Travelogue: Kodak AEROCHROME in the Yucatan
Most film shooters have heard of Kodak’s AEROCHROME colour infrared film, it turns healthy green foliage a deep red or pink where infrared light is reflected. But what exactly is the appeal of shooting this film? It’s difficult to use, hard to source, expensive, difficult to store, and there will always be one or two observers who’ll ask “Can’t you just do that in photoshop?” So, is this just a novelty film stock?
The immediate appeal of AEROCHROME is obvious, at least to fellow film shooters: It just renders such stunning, otherworldly images.
A much more interesting question, one I’m asking myself, is – after satisfying that initial compulsion to try this rare and magical film – why come back to it?
Why Kodak AEROCHROME
I think the answer for me is this: the process of shooting infrared film compared to shooting conventional film stocks is a bit like shooting film generally, when compared to digital work. There’s uncertainty, it’s difficult, it’s sensitive, it’s different, there’s the suspense of waiting to find out if – after all your expense and efforts – you’ve successfully captured anything at all (I’ve had an entire roll of infrared film come out mysteriously, and heartbreakingly blank).
I first shot with colour infrared film a few months back, with some nice results. I’d managed to grab a few rolls, and really wanted to save those I had left for something special. A trip across the atlantic to Mexico felt like the perfect once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create something truly new and unique. I had visions of Mayan pyramids rising out of a sea of infrared jungle, and I put a lot of pressure on myself to get it right.
I’ve always been fascinated by ancient Mayan culture, so a trip to see the step pyramids in the Yucatan peninsular has been on my bucket list for some time.
There’s something about the ancient central American cultures, with their dramatic pyramid-top human sacrifice, extreme body modifications and obsessional study of the stars, that’s so much more alien and dreamlike than many of their European, African and Asian counterparts.
Couple that with stories of ancient cities, mysteriously abandoned and lost in the jungle… Somehow AEROCHROME feels like the perfect film to recapture that otherworldliness and sense discovery.
My trip would take me around the peninsular in a circuit, taking in many of the ancient Mayan sites. I picked Becán and Uxmal for my infrared shots.
Despite being one of the less famous Mayan sites, Becán was the destination that I really looked forward to visiting. It’s surrounded by jungle, and I’d heard that being somewhat overlooked by tourists, it was often very quiet. Perfect.
Storage in the field
So, how to shoot this stuff? There’s so much to consider when shooting with AEROCHROME. For one, it’s supposed to spoil quickly if stored at inappropriate temperatures. At home I keep it in my freezer, but out in Mexico ideal storage was difficult, and often impossible. Kodak’s AEROCHROME datasheet states that unexposed film should be stored at -18C to -23C for best infrared sensitivity; and exposed film should be kept sealed at temperatures of no more than 4C!
I travelled all over Quintana Roo, Campeche and Yucatan in 40C heat for ten days, often staying in eco villages without air conditioning, let alone a fridge in the room. I also asked for hand checks at airport security both ways, and who knows whether these factors affected the quality of my images. Then again, who knows if the vendor of this long expired film really did keep it in his freezer all this time, as claimed?
You can never really know unless you’ve owned it from new, so best to just do what you can and keep your fingers crossed.
Filters, focusing and film speed
The first and most important thing when shooting AEROCHROME (apart from the above), is that you need a filter on your lens in order to properly expose for the IR effect.
The film is over-sensitive to blue on colour layers, and this is not something you can deal with in post-production.
A filter when shooting really is essential. The classic AEROCHROME look is achieved with a yellow #15 or orange #21 filter (or equivalent).
As you go from yellow to orange and even red filters, blue skies will generally darken to black. Some photographers even use green filters for unpredictable effects.
In my experience though, your scene, angle to the sun, prevailing weather conditions and much else seem to have just as much effect on the colours of the final image, so forget about trying to predict exactly what your image will look like based on your filter.
For my trip, I went for an old Minolta Y52 yellow filter.
Another consideration to be aware of is infrared focussing. If you’ve ever wondered what the little red dot to infinity’s side of the focus point on your lens’ depth of field scale is, it’s the focus point for infrared light.
Since AEROCHROME forms an image using both visible and infrared light you need both points to be in focus, so for that you need adequate depth-of-field. In practice, if you’re shooting on a normal or wide angle lens this will be a non-issue as long as you’re stopping down to f/8 or further, as the depth-of-field should cover both the regular and infrared focus points.
I knew I’d be shooting a lot of pyramids and other large structures so I planned on exclusively using an ultra wide Vivitar 19mm f/3.8 lens, and I also knew I’d be shooting in bright sunlight or not at all (more on this later), so I’d be safely stopped down.
As for the camera body, I left my beloved Olympus OM-1 at home and brought out my OM-40. What an underrated camera! It’s definitely the ugly runt of the OM litter, but its matrix metering, aperture priority mode and easy exposure compensation dial make it my favourite camera for fast moving situations. Many archeological sites have tripod bans in place, and I anticipated having only brief moments were other tourists were not in shot, so the speed and ease of use of the OM-40 was ideal.
When it came to actually shooting, I used 200 as my base EI, and bracketed +/- two thirds of a stop. Why doesn’t this film have an ISO listed on the box? Who knows, it seems to behave differently, and require a different speed rating depending on the lighting conditions.
[EMULSIVE: AEROCHROME sas an aerial film speed of 40 (EAFS/ISO A 40). For us mere mortals, we’re able to use a working EI of 400 with a normal #15 filter installed on the lens. Altitude also affects the film speed and the effective EI needs to be reduced by around 1/2 a stop for every ~2,000ft gain in rise from sea level!]
Direct, bright sunshine is essential. Any infrared light hitting the film originates from the sun and reflects off any green foliage or other IR reflective surface, so you need the sun behind you, or the IR effect is diminished. If a cloud crosses the sun don’t even take the shot, it’ll be a frame wasted.
As mentioned, I bracketed +/- two thirds of a stop, and I can’t recommend this enough if you shoot this stuff and want the best results. Bracketing is a hard sell when this film is so rare and expensive, but its exposure latitude is mega limited and the sweet spot, where infrared elements look red and reasonably detailed, whilst other elements look natural, is extremely narrow.
So, it’s the old quality over quantity argument that wins out for me. For this reason I don’t think I’d ever bother chasing this film stock in 120 format, even though there is some out there. Bracketing as above would mean only three shots in 6×6 format, with no guarantee those three would come out anything like you’ve predicted.
Doing it all again
If I could do it all again, believe it or not I’d bracket further. Perhaps +/- 2/3 and 4/3 stops. The reward of a single correctly exposed shot is worth the price of the extra frames used. I’d also try to get a few more close ups, and perhaps take a little more time on my compositions, which I feel were a little rushed.
Will I continue to shoot with this film? Well, I have a few more rolls in the bottom of my freezer, and I certainly won’t let them go to waste.
I’m not sure if I’ll find another location quite like the Mayan ruins of Yucatan, though but then again, who knows…
~ Rob Hawthorn