Invisible Light Photography by Andy Finney (header)

A brief (and incomplete) history of Infrared Photography

“... radiant heat will at least partly, if not chiefly, consist, if I may be permitted the expression, of invisible light”

The prologue

House in the Hamptons

First published IR photo
Photo: RW Wood

House in the Hamptons

First published IR photo
Photo: RW Wood

In February 1910, in an American magazine called the Century Illustrated Monthly, there appeared an article by Robert Williams Wood titled A New Departure in Photography. This almost certainly marks the first publication of an infrared photograph. In this case images taken at Wood's 'summer home' in East Hampton, Long Island. This was the first time that so-called invisible rays had been used to produce an image of a scene, but the story of infrared photography goes back over a century before that. (This page considers near infrared photography; I cover thermal imaging elsewhere.)

Prehistory: Herschel and Abney

William Herschel discovered the existence of rays beyond red in 1800, while investigating the relative heating power of the colours in the spectrum. He used a prism to separate the colour components of sunlight, and put thermometers on each colour. He also, as controls, put thermometers at either end just beyond the rainbow. To his surprise, the one below red showed a rise in temperature. There were invisible light rays beyond the red of the solar spectrum.

Infrared didn't get its name, and its first scientific photographic application, until the last quarter of the 19th century and got them both from three-time president of the Royal Photographic Society, Captain (later Sir) William de Wiveleslie Abney.

Abney wanted to record the solar spectrum as far into the infrared as he could. He concocted his own mixture to expand the sensitive range of a photographic plate and in 1876 reached about 900 nm. (The visible light spectrum ranges from around 700 nm red to around 400 nm blue.) In 1880 Abney presented a spectrum to 1200 nm to the Royal Society. We now know that this is the limit to what can be achieved with a photographic emulsion.

Abney also seems to have coined the term infrared, or at least infra-red with the hyphen which was by far the more common form until the mid 20th century. His use of the word in a lecture on solar physics printed in Nature in1881, is the earliest appearance according to the OED.

Early infrared landscapes: Wood and Mees

The first infrared photographs (as distinct from spectra) were taken by Professor Robert Williams Wood, professor of experimental physics at Johns Hopkins University in the USA. He was an experimenter with a wide interest, but especially in matters to do with light and was author of the seminal Physical Optics first published in 1905, and inventor of the fish-eye lens. By the time he appeared on the cover of Time magazine, on June 20th 1938 just after his 70th birthday, he was also known as 'Prince of Experimenters' and, as in the title of his biography, 'Modern Wizard of the Laboratory'.

Wood visited the UK in 1910 and presented a landmark paper for the RPS, Photography by Invisible Rays (which appeared in the October 1910 edition of the Photographic Journal). This was the start of a year-long sabbatical in Europe between 1910 and 1911. The brightening of foliage in infrared photographs is now known as the Wood Effect, although the term did not appear in print until 1938. It is caused by internal reflection and scattering of infrared within the plant cells, in a manner similar to that which occurs with snow, hence the snowy look of infrared landscape photographs.

In spring 1911 Wood visited Italy where he took more infrared photographs. He presented them at the Royal Institution in May 1911 and some were included in the 1911 RPS annual exhibition and published in the Illustrated London News. The ILN copywriter compared one photograph, taken in a quarry at Syracuse in Sicily, to something out of an HG Wells novel.

Wood was friends with Kenneth Mees, then co-owner and co-managing director of Wratten & Wainwright and later head of research for Kodak. Wratten & Wainwright had produced the first commercial panchromatic photographic plates in 1906 and it was their infrared-sensitive 'spectrum plates' that Wood used on his Italian expedition.

Mees tried some infrared photography himself, notably thirteen photographs he took in Portugal in 1910 using Wratten & Wainwright infrared sensitised plates. However, in his 1936 book Photography Mees credits Wood with taking the “earliest photographs of landscapes by infra-red rays”.

In a letter to the Times in 1932, Mees mentioned long-distance infrared photographs of mountains, taken in Costa Rica 'in 1915 or 16' by Gustave Michaud and José Fidel Tristán, which were published in Scientific American. This duo of scientists carried out research into the uses of infrared (and UV) photography in the years before WW1 and published several papers of their results. It would appear that Michaud had been a student of Professor RW Wood.

Long distance photography and Lick Observatory

Early interest in infrared photography concentrated on its ability to cut through atmospheric haze and allow photographs to be taken at great distances. As infrared has a longer wavelength it is not as susceptible to atmospheric scatter as is visible light although as the particles become bigger, such as with fog much longer wavelength thermal imaging would be necessary. The priorities of the Great War increased the importance of long-distance photography, especially from the air. Faster plates with sensitivity to longer wavelengths were needed. At the same time, supplies of sensitising chemicals from Europe were disrupted and this even affected panchromatic photography. The resulting impetus to research produced new sensitising dyes.

Astronomical interest in infrared photography continued. Wood had been granted use of the great Hale telescope in October 1915 and he photographed Jupiter and Saturn at a range of wavelengths including infrared. At the time he commented that he would like to try this multi-wavelength photography on Mars when the planet next approached close to the earth. In fact, when the close opposition of Mars occurred in 1924, the key infrared photography of Mars fell to William H Wright at Lick Observatory in California.

Lick Observatory had been a venue for long distance terrestrial infrared photography for some time and Wright continued the work with the aim of familiarising himself with the plate sensitisation and also the different views through the atmosphere afforded by infrared and ultraviolet light. This enabled him to compare IR and UV images of Mars with his terrestrial photographs and deduce that Mars has a relatively dense atmosphere.

The astronomers at Lick were not the only people interested in using infrared for long-distance photography. Captain Albert W Stevens of the US Army Air Corps was a pioneer of high-altitude photography from aeroplanes and stratospheric balloons and often used infrared film to combat the problems cause by haze when photographing from altitude. His 1933 photograph of Mount Shasta in California was taken from a plane flying at 23 thousand feet from a record distance of 331.2 miles. Atmospheric haze rendered the mountain invisible, so the camera was oriented using a compass.

Astronomers also used infrared photographic plates to reveal stars that were otherwise invisible. In 1931 Robert J Trumpler, also at Lick Observatory, used infrared plates to take photographs of fainter stars in the central part of the Orion nebula, filtering out extraneous shorter-wavelength light from the surrounding nebula and showing several new stars.

Imaging in the dark and electronic infrared

Despite Fox Talbot's suggestion that the camera could see in the dark, it wasn't until the 1920s that infrared imaging achieved this and, surprisingly, the first views in the dark were by means of television. John Logie Baird produced a version of his mechanical television system which used infrared illumination. Called Noctovision, it was first demonstrated in 1926 and caused a sensation at a meeting of the British Association in September 1927 with people queuing around the block to see the demonstration.

Earliest infrared photo in the dark

Shelf photographed in darkness
Photo: HD Babcock

Earliest infrared photo in the dark

Shelf photographed in darkness
Photo: HD Babcock

HD Babcock produced what is probably the first infrared photograph taken in total darkness. This was an image of a few objects on a shelf, taken at Mount Wilson Observatory in 1930. The 'light' source was provided by electric heaters run at a low voltage so as to be invisible to the eye and the exposure took 48 hours.

In the mid 1930s RCA laboratories in the USA developed a cathode-ray tube system to render the infrared visible, in what was called a 'black light' or 'electron' telescope. A single tube was produced with a coating at one end that emitted electrons whenever struck by infrared. These electrons were then electronically focussed onto the plate at the other end, which would glow visibly when struck by the electrons. The inventor seemed to think the device would work well enough to be used by a pilot as an aid to landing in poor conditions.

Of course it was also possible to take a photograph in the dark using a more conventional light source, incandescent lamps, with the lamps being filtered to block visible light but transmit near-infrared radiation. A group photograph was taken in the dark at the Kodak Research Laboratories in October 1931 using such a method. The infrared video used for night time surveillance and animal behaviour studies, and in the Big Brother bedrooms on television, are direct descendants of that photograph.

The 1930s, a 'golden age'

Further development in infrared sensitisation came early in the 1930s, ushering in a 'golden age' for infrared photography, for with the new chemicals came readily available plates suitable for the amateur as well as the scientist.This material was stable enough to be supplied through regular retail channels. Ilford, Kodak, Agfa and others produced infrared plates and roll film during the '30s, including 35mm 'Leicafilm'.

The 'new' photography was promoted by extensive press coverage. During 1932 and 1933 the Times regularly published large, often double page, infrared landscape and aerial photographs of the UK and further afield using plates supplied by Ilford. In May 1933 the paper was able to publish an infrared photograph taken on the Houston Mount Everest Flight reconnaissance of the Everest range showing the summit of Makalu rising above cloud from a distance of over 100 miles. There was great public interest in exhibitions of the Times photographs. Many of them went on show around the UK and further afield and the Times art critic enthusiastically compared the images to drawings and paintings.

Ilford did not supply only the Times with infrared plates. The Daily Herald published several infrared photographs taken by James Jarché during the 1930s, including darkness shots of cinema and lantern-show audiences, and Jarché used the film to document (in the dark) the process of film manufacture.

The easy availability of infrared film in the 1930s opened up a variety of scientific and technical applications. The textile industry was interested in how infrared passed through various fibres. The British Museum used infrared photography to help read ancient texts and it enabled doctors to study eyes through cloudy corneas and see veins near the surface of the skin. Infrared plates were used to study diseased plant tissue and the different behaviour of materials under infrared illumination started to be of use in art restoration and criminal forensics. There were also attempts to use infrared photography to see through fog as an aid to shipping, but that was, of course, of limited success.

Several books on the subject appeared, ranging from ones aimed at enthusiasts, such as SO Rawling's Infra-red Photography in 1933, to Walter Clark's textbook Photography by Infrared which published its first edition in 1939 and is still the most comprehensive book in the field. The popular photographic press carried 'how-to' articles and numerous scientific papers were published. Infrared photography had caught the scientific and public imagination. A letter to the Times in 1934 even compared its significance to 'atom splitting'.

At war again

The public infrared craze seems to have subsided by the start of World War II in Europe, but both near infrared and thermal imaging, were deployed during the war on all sides. It was suggested to Winston Churchill that British airfields should be illuminated by infrared to aid night time training and that the pilots could see to land by means of “special glasses ... attached to their helmets”. Night fighter pilots used infrared movie film to check their gun aiming and still photographs were used to test the aim of trainee bomb crews. The German military also made use of infrared technology during the war. They had achieved remarkable results in long-distance photography and had deployed infrared searchlights.

Infrared photography could be used to detect camouflage, as false greenery would not look the same as the real thing due to the Wood effect. However this proved not to be as useful as popularly supposed, partly because of the development of paints that mimicked the effect. The first incarnation of what later became infrared Ektachrome (or Aerochrome) appeared in 1942 in the form of Aero Kodacolor Reversal Film, Camouflage Detection. By 1945, a faster version of this film had been standardised and was recommended for operational use in the Pacific.

The end of the second war set infrared photography into a kind of steady state for around 40 years until electronics took over from celluloid and the world wide web arrived. High speed black and white infrared film was available as was false colour infrared film and infrared photographs occasionally appeared in consumer and hobbyist publications and were still appearing in photographic portfolios outside scientific fields. By 1967 even Polaroid were marketing an instant infrared film for their Land cameras.

The art of infrared photography

Notable photographers such as Ansel Adams and Edward Steichen took the occasional infrared photograph, but Minor White was probably the first fine art photographer to be recognised for his work in infrared.He included a number of infrared photographs taken in the 1950s in his book Mirrors, Messages, Manifestations which was published in 1969. White's photograph Cobblestone House, Avon, New York, taken in1958 and included in the monograph, is regarded as the first widely-published artistic infrared photograph after it was included in Time Life's 1970 book Light and Film. White's interest in the tonalities of an infrared photograph make him close to contemporary infrared photographers, many of whom have little or no interest in the scientific application of the technique but are fascinated by the look of the images.

At this point I should mention Weegee.The man who exposed New York as the Naked City had plenty of party tricks that helped with his photography. His police radio was one that helped get him the 'Ouija'-derived nickname but so was his occasional iconic use of infrared film. Armed with his Speed Graphic camera and infrared film he could sometimes be found prowling not only the dark streets of the city, in search of cops and evildoers, but also the dark recesses of the theatre, in search of its inhabitants. Sometimes he would disguise himself as an ice-cream seller to snap telling images of audiences. He would either black out his flash or set up infrared-filtered flood lights in the balcony, capturing audience members watching (and sometimes not watching) movies or even the opera.

Artistic infrared photography really started to take off in the early 1980s. Minor White's friend Abe Frajndlich, documented his home town in a project and book called Cleveland Infra Red, published in 1981. At around this time, the artist Robert Cartmell, better known as a photographer of roller-coasters, persuaded the Smithsonian to support a travelling exhibition of infrared photography called Invisible Light. This exhibition was probably the first to feature infrared photographs exclusively and amongst the photographers featured was Simon Marsden, whose distinctive photographs of Irish ruins formed the basis of his first book in 1980 and who famously used Kodak High Speed Infrared (HIE) film to document his fascination with the unworldly and supernatural.

Brothers Stephen and David Paternite, of Akron Ohio, were compiling their own collection of infrared photographs which led to a book called American Infrared Survey, published in 1982. The first text book on infrared photography to be published in English since Clark was The Art of Infrared Photography, by Joe Paduano, which originally came out in 1984 (the year Clark went out of print) and which is still available. Numerous books of and about infrared photography have been published since (see our bibliography).

Bob Dylan at Woodstock, colour infrared

Bob Dylan outside his Byrdcliffe home in Woodstock
Photo © Elliott Landy

Bob Dylan at Woodstock, colour infrared

Bob Dylan outside his Byrdcliffe home in Woodstock
Photo © Elliott Landy

Most artistic infrared photography was in black and white, usually making use of Kodak's film. The infrared colour Ektachrome known as EIR was not ignored however. It emerged into the open market in the 1960s and was used for several notable album covers of the time such as the US version of Jimi Hendrix's first LP; a striking fish-eye shot by Karl Ferris taken in Kew Gardens. Ferris also took the colour infrared cover of Donovan's Gift from a Flower to a Garden. Andee Nathanson shot the infrared cover of Frank Zappa's Hot Rats and, while not an album cover, Elliot Landy's photograph of Bob Dylan in Woodstock from 1968 is another memorable EIR image from the period.

There was one notable scientific infrared photographic landmark in 1971, when Robert Greenler took the first documented photograph to show that a rainbow has an infrared component.

As the digital age started, Kodak's film had been joined by true infrared film from Konica and extended-red film from Ilford and Agfa.

At the movies

Hollywood had uses for infrared film going back to the 1930s. Black and white night-time scenes could be shot during the day using infrared movie stock from Kodak, Agfa and DuPont. Not all the artefacts of infrared images were welcome however, and special makeup and set painting often had to be applied. Paramount even painted an entire back-lot 'Brownstone Street' in special blue-grey paint called 'infra-red blue' so that it would look the same on both infrared and panchromatic stock.

By the 1960s the movie industry was moving from black and white to colour and infrared's abilities for 'day-for-night' shooting were obsolete. But occasionally infrared filming was used for artistic effect. In the early 1960s there was a curious collaboration between the Cuban and Russian film industries resulting in an extraordinary movie called Soy Cuba (I am Cuba). The director was Mikhail Kalatozov, famous most probably for The Cranes Are Flying in 1957, and the director of photography was Sergey Urusevsky. The film is a cinematic tour de force, featuring several long single-take sequences which almost defy attempts to work out just how they were done. The director wanted the images to "shine like a sugar crystal, transforming the green of palm trees and sugarcane into tones of silver" and he used a Soviet infrared negative which at that time was restricted solely to the use of the army.

More recently, movie-maker Mike Figgis experimented with low light and infrared photography using consumer video cameras with Sony's Night Shot facility. His 2001 film Hotel includes scenes done this way, to such an extent that the actors in the scenes could not actually see each other during filming.

The director of 2006 movie Wristcutters (A Love Story), Goran Dukic, had intended to use Kodak Ektachrome Infrared extensively to provide the look of the film's 'afterlife for suicides' setting. Kodak provided unique super-16 format stock for this purpose, but after shooting some tests Dukic decided to use post-production techniques rather than infrared film. Some of the test sequences were shown on the film web site and on the published DVD.

Going electronic

In reverse to the problems the film pioneers had in having to sensitise their materials in order to record near infrared radiation, electronic sensors, such as CMOS and CCDs, are as sensitive to near infrared as they are to green, and the problem is to remove infrared 'contamination' by using an blocking filter.

Kodak developed a prototype digital stills camera with a megapixel resolution in 1987 and in the early 90s introduced their DCS range of professional digital cameras, which included infrared models, albeit at a high price. These did not last long and, apart from a couple of low-volume cameras from Fujifilm, digital infrared photographers have had to overcome the influence of those blocking filters. Sony had introduced their 'Night Shot' function, which removed the filter at the flick of a switch, but reaction to sensationalist news reports of images taken through clothing forced them to restrict its capabilities.

In the meantime the film market was changing. Kodak discontinued its 35mm colour infrared film in 2007, followed by the workhorse HIE black and white film. Konica had already left the market. But new manufacturers appeared, marketing into a new boutique film market, with brands such as Ilford and Rollei having either infrared or at least extended red capabilities.

Today, amateur photographic interest in infrared photography is strong, with millions of examples available on the internet; and scientific use continues. Astronomers can use highly sensitive digital cameras on the ground, in the air and in space to capture infrared at the near and far ends of its spectrum. Natural History film-makers use infrared surveillance cameras and even modified digital SLR cameras in movie mode to reveal the nocturnal habits of animals such as lions on the plains of Africa. Infrared imaging is now widespread in CCTV systems, and there are even high-end motor cars which include near or thermal infrared camera systems to help drivers to see obstacles at night. Movie makers can now draw on the infrared capabilities of high-resolution digital cinema cameras, such as the Red (no pun intended).

At the turn of the century there was a notable brief resurgeance of medium format colour infrared film, as the final stocks of Kodak's stock was used up. Richard Mosse and Edward Thompson exhibited and published books of the results they achieved with this. Sadly, when Simon Marsden died he left, in his fridge, a small stock of Kodak HIE film.

The epilogue

Over the past century infrared photography has grown exponentially from its roots in solar spectra and astronomy. It has become something that, with just a little ingenuity, any photographer can explore; with those distant views, dark skies and bright leaves that Professor Robert Williams Wood first showed us in his papers back in 1910.