As a photographer, you want to surprise your audience. Your ultimate goal is to produce images that will cause people to take a second look, regardless of genre or topic. This is why I love Infrared Photography.
Without the ability to travel like many professional photographers, I became underwhelmed with the local landscapes I was photographing. So here’s what I did:
I found a small, simple and cheap piece of equipment that allows me to make common sceneries ‘pop’ – by making the “invisible”, “visible”.
“Visible” And “Invisible”
The act of ‘seeing’ involves mapping the environment we are in; according to the kind (and intensity) of light that is reflected by the objects surrounding us.
Yet, there is much more out there than what we can directly perceive with our natural senses.
When we speak about the light we see (and the colours we can distinguish), we are really talking about electromagnetic waves lying within very specific (and narrow) ranges of frequencies (or wavelengths). We called this ensemble of waves the ‘visible’ region of the electromagnetic spectrum.
At slightly higher frequencies than visible light, we have ultraviolet (UV) light. At lower frequencies, we find the infrared light. At times we can directly sense infrared as a form of heat on our skin, rather than seeing it with our eyes.
The electromagnetic spectrum (credits: Wikipedia)
Progressions in technology have led to the existence of instruments that reconcile our sense of sight with the entire electromagnetic spectrum. This equipment can generate images in false colours that make invisible light, visible.
Take a thermo camera, for instance:
This camera senses heat. It visually represents the hot and cool parts of the scene in front of you as bright and dark areas in the digital image produced by the camera, allowing you to photograph heat.
A note on the terminology: there are different kinds of infrared light. Near infrared light has a higher frequency than thermal infrared light, which we can sense as heat and see with thermo cameras.
For sake of clarity, in this article I will use the generic term “infrared” (IR) to substitute “near-infrared”.
Photographing Infrared Light
Capturing a photograph using IR light is what makes the invisible, visible.
While not new, infrared photography is not common, particularly nowadays. For further history and uses of IR photography, refer to Wikipedia.
When comparing our eyes (our retina, more precisely) to the digital sensor in digital cameras, our own vision is often better, particularly when it comes to dynamic range (the level of brightness we can perceive).
However, we cannot see IR light – but the sensor of your camera can.
You buy a photo camera for the ability to snap attractive pictures of what you see. Mixing visible and infrared light will ultimately degrade the image quality of your camera – you don’t want that, right?
Camera manufacturers do not want that either, so they place a filter in front the sensor to block IR light. Luckily, no filter is bulletproof and some IR light still reaches your sensor, meaning we can actually do IR photography with straight-out-of-the-box (SOOTB) digital cameras, even if there are some compromises to accept.
When photographing in IR with a SOOTB camera, the effect of the IR blocker placed in front of the digital sensors is equivalent to screwing a 10 stops neutral density filter in front of your lens: in both cases you are reducing the amount of light that will hit the sensor in a given amount of time.
To correctly expose your photos – you must, therefore, keep the shutter open for a longer time. Ultimately, IR photography with a SOOTB camera, is long exposure photography.
If you want to regain full control over your shutter speeds, you have two options: (1) Send the camera to a camera lab and have it converted for IR photography. (2) Dust off you old film camera, grab some IR film and go from there.
Option 1 is usually quite expensive. As you will permanently replace the IR blocker with a filter that will only let past IR, while blocking all the visible light, you will not be able to use your camera for anything other than IR photography.
Option 2 is more flexible, but it may be challenging, too. IR films, such as the Ilford SFX 200 Infrared B&W, may be scarce and you will probably have to deal with a fully manual DSLR camera.
Also, finding a photo lab able to properly develop such film may be difficult.
There are Three Other Problems to Face with IR Photography:
1) Most of the electronic systems (in-camera light meters and handheld light meters) and empirical rules (sunny 16, etc.) we all use to produce properly exposed images, work with visible light in mind.
However, the scene you are capturing is an IR image and it may require a different exposure. Ensure that you do some bracketing before calling the day off.
2) Autofocus can be fooled by IR light. Furthermore, if you are using an unmodified camera, it is like trying to use the AF to properly focus on a subject at night, inside a dark room.
You are better off with manual focus (focus speed should not be an issue in this scenario anyway).
3) The infamous infrared “hot spot”. Lenses are mainly built with visible light in mind. Due to the internal coating of the lens barrel of some lenses, an IR Hot Spot will appear in your images.
A hot spot generally appears circular, in the middle of the frame. It is brighter than the surrounding part of the image and has a different tint/colour temperature.
Lens quality varies and performances may differ depending on the aperture value used. Wider apertures (smaller F number) are often better than narrow ones. Faint hot spots can be quite easily corrected during editing.
The infamous infrared hot spot. Sometimes, it is more visible in false colours than in black and white images.
There is a helpful database relating lenses of different brands to their IR performances here.
The Remote Control Test: Is your SOOTB Camera IR Ready?
Using your TV remote control, hold down a button and point it at your camera: can you see (or photograph) the light coming from the remote IR emitter?
If you can, then you are good to go! The brighter you can see the IR emitter, the better it is (even though this means that the IR blocker installed in your camera is not really that efficient).
This is how the SOOTB Olympus OM-D EM-10 sees the light from the IR emitter of my TV remote. You do not need to use an IR filter to perform this test.
Must Have Equipment to Start Infrared Photography
- A camera with a sensor that can see IR light. All the photos shown in this article were shot with a SOOTB Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF2 with the standard 14-42 kit lens.
- A sturdy tripod. As I said before, if you do not modify your camera, you will essentially be doing long exposure photography. The use of a sturdy tripod is unavoidable.
- An IR filter: you need to place a filter in front of your lens that will block UV and visible light, while letting IR light pass. A good filter to begin with is the HOYA r72 IR filter. This filter is relatively cheap, optically sound, and will block all light with a wavelength shorter than 720nm. In practice, this means that a bit of visible red light will still pass through the filter and hit your sensor. This is not bad at all, since that awfully red image you will see on your LCD, while ugly, is ultimately very useful to help you with composition and manual focusing.
Forget About Golden Hours, Overcast Skies and Stormy Weather: All You Need is Sun
If you are into landscape photography, you know you should be out there during the so-called golden or blue hours, to take advantage of the best quality of natural light.
The golden hour is a period shortly after sunrise or before sunset. Blue hours are the periods before sunrise and after sunset, respectively.
If you are like me, with a family and a 9 to 5 job, chances are that you are not going to see many golden/blue hours through a viewfinder. It is also unlikely that you can chase storms to capture the most dramatic skies, either.
As the IR golden hour is midday, capturing great infrared shots is much more achievable.
The IR Wow Factor
IR has the inherent WOW factor of displaying familiar scenes in a totally new way.
The photo below was taken in a park, just outside of Brussels, on a sunny Sunday in July, at around 1pm. I was able to capture this shot while my family and dog were enjoying their picnic, just a few meters away.
False colour infrared photo of the pond in the “Domaine Solvay – Chateaux de la Hulpe”, La Hulpe (Belgium).
Surprised? I certainly hope so. If you knew the location, you might even think “wow”.
This is all you need to make your audience strongly connect with your work: show them what they are familiar with, in an unfamiliar way.
Below is the same location, captured in visible light. The photos were taken months apart, but I think you get the idea.
The same pond photographed in visible light.
This pond certainly has some potential, but would you pause to take a second look at this photo?
Would you print it 90x60cm to hang it in your living room? I doubt it.
Subjects for IR Photography
The most common subjects for IR photography are landscapes, because they can appear unusual and unexpected.
Water and blue skies strongly absorb IR light – while grass, large-leaf trees and puffy clouds reflect IR light. The essence of an IR image is the contrasts between objects absorbing or reflecting IR light.
Pine and spruce trees absorb quite a lot of IR light. In a black and white conversion of your IR photo, you will see a black sky with puffy white clouds, black water, dark grey pine trees and white leaves and grass.
Invisible contrasts in the Domaine Solvay (La Hulpe, Belgium). As you can see, Sequoia trees (on the right) also adsorb quite a lot of IR.
You are not limited to landscapes. Try photographing people: they may look weird, almost ghostly. Try getting some macros of insects – they may surprise you. Explore the city and see how different materials in the buildings absorb or reflect IR light.
Detail of the Arch of Triumph in the Parc du Cinquantenaire (Brussels, Belgium). I found the deep black sky to be a strong element in this photo.
IR photography has the ability to surprise the viewer with an unfamiliar outlook of even a common or simple subject. However, this does not mean that a boring or trivial photo will become a masterpiece just because you took it in infrared light: composition rules (along with breaking them) still hold true and boring shots will remain boring.
Symmetry is a powerful ingredient when composing a square image. I took advantage of IR light to make all the different kinds of grass in the foreground appear as a uniformly white area, while the blue sky is naturally darkened, thus creating a sort of split frame at the horizon: white below, black above.
A Lonely tree on a windy day in one of the many gardens in Brussels (Belgium). The dark of the branches contrasts with the white of the canopy. Fast moving clouds add dynamism to the image.
The Chateau de la Hulpe: the white walls of the four towers, forming the corner of the buildings, are in fact, covered in green ivy. The road is a leading line – bringing the viewer in to the frame, right to the castle, naturally framed by the trees on the left and right and by the puffy clouds above.
Finally, let’s not forget the wonderful side effect of emptying the scene from moving people and traffic. As you are already doing a long exposure, people and vehicles moving across the scene will be blurred away or removed entirely.
This is great for taking urban shots of buildings, monuments, and busy squares – as well as landscapes in city gardens and crowded parks.
The long exposure time required to get this shot, has emptied the busy Parc du Cinquantenaire in Brussels (Belgium) from passers-by.
Edit your IR Photographs
Editing your IR photos will take few extra steps than usual. How many, will depend on the final result you want to achieve.
Below, is a typical raw file obtained with an unmodified camera, using the HOYA r72 IR filter.
Out of the camera RAW image using the HOYA IR filter.
The first step is fixing the white balance. Remember, blue sky and water should be dark. Leaves, grass and puffy clouds should be white. Next, decide if you want to go for a black and white or false colour image and go from there.
Black and White IR
Black and white IR conversions are less surprising at first, but you will still perceive that something is not quite right.
Below, you can see the pond when converted to black and white from visible and IR light: the give away detail is the foliage, which is white in the conversion from IR.
Black and white conversion of a photo taken in visible light of the pond in The Domaine Solvay (La Hulpe, Belgium).
Black and white conversion of an IR photograph.
False Colour IR Conversions
A false colour IR conversion screams ‘weird’. You cannot be fooled, something is going on here. The most simple thing you can do is play with the white balance and try to make the areas that should be white or black, their respective colours.
You will be left with an image with a general orange tone. Surprise!
Lonely trees in the Belgian countryside. Note that the IR hot spot that appears in the second photo has been corrected in this final version.
The aloft Hotel in Brussels (Belgium).
Another kind of editing that aims to restore a more natural colour to the sky and water, consists of swapping the red and blue channels.
This can be done with the channel mixer in photoshop, or, if you have photoshop elements, by setting the hue for the master to 180. The result is something like this:
The Strépy-Thieu boat lift near Mons (Belgium). It is, at the moment, the tallest vertical boat lift in the World (source: Wikipedia).
Another view of the pond in the Domaine Solvay (La Hulpe, Belgium).
You can go further by mixing IR and visible colours, seen in the photo below of the Justice Palace in Brussels (Belgium).
This image is the result of blending together a black and white (the building) and false colour IR (the sky) photograph. It was further blended with a photograph taken in visible light to reintroduce the actual colour of the golden dome.
The impressive Justice Palace in Brussels (Belgium).
I really hope that this post has inspired you and hopefully it will help you to unleash your creativity.
Personally, I find that IR photography is brilliant for the unexpected results I can get. It really has the power to make your audience connect with your work, especially when you show them the unseen beauty of places they go past every day.
A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:
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