Capturing the U.S. Open In Infrared Light

The U.S. Open, which I have covered for five years for The New York Times, has no shortage of opportunities for staggering visuals. Especially on a sunny day, when the early afternoon light cuts crisp chiaroscuro shadows on the hardcourts, the players are easily transformed — their bodies contorted like ballet dancers and their faces transfigured by effort and focus as they emerge from deep shadow into brilliant sunshine to reach for a ball.

But the event is, and this will come as no surprise to anyone who has attended, absolutely crawling with photographers. All of the major wire services have multiple photographers on site, as do many newspapers and magazines from around the world. And while we all bring something different to our profession that allows us to make unique pictures, I am always thinking of ways to capture the event in a different light. And infrared is, quite literally, different light.

Discovered by the astronomer William Herschel in 1800, infrared resides beyond the visible spectrum of humans and has been used for numerous scientific and industrial purposes since the early 1900s — and for art photography since the mid 1900s. The infrared spectrum itself is divided into near-infrared, which is just beyond red, and far-infrared. Near-infrared imaging is used for night vision security cameras or baby monitors, for example, and far-infrared is what Times visual journalist Jonah M. Kessel used to photograph Methane gas in 2019.

So perhaps it was my subconscious and heavy reliance on near-infrared — I have a 3-month-old and a 3-year-old at home — that prompted me to bring an infrared-converted camera to the U.S. Open this year. A friend and fellow New York Times freelance photographer Adam Kane Machia lent me the camera some time ago, and I had been looking for the right moment to use it.

I usually work with two cameras at the Open — one with a telephoto lens that brings me closer to my subjects and the other with a wide-angle lens that expands my field of view — but I also carried a holster with the infrared camera for those moments when I had some extra time.

The camera’s sensor assigns visible light colors to its infrared photographs, but infrared is essentially colorless. So much the same way that black and white photography strips away the complications of color, I found that infrared photography goes one step further, emphasizing the intensity of light.

At the Open, where tens of thousands of people attend on a single day, the crowds can be disorienting. But in infrared light, the players’ colorful clothes fade away in deference to their figures. Ben Shelton’s white and pink shirt becomes nearly indistinguishable from the green, blue and yellow uniform worn by a ball crew member. The swoop of a spectator’s wide-brimmed hat reflects light by the practice courts with the same intensity of a young fan’s jumbo, neon green tennis ball awaiting an autograph. Even the red, white and blue of the American flag flying high above the nosebleeds in Arthur Ashe Stadium take a back seat to the light itself.

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