How to Get Started in Infrared Photography
What exactly is infrared light?
Infrared Photography is in a different realm than color photography. The images often seem otherworldly or like images from a dream. In a sense, they are exactly that. Our human eyes lack the ability to detect infrared light but that does not mean it doesn’t exist. Fortunately, our cameras are not subject to the same restrictions our human eyes are. With an infrared filter or a modified camera, we can crack the door and peek into the world of infrared.
In discussing infrared, I think it is helpful to understand the nature of what infrared light is and how is it different than the visible light we see out our windows. Simply put, light comes in a range of different wavelengths, as seen on an Electromagnetic Spectrum. First are the ultraviolet or UV wavelengths. These wavelengths are short and closely spaced. Our human eyes cannot see UV light.
In the middle of the electromagnetic spectrum is visible light, this is the range of light that human eyes can see. This is the range of light in the rainbow you saw back in grade school when you set a prism in the windowsill.
Last on the electromagnetic spectrum is infrared. Infrared light has wider wavelengths than the visible light. With the use of special filters or modified cameras, we can capture these elusive infrared images. I have a link at the bottom of this article to a website with an in-depth explanation and images to help feed your inner geek!
My goal with this post is to help you through the process of capturing infrared images.
Choosing an Infrared Camera
The first step to capturing infrared photos is to acquire a camera capable of capturing an infrared image. The method I’m going to discuss is having a camera converted so it is sensitive to infrared light. While there are other methods, I believe this is the simplest option if you feel you want to add infrared photography to your portfolio.
When selecting a camera model for conversion, there are a couple of features that are desirable for infrared cameras. A camera with a Live View screen and focus-peaking are extremely helpful features. It is so much easier to focus with Live View since what you see on the screen is what the sensor is seeing making precise focusing much easier. If your camera has focus-peaking, you’ll want to turn it on. Set it to a contrasting color that you find easy to see.
When I got a new camera, I sent my old camera to the lab for conversion. There are a couple of good labs. I prefer Spencer’s Camera in Utah. They did an excellent job on my conversion. Their website is very informative with in-depth details, explanations, and tutorials about all types of infrared photography. They are kindly giving readers a $30 discount off a conversion of $225 or more with discount code Latitude30. However, if you don’t have an old camera for conversion, another option is to simply purchase an already converted camera from the lab. They have a variety of camera models and infrared options to choose from.
Choosing an Infrared Filter
Before choosing an infrared filter for your camera, I would suggest exposing yourself to infrared photography by joining some Facebook Infrared Photography groups or follow Infrared tags on Instagram. Most of the images in these groups will identify the type of infrared camera used along with camera settings. Following these groups will help you discover what type of infrared photography appeals to you and will help you choose which type of infrared conversion you want. (I will put some links to the groups I follow at the end of this post.)
Some infrared cameras capture a fair amount of color with just a little bit of infrared light while other cameras capture only infrared light and there are several options in between. The filter you choose and how the lab converts your camera will determine the degree of infrared sensitivity your camera will have. Basically, the lab will remove a filter that blocks infrared light from your sensor and replace it with a filter that will allow in a varying degree of infrared light. Here is a brief description of your infrared filter choices:
– 590nm is considered an extreme color. 590nm is a filter very close to the visible light spectrum so much of the color information will still be present with the IR.
– 665nm is considered Amplified Color. It still has a lot of color information but not as much as the 590nm.
– 720nm is considered Standard Color. It detects less color and more infrared details. This is what I have. These images are easy to process to Black & White but can also be processed toward color if you like.
– 830nm is considered Black & White. It detects no color, only infrared information.
Choosing an Infrared Lens
Most modern lenses are designed to focus light from the visible color spectrum. This does not mean that a lens won’t work with infrared but some lenses will be less than optimal while others will shine. Lens coatings inside a lens can reflect light in an unexpected way creating what is called a hotspot in the center of your image. This can ruin the look of an otherwise beautiful image. Fortunately, there is a good lens hotspot databases you can check to see how your lenses perform.
https://www.lifepixel.com/lens-considerations/lens-hot-spot-testing-database – This list has clickable links showing examples of infrared images taken with a specific lens.
Don’t be discouraged if a lens you have turns out to be a poor performer for infrared even though it might be a top of the line lens or your favorite for color photography. Remember they are optimized for color, not infrared. You might have a lens that is not even on the list. If so, go ahead and give it a try for infrared. I have discovered some of my vintage lenses are amazing but they are not included on the list. More lenses are being added to the list all the time. All is not lost if your lens turns out to be one of those with a tendency to produce hotspots. Most hotspots can be minimized or eliminated by opening your lens to a wider aperture.
Choosing Subjects for Infrared
The amount of detectable infrared light can vary depending on the time of day, or atmospheric conditions just like regular light so it’s best to experiment. The weather conditions that I like are bright sun with clouds and side lighting early or late in the day.
The rules of basic composition apply just as much to IR as it does to color photography. With that in mind, a few subjects really shine in Infrared. Here are a few of my favorites:
– Plants – Broadleaf plants reflect a great deal of infrared and their foliage will appear white in an infrared photo. This reflection will often produce a glowing effect. Sometimes the glow will overpower the detail. I will often look for contrasting shapes, like broad-leaf plants mixed among the grasses.
– Clouds – The sky on a bright day will appear very dark if not almost black because of the great amount in infrared light in the atmosphere. In contrast, clouds will reflect infrared light and appear very white depending on their water content. Clouds and sky are great compositional features in IR offering drama and moodiness to your images.
– Old Wood – I often find that I like the contrast between the glowing foliage and the harsh textures of old wood. This could be an old stump, and old cabin or wooden fence. I do not believe the old wood emits or reflects infrared but it seems to create a nice juxtaposition in contrast to the glowing effect of foliage.
– Iron – Sometimes old rusty bits of ornate iron, like old park benches, farm equipment, gates, etc. can create great subjects for IR. I often like to mix something man-made into the image. Use your imagination… Anything that sparks you fancy is a good subject.
How to shoot infrared
1. Shoot Raw Format -Shooting raw will give you the most options during post-processing. More on post-processing below.
2. Shoot Manual – There is very little difference between the settings for infrared and color. Your live view will display your image as the camera sees it. It will look somewhat infrared. Your meter and histogram will continue to work the same as they did for color.
3. Use a Tripod – Well… this is not a requirement but it is helpful. Using a tripod helps to slow down the process and gives you more time to compose your image and adjust your camera settings.
Shutter Speed – The first thing I consider is whether the wind is blowing. If so, you will need a faster shutter speed to stop the swaying branches so they won’t be blurry in your image. I will often use a faster shutter speed to control excess light if needed.
Aperture – Aperture affects depth of field. How much of your scene do you want in focus or even out of focus? Wider apertures have a shallower depth of field and will blur out objects in front of or behind your focal point. Wider apertures will also help to reduce or eliminate hotspots if your lens is prone to them. You can start with an aperture of ƒ8.0 and adjust up or down from there.
ISO – I always try to keep my ISO as low as it will go allowing me to balance my shutter and aperture settings. Remember to watch your light meter and check your histogram. I do an image review in camera to check my exposure and focus before I pick up my camera and move on to my next image.
Infrared Focusing Options
– Manual Focus – I prefer manual focusing. I use Live View and Focus Peaking. Live View will display the scene as your camera sees it thus making focusing much easier. Focus Peaking is an outline on the part of the image that is in focus. Most modern cameras have it. It helps to set your Focus Peaking color so it contrasts nicely with the infrared display.
– Auto-Focus – Many cameras will do a decent job of auto-focusing infrared if you have a lens that supports it. Set your camera to direct or live focus mode. Check your manual on how to set this up.
Post Processing Infrared Photos in Lightroom, Photoshop or Adobe Camera Raw (ACR)
In order to properly process Infrared photos, there are a couple of steps to take to prepare Lightroom, Photoshop, and Adobe ACR for Infrared processing. The first thing you need to do is create an Infrared Profile for your camera. Don’t let this step intimidate you as it is quite simple. I am including a link to a very good tutorial on creating your profile. No need to make my windy tutorial any windier!
This process will save a profile for your specific camera in the profile section of ACR in LR and PS. Fortunately, you only have to go through this process once.
The next step is to do a Red & Blue Channel Swap. For this step, send your image to Photoshop. This is explained in this YouTube video by Rob Shea Photography. If you like, you can save this step as a Photoshop Action so next time it is a simple one-button click to apply. (Google how to save actions in PS if you what to.)
With the basic steps done, now you can move on to processing the image to your tastes. A popular option is to go Black & White or I often leave my images with a touch of color. I adjust every image a little bit differently depending on the image and the result I am going for. Fortunately, there are no hard and fast rules. Follow your heart and do what pleases you.
Please feel free to comment or ask me questions. I love feedback!
Spencer’s Camera < Don’t miss the discount code for $30 off a camera conversion of $225 or more: Latitude30
Rob Shea Photography < Excellent YouTube Channel on Infrared
Lens Hotspot Databases:
Connect with me:
Lori Rowland Photography – Oregon Exposures on Facebook
Lori Rowland Photography on Instagram
Infrared Facebook Groups:
Infrared Photography Group