Infrared photography is confusing to many photographers, as can require special filters or IR converted cameras. Don’t let that intimidate you, as infrared photography is fun and rewarding, as you’ll see from the sample photos here. This article will help you learn what you need to know about infrared photography, give you an idea of what gear you’ll need to get started (it’s cheaper than you think!), and assist with basic post-processing!
First of all…what is “infrared” photography? Near infrared photography is the process of capturing light with frequencies outside the “visible spectrum” that the human eye cannot see. There’s a bit more to it than that, but since I don’t understand science (at all), you’re going to need to look elsewhere for a further elucidation that isn’t made up, which is what mine would be.
Luckily, the camera can see infrared light. The camera’s sensor is sensitive to infrared light, but manufacturers a “hot mirror” filter in front of the sensor to block this light, so that only the “regular” visible light can reach the sensor. This filter blocks the vast majority of infrared light, but not all of it. By adding another filter on top of the lens that blocks visible light, regular DSLRs can be used to as infrared cameras as that little bit of infrared light that reaches the sensor is now the only light that reaches the sensor.
So, how can you get started in infrared photography? Let’s take a look at the options…
The Hoya R-72 Infrared Filter is the best option as far as infrared filters go, but it’s expensive. Too expensive, if you ask me. Instead, if you’re just testing the water to see if infrared photography is for you, I recommend going with this CHEAP-O $25 option (72mm) or this 77mm option. Before I got my infrared camera, I used one of those CHEAP-O filters, and it worked just fine for me…actually, it worked great considering the price!
The downside to using a filter is that really long exposures are required. Exposures that are 60 seconds or more in broad daylight. Exposure times are typically longer with newer cameras, as the camera manufacturers continue to improve upon the filters blocking infrared light, making them less sensitive to infrared light. So, with this method, you can use your camera mounted to a tripod for 60 plus second exposures in broad daylight. That’s how long it was taking me to capture infrared photos with my Nikon D7000 when I first purchased an infrared filter.
Being lazy, impatient, and a big fan of infrared photography, I decided to take the plunge and bought an infrared DSLR. This DSLR, an infrared converted Nikon D70, had its hot mirror removed and shoots only in infrared. That’s the downside–it can’t take “normal” photos. The upside is that its exposure times are roughly equivalent to those coming from a regular camera, so no tripod is necessary for shooting in the broad daylight.
I went with the Nikon D70 because it was the cheapest camera I could find. In retrospect, I’d strongly encourage anyone looking to take up infrared photography not to go this route. The dynamic range isn’t good, the LCD screen is small, and the files are too small. Live and learn. The photos in this article were taken with this camera (click them to view their SmugMug page for EXIF data).
If I were to do it again, I’d buy a new Nikon D5100 and have the conversion done for $250 via LifePixel. The total cost out of pocket would be around $750, which is very expensive for a specialty product, but if you are serious about infrared photography or have clients interested in it, the cost isn’t too bad. Plus, after using it for a couple years (if you get sick of infrared photography) you can turn around and sell the camera.
Before going the more expensive route, I strongly encourage anyone reading this who is not wealthy to play it safe and buy the $26 infrared filter mentioned above. See if you like that, and go from there.
If you want to maximize the potential and “look” of the infrared photos that you’re capturing go out and find some greenery. Infrared light tries to hide from us humans in trees and bushes, making foliage and flora shots the best bet for infrared photos. If you’re a cityscape, urban, or portrait photographer, you probably won’t have much luck with infrared photography.
If you’re a landscape photographer, you should have a lot of fun with infrared photography. I’ve found that the most interesting infrared photos are ones with a lot of foliage, but also a dark man-made structure in the frame. Since the man-made structure won’t be impacted by the infrared shooting, it will really pop in the photo. You can see what I mean in the sample photos on this page.
If you do elect to go with an older camera for your infrared conversion, be mindful when shooting into direct sunlight. Because of shortcomings in dynamic range and in differences with how the infrared camera handles light, these shots can be very difficult to process. I typically try to keep the sun out of my frame, even if shooting into the sun can add some really dynamic lens flare.
The next step is processing the photos you’ve captured. When you dump the photos onto your computer, you’ll find that most of them are very red. Most people don’t care for this look, and it is easily corrected by performing a red/blue channel swap in Photoshop (I used Photoshop CS6, but any version will work). Using the channel mixer, set the red channel to 0% red and 100% blue, and the blue channel to 100% red and 0% blue. Your mileage may vary on this, and you may find somewhere less extreme (say, 3% and 97%, 97% and 3%) is best. I haven’t found that to be the case yet, and actually now use a Photoshop Action because I got sick of doing this manually.
You’ll now have blues where there were once reds, and the image will look a lot more realistic, or at least as realistic as it gets with infrared photography. Unless your name is ALF, trees probably don’t normally look white to you! The image will still likely look a bit flat, which is normal with infrared photos prior to processing. You’ll want to do a curves adjustment, picking black and white points, which will also help further correct the colors.
I recommend doing this processing in Photoshop CS6 and using an adjustment layer for the curves processing. After correcting colors and adding the appropriate amount of contrast, I usually add a second adjustment layer (or brightness layer) to increase white levels (or brightness), masking out the areas that would otherwise be blown out if I brighten them. In writing it sounds difficult, but once you’re in front of a computer, it’s actually quite easy!
If you prefer a black and white look to your infrared photos, you can convert them to black and white instead of messing with a channel swap. I still usually open the channels palette to accomplish this, but there are any number of methods you can use–it’s just like a standard black & white conversion. You’ll still want to follow the tips above concerning the curves adjustment.
The end result, regardless of whether you stay in color or convert to black and white, is photos that look like they were taken after a heavy snowfall. So it’s not really snow, but in locations where I shot, real snow is something you’ll never see–which really adds to the effect, I think.
And that’s all you need to know to get started! As I said at the outset, infrared photography really isn’t as difficult as it might seem. The basics are really easy to pick up, and once you get the handle of these, you can play around with how you shoot and process the photos to incorporate your own style and other experimental techniques (like infrared HDR!). Read more about infrared photography here.
If you’re looking for other photography equipment recommendations or photography tips in general check out a few of my top photography blog posts:
Photography Buying Guide: Everything from Underwater Cameras to Software
Best Books for Improving Your Photography
5 Indispensable Tips for Better Vacation Photos
Neutral Density Filter Buying Guide
Are you interested in infrared photography? Have you given it a try? Share your thoughts or questions in the comments!