You may have noticed some odd-looking photographs on the pages of Cemetery Art. The vegetation in many of these photos is usually white or light yellow. Many viewers mistakenly believe that the vegetation is covered with snow or ice.
In other photos, the vegetation is bright red, pink, or yellow. In these cases, people think we have added some psychedelic color preset to the original image.
Neither is true. These images were taken with cameras designed to capture infrared light. What is infrared light?
A Bit About “Light”
Before answering that question, we need to discuss what we refer to as “light.” We use the term to refer to our eyes’ ability to perceive objects and colors. But we usually leave out the first part of its description: visible. Visible light is a form of electromagnetic radiation (EMR), consisting of two parts — electric and magnetic.
Although we often think we “see” most of our world, we actually see only a small fraction of it. The Visible Light portion of the electromagnetic radiation spectrum represents a small sliver of the broader EMR spectrum.
As the chart above shows, x-rays, ultraviolet light (UV), infrared light (IR), FM radio, etc. are all forms of the same electromagnetic radiation. All EMR travels at the same speed: the speed of light. What distinguishes one form from another is its wavelength.
Perhaps the best example of EMR wavelengths we encounter is when tuning our radios. We need to push a button so our radio can receive the signals from the desired bandwidth (AM or FM), as each is configured for a certain range of wavelengths. When we adjust the dial, we are telling the radio to tune into the specific wavelength of our desired station. The properties of the AM and FM radio wavelengths also explain many of the differences in signal strength, quality of sound, and coverage.
In the same way, our eyes are able to “tune into” electromagnetic wavelengths between 400-700 nanometers (measurement of wavelength). Each color can be measured for its specific wavelength just like each radio station is represented by a specific wavelength on our car’s radio.
How Our Eyes See Color
What happens when we see a red flower? The flower absorbs all the wavelengths of the visible light spectrum except those between 625nm-740nm (wavelength range of red). The energy at this wavelength is reflected back (like a mirror) from the flower’s red petals and our eye’s rods and cones process this color as “red.”
I’ve heard people say, “Wouldn’t it be great if our eyes could see all these other forms of ‘energy?’” The answer is a resounding “no.” If our eyes were capable of seeing radio waves, microwaves, and broadband signals (long radio waves), our world would be a confusing mess. Imagine for a moment, not only hearing that annoying conversation of someone speaking loudly on their cellphone a few feet away in a public restaurant, but “seeing” the multitude of cellphone signals coming through the air. That would be enough to cause anyone to lose their appetite.
Back to our question: what is infrared light? Infrared light (or IR) is that portion of the electromagnetic spectrum just beyond the limit of one end of the visible light spectrum (red). Since our eyes cannot see infrared light, some refer to it as the “unseen world.” We can only detect it by devices that sensitive to it, such as thermometers, infrared film, digital camera sensors, and other instruments. Just beyond the other end of the visible light spectrum — violet — lies ultraviolet light, which I will cover in another article.
“What do we call visible light? We call it color. But the electromagnetic spectrum runs to zero in one direction and infinity in the other, so really, children, mathematically, all of light is invisible.”
— Anthony Doerr (All the Light We Cannot See)
Discovery Of Infrared Radiation
In 1800, a talented German astronomer and composer, Frederick William Herschel, was reflecting sunlight through a prism and using a thermometer to record the temperatures of the various colors of light.
When Herschel moved his thermometer just outside the edge of the visible light spectrum (red), he noticed something odd. Instead of the temperate decreasing, it rose. This led him to conclude there was a form of light beyond what our eyes could detect. That energy was produced by infrared light.
History Of Infrared Photography
The first forays into IR photography began in the early part of the 20th century. Robert Woods, credited with being the Father of Infrared and Ultraviolet Photography, was able to create glass panels that filtered out visible light, allowing only infrared and ultraviolet to pass through. Kodak began producing IR film for the professional and amateur photographers in the 1930s.
During WWI, IR photography proved extremely valuable, because the IR spectrum was not affected as much by atmospheric haze as normal photos. IR images showed stark distinctions between vegetation and buildings, enabling bombers to identify camouflaged munitions factories from their surroundings. Rivers, streams, lakes, and other waterways were depicted in a dark hue, making them much more obvious, as seen below.
During the 1930s and 1940s, filmmakers introduced a variety of infrared-sensitive films that attracted both amateur photographers and Hollywood filmmakers. Warner Brothers used infrared film to film sequences in the movie, The Bride Came COD.
In the 1960s, IR photography continued to grow in popularity, being used to film some of the leading musicians of the day, such as Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan.
Contrast the image of Dylan taken in the 1960s with infrared film with the two photos I took with my modified Nikon D750 DSLR using a 550nm infrared filter from Kolari Vision in 2018.
With the introduction of the digital camera in the late 1990s, both regular and IR photography changed significantly. Although not designed to do so, digital camera sensors were able to capture infrared light. As such, the camera manufacturers had to install filters in front of the digital sensor to filter out both infrared and ultraviolet light.
IR Conversion companies — whose mission is to remove infrared blocking filters and allow infrared light to reach the sensor — sprung up in the early 2000s. After removing the infrared blocking filter, these companies installed a filter to allow IR light to reach the sensor. Thus for a $250-$350 fee, anyone could convert a digital camera into one specializing in capturing IR light.
My first IR camera was a Nikon D40X, a humble 10.2MP DSLR, converted using a 720nm filter. It seems modest by today’s technology standards, but it allowed me to take some stunning pictures while I mastered IR photography and associated post-processing techniques.
Law enforcement officials found they could rely on IR photography to detect forensic evidence not discerned through normal eyesight. Other applications for IR include remote controls (TVs, radios, etc.) and trailcams and security cameras, which rely on IR light so as not to startle their subjects.
Caveat — Near Infrared vs. Thermal Imaging
Digital cameras do a good job of recording “near IR” light — wavelengths between ~750nm – 1000nm. Another aspect of the IR spectrum, above near IR, is associated with thermal imaging. Thermal technology was popularized by movies such as, “Patriot Games” and other thrillers, whereby intelligence agencies or military personnel are able to detect villains by measuring their body heat in the dark.
The Qualities Of Infrared Light
Reflected IR light produces an array of surreal effects. Almost everything looks different from its visible light counterpart. Vegetation appears white or near white with a 720nm IR filters. This tree, located on the grounds of Belhurst Castle in Geneva, NY, was not very impressive in visible light. I suspect thousands of people walked by it over the years and never gave it a thought.
I immediately saw the potential in IR light, however, given the thick growth of ivy vines covering the tree trunk and the beautiful cloud cover behind it. This photo continues to be the most popular photo I’ve taken to date — from a scene few, if any, noticed. Unfortunately, the resort staff removed much of the ivy a few years later.
IR light interprets colors based on the material in the cloth, not the color we see with our eyes. This scene of a group, holding an American flag, is from the Lincoln Memorial. The blues in the flag appear light yellow, and the red and white colors appear white.
Despite the rider’s helmet, shirt, pants, and leggings appearing black in visible light, they appear as different shades of gray in IR, as each is made of a different material – polyester, cotton, some blend, etc. It is not uncommon for black jogging outfits to appear as pure white in IR light.
Sunglasses, Skin, And Eyes
IR light can pass through sunglasses that, in visible light, appear extremely dark or mirror-like (see image below). Skin takes on a milky, smooth texture. Notice the difference between the first and second photos.
You have to be careful of taking portraits with the 720nm and 850nm IR filters. While IR light can produce very pleasing skin tone effects, eyes can take on a ghoulish appearance. Photographed with a 720nm filter, our cute little friend below might easily confused with a character out of a horror film.
Cemeteries And Infrared Light
Cemeteries are great places to experiment with IR photography due to the amount of lush vegetation. Older gravestones, mausoleums, and statues often have decades worth of moss, lichen, vines and other plant-based materiel growing on them. In infrared light, what often looks like decay and neglect can take on an artistic quality. The image below was taken with the 550nm filter.
Depending on which IR filter you use — 450nm, 550nm, 590nm, 665nm, 720nm, or 850nm — you will have more or less color in your final image. The higher the wavelength (in nanometers), the less visible light reaches your camera’s sensor. The less visible light means less colors in your processed image.
The image above was taken with the most popular IR filter, the 720nm. As with anything involving color or style, your choice in IR filters is a matter of taste.
Add in some nice cloud formations and you have the ideal environment to create stunning IR images.
Because all but the 850nm filter allows some visible light to reach the sensor, infrared photography offers a variety of post-processing options. These are just a few of the possibilities:
Cameras have become ubiquitous due to the falling prices of digital technology and explosive growth of smartphones. Worldwide, people took over 1.4 trillion photos in 2020. As such, it’s getting more difficult to take a photo of a given scene or subject that is materially different from those others have taken.
“A truly great structure, one that is meant to stand the tests of time never disregards its environment. A serious architect takes that into account. He knows that if he wants presence, he must consult with nature. He must be captivated by the light. Always the light. Always.”
— Simon Wyler (The Lake House)
IR photography opens up exciting new worlds for photographers, allowing them to depict a world beyond our senses, and the opportunity to create something truly unique. Once you begin your infrared journey, don’t be surprised if you begin imagining the infrared potential in every photographic opportunity you encounter.
You may even find that routine scenes – such as that cemetery just down the road from your house — assume a magical quality.
Coming up next: Infrared Photography – Where To Start
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