5 Creative Ways to Process Infrared Photographs in Photoshop

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Digital cameras have made the process of infrared photography relatively simple and very accessible, compared to the days of shooting with infrared film. No darkroom is required and all you need to get started is an infrared filter on your lens (click through to read my article on How to do Surreal Digital Infrared Photography Without Expensive Gear or Camera Conversions) and to mount your camera on a tripod. Maybe you’ve tried digital infrared photography already. You’ve learned all the correct infrared shooting and compositional techniques so you know you have great images in your camera, but how do you transform those strange looking red or violet frames into stunning infrared photographs?

Here are 5 creative ways to process your digital infrared images in Photoshop to create arresting photos in color, and Black and White.

1) Color infrared one-click post-processing method

_DSC5456AsShot

As shot, before Auto Tone

This is the quick and instant method. Open your image in Photoshop and go to Image> Auto Tone. Look at the difference this one click makes! In fact Auto Tone should be the first thing you do to all your infrared images.

infrared image with autotone applied

Same image after Auto Tone has been applied

This has become a perfectly delightful infrared image. It has a variety of textures and colors for interest. However you may want to further process it to add more WOW and impact. The next step adds a few more tweaks that will help you do this.

 2) Color infrared gradient method

After you apply Auto Tone, you can also apply a Gradient Layer and set the blending mode to Soft Light, or Hard Light – you’ll need to experiment a bit depending on the tonal qualities of your original image. You can also adjust the opacity of this gradient layer.  If you are familiar with layer masks, you may want to mask out any areas where the gradient might be too strong.

Here is the same image with the Gradient Layer added. Can you see how it adds a little more depth and drama?

infrared image with post processing added.

Infrared Image with a Gradient Layer Added

gradient-toolTo add a Gradient Layer, go to your Layers palette, and click on the new layer icon at the bottom (it’s the one that looks like a sheet of paper with the corner turned up) or you can use  the keyboard shortcut Shift+Ctrl+Alt+N.  I find it quicker to use the icon in this case. While this new layer is active, go to the Tools palette and select the Gradient tool. On the context menu on top of the window you’ll see the Gradient library and you can select your pre-set gradient from there.

Now, back on your layer, drag your mouse to get the gradient on your image.  Select the blending mode to soft light or hard light and then adjust the opacity. This is where your artistic eye comes into the picture.  Play around with these settings until you have something you like.

Here is another infrared image processed the same way. You don’t have to use the same gradient each time – experiment a bit and see how things turn out. It’s art after all!

infrared image with a gradient texture.

3) Using the Camera Raw filters and the Channel Mixer

One of the key concepts in infrared photography is to have a very distinct separation of color tones between the sky, and your high infrared reflecting subjects. This is usually the grass and foliage in your scene, or it could be buildings or other subjects that reflect infrared light because of their paint or construction materials.  But it’s important to have this separation because you need the sky to be dark, and you’ll want the foliage to be light, if not pure white.

Happily, in Photoshop you can give a tonal boost to your images in a couple of way,s in addition to the Auto Tone setting.  After you’ve applied Auto Tone, look for the Camera Raw Filter under Filters. If your image is not a RAW file you can still use these adjustments, although it is best to shoot RAW when capturing infrared photos.

In the Camera Raw Filter, to get this color separation between the light and dark areas of your image, use the the Basics filters and  HSL/ Greyscale Slider to adjust the colors until you get a clear difference between the cyan and red shades.

 Original image as shot:

1as-shot-infraredimage

After applying Auto Tone and Using the Camera Raw Filters:

2cameraraw

Notice how these adjustments bring out the red in the sky and the blue in the leaves.

Now to the Channel Mixer

Go to Image>Adjustments>Channel Mixerchannelmixer

Here we will “swap” the channels to get a nice  blue sky and red or purple, and in a few quick steps, white foliage. Your Channel Mixer will look like this:

In the Red Output Channel, change the Red slider from +100 to 0, and the Blue slider from 0 to +100. Change the Output Channel drop-down to Blue, and make the Blue slider +100 and the red slider 0.  Your image will look something like this:

3infraredwithchannelmixer

There is a clear color difference now between the blue sky and the red foliage.  It doesn’t matter if the foliage of your image is purple and  the sky blue, as long as you can see a clear difference in colors with the sky having some shade of blue.

Now the last part. Go back into your Raw Filters, and in the Basic panel, move the White Balance Color Temperature slider to the left to get a nice blue sky.  In the HSL/ Greyscale tab, use the sliders in the Saturation tab to desaturate the colors of your foliage.  Your image should have a blue sky and white leaves and grass. Gorgeous!

The final image

4infraredwithcameraraw2-FINAL

 4) Instant Black and White infrared processing

This is a “quick and dirty” method for getting the classic infrared look from your captures. You’ll get the tell-tale light colored foliage, and dark skies. For best results your image should have a clear sky with some clouds for effect. Overcast skies detract from the image, leave things without enough contrast, and very flat. No clouds make the sky seem like a vast black void – not too interesting.

2StepprocessingblackandwhiteinfraredClassic black and white infrared images tend to be non-contrasty, so from an artistic perspective a blue sky with wispy or puffy clouds can really add interest to your image, create a powerful story, and keep that soft contrast intact.

  1. Open your image in Photoshop
  2. Go to Image>Auto Tone
  3. Next go to Image>Adjustments>Channel Mixer>Black and White with Red Filter (From there you can adjust the sliders to get the effect you want)
  4. To get the classic infrared glow, check to make sure that in the Tools palette the colors are set to the default – black foreground and white background. To be sure, a simple way to set this is to hit the letter D to reset the colors to the default state.
  5. Then duplicate your layer (Ctrl J), and go to
  6. Filters>Filter Gallery>Artistic>Diffuse Glow
  7. In the Diffuse Glow filter, set the sliders so you can see some halo glows around the white areas of your image. You will have to adjust these to suit your image but it will create the classic graininess and glow of film infrared photos.

If the glow amount is too strong and you’re getting blown out highlights, you can decrease the opacity of your glow layer in the Layers Palette. A little experimentation goes a long way. Remember your History palette in case you want to go back a few steps.

4blackandwhiteinfraredFianlwithglow

5) Advanced Black and White infrared processing

This is the method I use most for processing Black and White infrared images. It’s easy and it gives you far more control of your final result.

  1. Open your image in Photoshop
  2. Go to Image>Auto Tone
  3. Now create an adjustment layer for Color Balance.
  4. Layer> New Adjustment Layer> Color Balance

Again, the idea is to get as much color distinction between the sky and any foliage. Color Balance provides an addition method of doing this – in Black and White processing, as well as for color.

  • Move the sliders for Midtones, Shadows and Highlights until you have a nice, distinct separation of your color tones betweeb your foliage and your sky.
  • Finally add a new adjustment layer for Black & White
  • Layer> New Adjustment Layer> Black & White
  • Now use the sliders to get the full range of Black and White tones, paying special attention to maintaining detail in the white highlights in the trees, while making sure that the dark areas also have some detail
  • To apply the infrared glow, follow from Step 5 in the first method.

This image is called CREEP. Can you see why?

blackandwhiteinfrared

flowerheartCW

I love the softness and translucency of Black and White, infrared photography. Post-processing really brings out all the infrared characteristics that draw viewers in, and gets the emotions flowing. Using these five processing techniques will get you off to a fine start, but these are only five of many ways you can process your digital infrared images in Photoshop. If you have a favorite post processing formula I’d love to see how you do it. Post your infrared shots too.

Read more from our Post Production category

Alex Morrison is a professional fine art and nature photographer, accredited by The Professional Photographers of Canada. She was the Canadian Photographic Artist of the Year in 2009. She teaches photography, runs workshops and online classes on fine art and nature photography, as well as infrared and iphone photography. Her educational website with photography tips is at nature-photography-central.com. View her art photography portfolio here. Alex has a coupon code for her Infrared Post Processing e-book, use DPSTKS to save $12.00.

  • Sharon Jenkins

    Great article Alex!

  • Nicholas Rizzo

    I just published a video on how Mabry Campbell edited an infrared shot of Zeeland Bridge: http://youtu.be/xrjyj16vdSU

  • inQuadrato

    Hi Alex, great tutorial. I do not have photoshop CS, only elements 11 and lightroom 5. So I do not have the channel mixer. What I do if I want to have a colour infrared image like this one ( https://www.flickr.com/photos/andrea_minoia/14310240930/in/photostream/lightbox/ ), is to open the raw in photoshop elements ACR, use the eye drop tool to set the with balance and open the image as tiff 16bit. In element, to switch the red channel with the blue, I set a HUE value of 180 for the master. Save the resulting photo in TIFF and import it in LightRoom for the final tuning: usually contrasts, luminosity, white, temperature and tint of the colour. I also play with saturation of the different colours so to ensure whites are white and blue is blue. The plus is that I can use the brush tool in LR to change temperature and tint of the faint hot spot I sometimes see in the image.

  • thenaturephotog

    gorgeous image! And thank you for sharing that technique – Lightroom is so popular now that you’ve convinced me to to write infrared processing tutorials for it. Maybe some free presets would be useful too? 🙂

  • inQuadrato

    Thank you Alex. As far as the free presets go, they are always welcome. There is a Infrared preset already for monochromatic, black and white, infrared and it works pretty well once you remove the vignette and the graining effect (which I do not like). From there, it is just matter to tune the image as you like more. But for colour infrared there is nothing. Actually all the IR image you can see on my flickr or 500px streams are done with LR.

  • Joe3

    Alex, thanks for your article on infrared prosessing. As I do not have Photoshop, but instead have Photoshop Elements 12, do you have any suggestions on how do this type of prosessing in this program.

  • Karin Warner

    I have been able to do all the steps except the one to create the diffuse glow. The filter gallery id grayed out in CS6. I have tried flattening and merging layers, but nothing works.

  • Anoniempje_123

    I used some of your tips 😉 thnx a lot !

    https://www.flickr.com/photos/p1nc/17199882916/in/photostream/

  • Ocelotty1

    Just came across your article – very nice indeed, thanks for the info.

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