I always had a knack for the idea of infrared, from the first moment I saw photos derived of infrared film cameras, though did not pursue it out of the sheer complication of the technology at the time. At one point or another I discovered the digital version, though still didn’t act, even though I consistently opted toward “infrared filter” post processing effects with my black and white visible images. Recently, I discovered online that infrared substantially sees through haze, and I was hooked.
Living in Spain meant I had to wait about a month for my Digital Rebel SL1 to be converted, though it was worth every penny and moment of delay. I had a fair amount of trepidation about focus relative to zoom, as I use a variable 18-55mm lens, and I wasn’t entirely sure how the meter would handle image settings. As I am an aerial photographer, I would definitely need autofocus to work in regular mode (not live view) and would prefer the meter to work, though eventually acquiesced that I would need to go manual after a tutoring session and said to myself “Why not?”
Here in Catalunya, a region of Spain, haze is an atypically strong phenomenon, a product of Saharan dust blowing over the Mediterranean, adding a bit of Barcelona smog, and a touch of humidity from the sea. Normally, north winds out of France would blow it all away, except the Pyrenees block the strongest flows, kicking them out via the South of France with localized wind phenomenon that are very strong. That leaves lowland Catalunya in a relatively hazy state – so much so that I wasn’t prepared for it. While we live in the mountains, where we are often above the haze, the reality was that I was running out of things to photograph without having to wait weeks for an ideal day. Summer is even worse, as prevailing winds draw haze from Africa for months on end.
When I took the camera out of the box, it required about one hour of walking around some farm country to get the hang of manual metering and how the sensor handles IR light. In this section of the Pyrenees, large white clouds tend to billow off of the hills in all directions, making visible images washed out and imbalanced. Infrared handled them spectacularly, making foliage brighter than clouds, lending an incredible element of visual balance to images I wouldn’t consider taking in the visible spectrum without an elaborate HDR arrangement. I also found focus to be incredibly crisp.
It only took a few flights to get the hang of the aerial portion, and I was off…happy as a clam with my new toy.
Of course, everybody asks, “do you fly an airplane and take pictures at the same time?” The answer is “yes.” I fly an antique two-seater airplane, a 1949 Piper Cub Special (PA-11) that my grandfather restored in the 1990s. It has 100 horsepower and minimum required instruments to fly, which means that I don’t have to pay attention to much. As for equipment: I open the window and stick a DLSR camera out and snap pictures, yes while flying. When it comes to IR imagery, metering is far less complicated than the visible spectrum. As of now, I can closely estimate a manual setting, take a sample photograph to compare, and make a few adjustments in flight. For the most part, I have trained myself to know when to adjust shutter speed on the fly to accommodate changing light.
The aircraft cruises at a relatively slow speed and unlike a car, the nearest traffic or physical object is usually 1000 feet beneath me, or miles away ahead. I am sure to scan for air traffic before snapping images, and make a habit of not getting too close to terrain, unless I am flying perpendicular or away from it. Rarely do I fly in the direction of a nearby mountain with the camera sticking out the window, as I wish not to crater in the side of it.
This adventure flying has been going on since late 2013, four years now, and I have taken the airplane to 25 US States and 6 European countries, having visited a long list of epic terrain and scenery, taking an absurd amount of images in the process. To date, I have published 9 aerial photography books, with a two-year backlog from photograph to book publication.
As for infrared, this all started 4 months ago, and I take the IR camera with me on all flights, choosing the camera based on whether visible or IR would handle it better. Many evenings on a hazy day, I go up anyway for fun, taking just the IR camera and snapping well defined and beautiful images on days I would have never considered bothering in the past.