Notes on infra-red filming and photography

 Lioness, Serengeti

I hate working at night. I like to drink, eat too much and fall asleep in front of the TV – not freeze my nuts off trying to get a photo of an animal that probably isn’t going to turn up. So why do I keep choosing subjects to film and photograph that only come out at night? Well it’s a strange addiction I have with infra-red. I started out shooting video seriously on infra-red back in 2003. I’d flirted with it a bit before then but the quality of the cameras was so awful (200-300 TV lines) that it just wasn’t really broadcastable. The arrival of the Ikegami 47 security camera changed all that. They were first used on Life of Mammals to film various sequences and soon got picked up by all of us wildlife cameramen hanging around the BBC back then.

I first used them to film otters with. I was shooting a film ‘My Halcyon River’ for BBC 2 Natural World series with my then assistant (and now very well respected cameraman) Jamie McPherson. We were trying to film otters on English rivers at night. Back then no one had ever really filmed otters seriously in England. There had been a few attempts and a few nice sequences but the otters were just too damn elusive. Our first shot took two weeks to get. We stuck an Ike 47 with a small C mounted Switar lens (which I robbed off an old Bolex) on a rudimentary pan and tilt head and then wired the camera back to Jamie’s car in a field. The idea was to be as far away from the river as possible so we didn’t disturb the otters.  We lit the scene with two or three small IR security lights (Derwent mini floods). These were powered by 12v car batteries and could just about last the night. A BNC broadcast cable ran the image from the camera back to the car along with the control for the pan and tilt. In the car we had a small Sony video camera (PD100) which we put in VTR mode and just used as a monitor and recorder. After we’d figured out our system all we had to do was wait. Two weeks later we had a shot! A large dog otter sniffing around the tripod legs. It wasn’t very good but it was a start.

Filming otters hunting ducks at night for Halcyon River Diaries

Over the next 18 months we basically went on a massive learning curve. The kit was fairly straightforward; the otters however were killing us! They were just so damn sneaky. Jamie and I would be out for nights on end, just grabbing the odd few seconds here and there. If we managed thirty seconds of broadcastable footage a week then we were doing very well. The kit stayed pretty much the same whatever we did – an Ikegami 47 wired into a PD100 – whether we were shooting remotely with 200m of cable between the security camera (IKE 47) and the monitor/recorder (PD100) or whether the cameras where on a tripod wired directly into each other with a long lens attached, the assembly was basically the same.

It was back then that I first got into camera traps. I have no idea why, we never really got a useable shot out of them. Jamie and I created a great system though. It was a double beam system that would turn on the Ike and PD100 when triggered and go straight into record for a set amount of time. It also had a 12v tap on it so it would turn all the IR lights on for filming and then power everything down when it timed out. It meant we could leave it out for days on end on one battery. It was a really cool bit of kit back then and much sought after but in reality it really didn’t bare many fruits. The odd shot of an otter crapping or walking past.

I kept filming otters on IR for years (in fact I still am). My office is filled with boxes and boxes of footage probably around 200 hours or more – 95% never broadcast. Otters playing, fighting, fishing, eating, fishing underwater, sleeping in holts, grooming. Everything otters do basically. All shot on miniDV with the old system.

About three years ago I changed to digital. Everyone was looking for the solution to the IR HD problem (the problem being there was no solution). I wanted to photograph otters at their holt entrance. I knew how sensitive they’d be as they emerged at dusk from the safety of their holt and figured I could shoot stills remotely using an IR converted camera. First I looked at cheap ways of doing it Canon 350/Rebels, 50Ds, then I thought ‘bugger that’ and bought a new Canon 5D MK2. It had all the latest features including ‘live view’ which I figured was pretty useful. I sent it off to Advanced Camera Services in Norfolk who did IR conversions on DSLRs. They called me up and said they’d never done a 5D MK2 and wasn’t sure whether it was possible. They went off and spoke to Canon who gave them a chip block to take apart to see if it was possible. The problem with the newer cameras was that the low pass filter, the bit that blocks IR light, was fused to the sensor – something to do with the dust removal system. They weren’t sure it was possible to prize the two apart. It turned out that it was possible and they converted my camera and one that belonged to Canon. It meant I had one of the very first 5D’s converted – a camera capable of shooting HD infra-red. It was the Holy Grail of wildlife cameramen at the time and a highly valuable bit of kit for hire. So obviously I took a few pictures of my wife’s chickens and then stuck it on my shelf for a year and forgot about it.

When I got it back out I was again filming otters for Halcyon River Diaries. I was still wedded to the Ike 47 system though for ease of use – I could put my massive HJ18 lens on it (Canon 28-500mm 2.8 with built in x2 for all those stills photographers who’ve never had the joy of using a decent video lens). I wanted to do some tests though and see just how well it performed shooting video. The answer was, pretty well. It created perfectly usable images at 1600 ISO. It was far more sensitive to light over 850 nanometres than it was to white light, which meant it worked well with my two new large Derwent LED IR floods.

I used it for various bits on the series and continued to play with it afterwards, although I was drifting back into stills with it. I wanted to put it inside the otter’s holt and photograph them without disturbing them. I built various housings to try to dampen the sound but couldn’t get it quiet enough. In the end I phoned my man at Canon and he sent me an IR converted G11 which was totally silent and did the job. I wrote a blog on that bit –

The IR 5D went back in its box again until last March when I went to film lions in Serengeti. On the morning I left I decided to get the IR 5D out of its box and stick it in my camera bag. I’m so glad I did. It was a couple of days before I pulled the IR 5D out of the bag but when I did and started shooting with it, it blew me away. The first thing I noticed was that it really worked when the light for colour photography was rubbish. The sun rises in East Africa just before six and is shite just after six! It really is so quick from the golden rise to burnt out bright shite. The IR 5D loved the shite light though, in fact the good morning and evening light didn’t really work. The bright blue skies and white fluffy clouds were what it wanted. I went mad with it for a few days, shooting everything as everything looked great. The greens went white, the blues went black; everything else was beautifully tonal, images just sprang off the computer screen. They were super real, ethereal, other worldly but surprisingly grounded at the same time. The Serengeti is a truly epic place and lions are epic animals in the landscape. The IR images seemed to marry the two together just beautifully – it had the epic feel the landscape and lions deserved. I shy away from photography that takes manipulating techniques too far. I think that photographs can too easily become just pictures if we mess with them too much. I believe this is true for some infra-red images but something about the Serengeti was different, it seemed more real in infra-red.

Pride rock. The IR camera during the day gave the images a stunning 'platinum' tonal quality.

I started shooting lions a lot with the camera. They’d stand out against the dark skies in a way they wouldn’t in colour. This meant they worked well in landscapes, I pretty much forgot about shooting them close up. I just wanted big vistas with lions in. I used my Lee grad filters occasionally but they didn’t have a huge effect, they darkened the sky down a little. What the camera needed was mid day rubbish light. The sort of light you ignore on safari because photographing anything in it is like putting wheels on a tomato – pointless and a complete waste of time. The beauty of this of course meant that the whole day was opened up to photography rather than just the mornings and evenings.

My favourite image I took late one morning. We came across a two cheetahs sitting on some rocks watching a distant lioness. They sat stock still for about ten minutes watching her and ignoring us. The light was appalling, high sun, burnt out grassland plains, bright bleached cheetahs. It was one of those gorgeous scenes that would never make it in colour as it would be wishy washy and bleached – horrible. On the IR it came alive. I had set the camera to show me black and white images on the LCD screen and I could see I was onto something. I wanted the symmetry. It was obvious in the cheetahs but I wanted it in the sky – it took a bit of waiting but then everything fell into place. The tiny cloud above them on its own in the middle is the cherry on the top for me.

This shot would have looked rubbish in colour but came alive in infra-red

I also found the IR camera to work well in low light. Not in the sense that it was super sensitive, it wasn’t, it needed IR light not white light. This worked in my favour though. I was chasing grainy images. The grandfather of all wildlife photography and filmmaking Hugo Van Lawick described the Serengeti as a ‘savage paradise’. He hit the nail right on the head. I wanted to try and capture this idea – the darkness, the dirt, the savagery. I started shooting images of wildebeest at dusk in infra-red. The camera was loving the light and I was ramping the ISOs up to 12,800, the effect was exactly what I wanted – dark, dirty, fear filled images, silhouette wildebeest horns, chaos and grain, lots of grain. I was shooting out of a moving car as we pulled into camp every night on slow shutter speeds 8th, 15th of a second. It wasn’t easy framing and focusing but I was getting exactly what I wanted.

Shot at 12,800 ISO the IR camera gave me the gritty look I was after

More recently I’ve been using the IR 5D in the Amazon to film black caiman. The results have been fantastic, especially when shooting with the new Canon 400mm 2.8. The kit is simple and easy to use. Much more portable than the old Ike 47 with PD100 and shooting onto CF cards makes life so much simpler. I particularly liked the look of the camera at dusk. Richard the director/cameraman was filming me talking about caiman and the tones and crispness of the image were beautiful – especially when we used the 24mm 1.4. I did take a few stills of the rain forest in IR but they didn’t do it for me, they just looked too ghostly and unreal – the technique didn’t lend itself to the place like it did the Serengeti.

The IR and high ISO worked well to make this shot of the great migration look like an old canvas