Photography relies on capturing the image of a subject that reflects light falling on it. Light is a complex mixture of different waves, while some of them are perceptible to the human eye, like visible light, other components like the infra-red light are undetected by the human eye. Infrared photography is based on the principle of capturing images in infrared light in order to give an image that has features which cannot be seen otherwise. In particular, scenic and landscape photography in infrared seems surreal and just like artwork. Want to bring a new touch to your photographs? Then infrared photography is the answer!
Let's dive into the history, how to start about and post production of infrared photography.
- Historical Significance of Infrared Photography
- Introduction to Digital Infrared Photography
- Choosing the Camera for Infrared Photography
- Other Options in Infrared Photography
- Steps in Infrared Photo Shooting
- Keep Calm and Carry On With Infrared Photography
Historical Significance of Infrared Photography
During the First World War, infrared photography was a useful tool to capture images that were otherwise unclear or hazy. It was also used as an effective tool to locate camouflaged soldiers. Within the next few decades, this technique spread over to film making.
By the time the Second World War started, the armies with technical infrared expertise were using this tool very effectively. Between the first use and present day, the history of infrared photography an evolution from special photographic plates to digital cameras and lenses. Presently, it is a greatly used tool for photographers and forensic experts.
Introduction to Digital Infrared Photography
The tone of a picture captured in infrared light is very different from a normal photograph that is captured in visible light. In particular, living beings tend to reflect much more infrared light than non-living objects.
Therefore, the images of plants, animals, trees, leaves, flowers, grass etc. will be much more white and bright in infrared photographs. Similarly, the road, the cobblestones, houses and other concrete structures will appear darker in comparison as they reflect lesser infrared light.
This infrared light quality brings out the stark contrast in infrared photographs and makes them visually very different than normal photographs. In other words, infrared photography brings out an unseen world in the photographs. The features, the texture and the lighting on the subject are so different in infrared pictures that they seem to be a surreal depiction of what you see by the eye.
It is not difficult to get started with this kind of photography as modern-day cameras are highly adaptable. Some cameras are fitted with infrared filters, while some others can be assembled with one.
In addition, there are commercial infrared lenses available that can be combined with any camera, allowing the photographer to capture images in infrared light. In the following sections, you will find out more about how to go about taking pictures in infrared light and how to process them to give the most beautiful outcome.
The Infrared light ranges from 700- 1200 nm (nanometers), and the human eye can view from 400- 700 nm!
Choosing the Camera for Infrared Photography
This is the first step for venturing into infrared image capturing, and also a tricky one. If you already have a camera, you should check if it can capture infrared light.
Did you know your digital camera is more sensitive to Infrared in comparison to visible light?
This is done easily by capturing a picture of a TV remote control with the power button pressed. With the naked eye, you wouldn’t see any flash of light from the remote control upon pressing the power button, but through a camera fitted with an infrared lens, you will see a light dot in the image of the remote control. The brighter the light, the better your camera to capture infrared photos.
This is the most straight forward way of determining if your camera is ready to capture infrared images, and you can proceed to the next steps if your camera allows infrared image capturing.
If, however, your camera does not come equipped with an infrared filter, don’t lose heart, there are a lot of ways to get your camera ready for clicking infrared pictures. Some of the options are discussed below:
Getting an Infrared Filter
Commercial infrared filters are available in the market and they can be used with your camera. However, this method is not guaranteed for an exceptionally high quality of infrared pictures. Some cameras have an inbuilt anti-filter that shields the lens from infrared light, thereby making the whole effort futile.
Converting Your Camera
Another option is to get your camera professionally disassembled and including an infrared capturing lens fitted inside. This method works for almost all cameras but can be a bit costly. Based on the type of conversion you want to get, there are two options:
1. Infrared Only Conversion
This type of conversion involves replacing the anti-filter with an infrared filter inside the camera. This will mean that there is no need for using any other infrared filter outside the camera, but at the same time, the camera cannot be used for photography in visible light. Many people convert their DSLRs for dedicated infrared photography.
2. Infrared and Visible Conversion
This type of conversion involves replacing the anti-filter of the camera with a normal glass lens. The camera can then be used for visible light photography by using an anti-filter for infrared light outside the camera. Similarly, infrared photography is possible with the same camera by using a regular infrared filter in front.
The type of conversion you want to do on your camera is entirely your choice, but it is advisable to let a qualified person convert the camera instead of trying it yourself.
It is a matter of personal choice to choose the camera for infrared photography. But many experienced users advise against purchasing costly infrared cameras because stunning infrared pictures can be obtained by digital cameras combined with the right lenses and filters. Camera conversion is a slightly more expensive option but works well too.
Other Options in Infrared Photography
If you don’t want to purchase a dedicated camera for infrared shooting and do not want to convert your existing camera, you can still successfully capture images in infrared.
Commercially available infrared films and colored infrared films can be integrated with a regular SLR to shoot pictures and these films can be processed in dedicated infrared labs to get the best quality infrared images. As discussed above, infrared filters are also a good option, but they require exceptionally long exposure times.
Another important thing to consider is that the utility of lenses is completely different between visible and infrared photography techniques. The lenses that work wonderfully for visible photography may complete fail for infrared.
Similarly, lenses that do not give a great picture quality in visible light might turn out to be really good for infrared light. What you need to know about lenses for shooting infrared photographs is the track record of few companies who make lenses that are meant for infrared photo capturing only. Online reviews and testimonials will be a great help in this regard.
However, we suggest you invest in a 50mm prime lens that would give you the perfect photos. Also, don’t forget to buy IR filters too!
Infrared film photography is another kind of infrared photography. It has a stark contrast to digital infrared photographic techniques as it uses dedicated infrared films which have to be carefully handled by a qualified laboratory person who treats these films with utmost care to avoid any fogging and handling impression on the films. However, if done well, this method results in infrared photographs of excellent quality.
Once you have your camera and the accessories like a good infrared filter, a tripod stand, a memory card for storing all the pictures that you will capture, and enough batteries to operate the camera, you have amassed all major infrared photography equipment, and are ready to shoot infrared pictures.
But wait, there are still some concepts that you need to know before proceeding. They are described in the following sections.
Steps in Infrared Photo Shooting
Let’s see the various steps in shooting infrared pictures, discussed below.
1. Camera Settings
The first and the most critical part of shooting methodology is to have the right settings in your camera, otherwise, all your efforts will be wasted and you will not get the images of your choice. Here are a few pointers for your camera settings:
- Set the camera shooting in RAW mode
- Set the camera on Aperture Priority mode
- Set the aperture for maximum sharpness
- Keep the ISO as low as possible, ideally around 200
- Activate exposure noise reduction
- Set the white balance on a suitable pre-set option
2. The Subject
Finding the right subject for infrared photography is a skill that is acquired over time. For starters, it is good to know that the difference in contrast between living and non-living objects should be tapped in your photographs to obtain a surreal and artistic image. There are a few things that should always be kept in mind while selecting the subject and preparing the infrared photo shoot, as mentioned below.
The golden hour to shoot infrared is in ample sunshine.
Cloudy days are not ideal for infrared photography shoots because most of the infrared light will not reach the subject, and an even smaller fraction of the light will be reflected. The result will be poor image quality which cannot be rescued by post processing. Similarly, snow clad surfaces are very poor reflectors of infrared light and will not yield a good quality image.
Old buildings, heritage monuments, and stone structures make a great background for infrared photo shoots. Each of these surfaces reflects infrared light differently and it makes a stunning contrast with the foliage, leaves, birds, and flowers.
Portraits of people are rarely shot in infrared, but there is always a starting point. If the shoot is designed in an appropriate setting, portraits can also be pulled off amazingly well by infrared photography.
3. Maneuver the Camera Settings
Even though you started with the recommended settings, the image quality can be greatly changed by little alterations in the focus, color exposure etc. Play around a bit with these parameters and see what works best for that subject in those conditions for you. As a final check, you should zoom in the subject and confirm that the focus is not changed. Once you have found the best working parameters, you can start clicking.
4. Adjusting and Creating Perfect Infrared Images
Honestly speaking, the infrared images that you obtain in their crude form will not look anything like what you see in online platforms and blogs. The images from the camera are post processed extensively to bring out their best features and desired traits.
Post processing in Photoshop is a trivial step that involves adjusting the white balance and swapping red and blue channels in the channel mixer. If you are not entirely satisfied with the outcome, you may also play around with the green channel.
Post processing in Lightroom brings about some drastic changes in the appearance of your infrared photograph when compared to Photoshop. Basically, you have to find the best setting of camera calibration and its effect on the white balance. The next step is to adjust the tone curve and adjust the split toning panel accordingly. The final result will be very different from the original picture.
Sometimes, processing as Black-and-White turns the raw image to be the best final picture, so don’t forget to try converting the image into this form and decide if it appeals to you.
The degree of image processing and deciding the various parameters for taking the perfect infrared shot is entirely a matter of personal preferences. However, these guidelines definitely provide a good starting point on how to shoot infrared photos and post process them effectively to bring out their best features in the photograph. You can mix and match the different contrast and color options to get the desired photograph.
Keep Calm and Carry On With Infrared Photography
Considered to be an art-form, infrared photography has no set rules and limitations to your creativity. Once you know the basics, you should feel free to experiment with different parameters and settings, try different post processing and create your own personalized masterpieces. Click lots of pictures to get a hang of the process and compare them for getting an idea of what works best.
One thing to remember is that infrared photography is substantially different from visible light photography and what is considered good in visible, might not be so good in infrared. For example, good visible photography relies on crisp and sharp images whereas infrared photographs have a dreamy, liquid feel about them. These differences do not make one technique better than the other. On the contrary, these two techniques bring out different facets of the same subject.
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