Nathan Wirth is a San Francisoco-based fine art photographer. Many of his images of stark landscapes in and around the San Francisco Bay area were taken with an Infrared-modified DSLR, yielding stunning results. Wirth’s landscapes are serene, inviting, thoughtful. He recently talked to us about process and technique.
Do you shoot film infrared or do you shoot with a modified for infrared digital camera?
“My first experiments with infrared were with a Sony Alpha 700 DSLR and Hoya’s R72 infrared filter. The filter is very dark and even on a bright day with a fairly wide aperture it takes at the very least, several seconds. I really liked playing with long exposure infrared shots, but with my available lenses, the exposures of a second or more often produced a very annoying hot spot in the center of the image that was quite difficult to work around, so I eventually modified my first DSLR, a Sony Alpha 100, so I could easily take handheld shots and not have to deal with those annoying hot spots.”
How do you previsualize what the infrared pictures will look like before you take them?
“When I had my camera modified by lifepixel, I chose their Deep BW IR filter (equivalent to an 830nm filter), which in general produces very stark contrasts between the blacks and the whites. The typical “look” of most infrared images highlights and exaggerates the snowy white vegetation, giving it a glow, so much so that for my tastes, it becomes far more about the gimmick than the composition, the mood, or the tone, which are the things that I am most concerned with. I strive to find the warmest, strongest tonal qualities possible, so I tend to downplay that eggshell white so often associated with IR images.
“I previsualize what I want by anticipating what those contrasts will likely be—and the rest of the vision and processing comes down to working with a composition that does not rely on the gimmick. I don’t want a “fantasy world” image. I want to create something that has warm, engaging tones, something with a sprinkle or two of yellow to bring out the warmth of those tones. In other words, I want to use the infrared to complement the mood, not define it.”
You have mentioned that you like shooting without thinking too much, without expectation and analysis. How does this type of technique work with long exposures? Is there a lot of trial and error in your process?
“The true allure for me in both long exposure and infrared photography is the element of surprise. No matter how good I have gotten at anticipating what I will get, I still from time to time end up with these remarkable nuances of light and shadow that I had not anticipated. That said, with practice I have gotten to the point where I can more or less guess what I will get and what weather conditions and quality of light will yield which tones and how long an exposure needs to be to get a desired effect.
“Initially, I had to go through a lot of trial and error, but now these matters are part of my toolbox. I don’t wander around for long periods of time trying to measure and calculate the best composition. Instead, I usually just see it and go from there. I let the mood, light, and moment dictate where I will go and what I will do. I typically photograph by myself, and that quality of solitude plays an important role in what I am trying to express and how I go about doing it.”
What time of day and weather conditions do you prefer to shoot this work in?
“In general, I prefer cloudy days. My favorite conditions are usually found in-between rain storms, when those dark clouds are moving and the sunlight is bursting through the various openings that come and go with the movement. I especially love those days when the clouds are dark, but the sun is out and illuminating the sea, the rocks, the bridge, the building or other features of a cityscape, landscape, or seascape. I prefer the light found during sunrise and sunset, both for my infrared and my long exposures. There is an undeniable warmth to that light that transfers well to both monochrome long exposures and infrared shots.”
You mention that a lot of your work is done in an improvisational way. Can you expand on that?
“When I speak of improvisation, I am thinking about a state in which I let my mind go while I process and just work my way through the image as it seems fit, and if even possible, to remove my ego and expectations and worries about how an image will be potentially received. It is very easy to get in one’s own way when processing an image—or even when choosing what to photograph. Second guessing can be stifling and relying on a set group of presets or tried and true processing maneuvers can be limiting.
“I also find tones and contrasts without approaching the image from a preconceived notion of what a seascape, landscape, architectural shot ‘should look like’ and, instead, I am willing to discover the image by simply exploring the possibilities. I am not, however, saying that I just float around willy-nilly or aimlessly and wait to see if something happens. I just don’t overthink what I am doing. I simply just do it by letting the process unravel in the moment.”