Using Infrared Film in a Holga

Written by Wallace Billingham

There seems to be very limited information on using Infrared film on the Internet, and even less information on using IR film with a Holga. To make matters worse a lot of the information online is not very accurate. It is my wish that this article will get you started in the right direction.

So what is Infrared Light anyway?

Simply put Infrared or IR light is the light that is longer than the visible red light in the spectrum yet shorter than radio waves. Our eyes are only able to see light up to around wavelengths of 700 nanometres or so. IR light begins just around that and continues up from there. As such IR light is really invisible light and has no colour which is why IR film is by nature black and white as the film is just recording how much IR light is being reflected back towards the camera. This type of light and photography is often referred to as ‘near IR’ because it is the IR light that is very close to the visible part of the spectrum. Please do not confuse this with thermal imaging, which is not the same.

What types of IR film are available?

As of this writing in Sept. 2007 there are 3 types of 120 medium format Infrared film that can be used in your medium format Holga. These are (in no particular order) Efke IR820, Ilford SFX, and Rollei Near IR-Film. Kodak also makes an IR film in 35mm form only called Kodak HIE lets take a look at each one. It should also be noted that these films may be hard to find in local camera shops, but are readily found online.

  • Efke IR820c - This one is made in Croatia by Fotokemika and is by far my film of choice. It has the deepest sensitivity of all of the current medium format IR films on the market today going down to 840nm. This film used to be sold under the Maco brand name.
  • Ilford SFX - This film is perhaps the easiest to find, as Ilford is a major supplier of B&W films worldwide. This film was off the market for a long time but was recently brought back, because it is mass produced by Ilford it is also the least expensive of IR films. The film has IR sensitivity down to around 740nm.
  • Rollei Near IR - This film is very similar to the Ilford SFX film with similar IR sensitivity. However it costs more than the Ilford film and seems to be harder to find.
  • Kodak HIE - This fantastic film is currently only available in 35mm rolls. It has the deepest IR sensitivity of any IR film on the market today going out to 920nm. It is possible of course to load 35mm film into a Medium Format Holga and as of this writing a new 35mm based Holga is in the works.

Preparing Your Holga For IR Film Use

Using IR film is your Holga is pretty much like using any other film with a few exceptions. IR film is more sensitive to light leaks so you can get light leaks that you never knew you had before. I tape my Holgas up and have had no problems. You should also load the film in dim light and if you are using HIE in 35mm format you should load it in darkness. I currently have 8 Holgas and load them up with film at home before I go out in the field. I have however changed film outdoors in the shade with no problems. There is information floating around online that says that the black plastic often used in ?toy cameras? is not totally opaque to IR light, this is just not true, I have also never had any issues with the red window on the back, however I do cover it up with black tape and peel it back when I advance the film.

Using Filters with IR film

All of the IR films mentioned above are also sensitive to regular visible light. As a result you need to use a filter to block the visible light and allow only the IR light to pass. The best results can be had with a Hoya R72 filter. The Hoya R72 will only let light from 720nm and above pass. You can also use a regular red filter however they will also let a lot of visible red light pass which will diminish the IR effect of the film but can be a neat effect on its own. The one exception to that however is Kodak HIE film. It actually is designed to have very limited sensitivity to visible red light. As a result you can use a regular red filter and still get very nice IR effects.

It should also be noted that ND filters and polarizing filters have no effect on IR light. You can however use this to your advantage if you already have a 4x ND filter (or deeper) and a deep red filter by stacking them together. The combo will block all visible light below red and will only let a little bit if visible red light through, while letting the entire IR light pass. While not quite as effective as a Hoya R72 it is also quite a bit cheaper.

There are several ways to attach the filter to your Holga. The best way is to use a step-up ring. A 46mm step up ring will screw right into the front of the Holga lens barrel. Then you can screw the filter right into that. I already had a nice collection of 62mm filters from my SLR (including a Hoya R72) so I use two step-ups - one 46-55mm and another 55-62mm. This also acts like a small lens hood when I am not using filters.

Exposure Times

Figuring out exposure times is perhaps the hardest part of IR photography. The sun makes lots of IR light however you have much more of it in the middle of the summer than in the middle of the winter. Hand held light meters also have a very difficult time reading IR light since they are not designed to do that. As a result you often have to guess and bracket a lot of shots. With IR film being expensive this can be an issue, however the more you shoot with it the more you will be able to nail it. I have found in full mid summer sun with a Hoya R72 exposure times of around 1 second is a good starting point, doubling those times in the winter. If it is cloudy, try around 4 seconds exposure, if you are in the shade, try 8-16 seconds or longer. This of course means a tripod is needed, and a cable release system is quite handy as well. One thing to keep in mind is that the reciprocity factor with IR film is pretty high and it is better to over expose a little bit rather than under expose so err on the side of over exposure, as an example in deep shade late in the day I have gone as long as 60 seconds. Also remember that you need to double your exposure times to move up a stop. So 8 seconds is only 1 stop more than 4 seconds, and 16 seconds is only 2 stops while 32 would only be 3.

IR Effects

Ok so you have your Holga, your filter, and your IR film lets talk about what you can expect in the way of IR film effects. As a general rule things look very different in IR light than in visible light. First off green foliage reflects lots of IR light so green leaves will look snow white. Deep blue sky has very little IR light so it will look very dark while clouds will have lots of contrast. Water does not reflect IR light at all and slowly absorbs it. The result of that is that shallow water will look very clear with the bottom clearly visible, while deeper water will look very black.

Developing

Despite what labs will tell you IR film is no harder to develop than any other B&W film. So if your lab wants to charge you more for it look for another lab or better yet develop it yourself and scan. The money you save for each roll will easily pay for the supplies you need.

Conclusion

I hope you found this brief article helpful. Use it as a starting place for your own research and experimentation. If you would like to see some of my IR work you can check out some of my work on my Holga IR set on Flickr.