The Problem with InfraRed – An adventure to the end of HIE and beyond

Ever since seeing a feature in a magazine whilst at school, i have been fascinated by the qualities of Infrared film and have made it a mission in life to try and master this most tricky of photographic mediums.

The photographer featured in the above mentioned article was the (now) late Sir Simon Marsden. For those of you not familiar with his work, he is a master if the infrared medium, producing some seriously gothic and un-nerving images of haunted sites, churches and derelict buildings around Britain and Europe. A biography and a huge archive of his work can be seen at Sadly, he passed away a few years ago and his work is rocketing in price, whilst sadly and bizarrely, his books are turning up in remnant shops (which is where i’ve recently picked a few up.

About 10 years ago, i decided to dive in at the deep end, bought a book on infra red photography and a couple of rolls of Kodak HIE High Speed Infrared Film. The book was massive and in depth. it was full of examples, formulae and graphs, all about how to get the most out of this stuff. after wading trough the book, i came to a summary ion the last page that basically said “forget all you’ve just read, it’s nonsense. put a dark red filter on, set the camera to 200ASA and bracket wildly”, so this of course is what i did and the book hasn’t moved from the shelf since.

I did take note that the best conditions for this film are a spring day, late morning, so that the sun is not to high, but that the foliage and buildings have absorbed and are therefore eminating a nice amount of infrared radiation (heat). So, on such a day i packed my Xpan in the car and headed of to Glastonbury. i pulled up, set everything to idiot mode at 200ASA and snapped away. As i was using a rangefinder, focusing was still easy, although you have to adjust the focusing back to the red infrared line that you used to get on manual lenses “back in the day”.

The film was developed in Eric Purchase’s darkroom in Wells high Street where i was working at the time. You had to be very careful and either perform the whole task in the dark, or uses stainless tanks. I did the former as i never could load the metal spirals, and what with this film being so thin, not to mention expensive, i didn’t want to take any chances.

For a first attempt, i couldn’t have hoped for better results. from this film emerged the two images here of Glastonbury Tor and The Abbot’s Fish House at Mere near Glastonbury. Both of these still rank in my best selling ten images.

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Glastonbury Tor HIE
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Abbot’s Fish House HIE


As you can see from the above images, the main effect of infra red is to define the skys along with lightening and heat reflective / emitting areas such as the foliage and darkening any absorbent areas such as woo and to a lesser extent, the stone of buildings.

Other things that you learn after a while are that certain cameras will work due to the infrared counters used in most modern cameras will fog the film, also, the halation (the white glow effect) is increased by longer exposures. it doesn’t seem to matter what the combination, but two shots, both with technically identical exposure amounts, but one with a longer exposure coupled with a smaller aperture will always have a greater halation effect. this is possibly due to the film heating up under exposure, but in the words of Stephen Fry on QI, “Nobody Knows”

The biggest problem with IR film is that you are technically photographing heat not light, and in such, your light meter and your eyes will only give a rough guide and can both be easily fooled by a large margin.

Earlier this year, i went out with my last roll of HIE to see what i could get and almost give it a fitting send off rater than sitting like a relic in the freezer (where is always lived until a couple of days before use). I did what i always did and set the camera to 200, red filter, bracket wildly etc, but this time with more varying results than I’ve ever seen before.

St Andrews Clevedon HIE
St Andrews Clevedon HIE

The First shot of the day was of St Andrew’ Church in Clevedon, taken from an area known as poets walk due to it’s regular visits from Tennyson and Coleridge ‘back in the day’. The sun was out and you could feel the heat on my burning bonce. The image seems to have come out very nicely. theres not to much grain, the contrast is nice and more importantly there was no bleed from light leaking from the next frame or even through the camera itself. (I learnt to use something like my EOS 1V as this has a metal back that is IR proof unlike the plastic ones on lesser cameras).

Congresbury HIE disaster
Congresbury HIE disaster

I went to Congresbury St Andrew’s to try and get a picture of our local church as the last image on this film. all the settings were the same, but as you can see, it’s all gone a bit wrong. there seems to be light leakage and really heavy grain. Obviously, as it’s in the same tank / camera, it isn’t light leakage or a development problem, so the only thing that i can think of was that is just different atmospheric conditions. maybe, some light could have got in while lens changing,  but to be honest, i can’t figure it. This was at the same time, the biggest problem and the biggest joy of HIE. When it didn’t quite work, oh dear, but when it clicked, wow!!

In the last 10 years, digital technology has moved on leaps and bounds, both with the cameras and also now, the software that runs things. For my commercial work, i use Canon EOS 5D mk2 cameras, so it seemed an obvious move to see if i could attain the same visual results via a totally diferent route.

Again, Congresbury church was my subject due to is locality and medieval magnificence. The image shot has been featured in an earlier post about the lens used (The new Canon 24mm TSE mk2). The process to get the below image was quite simple. Using Alien Skin Exposure within Adobe Photoshop CS5 I ran the film simulator with the Kodak HIE settings. It is possible within this to adjust the contrast, histograms and above all, the grain and halation so associated with the original film stock. The results are quite nice and about as near to the original that it’s possible to get digitally.

Congresbury Church via Exposure 4
Congresbury Church via Exposure 4

If i was to critique this image beyond the fact that i think it’s a very nice image that fulfils my Marsdenesque gothic ambitions. I haven’t pushed the halation to much as i didn’t want to overdo the effect at the expense of the quality of the image.

Having recently updated my software to Adobe Photoshop CC and Lightroom 5 (as opposed to aperture that i was using previously) a few new tools have become available to me. the most relevant one here is the “Negative Clarity Adjustment” that allows you to take the razor sharp digital image and soften it in a way that it more happily resembles and analogue image. Furthermore, I have tried having the file printed onto standard Ilford Multigrade paper through a digital enlarger by MetroPrint in london. using this method (and possible a bit of toning) the images are indistinguishable from traditional outputs. In the latest version of Lightroom, there are even functions that will enable me emulate the film, granulation and halation without any other software. Just need some practice and experimentation here.

Now, after years of not knowing and going down the digital route, i have finally got hold of some of the new Agfa/Rollei 400 IR film. reviews say this is as near to HIE that can be got now. It is sat in the fridge, waiting for the right weather to head of to a subject that i have been meaning to photograph for many years. I have a plan, i have the camera and now, once again, i have the film i need. Here we go again………….