How to Add Mood to Infrared (and other) Photographs

Nathan Wirth

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.

The Riff

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

The Tools

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.

Oak II / Sony A700, Sony 18-105mm @45mm, 1/40 sec @f/5.6

The Weather

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.

The Poet's Tree / Sony A100, Sony 18-55mm @18mm, 1/160 sec @ f/9

The Process

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. 

Two Trees on a Hill – Study #8 / Sony A100, Sony 18-55mm @18mm, 1/400 sec @f/9

The Gear

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.

Down in the Valley / Sony A100, Sony 18-105mm @50mm, 1/250 sec @f/8

White Tree XI / Sony A700, Sony 18-105mm @ 55mm, 1/125 sec @ f/16

The Conversion

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

 

Craft & Technique Nathan Wirth

← Older Post Newer Post →


Comment


  • Always an admirer of your creations. Just here to say thanks for sharing your discerning insights!

    RIchard tErpolilli on

Leave a comment

  1. Making the Image: Kathleen Clemons
  2. Night Ranger: A Word With David Kingham
  3. Understanding the Night Sky
  4. Vision Is Better, Ep.60
  5. The Value of Critique
  6. Capturing the Moment
  7. Vision Is Better, Ep.59
  8. Five Key Elements of Food Photography
  9. Using Flash That Doesn't Look Lit
  10. Vision Is Better, Ep.58
  11. Using Flash To Improve Your Photographs
  12. Five Tips for Using Off-Camera Flash
  13. Vision Is Better, Ep.57
  14. Finding Critics
  15. Street Life: A Word With Libby Holmsen
  16. Using the Frame
  17. The Photographer's Tools
  18. Backlight: The Art of Silhouettes
  19. Vision Is Better, Ep.56
  20. Understanding Perspective
  21. Vision Is Better, Ep.55
  22. In Conversation: Sharon Covert
  23. Create Projects + Collaborate
  24. Mirrors or Windows?
  25. 2018 Mentor Series Workshop: Varanasi, India
  26. F/ The Rules
  27. Drawing the Eye With Selective Focus
  28. C&V Fujifilm Giveaway Winner Announced
  29. In Conversation: Willem Wernsen
  30. Exposing for Highlights
  31. Using Fill Light to Create Dramatic Portraits
  32. Cameras Don't Make Photographs
  33. Shooting with Your Final Image in Mind
  34. 10 Ways to Make Better Black and White Photographs
  35. 2018 Maasai Mara Photographic Safari
  36. 2018 Mentor Series Workshop: Lalibela, Ethiopia
  37. Start With the Corners
  38. Creating Painterly Images with Movement and Multiple Exposures
  39. Using the Guided Upright Tool in Lightroom
  40. The Power of Photographing Icons
  41. In Conversation: Susan Burnstine (Part II)
  42. In Conversation: Susan Burnstine (Part I)
  43. Controlling Your Edit with Lightroom's Tone Curve
  44. Making the Image: David duChemin
  45. 3 Ways to Make More Honest Portraits
  46. The Adjective-Driven Approach to Photography
  47. In Conversation: Oded Wagenstein
  48. Making the Zone System Work for You
  49. Ten (More) Ways to Improve Your Craft
  50. Reference View: A New Way to See in the Lightroom Develop Module
  51. In Conversation: Laurent Breillat
  52. The Best 3 Filters for Landscape Photography
  53. Creating Classical Portraits with Simple Lighting
  54. Photographic Processing and Believability
  55. Visual Storytelling: An Introduction
  56. Making the Image: Piet Van den Eynde
  57. In Conversation: Satoki Nagata
  58. Use Repeating Elements for Stronger Images
  59. In Conversation: Kate Densmore
  60. One (More) Reason To Use Adobe's Creative Cloud
  61. Three Ways to Use Backlight
  62. 2017 Rome Mentor Series Workshop
  63. 2017 Venice Mentor Series Workshops
  64. Controlling Foreground to Background Presence
  65. Making the Image: David Adam Edelstein
  66. In Conversation: David Adam Edelstein
  67. Using Contrast for Stronger Images
  68. Three Ways to Make Better Portraits
  69. How to Direct the Eye in Your Photographs
  70. How to Improve Your Street Photography
  71. In Conversation: Piet Van den Eynde
  72. Starting Your Next Personal Project
  73. Five (More) Creative Exercises to Improve Your Photography
  74. Five Creative Exercises to Improve Your Photography
  75. Three (More) Ways To Discover Your Vision
  76. Four Ways to Discover Your Vision (Part I)
  77. Three Ways to Make Stronger Black & White Images in Lightroom
  78. In Conversation: Cristina Mittermeier
  79. How to Add Mood to Infrared (and other) Photographs
  80. In Conversation: Paul Nicklen
  81. Four Ways to Tell Stronger Stories
  82. In Conversation: John Paul Caponigro
  83. Master the Art of Seeing and Improve Your Photography
  84. Adding Light with the Radial Filter in Lightroom
  85. The Power of Abstraction
  86. In Conversation: Anja Büehrer
  87. Five Ways to Add More Depth to Your Portraits
  88. Four Ways to Make Stronger Travel Photographs
  89. In Conversation: Martin Bailey
  90. Learn to Isolate
  91. Gear Is Good
  92. In Conversation: Dave Brosha
  93. For the Love of Your Photographs
  94. Working with Target Collections in Lightroom
  95. Review: Epson P800
  96. Seeing: Receptive & Observant
  97. Better Questions
  98. Siri? Ask Lightroom!
  99. Wake Up.
  100. In Conversation: David Jackson
  101. Photographic Skills: Patience
  102. In Conversation: David duChemin
  103. 2017 Jodhpur Mentoring Workshop
  104. 2017 Maasai Mara Safari
  105. Rome 2016 Mentoring Workshop
  106. Florence 2016 Mentoring Workshop
  107. Venice 2016 Mentoring Workshop
  108. Vision Is Better, Ep.54
  109. Vision Is Better, Ep.53
  110. Vision Is Better, Ep.52
  111. Vision Is Better, Ep.51
  112. Vision Is Better, Ep.50
  113. Vision Is Better, Ep.49
  114. Vision Is Better, Ep.48
  115. Vision Is Better, Ep.47
  116. Vision Is Better, Ep.46
  117. Vision Is Better, Ep.45
  118. Vision Is Better, Ep.44
  119. Vision Is Better, Ep.43
  120. Vision Is Better, Ep.42
  121. Vision Is Better, Ep.41
  122. Vision Is Better, Ep.40
  123. Vision Is Better, Ep.39
  124. Vision Is Better, Ep.38
  125. Vision Is Better, Ep.37
  126. Vision Is Better, Ep.36
  127. Vision Is Better, Ep.35
  128. Vision Is Better, Ep.34
  129. Vision Is Better, Ep.33
  130. Vision Is Better, Ep.32
  131. Vision Is Better, Ep.31
  132. Vision Is Better, Ep.30
  133. Vision Is Better, Ep.29
  134. Vision Is Better, Ep.28
  135. Vision Is Better, Ep.27
  136. Vision Is Better, Ep.26
  137. Vision Is Better, Ep.25
  138. Vision Is Better, Ep.24
  139. Vision Is Better, Ep.23
  140. Vision is Better, Ep.22
  141. Vision is Better, Ep.21
  142. Vision is Better, Ep.20
  143. Vision is Better, Ep.19
  144. Vision is Better, Ep.18
  145. ABOUT THE IMAGE - EPISODE 18
  146. Vision is Better, Ep.17
  147. ABOUT THE IMAGE - EPISODE 17
  148. Vision is Better, Ep.16
  149. ABOUT THE IMAGE - EPISODE 16
  150. Vision is Better, Ep.15
  151. ABOUT THE IMAGE - EPISODE 15
  152. Vision Is Better, Ep.11
  153. ABOUT THE IMAGE - EPISODE 14
  154. ABOUT THE IMAGE - EPISODE 13
  155. ABOUT THE IMAGE - EPISODE 12
  156. ABOUT THE IMAGE - EPISODE 11
  157. ABOUT THE IMAGE - EPISODE 10
  158. Vision Is Better, Ep.10
  159. Vision Is Better, Ep.09
  160. ABOUT THE IMAGE - EPISODE 09
  161. Vision Is Better, Ep.08
  162. ABOUT THE IMAGE - EPISODE 08
  163. Vision Is Better, Ep.07
  164. ABOUT THE IMAGE - EPISODE 07
  165. Vision Is Better, Ep.06
  166. ABOUT THE IMAGE - EPISODE 06
  167. Vision Is Better, Ep.05
  168. ABOUT THE IMAGE - EPISODE 05
  169. Vision Is Better, Ep.04
  170. ABOUT THE IMAGE - EPISODE 04
  171. Vision Is Better, Ep.03
  172. Vision Is Better, Ep.02
  173. ABOUT THE IMAGE - EPISODE 02
  174. ABOUT THE IMAGE - EPISODE 01
  175. Vision Is Better, Ep.01
  176. ABOUT THE IMAGE - EPISODE 03

Related Articles

Related Resources


Categories
About the Image Show Adam Blasberg Adobe Andrew S. Gibson Andy Biggs Anja Büehrer Bret Edge Bruce Percy Brucy Percy Craft & Technique Creative Cloud Creativity Cristina Mittermeier Dave Brosha David Adam Edelstein David duChemin David Kingham Duncan Fawkes Guy Tal Henry Fernando Interview Jason Bradley John Paul Caponigro Kate Densmore Kathleen Clemons Laurent Breillat Libby Holmsen Lightroom & Photoshop Making the Image Martin Bailey Michael Frye Nathan Wirth Natural Light Oded Wagenstein Paul Nicklen Piet Van den Eynde Podcast Project Nimbus Rafael Rojas Satoki Nagata Sean McCormack Sharon Covert Sherri Koop Simi Jois Street Photography Susan Burnstine Vision is Better Show visual storytelling Willem Wernsen Workshop Younes Bounhar Zone System