Infrared photography (or IR photography) offers every photographer the opportunity to discover the world of the invisible, regardless of their skills or budget. But why invisible? Eyes cannot see infrared light because it is just outside the spectrum visible to humans. When we take pictures with infrared cameras, we discover a completely new world that is very different from the one we are used to. In this complete guide to infrared photography, you will learn everything from history, infrared light, cameras and lenses to post processing. Ready?
Why infrared images look different
Colors, textures, leaves and plants, human skin and many other objects look completely different with infrared photography. They reflect infrared light in a unique and interesting way that Photoshop cannot imitate (yes, Photoshop can do a lot , but not everything!). However, it’s all a matter of taste, like any other form of photography or art. Still, I highly recommend exploring the world of IR photography. The number of cameras equipped with infrared is increasing and the technology is constantly improving. This enables photographers to demonstrate their skills in new areas. Let’s start with what infrared is.
Definition of infrared
For simplicity, I refer to the infrared light spectrum in this article as “near infrared” or “IR”. Near infrared refers to the spectrum of light that is just outside the range of human eyesight. This range is between 700 – 1200 nm (nanometers). Thermal imaging technology is also located in this area, above the near infrared . She became known through films such as “Patriot Games” and other thrillers, in which secret services and the military used it to track down enemies in the dark using only their body heat. The sensors commonly used in digital cameras today cannot record thermal images, but under certain circumstances they can provide excellent IR images!
The history of infrared photography
The first steps in infrared photography began at the beginning of the 20th century with special film plates. During World War I, IR photography proved extremely valuable because IR images were less prone to atmospheric haze compared to normal photos. They were able to better visualize striking differences between vegetation and buildings and to better identify potential enemy targets such as camouflaged ammunition factories and other important locations. Rivers, streams, lakes and other waterways were very dark in color , which made them much more recognizable.
Between the 1930s and 1940s, film makers introduced a variety of infrared sensitive films that were popular with amateur photographers as well as Hollywood filmmakers. The military also increasingly turned to infrared photography, hoping to gain advantages in World War II. In the 1960s, many “converted” to IR photography, which was made famous through the psychedelic album covers of the then popular musicians. Examples of this are Grateful Dead or Jimmy Hendrix. With the advent of the digital camera in the late 1990s, both normal and IR photography were to change fundamentally. In addition to professional and amateur photographers, law enforcement agencies are now relying on IR photography to reveal forensic evidence that the naked eye could not see.
Characteristics of infrared light
Reflected infrared light creates a fascinating variety of surreal effects. The vegetation appears white and skin gets a very milky, smooth texture. Veins close to the surface are strongly emphasized and take on a greyish color. Eyes appear ghostly, with the iris taking on very dark tones and the white of the eyes becoming rather gray. Depending on the fabric, black clothing can look gray or white. IR light also penetrates sunglasses that look dark and mirror-like to the naked eye. The blue sky is also much more dramatic.
Wait… that’s not what trees usually look like. Or? (@Andrii Ganzvych on Unsplash)
Another aspect of infrared photography is a little more difficult to describe. I discovered a certain type of contrast in her, a certain “crispiness”, as I call it. This contrast is not found on normal photos. High-contrast black and white images are the closest, but they just don’t have the same look and feel the same as real IR photos. This effect is exactly what makes IR photography so magical. Everything looks so different from the normally visible light spectrum.
There are several ways you can take infrared photos with your camera, and the infrared film is one of them.
35mm IR film is still available and it’s cheap. A roll with 36 photos is available from around CHF 10. You can practice well with an SLR camera without incurring too much expense in filming and developing. Via Google I spontaneously found some offers for Rollei infrared film . If you can’t develop the film yourself, just send it to a photo lab – like in the good old days!
Filters for IR photography
Another alternative is a circular IR filter, which is attached to the front of the lens in a similar way to a UV or polarization filter . It blocks visible light and only lets IR light through. These filters vary in price depending on the filter size and coverage of the IR spectrum. The main difference is how colors are rendered. But this is primarily a matter of taste. An expensive filter does not necessarily guarantee better results than a cheaper one. It really depends on what you like.
What are the disadvantages of a filter on the lens? The main problem is motion blur. Your DSLR has an IR cut filter, so normally there is no infrared light reaching the sensor. The task of the IR filter is now to let the infrared light pass and at the same time block the visible light. The combination of IR cut filter and IR filter on the lens means that you have to increase the exposure time. This in turn often leads to blurred motion or blur. In addition, the IR filter is so dark that you have to adjust the focus before you mount the filter.
The exposure time depends on the IR filter used, the sensitivity of the camera sensor, the properties of the blocking filter and of course the amount of IR light. In 2007 I experimented with infrared photography for the first time. Then I found that I had to leave the shutter of my Pentax K10D open for 45-60 seconds on sunny days to get a properly exposed IR photo. That may work with immovable objects, but with moving things like people, animals, flowers etc. it is almost impossible. If you want to get started with infrared photography quickly with minimal investment, the filter is Hoya R72a good start. It offers a very wide IR spectrum, is relatively cheap and delivers excellent images.
No matter which method you choose, the result will definitely be exceptional. (@Mick De Paola on Unsplash)
Convert camera to infrared photography
To use your DSLR exclusively for IR photography, you have to remove the IR cut filter from the sensor and replace it with one that only allows IR light to pass through. This method is the equivalent of the filter on the lens. It all sounds complicated, so what are the advantages of this method? Apart from the effort of changing the filter, this variant is extremely practical. The usual camera settings remain the same. So you don’t have to get used to special exposure values or shutter speeds. When reading out my IR metadata , I found that on a typical sunny day between May and August at f / 8 and ISO 100, I achieved shutter speeds of at least 1/125 or higher. No long exposure, easy focusing, no fiddling with IR filters on the lens. And most importantly: no blurry pictures!
Our photo equipment
Are you wondering what equipment we take photos with? You can find our equipment here.
The disadvantage of the whole: the cost. Plus, the camera becomes unusable for anything except infrared photography. In addition, the guarantee expires if you tinker with it yourself (* swallow *). If you still want to do it, there are two options:
- Send the camera to a service provider who does it professionally.
- Do it yourself.
I clearly recommend variant one, unless you want to undertake the following: watch a long video tutorial, handle tiny and sensitive electronic components (strong caffeine users can stop reading here), disassemble the camera in an ultra-clean environment, remove the blocking filter, insert the IR filter, assemble the camera, accompanied by all the trivial problems such as dust, hair and other particles that could get into your camera. I watched the video myself and talked to a number of people who did the same operation. Let me tell you, it’s not for the faint of heart!
A picture straight from hell. At least that’s how it feels. (@JR Korpa on Unsplash)
Service provider for IR photography
There are many companies that specialize in infrared conversion services. One of the best known worldwide is Lifepixel . I have consulted Lifepixel twice and have nothing but praise for the professionalism of the employees and the quality of their work. Lifepixel is based in the United States, but customers around the world. Of course there are also some specialists in the DE / CH / AT area. Lifepixel rebuilt two of my cameras and I have to admit that I was a little scared. The D40Xwas brand new and I hadn’t even taken a single photo with it before sending it in a well-padded box. Somehow it didn’t feel right to send someone else except Nikon a brand new camera for disassembly and modification. Ultimately, the guarantee is lost!
Before that, I had a detailed discussion with Daniel, one of Lifepixel’s customer advisors. I literally bombarded him with questions and fears. Daniel was very patient and dealt with my concerns thoroughly.
In almost four years of infrared photography, I couldn’t find a single problem with my converted DSLRs. Nevertheless, be careful and make sure that the company of your choice also masters its craft.
Take IR photos
With a modified DSLR you can take pictures as normal. The ISO, the exposure time and the aperture work exactly like any standard DSLR. When focusing, I recommend matrix measurement / multi-field measurement , but of course you can also experiment yourself and see what is best for your camera, lens and lighting conditions . Each camera reacts differently to the modification.
On my D40x I sometimes have to play with the exposure compensation button to get the desired result. Although the same IR filter is installed in my D90, I do not need the exposure compensation much here. This is probably due to the fact that these two cameras use different sensors . You’ll need to fiddle around a bit to see what a good RAW image looks like on your LCD screen. Over time, you will be able to tell if an image is good or if you would better make adjustments with exposure compensation.
A dream in pink. (@Andrii Ganzvych)
Lenses for infrared photography
We automatically believe that the best lenses give the best results. But in the world of infrared photography , the lens that works best in the regular light spectrum can be a complete dud. Conversely, cheaper lenses can do much better. The main problems with lenses with poor IR performance are the following:
They create a hotspot in the middle of the picture (slightly different exposure and colors than the rest of the picture) and are more prone to flares (light reflections). You can correct this in post-processing, but this is quite time consuming. IR flares require far more processing effort than those in the visible light spectrum because they are much more difficult to recognize. If you take pictures in the normal light spectrum, you will notice relatively quickly when a light reflex occurs or could occur soon. With IR, on the other hand, there is often no visible indication, because infrared light is invisible. It is therefore important that you check the photos on the display in between, because you cannot believe your eyes!
It is best to find out in advance which lenses are suitable for infrared photography. This could take some time because there are not many contributions. Bjorn Rorslett is a specialist in this field and runs a site where he publishes tests on the IR capabilities of various lenses. For example, the humble Nikon 18-55mm is an excellent performer compared to some other lenses that cost a good multiple of its price. I personally have been relying on my Nikon 16-85mm VR for years , which I rarely get from my 90Dtake. It offers excellent IR performance, is extremely sharp and covers all focal lengths that are important to me. Since I have a lot of lenses and tested them all under IR conditions, I can vouch for many of Bjorn Rorslett’s recommendations.
The look of infrared photos
RAW files offer the greatest flexibility in post-processing IR images – just like photos taken with visible light. The RAW images on your camera display will hardly blow your mind, they look somehow dull, have a red cast and are practically free of contrast. RAW images from an IR DSLR would probably not convince anyone to take a closer look at this photography style.
But where does this red cast come from? A number of factors influence the appearance of the RAW IR image: The DSLR sensor, the modified IR filter and software algorithms for white balance are at the top of the list. IR images are actually no color, but the sensor on your camera has to match the red, green, and blue sensors of the Bayer pattern. Most modern DSLR cameras produce RAW images that look similar to the one below (the reddish one).
Edit infrared images
I edit my IR images in Lightroom with a preset that works well for adjusting white balance, tone, contrast, sharpness, etc. The most important of these settings is the white balance , which I set to a temperature of 2100 and a hue of -72. You should definitely read our article on white balance. After that everything looks much better than on the original RAW file . But be careful: changing the white balance settings can lead to psychedelic experiences!
Then I import the image into Adobe Photoshop and swap the red and blue channels. Photoshop is not mandatory, you can also use one of these Photoshop alternatives . Sometimes very interesting mixtures of blue and yellow are created when experimenting. How did I get these settings? Pure experimentation. If I like a look, I quickly create a Photoshop campaign for it. Sometimes I change something in the color saturation, sometimes only a certain hue.
Again to write down: Infrared photos contain no real colors. The colors you see are the result of a variety of factors that vary from camera to camera. For this reason, my Lightroom presets and Photoshop actions don’t always produce the same results. You should definitely experiment a lot, after all, nobody tells you what infrared photography should look like.
The same picture after different processing steps (@Mick De Paola on Unsplash)
Infrared photography – a niche market
Infrared photography has always had a small following. It opens up exciting new worlds for you, especially given the flexibility that IR-converted DSLRs offer. This article is just an introduction to the various topics and considerations related to infrared. So you still have a lot of scope for your own experiments and creative romp!