The Black and White Florida Landscape – Palmetto Prairie

In Infrared Photography, Landscapes by George Wilson10 Comments

Black and White photography is my roots. It is where I first cut my photographic teeth with plus-x and tri-x films. Later on, it was the extremely fine grain TMax film. Black and white is also my first darkroom experience. I remember exposing the paper and then gently coaxing each image out by agitating the developing tray slightly. I can only compare it to watching something approach on a foggy day. There is a point at which all is suddenly sharp and clear. Digital imaging still allows me to use black and white. Selecting monochrome and using colored contrast filters transports me back to the days of the darkroom. The smell of developer flashes back instantly sometimes.

Good black and white images, in my opinion, are about contrast. One assignment I give my advanced photography students is to watch an old movie like The Grapes of Wrath, Casablanca, Raging Bull, or Young Frankenstein. I tell them ‘don’t watch the movie, watch the contrast!’ First, your viewing is controlled by what is in focus, this is what you see, and this is what they wanted you to see. This is what your brain first goes to in a scene. Then next is lighting. Usually you notice light against the dark first. This is how they created separation, gave things depth and even created mood. Night scenes were shot in daylight and were just under exposed. Contrasts in texture gave more life to the scene. Black and White photography is about light!

For the image above I was at the Hal Scott Preserve in Eastern Orange County, Florida, just a short distance from the bustling theme parks in the Orlando area. Orlando is my home having forsaken the snow and cold of New England years ago. It was a warm and humid August day in the early afternoon, accented by a light breeze. Here in Central Florida, that means clouds were building for the almost daily dose of humidity rain. If you need a sky with character in Florida, start shooting mid-day.

The Hal Scott Preserve is located on the banks of the Econlockhatchee River and contains shell mounds left by the Timucua Indians. These native people vanished from Florida in the early 1700’s due to diseases brought by European settlers. Today, this area encompasses 9,515 acres and is a natural home for breeding pairs of the red-cockaded woodpecker, a threatened species.

But it was the landscape that I came here for. The Florida flatwoods consist of open prairies, hammocks of cypress and sweetgum trees. The flatwoods communities harbored by Hal Scott are disturbed, with the most significant alterations being the historic harvest of trees combined with the dry season burning for several decades prior to its public preservation in 1992. This combination has resulted in a fairly sparse canopy of pine trees with very little regeneration.

Working my way out into the “prairies” I found a spot to stop, set the tripod and think about what I wanted to capture. I closed my eyes and felt a slight wind, which is a welcome relief on a hot Florida day. The area was silent. Listening to the wind, feeling it on my skin as it wafted the aroma of pine and the musty smell of palmetto, it was as if Osceola beckoned and the voices of past generations called out “hear me, experience me…protect me”. I was the only one in the parking lot and the only person there. With that I created my first two “themes” for the image I would try to capture; wind and palmettos. Several of the trees in front of me were barren of leaves, long dead and gradually succumbing to the elements. How much longer would they stand? Behind them the Pine flatwoods moved in the wind, blurring slightly. My first contrast will be movement, I thought to myself. I had my image in mind, now I needed to build it.

Out came my camera I was shooting infrared that day. This meant my Singh-Ray I-Ray 830 infrared filter would be in front of the lens. This type of photography has its challenges. Long shutter speeds and a filter that is almost impossible to see through, a filter that is such a deep red color that it is almost black in appearance. I would have to focus and compose, then place the filter over the lens without changing anything. With the filter in place, shooting time increases dramatically. Planning and tedious attention to your settings will produce a good image.

I chose one dead tree, placing it on the left third of the image. In western society, we read from left to right. Placement of the subject here gives a comfortable place for the viewer to start enjoying the image. The slow shutter speed I used allowed the clouds to flow in the same direction, gently coaxing the viewer through the image, as I wanted them to experience what I did. The long leaf pines in the distance moved slightly, blurring with the long exposure. The dead tree in the foreground was unaffected by the wind, thus sharp in my image. Lastly, the clouds would have a slight movement as well. I was achieving a “single frame time lapse” as I like to call it.

I have found that f8 seems to work best as a starting point for my infrared work. Shooting at smaller apertures does not have the depth of field increase that can usually be associated with smaller apertures. My exposure was thirty seconds at f8, ISO 400. Shooting at a lower ISO, say 100 would have given me an exposure time of almost 90 seconds, far too long to get the proper movement in the clouds. With 90 seconds the clouds would have obscured any open areas of the sky.

I composed and carefully focused the image. The challenge now is screwing on the Singh-Ray I-Ray infrared filter without changing the focus. I tripped the shutter and bracketed with exposure time.


  1. Great article! Question regarding the cloud cover in the area. Is summer the best time to take pictures of those days with awesome cloud cover?

    1. Hi Doreen,

      There is no specific time of year that is better than another with regard to infrared. Clouds can be present throughout the year. What is important is the brightness of the day – strong midday sun is often better for infrared than the golden hour. But photography is subjective and highly dependent upon the vision of the photographer and the experience of the viewer.

      The motion effect or movement of the clouds in this image is due to the long shutter speed used to capture the image.

      Kind Regards,

      George E. Wilson

  2. So does shooting with the infrared filter give the same effect as shooting a camera that has had an infrared conversion or is the effect a little less pronounced?

    1. Yes, it does. Just bear in mind that a 830nm filter would correspond to a 830nm conversion. The other significant difference is that the converted camera will function as a normal camera would and working with a filter significantly extends the exposure time. When I am working in the field I will carry both converted and non converted cameras. This allows me the flexibility to use long exposures in my work if the desired mood or feel requires it. The example image did require the longer exposure for the proper feel. Photography is a visual language and a photographer is responsible for conveying the sense of being there at that moment to the viewer.

  3. Magnificent work. Truly enjoyed your image and intriguing dialogue.

    1. Glad you enjoyed! Hope all is well in these crazy and uncertain times

  4. Great article. Can I use a Iray-830 filter on my digital camera? If I changed the camera to shoot B&W, would all I need to do is put an Iray-830 filter on the front, will the back of the screen show an infrared look?
    Gary Vargo

    1. Yes, the filter works on digital cameras – I have had the best luck on Nikon and Sony systems. On Canon, the modern lenses have an additional coating which would significantly extend the exposure time. The image in this article would easily be near 12 minutes in exposure time. If using a Canon digital body, times have significantly changed when using an older manually focused lens.

      As for the conversion to monochrome – yes, you would see the image on your LCD in monochrome. However, programs like Lightroom and Photoshop will not recognize the conversion and you will have a completely red or purple image to now work with. Conversion to monochrome in post processing is the first step, before working with the image.

      Then there is a reduction in highlights before using the white and black sliders to adjust contrast.

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