This article will give you some tips on how you can enhance your black and white images by using infrared photography.
Infrared photography for something different
Are you a fan of black and white photography? Like many, I love a good black and white image. The mood you can exude from the shadows and light always fascinates me.
When I was new to photography, I mostly avoided black and white landscapes. I used it mainly a handy way to hide the sporadically bizarre white balance my old Olympus EPL1 used to occasionally surprise me with.
Infrared photography (IR) also took a while to attract my attention. I wasn’t a huge fan of the typical false colour images, but quite liked the black and white IR photos, particularly the work of Simon Marsden. If you haven’t explored his portfolio of dark and atmospheric infrared film photography, you are missing something unique.
Anyway, after a while, I started doing more black and white landscape images, and eventually followed the urge to get into IR images purely for their unique monochrome potential.
I went down the path of buying a modified camera off Ebay. You can buy anything from a point and shoot to a full frame DSLR, and everything in between. If you have an old body you can always get it converted, but it’s worth checking the cost against buying one that’s already been modified.
I picked up an Olympus EPM1 for around AUD $300 ($230 USD). The advantage for me was being able use the same lenses and batteries I already had for the EPL1.
Why buy a modified camera rather than use IR filters?
Filters are a great and relatively inexpensive way to get into IR photography, but they have their limitations.
The main attraction of a modified camera is that you are not limited to the long exposures needed for an IR filter. You can capture sharp images in any conditions, and can be more creative with your exposures (e.g. pick the perfect shutter speed for moving water). You can shoot handheld from any point of view without being limited by a tripod.
It is also much quicker. When using filters, you need set your focus before attaching the filter which can become tiresome.
I used to take my IR camera with me for a run along the river. Without the need for a tripod, I could travel light and take quick photos whenever an interesting composition presented itself.
What can infrared photography bring do for a landscape photographer?
Perhaps the most striking characteristics of infrared photography are the typical white vegetation, black water, and dark skies. You can create punchy, high contrast images. The middle of the day works best for these type of shots. Perfect for those landscape photographers that hate early mornings!
If you like capturing the complex patterns in clouds, you’ll find that the black skies really allow the clouds to stand out.
IR also gives you clarity. Any haze visible to the eye tends to disappear in infrared photography. So you can achieve a very crisp and contrasty look.
The deciding factor for me was tone. I found the infrared monos gave me a wonderful palette of greys and blacks to work with, particularly for trees and vegetation. The balance between light and dark just seems easier to manage in infrared and really lets you produce some unique images.
So what processing should you use for infrared photography? The short answer is not much really. Experiment to find out what works for you.
Myself, I don’t normally use Lightroom or Photoshop, so my workflow may be a little different than yours. But the principles will be the same.
I import my raw images into Corel’s AfterShot Pro, which is a handy little raw file editor. Here I’ll straighten the image, adjust the exposure, and maybe increase the contrast if required. My infrared raw files come into AfterShot Pro displaying blue-grey hues, which is a good starting point for me. From here I export them as TIFFs into PaintShop Pro.
PaintShop Pro has a “Black and White Film” effect that lets you apply a colour filter to your image. Changing your filter between blue, red, and green gives a different result.
From here it is a matter of personal taste adjusting the light and dark of your image, the white and black points to suite the image, and maybe applying curves as appropriate.
What is the Secret Sauce?
Infrared photography is wonderfully clean and crisp. But what if you love that IR film look with a ghostly flare?
Don’t worry. PaintShop Pro has it in the bag. They have an “Infrared Film” effect that was probably created to make ordinary images look a bit infrared-ish.
But when you apply it to a proper infrared image as a starting point, you get a wonderful controlled flare effect. It doesn’t quite match the often spooky and surreal results Simon Marsden achieved with IR film, but it does get you a lot closer than anything else.
The flare can be applied to give a sense of mystery, mood, and surrealness that is hard to replicate any other way.
Are there any downsides to infrared photography?
Not really. The only big drawback you’ll find is that you cannot use your favourite filters. Standard neutral density and polarizers do not work in the IR spectrum. If you sky is very bright and your subject is dark, you’ll just have to blend a few different exposures. Shooting in RAW of course gives you more leeway, but my Olympus files are not as forgiving as my Nikon files when recovering blown highlights.
The only other thing I notice is that some people get so enamoured by the white leaves and black sky effect that they forget to put their attention on the composition. Yes, everything looks cool in IR, but don’t take pictures of everything. Aim for strong compositions and uncluttered images. IR really shines with a minimalist approach.
Many dismiss infrared photography as an oddity; a strange niche that is a bit too left of centre for them. Others just think it is too hard and expensive to get into.
But if you like creating black and white images that stand out from the crowd, I’d suggest you have a crack at it. You’ll find it a challenge but also quite rewarding.