Over the last three years, I have been photographing cities with an IR-converted Nikon D80 DSLR while traveling on business trips. I am very fortunate that my job duties involve the administration of international projects, so I travel once or twice per month, mostly in Central Europe, but also in Western and Eastern Europe. Whenever I travel, I try to plan at least a very short window for photographing, even if it is sometimes only 1-2 hours long. In this article, I share some insights after photographing with an IR camera for almost 3 years in roughly 20 European cities.
I am primarily a landscape photographer — I feel great when hiking somewhere in the mountains. Landscape photography is thus a very natural expression of my admiration of the beauty in Nature surrounding us. On the contrary, I took a long time to figure out how to shoot in the concrete jungle of large cities. Life there is too distracting to me and I struggled with composition when photographing streets and tourist sights. I did not enjoy photographing in cities until 2014.
Only when I bought my first infrared camera in 2014, did my relationship to photographing architecture and streets change. On the Czech version of eBay I noticed that somebody was selling a newly refurbished Nikon D80 camera, complaining that it was only taking red photos. I had a hunch that it could be an IR-adjusted camera. I bought it for roughly 120 USD. It has proved to be one of my best bargains ever.
What equipment do I use: filters or dedicated IR camera?
Before buying the IR-converted camera, I had experimented with mounted IR filters. I used the Hoya IR 720. Using such a filter mounted on your lens blocks a great deal of the light. That results in very long exposure times (typically longer than 1 second). Needless to say, it requires carrying a tripod for every single exposure, which is very annoying for me.
While the gained motion blur might be interesting for some objects (clouds, cars), focusing and composing is very difficult with such a dark filter, so I stopped using it quite soon. IR-dedicated cameras do not have these problems. They can focus normally and the exposure times are similar to standard cameras with an applied CPL filter. You should be aware though that IR conversion is irreversible and that not all types of cameras are suitable for IR photography. More information about IR photography can be found here.
My first converted camera was a Nikon D80. It is known for having a very IR-sensitive CCD sensor. Since I bought the camera second-hand, I am not entirely sure what kind of filter was applied, but I suppose it was the most widely used 720nm IR filter. It is now an outdated DSLR body, with a high level of noise and only 10 MP resolution, which does not allow for much cropping. It also lacks a live-view mode, which is very important for IR photography focusing (more below). To resolve this matter, I have now invested money into turning my obsolete D7000 body into an IR-converted body.
Most of the time when shooting with an IR-converted camera, I rely on a Nikkor 16-85mm VR lens, which can focus correctly at all focal lengths without a live view. I love to take wide-angle shots, but I realized my Nikkor 10-24mm worked well at 10mm when focused manually beyond infinity (I turned the focusing ring to the left as much as possible). Other focal lengths did not work that easily.
The D80 does not have live view and standard phase-detection focusing does not work with all lenses (due to the different wavelength of infrared light). The design formula of each lens type matters; some lenses work well, some do not work at all. Some can focus properly, and even then can produce some nasty ghosting.
These are the lenses that I am able to use with very good results:
- DX Nikkor 16-85mm
- DX Nikkor 18-55mm VR II
- FX Nikkor 70-200mm f/4G VR
- DX Nikkor 10-24mm
- DX Nikkor 55-300mm
What did I learn with an IR-converted camera?
Here are a few remarks which might be useful to blog readers:
- I can shoot in harsh midday light. As a landscape photographer, I was mostly photographing at sunset or sunrise. On my business trips, I often had time only in unfavorable hours, when the sun was high above the horizon. But that is exactly when IR photography excels. You get a very strong contrast that is very different to standard midday shots. A clear sky can get very dark, which creates excellent contrast to the white foliage of plants and trees. You can also take good photos in golden and blue hours, but I prefer to shoot with a standard camera then. The only really bad conditions for IR photography are cloudy or rainy days. Night photography with IR filters only (above 720 nm) does not work well.
- Infrared improved my eye and moved me beyond landscape photography. IR photography is very particular. It translates objects into graphic elements in a different way. To put it simply, there is a much bigger contrast between light and shade, compared to normal digital cameras. Shadows are almost black and hence it strikes out their shapes. Due to infrared, I learned how to work with lines and shapes much better.
IR taught me how to look for interesting motifs in the city landscape. Gradually, I also learned how to include people into the shots, which is something that I tried to avoid at first. Photographing architecture is also much easier for me now, thanks to my IR experience.
- IR is dreamy and lets you think out of the box. IR has (for me) the advantage of not being an objective, eye-like representation of the reality around us. While I actually believe that photography is always a very subjective medium, with IR there is no doubt about that, as it literally invites the photographer to experiment more – both in the field and then later in post-processing.
- The beauty of monochrome and duotone (split tone). Since the output from my IR camera contains mostly red tones (and some blue and magenta colors), it is ideal to convert the images either to BW or to play with color toning. I only use Lightroom CC, where channel mixing (unlike in Photoshop) is not possible. But I use split toning heavily, by which one can create monotone or duotone images. Mostly, I use different hues of blue and yellow and their combinations.
Which cities did I enjoy the most photographing in IR?
So far, I have managed to capture IR images in roughly 20 European cities. If I were to pick the 5 most enjoyable experiences, I would pick Istanbul, Tallinn, Lisbon, London and Warsaw. I do not count Prague, as it is the city where I work – so it is a bit different for me (strangely, before buying the IR camera, I had hardly ever photographed in Prague).
Beware, I do not mean this as a chart of the objectively 5 most photogenic cities. In the first place, I have not been to all the European cities. Secondly, I am referring only to the experience of IR photography. Some cities might be disappointing to normal tourists and yet excellent for photography. Warsaw, in my opinion, is such an example. The city was basically destroyed after WWII and has a very somber atmosphere. Yet the combination of Stalinistic and modern architecture was very inspirational to me and provided many motifs.
Further cities on my bucket list
Of the major European cities, I am still missing Paris, Barcelona and Rome (where I photographed before buying the infrared camera). But I do not want to limit myself to Europe only. I would love to photograph the Gulf Region cities in IR (Dubai, Musqat). In September I will also have the chance of visiting Washington and New York, so I hope to have a blast with my IR camera there. If you have any tips for good locations in these cities, I would appreciate your feedback in the discussion below.
This guest post was submitted by Vaclav Bacovsky, a photographer from the Czech Republic (in the very heart of Europe). He loves shooting landscapes, architecture, macro and wildlife (see his 500px page). He blogs at www.krasnesvetlo.cz (in Czech language only though). And his infrared photographs are published on his Instagram account.