Each month a prize-winning photograph from the archives of the Crozet Calendar will be published together with a story from the photographer of how the image was made and commentary by Sam Abell about the merits of the photograph.
The brilliant images from the James Webb Space Telescope come to us from deepest space and time—from the near-birth of the universe billions of light years away.
They also come to us through the unique power of infrared sensing. The Webb is equipped with sensors that “see” in the infrared spectrum of light. That allows the telescope to penetrate the interstellar dust that clouds the visible spectrum of light that humans use to see the world.
Scientists convert the extremely dim infrared digital signals into the visible spectrum so we can see, study and appreciate detailed, colorful images from the deepest, oldest regions of the universe.
Back down on earth, infrared is also the spectrum used by John Payne to create his innovative image of a tree in his backyard. Like the Webb images, the story of John’s photograph begins in, for him, deep time.
“I first fooled around with infrared photography while I was still in college way back in the late 1970s. At that time, the film was difficult to handle; you had to load it into your camera in total darkness. The negatives were pretty grainy and kind of soft in focus. But it was fun. Definitely not like regular black and white prints.
“A year or so ago I read that Rollei sold an infrared film in 120 size that produces a negative 2¼ x 2¼ inches in size, almost four times the size of the sensor in most digital cameras. This Rollei film is basically regular black and white film that is designed to also be sensitive to the infrared spectrum.
“I ordered some and started playing with it. I was immediately impressed with the quality of the images compared to the ones I made all those years ago. They are incredibly sharp with a beautiful, full range of tones. I develop the film in my darkroom and then use a contraption I built that allows me to scan film using my DSLR. The scans are very simple to post-process in Photoshop.
“I then began a series of infrared photographs that I call “Invisible Virginia.” I shoot the film in my 1977 Hasselblad 500CM camera with Zeiss lenses in 50mm, 80mm, and 150mm focal lengths. To produce the unique ‘look’ of infrared photographs all the visible light (the light we see) must be filtered out. This resulting infrared look—of foliage turned a glowing white and daylight skies appearing night-like—is known as the Wood Effect after Robert W. Wood, an American physicist who invented the filter and observed the effect around 1903.
“It’s kind of tricky to shoot. The ISO of the film is 400 but the 720nm (nanometer) filter I use—which passes all of the infrared and a little of the visible light—is a very dark red that can barely be seen through. This brings the ISO down to around 12. I shoot in bright sunlight to maximize the Wood Effect and my exposures are usually around ¼ or ½ second at f/16 or 22. So it’s definitely tripod time. Since I can’t see through the lens with the filter in place, I compose and focus without the filter and then attach it when I’m ready to expose the film.
“The photograph featured here is of a large tulip poplar tree on our property. I love the tree and have photographed it a few times but have not been happy with the results. Then I thought infrared film might work.
“I photographed the tree facing west/southwest in the afternoon. Bright sunshine backlit the leaves and the Wood Effect made them luminous. I moved in close and set up underneath the canopy of the tree. I like that the photo shows only a portion of the tree. I think it’s a stronger, more graphic composition that way. The branches look like a network of veins. I darkened the field grass slightly in post-production so it wouldn’t lose any detail.
“But it’s not enough for the infrared ‘look’ to carry the day. It must also be an interesting subject with a compelling composition.”
I appreciate John’s last thought. He’s right: the photograph has to work without the “special effect” of infrared. And it does. The key is in the slender space he allows to exist between the lowest branches of the tree and the tops of the grass. That critical separation creates depth and dimension in the photograph. Like the Webb telescope’s images of outer space, John’s technical mastery of infrared—combined with his careful composition—allows us to deeply see into the mysterious but beguiling universe of his backyard.
Please note: The Crozet Gazette will not hold its annual calendar photo contest this year. Thank you to all who have participated over the last twelve years! The 2023 calendar will be a final “best of” edition of the project, curated by Sam Abell. Look for it on sale locally and online in November.