Let me get this out of the way. AEROCHROME is hands-down my favourite film stock. Yes, that includes EKTACHROME E100VS and I implore you to try some AEROCHROME out if you can. You won’t ever shoot anything quite like it and no, the effect cannot be reproduced using filters.
Root about on the Internet and you’ll see many, many, amazing shots taken with this unique film, as well as a number of detailed and informative articles about how you can use it to get the same amazing results.
If you’ve not come across AEROCHROME before today, then you’re in for a treat. It really is completely unlike anything out there today. If you’ve landed here after searching other reviews on the Internet, this article is going to be a little different to what you’ve already seen.
Pretty much every roll of AEROCHROME in existence expired in late 2011, so you need to be aware that you’re dealing with an expired slide film stock, which was finickity at the best of times while fresh.
In this article, I’ll be dealing with the film as it is today and hopefully giving you the benefit of advice that comes from both failure and success. Here’s what’s covered:
What is Kodak AEROCHROME?
For the uninitiated, Kodak AEROCHROME was a colour infrared-sensitive slide film, originally designed for aerial operations including camouflage detection, forest survey, pollution monitoring, archaeology and ice reconnaissance. Its IR sensitivity was used to highlight buildings, objects, trees, water density and people – especially those under camouflage – by transforming the colour of artificial objects, atmospheric phenomenon and fauna based on the signature of reflected infrared light compared against a baseline guide.
It had a rather high IR sensitivity at around 900 nanometers but it was sadly discontinued around 2010. Since then, it has been in the hands of many professional and unprofessional shooters (like myself) as (almost) a purely creative film.
It’s difficult to talk about the current availability of AEROCHROME in 120 and 4×5 format without a hat-tip to and mention of the labours of one man, Dean Bennici, who took it upon himself to find, buy, recut and re-roll every roll and sheet of AEROCHROME in existence.
The gentlefolk at the Film Photography Project also have bulk loaded AEROCHROME (or Kodak EIR) available in 35mm format but other than those two sources, that’s pretty much it – barring a few 70mm reels and orphaned stock of factory loaded 35mm Kodak EIR, which may be languishing in a freezer or two somewhere.
Here’s what Kodak had to say about AEROCHROME:
“KODAK AEROCHROME III Infrared Film 1443 is an infrared-sensitive, false-color reversal film intended for various aerial photographic applications where infrared discriminations may yield practical results. This film has medium resolving power and fine grain. 1443 Film has an ESTAR Base with good optical properties. The ESTAR Base provides flexibility, moisture resistance, high tear resistance, and excellent dimensional stability.
This film can be processed in Process AR-5 using KODAK EA-5 Chemicals…while not a primary recommendation, Processes AN-6 and C-41 can be used to produce a negative. Additionally, it can be processed in rewind equipment or on stainless steel reels.”
|Name||AEROCHROME III Infrared Film (1443)|
|Type||Infrared color slide (Reversal)|
|Format||35mm, 70mm cut as 120|
|Speed (ISO)||Sea level - 400;
Nominal 0 40 @ 10,000ft
|Exposure latitude||–-1/2 to +2 stops|
What’s it like?
First, let me apologise in advance for the many superlatives you’ll find in the text that follows. I find it incredibly hard not to get very excited about shooting this film.
As mentioned above, this film is expired and whilst some slide films can still be used after years left in a desk drawer, AEROCHROME is a slightly different beast; heat and altitude both affect how you can or cannot use the film.
…that said, given a relatively fresh roll and a suitable understanding of how this film behaves, it will still give you truly eye-popping results. I mean it. It’s simply stunning and in my very humble opinion, it’s a film that every dyed-in-the-wool film photographer should shoot at least once in their lifetime.
Once you’ve scoured the Internet and gotten yourself a roll, the question will be what and how to shoot. The simple answer is anything which reflects infrared light, especially foliage. But why stop there? Go to the seaside, get yourself to an urban centre. Just. Go. Mad. After all, it’s unlikely that you’ll be shooting another roll any time soon. Take (calculated) risks and squeeze out as much value from your roll as you can. I mostly shoot my 120 rolls as 6×4.5…mostly.
To get started, you’ll first need a filter. Kodak recommends their Wratten #12 (yellow) but you can also use orange #21, or deep red #25 filters to intensify the results. The darker the filter toward the red end of the spectrum, the greater the effect…but the risks of fudging your exposure also increase exponentially.
Look closely at the captions on the images in this article and you’ll see that I’ve hedged my bets on most shots by using an orange #21 filter.
If so inclined, you can use an R72 infrared filter but bear in mind that the negatives will come out as a reddish monochrome, not color. In short, if you want to use a traditional infrared filter, stick to black and white film. Oh, and if you’re already used to shooting black and white infrared film, you might be glad to know that you don’t need to make focus adjustments to your lens’ distance scale. Simply meter, point, focus, shoot (or whatever combination you’re used to).
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If you’ve done the job right, you’ll be rewarded with pink, purple, or deep red foliage, fuchsia, opal and azure, or even black water and skies – in camera, on film. No Photoshop required.
To my eye, the closest film stock today in terms of giving the unique AEROCHROME “look” is Lomography’s LomoChrome Purple. You may laugh and it may not be everyone’s cup of tea but it’s one of my favourite “creative film” stocks and with a with a red, or orange filter on the lens, you can get similar but not identical results.
Shooting Kodak AEROCHROME
This film is old, well expired and picky. It’s not like shooting fresh Velvia. In addition, it can be troublesome to develop.
To obtain slides, you’ll need to ensure that it’s developed as E6 (or AR-5, if you can find it), and you’ll also need to ensure that the machine used at your lab doesn’t have internal infrared lights/sensors turned on while the film is being developed, as they can fog the film. Just ask first and you should be fine.
You’ll want to try and take the film out and about when the sun is high in the sky and clouds are at a minimum. This isn’t simply an artistic choice, as if you’re shooting landscapes, a blanket of clouds in your frame can overwhelm your exposure and leave you with a largely white sky. In addition, too much cloud cover will also reduce the amount of IR light that’s bouncing around and can adversely affect the IR effect you’re chasing. Be careful when you choose to commit to the shot. See the example below for cloudy sky “whiteout”.
I’ve shot several rolls of AEROCHROME over the past five years and handle it with the same equal parts fear and respect as Kodak’s other well known infrared stock, HIE. It’s best loaded in subdued light, or indoors away from direct light. I also take pains to shoot an entire roll in one sitting. The longest I’ve left a roll in my camera was five days and even then, I woke each morning wondering if I should take my film back off the camera, stick it in a ziplock bag with some desiccant packs and put it in the fridge.
Kodak recommended this film be cold stored at ~4c when an unfinished reel needed a couple of days rest between shoots. For longer periods, they recommended it be frozen. It’s not exactly tolerant and I take no chances. I shot my first two rolls in 6×4.5 format, as I wanted as much film economy as possible and some space to try bracketing with different coloured filters.
I’m glad I did, as the line between in risk and reward is very, very fine. See below.
Whilst the image above is pleasing to my eye, it’s totally blown out and not exactly what I had expected.
Read Kodak’s technical data and you’ll be told that you have 1/2 of a stop of latitude in your exposure. For this reason, you must be careful when shooting high contrast, or backlit scenes where you want to capture shadow detail. If you have a contrast range greater than N+/-3 or 4 in the scene in front of you, you need to prepare to lose some shadow detail. Large differences, in contrast, will be fine when shooting most kinds of landscapes, especially wide-angle sprawling vistas, as you’ll notice a loss of shadow detail and muddier highlights a bit less.
When you get closer to your subject, exercise some caution and think about it before committing. Your temptation will be to either snap, snap, snap, or labour over which worthwhile shot to take. My advice would be to go with your gut and build contrast with the content of your scene, as well as available light. Just remember that you’ll probably lose a couple of shots due to poor exposure (equally your fault and the film’s), and if you’re shooting at altitudes of over 5000ft, you’ll need to rate the film a stop less for about each 2000ft you gain in altitude. it’s rated at a nominal ISO 40 at 10,000ft.
Speaking of rating, this film is happy to be shot at EI 400 with the aforementioned yellow #12 filter attached at around sea level but I’ll generally shoot it at EI 400 with an orange #21 filter on the lens with no issue. I also normally shoot at EI 200 or 320 with a deep red #26 filter.
Your results will vary, so if it’s your first time try to bracket at least one shot – perhaps an important one – with all three recommended filters, should you have them on hand. Just remember that at the very least, you’ll need a yellow filter in order to see the IR effect.
There’s no question about it, this film is incredibly special and as you might have already guessed, I want you to shoot a roll and see it for yourself. Granted, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea but I’m betting that there are plenty of you reading this already thinking about what you’ll shoot.
Throw your caution to the wind and go for it.
…but let me temper that quickly. AEROCHROME in all formats is in dwindling supply and it’s not cheap: US$5-7 per exposure when shot as 6×6 (depending on where and how you get it). It’s a special treat and one I can hand on heart suggest you get yourself into the red for.
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