjoying making them.


Anonymous said...

What building was that with the clouds and the infrared shrubs? That rocks!

Very cool. Very eerie. (Sharon will have a suitable poly-syllabic word for the emotions the photos evoke. I just like 'em.)

Steve Rogg said...

Back in oh 1973 or so Ron Marino and yours truly did a color IR film strip. It was a little story of a crazed being that like to kill and maim people. The one thing I remember from the colors was the red Heinz 57 used for blood was very yellow on the film. We used a Yachica TL-EletroX. How's that for an old camera. I believe Ron still has that film strip in his collection.

Sharon said...

Man, I don't understand a single thing you said there, but I love the way you say it!
I also like that Freeport building; it looks like a ruin with waves crashing all around it.

Oh, and it evokes emotions of an antidisestablishmentarianistic nature.