Nathan Wirth is a deeply introspective photographer who cultivates his individual vision through long exposures, infrared, and intentional camera movement (ICM) that results in minimalist-style black and white photographs. His defining message is that art is authentic, because whatever one does, it should come from the heart and the soul, which is obvious in his work. We asked him about how he processes his infrared photographs, and in true Nathan style, he provided more insight than tech talk—just the way we like it.
Over the past few years, I have received many emails asking me about how I process my infrared images, or how I achieve “the mood.” My response is always the same: dodging and burning, for this is all I mostly do. Most people thank me for my quick response and say they will give it a try, but I can sense that many feel that I have given them an inadequate answer because they are seeking a specific process outlined in a series of steps that can be applied over and over again to reach a desired look. But I don’t use a specific series of steps; rather—to borrow a term from guitar players—I have a few photographic “riffs” that I often use, but they are squarely based in lightening the leaves, lightening or darkening the grasses, lightening and darkening the clouds, and typically, but not always, darkening trunks and skies.
Bonsai by the Sea / Sony a7R, Minolta 17-35mm @28mm, 1/90 sec @ f/11
In addition to dodging and burning, I also use the structure feature available in Nik Software’s Silver Efex Pro to highlight and strengthen the texture of the clouds, trunks, and grasses (and sometimes to make them smoother), and I also occasionally use the brush feature in Silver Efex to pinpoint, coax, encourage, and bring out areas of light in the sky, the tree(s), and ground. From time to time, I also use the Darken/Brighten Center filter in Color Efex Pro, for it allows me to further bring out dark and light features in the landscape of the image. But I do all of this quite organically and without any specific pre-planned vision—and always gently and gingerly, and always in the hope I can coax the viewer of the image to just enjoy the silence of the tones and contrasts and not bother themselves with the how and why of the photo. And, in truth, I find what the photo needs as I work on it. I have spent as little as several minutes and as long as a couple of years working on an image. Sometimes I find what I want instantly. But other times I struggle and struggle and never find the mood I am looking for. As hard as it is to describe, sometimes the image just has no mood, and I have to face the fact that I spent a lot of time looking for something that was never there. Like most photographers, I have folders filled with those unfinished images.
I tend to work on all of my photography, be it infrared or long exposure work (or both), when the weather is crappy. That is essential to the tonal quality and contrasts that I work on. Of late, however, I have been experimenting with infrared photographs in forests when the light outside the forest is very bright. I also experiment with random white balance setting just to see what I end up with, the most important goal being to continually move forward with experimentation. In fact, that experimental spirit is essential to my growth as a photographer—without it, I would soon lose all interest in photography— and this, more than anything, is why I do not have a set process to impart. There are many who talk about having a vision for the image—as if one already sees the finished product when they frame and compose the image with the camera. I do not see things that way. I see the trees, the rocks, the sand, and the clouds when I photograph them. I discover how I wish others to see them when I process the image and look for its mood.
Although I promised that I wouldn’t write about my poetic wanderings in photography, I think some of the “no-thinking” of how I approach processing (though ultra-poetic in description) might be very illuminating for some photographers. In Zen calligraphy, the artist seeks to brush the strokes of the characters with “no-mind.” Such concepts as “no-mind” often irritate those whose understanding of the world is squarely placed in the logical mind—and, most certainly, those who wish to learn how to process a photo do not want tips on how to simply process without thinking about what they are doing, without a specific set of steps, but this is what I strive to do. I open the image in Camera Raw and just feel my way around. Personally, I prefer to convert the infrared image to black and white at this point. I commonly experiment with the contrast, highlights, and whites bars.
Once I get the image in more or less the right mood (I cannot possibly explain what that means to anyone; I just know it when I feel it), I open it up in Photoshop and begin to dodge and burn. I don’t want to create the common infrared image which typically looks like a bright summer day turned into a bright winter day. I like the whites that infrared expresses in the green of the grass and leaves, and I like the darks it expresses in the blues of the sky or water; it’s the contrasts between them that I like most. After all, such attention to black and whites is the very essence of black and white photography, so I look for ways to emphasize them. I find that the more interesting the balance or imbalance of the contrasts, the better the mood. But my method is random: discovered and executed in the moment, and as organically and naturally as possible. Many people have told me that my style is instantly recognizable as my own, which suggests to me that I am not just accidentally, randomly, and/or luckily ending up with reasonable images. To the contrary, it means that my attempt to process with “no-mind” leads me to the same places because this is where the mood—or the drama—lies in my photographs.
As for gear, I began experimenting with infrared photography using the Hoya R72 filter, but I never found my “zone” with it; most of my lenses at that time yielded an annoying, geometrically shaped hot spot when the exposure was a second or longer (and that is a very dark filter, so all of the images were long exposures). On a whim, I decided to get my Sony Alpha 100 converted to infrared (where an 830nm dark contrast filter is placed over the sensor). I used the recommended Sony 18-55mm lens for the camera, which is very cheap in price and build but surprisingly sharp for the money. This was the camera and lens I used to teach myself how to work with infrared. The camera, alas, died in the Oceano Dunes of San Luis Obispo County in California.
I converted my Sony Alpha 700 and purchased a Sony 18-55 lens, which is also fairly cheap in price and build, but is surprisingly sharper (and no hot spots when doing long exposures). And because I have developed a real fondness for working with infrared, I recently purchased a Sony a7R and converted it with a 720nm filter. The true advantage of a mirrorless camera system is that I’m no longer stuck with a single-lens infrared system. I can now use any lens I want, which gives me greater creative control. As a result, I’ve been using a variety of lenses and working with infrared long exposures. But why mention all of this gear? I only do so because the moral of the story is that it really doesn’t matter what you have or what you are using: what matters is what you do with it. Personally, I am glad that I began with a less sophisticated camera and cheaper lens than I am using now. I learned with a much more nuts and bolts approach—and I focused my attention on composition and contrasts and the value of noise/grain and how all of these things contributed to the mood, drama, and silence of my images. In other words, I embraced the pocks, marks, pitfalls, and inadequacies and found images that I thought worked within those limitations.
Tree and Hill / Sony A700, Sony 18-55mm @ 50mm 1/160 sec @ f/11
And, most importantly, all of it has contributed and continues to contribute to my exploration of expressing myself with “no-mind,” so as purely as possible, I can just express the silence I see when I’m in nature and when I later process whatever I captured in that silence. Poetic BS? Perhaps. But this is what I do. I’ll let you judge me by my photographs.
Tire Swing IV / Sony A100, Sony 18-55mm @24mm, 1/125 sec @ f/7.1
See more of Nathan's work and learn more of his philosophies in Issue 6 of PHOTOGRAPH magazine. And learn more about effective dodge and burn methods in Dodge & Burn: Leading the Eye with Lightroom and Photoshop.
Nathan Wirth is a self-taught photographer who uses a variety of techniques— including long exposures, infrared and intentional camera movement—to express his unending wonder of existence by attempting to focus on the silence that we can sometimes perceive in between the incessant waves of sound that often dominate our perceptions of the world. Nathan brings a deep appreciation of poetry, paintings, and photography to his explorations of place (especially the sea). Often returning to the same locations many times, he seeks to explore the silence and the sublimity of those places. Nathan can be found online at nlwirth.com.