Infrared Flash with an Olympus XA2

26 10 2013

I’ve owned an XA2 for some years now, although after the initial honeymoon period of a new toy to experiment with, it fell out of favour with me for a while. Over the past few months, I’ve been enjoying the simplicity and compact size, and looking once again at testing it’s capability and limitations.

The returning interest in infrared arose from my acquisition of the more powerful A16 flash unit, when replacing my faulty A11. I was reminded of a project posted online some years back, running a series of experiments with infrared flash, using an XA2. It was something J and I were both interested in at the time, although whilst I lost interest quickly, J took it so far as photographing a couple of live bands with IR flash (with great success, although with an SLR and more powerful flashgun).

The website in question belongs to Kip Praslowicz although he has since taken down most of the posts regarding the experimental process. I managed to find them using web archive, but obviously I’m not going to link to anything no longer live, or copy text here, since I feel it would be disrespectful.

First things first. I used Rollei Infrared 400s film, and tested 4 filters. Two of them were 720nm infrared pass filters (a square acrylic and a circular glass). One was a dark red (which I refer to as R29 for the purpose of this post), one of the coloured filters which comes in the Lomography set, and the last was an R25 glass filter.

My reasoning for testing such a range was that in the original experiment, an Ilford SFX gel was used, which I believe is a dark red filter rather than an infrared pass filter (SFX being an extended red sensitivity emulsion, extending to 740nm, whereas the Rollei extends as far as 840nm). For this reason, I wasn’t certain the 720 filters would yield any results from such a small flash, and not wanting the disappointment of a blank roll of film, I thought it worth finding out how much IR effect still appeared with the weaker red filtration.

Another issue I wanted to address was which zone setting to use for the best results, in terms of sharp focus. The XA2 is a bit peculiar in that both close and middle zones have the same minimum distance, although this has to do with light levels and the auto exposure (plenty of detailed information online about this, for anyone curious, so I won’t bog this post down any further with side details).

In brief, I tested each filter in a darkened space (blackout curtains, lights off) so whilst it wasn’t pitch black, it was darker than your average nightclub or city street, for example. The ISO was set to 400 throughout, and the flash was set to ‘full’ for all tests. I also made sure I included some ‘obvious’ IR indicators (black clothing, dark sunglasses, straight on eyes) to make life easier.

Each round of tests initially ran like this;
Close, 1.2m
Close, 1.8m
Middle, 1.2m
Middle, 1.8m
Simple, easy to remember.
Once I’d gone through those basics, and with plenty of frames left, I moved on to some more experimental attempts, such as trying from 3 and 4 metres away, moving outside to get some greenery into the shots, and experimenting with different areas of skintone.

It’s worth mentioning the point that the negatives were scanned as ‘organically’ as possible. All the processing options were switched off completely, and the only editing done has been to crop, resize, and remove a couple of the more obnoxious dust specks. Nothing has been done to adjust tone or lighting.

Results at 1.2m on the close setting. From left to right, IR sheet, IR circular, ‘R29’ plastic, R25 glass.
close 12 lineup

Results at 1.8m on the close setting:
close 18 lineup

Results at 1.2m on the middle setting:
middle 12 lineup

Results at 1.8m on the middle setting:
middle 18 lineup

The best all round results appear to come from the 720 filters, with the camera set to ‘close’ and standing about 1.2m away. Slightly further back, at 1.8m yielded still sharp but slightly underexposed results. Close enough that a small curve adjustment would bring them up without grain enhancement.

At 1.2m on the middle setting, the focus was clearly out, although there was some success a little further away. In fact, even the tests at 3m yielded something, although the curve adjustment necessary exaggerated the grain in the shadow details perhaps a little too much. Still, good to know.

Both the red filters yielded results exhibiting some IR characteristics, although it’s apparant in the skintones that a lot of visible light is getting through. In the closer shots, the skintones are ‘blown’ rather than ‘creamy’.

For reference, I took a shot on my phone, to show what colours and tones were actually present.
You can see how solid a black the tshirt is, and how dark the shades are, which have become semi transparent in some of the IR shots.

20131026-030111.jpg

I’ve yet to do any testing in real world situations, and I’d quite like to shoot a roll or two one night when out at a club, or some other night time events the XA2 is small and compact enough, even with the flash attached, to slip into a pocket or bag, and to be beautifully unobtrusive when taking a picture. In addition, the simplicity of the zone focussing means that it’s ideal for candid, quick shots.

As it stands, I’m having a little trouble getting hold of the Rollei infrared at any kind of reasonable price. I’m waiting for news from my preferred film retailer, so I’m hoping to do some more work with this setup very soon.

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