Infrared in the Smokies

Tony Sweet
With early spring greens, mountains, flowers, and streams, infrared is a great expressive medium to use during springtime in the Smokies.

The Great Smoky Mountains are the most visited national park in the country. All others pale by comparison. With an attendance of 12 million annually, the second most visited park is Yellowstone at 4 million.

The streams, early spring greens, mountains, flowers, historic settlements, single trees, wildlife, waterfalls, and Cades Cove are many of the reasons why photographers have always flocked and continue to flock to this great venue.

All of my teachers and my mentor frequented the Smokies, so the mountains became an early muse for my photography and still are today. However, about 25 yrs ago I got the infrared bug after seeing an image from my friend and mentor, the great Pat O’Hara, and my infrared journey began in earnest … with film. To be brief, Digital IR is much easier, although, now it is equally a function of image capture and software expertise.

So, let’s get into why I feel infrared is a great expressive medium, especially during springtime in the Smokies. Many of us who photograph here realize that the Smokies look best when they are wet. The colors are the most saturated and it also works out great for infrared photography, because photographing in wet conditions is one of the best times for infrared.

A common misconception is that infrared is the domain of bright sun, puffy clouds, and leafed-out trees. Although, it’s true that bright sun and green trees are a great situation, so is fog, rain, marginal light, and approaching/passing storms. To those of us who have been photographing in the Smokies for many years, we all have rain gear packed and ready to go (for color and infrared photography).

One of the great appeals of infrared photography is what many people refer to as the “otherworldly” look. For me, it’s the extended emotional range. I find that infrared allows me to express the full range of my emotions.

Some Light Conditions to Consider

It is recommended to photograph infrared in every condition in order to get a sense of how infrared appears in very different qualities for light and weather conditions.

Qualities of light

  • Front light: Excellent
  • Sidelight: Excellent
  • Bright overcast: Excellent
  • Light rain/Fog/Mist: Excellent
  • Backlight: Tricky, as you may need to brush in brightness, as the whites can be a bit dull.
  • Top light (noon): Normally, hot and unflattering, this can work well in infrared, if evenly lit.

 

Conditions: (foggy and wet) As the sun heats up the morning, the fog begins to lift revealing different compositions.

 Photo ©Tony Sweet

Two Unique Properties of Infrared
  1. Highlights glow, and… 
  2. Infrared sees more details in the highlights.

 The number of good photographers and outstanding images makes finding a new and exciting way to self-expression a bit daunting. It’s easy to give up, thinking that everything has been done. This is a common path to cynicism, which can be stifling to creativity and “out of the box” thinking.

Even with its growing popularity, infrared is still in the margins and is an attention-grabbing look, different, and popular with fine art photographers and with galleries.

Conditions: (Bright overcast) Even lighting is excellent for these types of images, minimizing contrast allowing us to see detail throughout the scene

 Photo ©Tony Sweet

Hardware/ Software Conversions

You can dedicate a camera to be an infrared camera by getting an infrared filter installed by a company specializing in infrared conversions. 

What do the number designations mean?

590nm and 650nm: The lower the number (nm = nanometers) the closer to the visible light spectrum and the easier it is to introduce color. Advantages: the ability to add color.

720nm: Referred to as Standard Infrared (high contrast black and white infrared), yielding puffy white clouds and dark skies. All images in this blog are made with a 720 converted camera.

830nm: A little higher contrast than 720nm. Best used in flat or subdued light conditions.

Having been through all of these conversions, I returned to photographing at 720nm, also referred to as “Standard” infrared, and is the easiest to process. This has a more organic look and feel to me, but opinions certainly vary.

Note: We can also add a filter to a color camera to create a true BW infrared image (I have the Singh Ray 690 I-Ray filter for travel and for special effects which is too involved to get into here). However, adding the filter can increase the exposure time, depending on the brightness of the scene, necessitating increasing the ISO (e.g. from ISO 200 to ISO 800) and opening up to a wider aperture (eg. f/14 to f/8). If interested in adding a filter to your color camera to create B&W infrared images, I use and recommend the SinghRay I-Ray 690. Use discount code “sweet10” when ordering.

Conditions: (slight and broken cloud cover) Infrared captured the scene and details in one shot.

 Photo ©Tony Sweet

One last thing: Lenses!

There is a known issue referred to as “the hot spot.” Some of you may have experienced this already: a bright spot in the center of your image. There is no rhyme or reason for this. Some lenses have it and some do not. I had to abandon my 24-70, f/2.8 that had a bright hot spot and get the 24-120, f/4, which does not have a hot spot. There are lens hot spot lists on both Kolarivision.com and Lifepixel.com. I have used both companies for conversions and recommend both. I recommend visiting and spending time at both sites.

Some of you may have noticed that there is a red cast when viewing the image on the back of the camera. It is merely the color channels and will go away as soon as you begin to process/convert to B&W. However, if you would rather see your images in infrared on the camera, you can go into your menu and choose to view them in monochrome. The image will still output with the red cast, which immediately goes away when processing.

Conditions: (wet) First sunlight touches this tree, leaving the background in the shade a little longer, creating a sense of depth.

 Photo ©Tony Sweet

I hope that this gets you stoked about infrared in the Smokies!

Tony Sweet

Tony Sweet is one of Out of Chicago’s diverse team of world-class photographers. To learn more about Tony and our photography conferences he’s teaching at, click here.

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