This week I find myself contemplating a photography decision I made a couple of years back. If anyone thought this post was a Rick Roll, a link to Mr Astley’s 1980s smash hit, I’m sorry (not sorry) to disappoint. No, the decision I refer to was covered in End of the Aerochrome Road, where I tried, and failed, to get some decent images from the magical and incredibly rare film stock, Kodak Aerochrome Colour Infrared. I’d stalked that film for several years, finally parting with a large sum of money for 3 rolls of it in 35mm, which went straight in the deep freeze. Why was this film so special? Well, Aerochrome was sensitive to light just beyond the end of the red region of the visible spectrum, called the near infrared. The arrangement of the film’s layers and the dyes that formed in processing, meant that some properly funky colour shifts appeared in the final slide. It was developed for ‘military and commercial’ applications and it’s easy to see why. Used properly, the film highlighted some subjects better than others owing to the way IR light was reflected from them. Man-made objects appear easily discriminated from the natural vegetation, which in turn stood out from water and so on. Being able to see man-made structures hidden in vegetation has obvious military applications, but the film was also used for environmental surveys, where the types of vegetation could be observed. Years later, it became a creative tool, most notably when Richard Mosse documented the conflict in the Congo on 16mm movie film (linked here). The main problem with Aerochrome is that it’s easy to get it wrong. First, there’s the choice of which filter to use to block out large parts of the visible spectrum. Then there is the matter of focus, which is slightly offset from where we would focus in the visible. Most of all, though, the issues of the film being expired (it was discontinued in 2008) and loading the film in total darkness present significant challenges. If you don’t compensate for the degradation in sensitivity because of the former, you can easily get underexposed slide film, which is frankly the worst thing in film photography as far as I’m concerned. Compensating for expired slide film is not quite as straightforward as for negative film, which typically involves overexposing by around a stop of light for every decade past the expiry date, depending on who you listen to. Slide film is notorious for having little in terms of exposure latitude, so overexposure is a veritable minefield. Too much, and the highlights become washed out and, because of the film is positive, unrecoverable. Finally, forget to load in darkness or at least incredibly low light and, well, you’re royally screwed. All but that last one happened to me on all three rolls of film that I had. I knew that it had been stored correctly from supplier to my freezer, sent the rolls to a company that specialised in handling IR film for processing, and shot it in a professional SLR that I knew was able to handle it, my Nikon F6. It was a disaster. With the increasing rarity of Aerochrome and the eyewatering prices to match, I decided to call it quits.
Then by chance, as I was looking for some sheet film in my stock, I noticed a film that I’d completely forgotten about, Rollei IR400. This is a film that, like Aerochrome, is sensitive to light in the near infrared, although nowhere near as much. It’s black and white, and more importantly, it’s still in production. What if I had a go with this stuff instead? Thing is, I’d had shot Rollei IR400 previously, which explained why I had some in my freezer. Unfortunately, in an experience similar to its colour cousin, I didn’t do the best job with it. I was still fairly new to shooting film at the time, so I thought it would be much the same as any other stock. I did some research, picked up a Leica IR filter, which is a very dark red colour, and cockily started shooting anything I could find when the sun was out. Pretty soon it became apparent that I’d been caught out by focus and metering. There are a few problems with shooting IR in a modern 35mm SLR camera, the first being that if there is autofocus, it probably won’t be able to ‘see’ through the dark filter (dark red or orange are the popular ones), so you need to focus without the filter in place, then add it afterwards, remembering to switch off any autofocus system before pressing the shutter button. That amount of faffing pretty much rules out handheld shooting. You could, like me, use a rangefinder, where composition and focus are not achieved by viewing through the lens. The second issue is as I said before, focus is slightly offset for IR, so simply focusing for visible light will introduce some tiny error. Most photographers get around this by buying older lenses that have IR focus distances marked on their barrels or using a small aperture, say greater than f/11 to provide a larger depth of focus. Me? I just went ahead and shot that film wide open, which meant that quite a few of my photographs were blurry where I’d missed focus altogether. Some might call this ‘creative’, but I call it a bit shit. When it came to metering, there was another error that I made. Rollei IR400 is rated, well, at ISO400, which is pretty fast. However, when you slap a dark piece of glass in front of the lens, the light has to work much harder to get to the film, hence a dramatic drop in the equivalent film speed. In fact, with an R72 filter the attenuation of the light is around 6 stops, which drops it to around 6.25. I had the Leica IR filter, I couldn’t find any attenuation information for. I could easily have measured it, but I am, frankly, lazy. I metered my shots at anywhere between 12.5 and 25, so ended up with plenty of underexposure and ‘crusty’ grain, neither of which I am a fan.
Here’s the thing, though. None of that mattered when I first saw the flawed images. Black and white IR film is just stunning. Like the colour version, the contrast between the luminance of different surfaces, like water, ground and the sky is huge, but in this case it presents as tonal rather than shifted colour. Clear skies tend towards black, foliage brilliant white and man-made structures ghostly. Speaking of ghostly, try shooting a portrait with this stuff and your subject takes on an other-worldly glow. It’s a great film stock if you fancy making some ‘authentic’ Victorian-style ghost photographs, although nobody is fooled by that anymore.
Malvern Priory (2017)
Leytonstone (2017), featuring some dangerous measures to get 'that shot'
Since my disastrous foray into colour IR, I’d pretty much given up on this type of film. However, I’ve developed (pardon the pun) so much as a photographer in the years since those first rolls of Rollei, that I’m excited to give it another go. I’ve bought an R72 filter that will fit most of my modern Nikon lenses and have loaded some 35mm into the F6. Something must have subconsciously told me not to quit, because for some reason I had bought some Rollei 4x5 sheet film at some point, which I can shoot in my Crown Graphic. I am excited to see how those special tones come out on a large format scale, once I’ve mastered shooting the smaller version. I say mastered, but in all honesty, predicting exactly how different subjects will reflect light in the near-IR band is a little hit and miss. It’s what separates these film stocks from the more conventional and is why some photographers see it as an ultimate creative tool. As we enter the summer in the UK, I now just need to go out and find some subjects and experiment with it. So, as Rick would say, “we know the game and, we’re gonna play it”. Well, for now, at least. I’ll share whatever comes of it in a few week’s time.