Infrared photography allows you to capture images that go beyond ordinary visual experiences. Thanks to the magic of infrared (IR), you can imbue your images with breathtaking colors, tones, and contrast.
But what is infrared photography? And how can you use infrared techniques to get great shots? Many photographers, both seasoned and new, find themselves intrigued by IR’s creative possibilities but don’t know where to start.
Fortunately, capturing gorgeous infrared images is much more accessible than you might think. Whether you are a hobbyist looking to explore a new artistic avenue or a professional seeking to enhance your portfolio, it’s absolutely within your grasp. In this article, I’m going to share everything you need to know to jumpstart your IR imaging, including:
- Essential IR photography gear (for both beginners and advanced photographers)
- Key infrared photography camera settings
- Simple post-processing techniques to ensure your photos look amazing
- Tips and tricks for top-notch results
Sound good? Then let’s get started!
What is infrared photography?
Infrared photography uses infrared light to create beautiful images. Note that infrared waves are a form of electromagnetic radiation that lies below the visible spectrum. Humans cannot see infrared light, but camera sensors can, and this IR sensitivity can be used to create images.
That said, cameras aren’t well-equipped to capture infrared wavelengths – after all, they’re designed to use visible light, not IR light! – so infrared imaging requires special filters or adjusted camera sensors.
When you capture an infrared photo, the result usually looks like this:
It’s interesting, but not what most photographers are after. However, with a little post-processing, you can achieve a beautiful infrared look:
If you’ve encountered infrared images, you’ll immediately notice that the look stands out – and while some find it rather eerie, others are intrigued by the way the IR look can transform the ordinary.
The best subjects for infrared photos
Infrared techniques can transform ordinary subjects into something magical. While it’s suitable for various subjects, there are a few in particular that stand out.
Landscapes and nature scenes are popular choices among IR photographers. Foliage can produce a wide array of tones, resulting in shots that are haunting yet touched with a subtle sense of realism. Skies and water, with their vast and open spaces, also turn out beautifully in infrared.
Portraits of people might seem like an infrared no-no – people often look unsettling in infrared – but with the right approach, you might discover a unique way to capture human subjects. And buildings, especially under high-contrast light, can look fascinating in infrared.
At the end of the day, don’t restrict yourself to a few specific subjects. Instead, experiment with as many subjects as possible and analyze the results afterward. Infrared photography is all about breaking boundaries and seeing the world in a new light!
Infrared photography gear
To shoot infrared photos, you’ll need standard photography equipment – a camera and a lens – but you’ll also need to create the infrared effect, which you can do in one of three ways:
- With an infrared filter
- With a professionally converted infrared camera
- With infrared film
Let’s take a look at each option in turn:
If you are just starting to explore infrared photography, an IR filter is the cheap and convenient way to go. Simply place it in front of your lens, and it’ll allow infrared light to hit your camera’s sensor while blocking out all visible light. The results can be very nice; here’s an image I shot with an infrared filter:
There are plenty of options out there, ranging from screw-on to slide-in filter systems. The Hoya RM-72 is a popular screw-on infrared filter, and is a great introductory option to the world of infrared.
Note that different filters render color differently, depending on the specific IR and visible light ranges they filter in and out, so the results are inconsistent from filter to filter; this can be frustrating if you want your IR photos to look like everyone else’s, but the silver lining is that you can experiment with different filters until you find one that suits your vision.
Converted infrared camera
If you are truly committed to infrared photography, then you should consider purchasing a dedicated infrared camera body.
As far as I’m aware, no DSLR or mirrorless manufacturers produce infrared cameras, but you can send off a camera body to be converted by third-party companies. Alternatively, you can buy an already-converted IR camera used on eBay or from an IR-conversion dealer.
When a visible-light camera is converted to capture infrared, the infrared-blocking filter (which sits in front of the sensor) is removed. It’s certainly more expensive than purchasing a $75 filter, but the benefits include convenience and consistency.
Note: Once a camera has been converted, its sole use is infrared photography; you cannot take regular images. So buying a dedicated infrared body involves purchasing a second camera body (unless, of course, you want to fully dedicate yourself to infrared!).
Infrared film is readily available and relatively cheap, too – so you might consider purchasing an inexpensive SLR, grabbing some IR film, and testing the infrared waters.
Unfortunately, developing infrared film is tough. For one, not all labs can handle infrared film, and it generally costs more, too, so you’ll need to do a careful cost-benefit analysis before grabbing an infrared film setup.
Camera settings for infrared photography
Selecting the perfect IR camera settings involves a lot of trial and error, and while nothing beats proper experimentation, here are some guidelines to get you started.
Use both RAW and JPEG
When you’re starting out, shoot both RAW and JPEG files. You won’t be capturing thousands of shots, so space shouldn’t be an issue, and RAWs and JPEGs each offer valuable benefits.
On the one hand, RAW files give you the most scope when processing (and infrared photos do require significant edits). A RAW file will let you recover blown out highlights and clipped shadows, which is essential for infrared photography, as the right exposure settings can be tough to nail down (more on that later!).
On the other hand, JPEGs are easily viewable, so you can see the results of your infrared photos on your computer screen without any processing.
It’s important to emphasize, though: Straight-out-of-camera infrared photos look horrible. At first, you’ll probably be turned off by their flat, pink appearance – but over time, you’ll get used to it, and you’ll soon develop the skills to identify a good IR image from a bad IR image at a glance.
Infrared exposure settings
When you’re exposing for infrared photos, all common wisdom goes out the window. You can’t trust your camera’s meter, you can’t trust handheld meters, and you’ll simply need to take some test shots, preview the results on your LCD, and keep going until you get a good result.
(I’d recommend you take careful notes; that way, as you progress, you’ll start to figure out the right settings for the look you’re after.)
Infrared filters require extremely long exposure times; they block out visible light but don’t let any extra infrared light through, so on a bright sunny day, you’ll often work with exposure times between 30 and 120 seconds (assuming you’re shooting at f/8). Here, a tripod is essential.
If your camera is infrared converted, your settings will be much more standard. On sunny days, you might shoot at f/8 and 1/125s, though the settings will vary depending on the light.
Whether you use a filter or an IR-converted body, review your photos constantly, especially in the beginning. As soon as you’ve taken a shot, check the LCD and view the image histogram. You might consider bracketing your photos to increase your chances of capturing a nice exposure.
Post-processing your infrared photos
As previously mentioned, when you shoot RAW infrared images, you’ll get a dull pinkish-red image, like this:
Not such a great look, right? Fortunately, processing an IR file is pretty easy. Here’s what I recommend:
Step 1: Start with Auto Tone
This is a common way to handle infrared images. Simply import your file into Photoshop and apply Auto Tone (hit Image>Auto Tone).
Photoshop will analyze your image, then it will make a series of adjustments for the best results (at least, the “best results” according to Photoshop!). Often, this looks pretty good. Here’s what Auto Tone gave me when I processed the file shown above:
At this point, I could continue processing my infrared photo like a normal image – that is, I could proceed with a normal editing workflow – or I could proceed with the next step:
Step 2: Do a channel swap
To get natural blue skies, you’ll need to channel swap your colors. Here, the goal is to take one channel (e.g., red) and convert it completely to another channel (e.g., blue), which is simple to do; create a new Channel Mixer layer (Layer>New Adjustment Layer>Channel Mixer), then adjust the Red, Green, and Blue channels until you get the result you’re after.
But while channel swapping is an essential part of infrared photography processing, photographers disagree over which channels to swap to what values, and there’s no one “right” answer, because it’s all about looks and personal preference.
Here are a few common channel-swap values. Experiment until you find the one that works for you:
Changing the Red and Blue channels only:
- Red channel: Red=0, Green=0, Blue=100
- Blue channel: Red=100, Green=0, Blue=0
Changing all the channels:
- Red channel: Red=0, Green=0, Blue=100
- Blue channel: Red=100, Green=0, Blue=0
- Green channel: Red=0, Green=100, Blue=0
Another creative option:
- Red channel: Red=0, Green=0, Blue=100
- Blue channel: Red=100, Green=100, Blue=-100
- Green channel: Red=0, Green=0, Blue=100
Here’s my image after a bit of channel swapping:
As you can see, the sky looks more natural, and the trees – while still pale pink – feel more grounded.
Step 3: Do any final edits
At this point, we’ve finished all specialized infrared post-processing, but feel free to add final touches like you would to any image.
For instance, you might consider cropping, adjusting the saturation, dodging and burning, or adding a vignette. It really all comes down to your personal taste, and as always: experiment, experiment, experiment!
Infrared photography tips and tricks
Now that we’ve covered the basic concept of infrared photography, it’s time to delve into the tricks of the trade. By implementing these techniques, you can start capturing images that stand out and reflect your creative vision.
1. Keep a journal
Infrared photography can be both thrilling and unpredictable. You’ll have moments when everything clicks, and others when the results are less than stellar. That’s why keeping a journal of your successes and failures is vital.
Write detailed notes as you review your images after each shoot. What worked? What didn’t? What could you do differently next time? If possible, try to jot down notes while you’re out shooting as well. This practice will provide valuable insights when evaluating your photos later on.
But don’t worry if writing while on location doesn’t appeal to you. A voice recorder can serve the same purpose, allowing you to take auditory notes for review down the line. By keeping a consistent journal, whether in written or audio form, you’ll refine your technique, better understand your camera, and ultimately enhance your infrared photography skills.
2. Play with different compositions
The magic of infrared photography goes far beyond the surreal colors it can produce. It’s a creative process, and to get the most out of it, you need to think deeply about composition.
Here, I’m talking about the way the elements within your photos are arranged. When you’re just starting out with infrared, the rule of thirds can be very helpful; it’s simple enough that you can focus on the technical aspects of infrared shooting, but it’s powerful enough to keep your compositions looking good.
(How do you use the rule of thirds? Imagine your image is divided into nine equal parts by two vertical and two horizontal lines. Now try to position your main subject a third of the way into the frame.)
But don’t stop there. Experiment with other compositional techniques like symmetry, negative space, and the rule of odds. Adding lots of empty sky can look especially interesting in infrared:
One more thing: Infrared photography offers unique tones and colors, so it’s important that you don’t think about your shots in color and only later make the mental switch to infrared. As you look through the camera viewfinder, envision the scene as a processed infrared photo and compose accordingly. At first, this will be challenging, but over time, you’ll learn to “see” in infrared like a pro.
3. Try a black-and-white conversion
You probably associate infrared photos with wild, otherworldly colors. After all, most photographers create color infrared shots. But have you considered black and white?
While a B&W conversion isn’t the most popular way to process infrared files, grayscale infrared shots can look astounding. As with standard color photos, B&W won’t always work – but when it does, the results will be remarkable.
So try a black-and-white conversion when processing your IR shots. If all goes well, the monochrome look will add a level of depth and intensity, and tonal inversions in foliage will result in mesmerizing contrast.
4. Look at the work of other infrared photographers
You don’t have to journey into infrared photography alone! There are countless talented infrared photographers out there whose work can inspire and guide you.
Platforms like Instagram, Flickr, and 500px are brimming with exceptional infrared shots. Browse through them and find a handful of IR shooters to follow. Then spend plenty of time looking through their work. Analyze different styles and techniques. You might stumble upon a novel approach that resonates with you, and at the very least, you’ll get better at envisioning different infrared possibilities.
Remember, every photographer has a unique style. By exploring the work of others, you not only get inspired but also discover what you might want to achieve in your own infrared photography. It’s a learning process that can significantly enrich your skills and creativity.
5. Experiment constantly
Infrared photography thrives on the art of experimentation. It’s unpredictable, it’s exciting, and it offers a world of creative opportunities. I can’t overemphasize how creating great infrared photography requires a willingness to take chances, waste shots, and experiment relentlessly.
Head out frequently with your camera, exploring different types of lighting, compositional approaches, and settings. The unpredictability of infrared means you might stumble upon an incredible technique when you least expect it.
Don’t shy away from trying different editing techniques, either. Sometimes a simple tweak in post-processing can turn an ordinary photo into something extraordinary. Infrared photography is all about exploration, so keep an open mind and embrace the unexpected!
Infrared photography: final words
Infrared photography is a growing photography niche, and it’s a great way to capture creative images, get out of a photographic rut, and just have a lot of fun.
I’d recommend you start off simple with filters, then – if you still enjoy IR photos – graduate to a dedicated infrared camera body.
I hope this guide has shed light on the techniques, tips, and subjects that can make your journey into infrared photography an exciting and fulfilling adventure. Now it’s time to get out there with your camera, embrace the unknown, and let your creativity unfold. There’s a world of unseen beauty waiting for you, and you are ready to unlock it!
Now over to you:
Have you tried infrared photography? Do you think you’ll purchase IR filters or an IR camera? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below!