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Getting Started with Infrared Photography
Infrared photography looks like nothing else. I’m sure you’ve seen some IR photos around the web, but maybe you don’t know how to achieve this special effect? Look no further, here’s a guide on what to think about when choosing your object, how to shoot and what to do in post-production.
Photography is the art of capturing light, IR photography on the other hand is the art of capturing invisible light — but the challenge comes with its benefits, IR photographs can be really attention grabbing and otherworldly.
What you need
First of all you need to have a D-SLR camera with a lens that can use filters. Then you need to purchase an IR-filter, there are a few out there and the main difference (assuming we’re looking at the same brand) is the range of wavelengths that the filter lets through.
The IR filter I use is the Hoya R72, all the IR photographs in this article are taken using that filter. I’m very happy with this filter, but since it’s the only one I’ve tried I can’t recommend it above any other one.
Another piece of equipment that is crucial is the tripod. With D-SLR cameras it’s impossible to take IR photographs without proper stabilizer. Sure, I guess you could have your camera placed on a table or a solid rock, but the best way is no doubt to get a good tripod. Since we’re going to be using a slow shutter speed, long exposure, the tripod needs to be very stable.
Different lenses handles IR photography differently, and in this case it’s not necessarily decided by the price of the lens — these lenses are not designed for IR photography and therefore some of them just doesn’t work very well in this field.
The Canon kit-lens, 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6, for example will create a hotspot in the center of the photograph as seen in the photograph above. This is an effect that only appears on some lenses. If you’re serious about IR photography you might want to consider purchasing a lens that works well with IR — if so, there are several websites that have lists of good/bad IR lenses.
What do I photograph?
First and foremost, you need to understand the concept of capturing invisible light, invisible to the human eye that is. The world looks totally different in Infrared, and there are a few things to think about.
A blue sky will appear black, or very dark, while foliage will get a distinct white color. This creates amazing contrast in the image that makes the photo ‘pop’. Due to the long exposure time, portraits and other non-static sceneries can be hard to capture, this is one of the reasons why most IR photographs are landscape shots.
You need to test and see what you can come up with; it can take a long time before you fully grasp the idea of capturing and composing with infrared light.
How to photograph
I would like to say something like “and now to the fun part” but in this case the photo shoot itself can be rather annoying and/or time consuming. Don’t get me wrong, IR photography is fun, but the way you have to shoot when you’re using an unmodified D-SLR camera is far from an optimal solution.
When the filter is attached to the lens you will most likely see nothing in the viewfinder. The filter is designed to block visible light and it does so quite well. This will result in two hassles — you cannot see what’s in frame and what’s not, nor can you see what’s in focus. The best way to solve the first problem is to set up your tripod and find a good composition before attaching the IR filter.
The focus distance is not the same for IR light as it is for visible light, so you will have to re-focus after the IR filter is attached. This can be really troublesome since you won’t see anything in the viewfinder, older lenses might have a special IR focus distance listed, but modern Auto Focus (AF) lenses does not have this. The best solution is to have the camera auto focus with the IR filter on, or step down the aperture enough to get focus the entire distance.
Now you’re set to go, but your cameras exposure meter isn’t working correctly so you will have to use manual exposure. Most IR photographs I’ve taken have had an exposure time between 10-30 seconds. With these long exposure times we not only risk getting motion blur but also heavy noise levels. The longer the exposure the more noise will be created, that’s not specific for IR photography but a general rule in photography. Use the lowest ISO setting to try and keep the noise level as low as possible.
What the outcome will look like depends on what filter you used and how the camera handles IR light.
If you use a filter like the Hoya R72 that I use your result will be heavily red/magenta tinted images. This is what’s called “false colors“, and it can be fixed in Photoshop, which is what I will show in this part of the article.
Open your IR photo in Photoshop. The first thing we want to do is to use a feature called Channel Mixer. Create a new adjustment layer and select Channel Mixer. You can now control the channels RED, GREEN and BLUE. What we want to do is switch the Red and the Blue channel.
Select Red and drag the Red setting to 0% and drag the Blue setting to 100%
Select Blue and drag the Blue setting to 0% and drag the Red setting to 100%
You can also experiment with changing the Green channel or such as well, find a good mix for every scenery.
You should now have removed that heavily tinted red/magenta color from your photograph, but the current look might not be much better either.
What you want to do now is play around with the Levels and Curve settings, if you’re new to these adjustment tools you can always hit Auto and see if you like the outcome.
This was a very quick guide on how to change that false color in Photoshop, but there isn’t any magic number that works for all photographs — you will just have to test and see. Then again, that’s basically what IR is all about in the beginning, this is a technique that takes some time getting used to and it will involve a lot of not so perfect shots. Don’t give up — the results can be astonishing!
(I’m by no means talented in IR photography, these examples are very basic but hopefully they give you a feel for this style.)