The human eye is a marvelous viewing device. With normal vision, we can see about 23 EV of dynamic range (highlight to shadow), much more than any camera sensor can capture in a single image (one reason why high-dynamic range photography – HDR – was invented).
Recent advances in technology show the promise of digital photography exceeding human capability in the near future. However, when it comes to “seeing,” we humans have a distinct limitation – we can see only a small slice of the known electromagnetic spectrum, from approximately 380 to 750 nanometers.
The science of photography has taken us well beyond the visible spectrum. Sophisticated instruments, notably those aboard the Hubble space telescope, are able to capture wavelengths of energy well beyond human cognition (ultraviolet, x-rays and gamma rays, in particular) and through the magic of digital conversion, render those images in a visible context that we can understand.
Is It Light? Or Not?
On the other side of the visible range lies the mysterious realm of infrared. Of course, infrared (IR) photography has been around for a long time. Although the first known infrared photographs were made by an experimenter, Robert Williams Wood, in 1910, it wasn’t until the 1930’s when infrared film became commercially available (from Kodak, naturally). Although Kodak discontinued production of IR film in 2007, it hasn’t gone away. The film manufacturer Rollei offers a rather broad range of IR films, both roll and sheet. IR film can be a bit pricey and require special filters to make them work properly. Many (if not, most) photographers who work with IR today eschew film in favor of digital, which generally requires converting a camera for dedicated IR use.
All modern digital cameras incorporate an IR blocking filter because sensors can “see” IR light, and if IR radiation reaches it, interference with the Bayer mechanism causes very muddy photos. Camera conversion involves removing the blocking filter and replacing it with an IR pass-through filter. Because it is a permanent modification, you will dedicate a camera exclusively to IR photography. While it is possible to shoot IR using external filters, the long exposures required means you have to use a tripod with stationary subjects, like landscapes. Doesn’t work so well with fashion nude photography – humans have a tendency to move. With a converted camera, you can use settings (shutter speed, ISO and aperture) that are quite familiar.
For my part, I haven’t taken the plunge into IR-world; I don’t have a spare digital camera I can dedicate to the craft. However, one of my students, Erik Svensson, has done it with an older Canon 10D.
I recently did a session at the beach with my friend and colleague Brittnie and Erik. It was a “rehearsal” shoot for an upcoming series of fashion nude photography featuring lingerie. Erik accompanied me to work as both assistant and second photographer. While he is very experienced in working with IR, he had never done any fashion photography in the medium. It had been decades since I experimented with IR (film, of course), so it was a learning experience for both of us. For Erik, the session was about photographing a model on location in a fashion context; for me, it was exploring how light that we cannot see renders colors and textures in sometimes unexpected ways.
I spent most of my behind-the-camera time at the beach shooting moving portrait video sequences of Brittnie in various modes of dress and undress, while Erik focused on IR still photography. The results he presented to me are quite extraordinary, both in terms of how he captured our model in a variety of fashion and fashion nude scenarios, and the incredibly interesting ways infrared photography renders tones.
In this presentation of Erik’s work, a common tone rendition theme runs through all the photos. The sky, green vegetation and blue ocean water show darker than we would normally perceive. This effect tends to give an other-worldly feel to IR images and is quite typical. Brittnie’s reddish-auburn hair color renders lighter than we would expect. In several of the images – depending on how the sun strikes her hair – she looks as if she could be quite blonde.
“Out, Damn’d Spot! Out, I Say!” – Lady Macbeth
One notable feature of IR photography, especially of people – and most especially with nudes, is that skin tones are quite smooth. Minor blemishes all but disappear, greatly reducing the time we would normally spend in post-processing on skin retouching. In my normal full-color workflow, I normally spend at least some time on skin, even with models who have naturally beautiful skin as Brittnie does. Since I did the post-processing of Erik’s images for this article, I can attest to the fact that no skin retouching was done. It simply wasn’t necessary.
As this was a lingerie session featuring bras, we did several different looks. In the first sequence, Brittnie wore a white lace bra and a pale teal wrap. Here we can see from one of my photos what she looked like in full color, followed by Erik’s IR companions. Let’s keep in mind that the sun’s intensity and angle were essentially identical.
The next series was quite surprising. As we were featuring bras, Brittnie styled herself in full Forrest Gump Effect: a full-coverage bra, on the beach, and no other garments. As you can see in the color rendition, the bra was a dark royal blue lace covering a satin liner. In Erik’s IR images, the lace fabric became quite transparent, allowing us to see the outline of the liner underneath. The stitching is quite visible and the major veins in her lower abdomen and upper thighs are starting to become visible. The green stone in her navel piercing turned completely black, as would be expected. The rendering of the bra itself is quite another matter – totally unexpected.
The third bra featured was perhaps less of a functional garment for the breasts than a sculpture or fashion statement. The floral design is meant to accent the upper breasts while leaving the majority of the breasts, including the nipples, on open display. While it might not have been the most comfortable bra Brittnie has ever worn, it certainly worked to showcase her very beautiful, natural breasts. An interesting thing to note about the IR images is how pale her nipples became – almost invisible.
Mission accomplished as far as bra presentation was concerned, we moved into a “let’s have some fun” mode using some garments that allowed Brittnie to present herself in classic fashion nude style. First up was a vintage very pale pink satin slip. In true Brittnie style, she decided to wear only the slip and nothing else which allowed her to present a beautiful nude recital on what she has learned about flow posing. I was too busy capturing video of her performance to shoot any high resolution stills; Erik’s IR images contain yet another surprise.
In the video you can see she is wearing sunglasses; the IR renders them transparent, making it look like she is wearing normal clear spectacles. The color version presented here is a frame capture from the video (hence the relatively low resolution).
It goes without saying that Brittnie loves the beach and the sand. The ambiance gives her a carefree feeling that translates nicely into nude posing. In fact, she really didn’t pose; in true flow posing style, she played with and embraced the sand and the mood, constantly moving while Erik and I captured moments.
IR And The Golden Hour
As the sun was setting, we moved into the dunes to work with the waning light. Both Erik and I wanted to experiment a bit with backlighting. By this time, our model was in full nude mode, clad only in sheer fabric, with which she alternately wrapped and unwrapped herself in a very sensual fashion.
Note how in the IR images the landscape takes on an almost wintry look, even though these were captured at the height of the summer season. Brittnie’s hair renders lighter, and her skin tones are remarkably smoother than in my color version.
The rest of the images from this sequence are all Erik’s, the result of a magical collaboration with our model. From the sublime to the sensual, infrared provided Brittnie a wonderful opportunity to express herself in fashion nude style.
A Few Technical Notes
Erik used a Canon 10D converted to infrared by LifePixel . Even if you aren’t considering converting a camera to IR, I highly recommend LifePixel as an excellent educational resource for in-depth explanations of IR technology in general, and photography in particular.
For my still photos and video clips, I used a Sony A7ii full-frame mirrorless. For this session, I did something a bit different and somewhat out of character for me; instead of my usual (and fully automatic) Zeiss 24-70/2.8, I used a Russian-made Helios 50mm/2.0 prime. Made in the mid-1980’s, there is absolutely nothing automatic about it. Manual focus, manual aperture, manual everything. But through extended use, I have learned it is one of the sharpest, highest resolution lenses in my kit. And it has a beautiful, buttery bokeh to complement its sharpness.
My congratulations go to both Brittnie and Erik for a job well done. Brittnie excelled at putting into practice the techniques of fashion nude presentation we have worked quite diligently on over many sessions. For his part, Erik did a superb job of capturing the beauty of Brittnie, albeit in an unusual medium.