Since the 19th century, when the physicist James Clerk Maxwell discovered that light was made up of different frequencies, each of which caused different colours, we have known that either side of the visible light spectrum there are other frequencies we can’t see. Just because we can’t see them, it doesn’t mean that we can’t use them. Shorter wavelengths than visible light include things like x-rays, essential now for medical and other scanning inside bodies and other objects, radio waves for communication and RADAR and even microwaves for amongst other things cooking. But below visible light in the electro magnetic spectrum is infra-red, longer waves that can be felt as heat and recorded by thermal imaging cameras and special photographic film.
Maxwell used this discovery to expose three plates filtered to get only Red, Blue and Green then printed them to produce the world’s first durable colour photograph. The process was hampered by the fact that the wet collodian plates he was using were not evenly sensitive to all wavelengths andwere highly insensitive to Red. You can read more about the work of Maxwell HERE. Later as the red sensitivity was increased and in 1910 the first infrared film was produced.
Ilford produce a Black and White film they called SFX. This has an extended red sensitivity that allows the photographer to use an infrared or deep red filter on the camera and get near infrared results, or one can use it without a filter and get a conventional look an feel to the images. In many ways this was my secret weapon, I always carried a few rolls with me when shooting pictures as it gave me a way of portraying the subjects in a different way. It didn’t work for everything and I never used it for news.
I was asked by the London paper The Evening Standard to produce a Black and White feature that was “Not controversial” for their ES Magazine. I knew straight away what to do. The last steam railway inLondon was at the Old StationMuseum in North Woolwhich and I knew they ran the trains, some driven by the local vicar, up and down their few hundred yards of track on the first Sunday of each month, to the delight of children and adult enthusiasts who queued to get a ride on the footplate. I knew the chap who owned the engine and Eddie and Eric, the volunteer crew would be there so I went off to shoot the feature. The nature of the hot trains I knew would work well with infrared, and so it proved.
These days there a plugins and filters for PhotoShop that will simulate inrared, but many photographers who work in this field are having digital cameras to work in infrared mode.