My First Time Shooting Infrared Photography

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Up until a few months ago, my only experience with infrared photography was through the work of Minor White and a few other photographers that shoot masterful infrared photographs. Their images were dreamy scenes with glowing trees that completely transformed my idea of what made a beautiful picture.

Most people I speak to about infrared photography immediately say something about the movie Predator or ask, “You mean like those cameras they use in police chases, right?” While those are in fact infrared cameras, they use thermal infrared which…hang on. I’m getting ahead of myself here.

My First Time Shooting Infrared Photography

A couple weeks ago I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to try out an infrared converted digital camera (Canon 60D) from LifePixel Infrared. Seeing as this would be my first time shooting any type of infrared photography I immediately wanted to share my experience with anyone who might be considering taking the leap and trying infrared picture work.

In this article, I’m going to take you along with me and tell you all about my first experience shooting infrared. This will not be a tutorial on how to make and process infrared but rather a real-world account from an infrared newbie. And I promise, no more Predator references.

The Camera

It might come as a surprise but all digital cameras are capable of capturing infrared images. The reason your unconverted DSLR can’t is that manufacturers add filters to purposefully eliminate (or greatly reduce) light in infrared wavelength from reaching the sensor. An infrared conversion is essentially camera surgery where the infrared eliminating filter is replaced with one that allows infrared light to pass through.

My First Time Shooting Infrared Photography

And unconverted sensor.

In reality, the images we think of as infrared are in fact near infrared. This type of light has a wavelength that hovers approximately around 700nm. Exactly how much infrared light passes through to the sensor depends on the filter and the type of conversion.

The 60D I was sent sports LifePixels’ popular Super Color IR filter which allows for a more flexible infrared experience because it also allows a small amount of visible light to pass through as well. This Super Color filter leaves lots of room for incredibly creative and downright insane post-processing possibilities for working with color and black and white pictures. The filter looks dark red (below) compared to a non-converted sensor filter (see above).

My First Time Shooting Infrared Photography

The infrared converted camera from LifePixel.

Aside from that, there’s not much to say about the external appearance of the converted Canon 60D. It just looks like a normal 60D. This is a good thing in my opinion. Given the complexity of the conversion procedure, it’s nice to see all the screws and joints of the camera remaining just as they were before.

Out and about with infrared

The entire experience of actually shooting images with an infrared camera was incredibly different than how I had imagined. Not at all in a negative or even difficult way, but the creative involvement that was needed reminded me of shooting film and also added an element of excitement you don’t always get when shooting straight digital.

I had assumed that using an infrared camera would be fairly straightforward. Meaning that the image that came out of the camera would essentially be an entity unto itself complete with weird colors and that finished infrared look. This is not the case. Have a look at a RAW infrared photo fresh from the camera equipped with the Super Color IR filter.

My First Time Shooting Infrared Photography

Shock. Panic. Gnashing of teeth. When I saw this on the LCD screen my heart sank. What had I done wrong? This wasn’t the cool looking picture I had expected. As it turns out, everything was just as it should be. So, if you’re thinking about using an infrared camera for the first time take some comfort in knowing that things are going to look downright horrible until the image is appropriately processed. We’ll talk about the post-processing of the infrared images a little later.

And seriously, I mean just look at that. They really do look horrible. Moving on…

The best thing about putting the camera into use is relearning how to visualize a photo before you actually snap the shutter. As I said, this is something that has been lost in translation during the digital age. Shooting infrared brings in a fresh feeling of involvement when shooting because you can make all the creative choices but still not know what you have until the photo has been processed.

What’s more is that infrared photography loves being shot in harsh midday light that would normally be absolutely fatal to most sorts of photography. Which is actually really cool. Something I would recommend is to make use of your camera’s Live View mode if it is so equipped. This allows you to see what your sensor sees in real-time.

Also, note that with infrared converted DSLR cameras there can be a slight focusing inaccuracy when shooting at wider apertures unless it is corrected (which LifePixel offers). The Canon D60 I tested out was focused corrected before it was sent to me. Now, let’s talk about the completely incredible way (but not the only way) I processed some of the photographs I made with the infrared converted 60D. You’re not going to believe this.

Post-processing the IR images

My First Time Shooting Infrared Photography

Let me start off by saying that post-processing infrared photos is not difficult. The biggest help you can give yourself is to remember these images are just photographs, but they are photographs that include nearly infrared light.

I feel as if I entered into the post-processing phase of my newly shot IR photos with a certain timidness, which was completely unfounded. While we’re about to briefly talk about the biggest hurdle I had to overcome with the processing the overall concept of editing an IR photo is really no different than any other picture.

The Magical Realm of White Balance

If you’ve ever heard someone say “always shoot RAW” and doubted the truth of it – let me tell you now that when it comes to post-processing your near-infrared images, shooting in RAW format is essential. I made the mistake of not switching the camera from JPG (my fault, I should have checked) to RAW and the resulting images were completely unusable.

Why? Because JPG files simply do not have the information to effectively set an accurate White Balance in post-production. If there’s one thing that is completely 100%, definitely, totally essential, and inescapable it is that White Balance is key to a successful infrared photograph.

My First Time Shooting Infrared Photography

The challenge with IR converted cameras is that the influx of IR light confuses the camera so that Auto White Balance is completely inaccurate. You can set a Custom White Balance in camera and the easiest way is set it off of green foliage (chlorophyll reflects infrared and is thusly white or close). But if you want to do it all in the editing phase, here’s a quick run-through of how to get it done.

Using Adobe’s DNG Profile Editor

This goes back to what we talked about earlier in this section. Don’t assume that there is a secret to IR photography processing. They are no different from normal photos in that you should have a desired White Balance and exposure. That’s it.

The problem with setting a White Balance for IR images in post-processing is that the color temperature can’t go low enough to correct the image. This is where an often neglected section of Adobe Lightroom called “Camera Calibration” will quite literally save you from pulling out clumps of your hair in frustration.

Using an even lesser known piece of Adobe wizardry called the DNG Profile Editor, you can create a custom White Balance profile and place it in the Camera Calibration section of Lightroom. This is what will allow you to accurately color correct your IR photos.

My First Time Shooting Infrared Photography

Never heard of the DNG Profile Editor? Don’t worry, I wrote a book on Lightroom and I had no clue about it myself. Firstly, it’s a free download from Adobe that allows you to create custom profiles based on your camera, and save those so that they appear in the Camera Calibration section of Lightroom.

Read more here: How to Use Adobe’s DNG Profile Editor to Make Custom Camera Profiles

My First Time Shooting Infrared Photography

My First Time Shooting Infrared Photography

It’s easy, actually kind of fun, and it doesn’t take much time. We’ll skip the particulars but if you want to learn more about the entire IR process, check out this excellent video from B&H Photo by Vincent Versace.

Once you’ve created your custom camera profile it can then be applied to any image you make with your IR converted camera. Then you can go back and make detailed White Balance selections based on the particular image you happen to be editing at the time. Here’s that RAW image again from earlier as it looked straight from the camera.

My First Time Shooting Infrared Photography

My First Time Shooting Infrared Photography

With the White Balance corrected using the custom profile from the DNG Profile Editor.

My First Time Shooting Infrared Photography

With a color channel swap (blue/red) in Photoshop and some basic editing back in Lightroom.

The possibilities really are endless and include black and white conversions, color swaps in Photoshop, selective color, as well as any other edits you feel like trying out!

Here are a few more images I shot with the IR converted Canon D60 from LifePixel.

My First Time Shooting Infrared Photography

My First Time Shooting Infrared Photography

My First Time Shooting Infrared Photography

My First Time Shooting Infrared Photography

Final Thoughts on My First Infrared Experience

Often times I talk about the importance of stepping outside of your comfort zone when it comes to your shooting. It’s essential to be bold and extend your creative reach which will, in turn, help you grow technically, professionally, and creatively.

My first time shooting infrared is a classic example of how refreshing it can be to try something completely new with your work. I learned so many new things and reminded myself of how much I truly love this thing that we all do, called photography. Needless to say, my time shooting infrared was immensely positive. Here are a few tips that will help avoid some pitfalls should you decide to try IR photography for yourself:

  • Shoot RAW.
  • Use your camera’s Live View mode.
  • Remember plants and foliage generally reflect IR light.
  • Accurate White Balance is a MUST!
  • Use Adobe’s DNG Profile Editor to create a custom color profile for your camera.
  • Remember there is no set way to edit your IR photographs.

Check out LifePixel Infrared at their website. Not only are they a group of super nice people who do awesome camera conversions but they also offer a treasure trove of educational information about infrared photography and post-processing infrared images.

I hope you enjoyed taking a trip with me during my first time with IR photography. Next on the agenda? Deciding which of my cameras to have converted to IR.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Adam Welch is a full-time photomaker, author, adventurer, educator, and self-professed bacon addict. You can usually find him on some distant trail making photographs or at his computer writing about all the elegant madness that is photography. Follow his blog over at aphotographist.com or pick up his new book Lightroom Mastery: A Complete Guide to Working in Lightroom Classic CC

  • BlackEternity

    Thanks for that article.
    I’m still fairly new to the photography-topic and I always watch out for everything so I don’t exclude some styles or topics to shoot.
    Inrared-photography sounds interesting but please excuse my ignorance (?):
    – What is it, that I’m looking at?!
    I understand the IR element – I’ve used IR quite a bit myself for head tracking and I know the filters and stuff but what is it exactly in these pictures that is getting captured?
    Again – please excuse my ignorance or not understanding it. For me – as an amateur, it just looks like some funky Split tone or inverted photography.

    From my understanding, every light source has of course some form of IR in it. some more, some less. But what is the exact difference between an IR photo and a regular one? Different “brightness”? Because from my understanding, the color comes from Post because IR is red / purple-ish.

    Please keep in mind, that this is no bashing or criticism. But I saw that topic pop up in a few spaces and I never really got the “hook” of it. I take pictures with different colors? Sorry, but I want to understand more of it 🙂

    Nonetheless, great article, but some dumdum like me maybe needs an extra explanation 😛

  • box box

    All cameras have an internal filter that subtracts some near-uv and and near-infrared light to improve image quality. These internal filters actually filter out alot of near-infrared light. So your camera right out of the box captures very little near-infrared. That’s why if you just add an infrared filter to a stock camera you have to take a VERY long exposure. Of the light you want to let through, not much is coming in.

    But if you remove that internal filter and let in ALL light, and THEN add an infrared filter of a specific range you capture ALOT of the near-infrared spectrum you otherwise wouldn’t see in any of your stock photos (and taking the photo is fast.)

    When you capture more of the near-infrared spectrum you start seeing things you wouldn’t see, and some things you think you should see actually disappear from the image altogether.

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/6f3a73e155112414e9759fda6283382da6044114c5797911912243ff4b1d36da.jpg

    Contrary to a typical photo where you are trying to capture color. Infrared photography is about discovering what things in the world do or do not reflect infrared. I once took an infrared photo of a green tennis ball with red print. I would have thought the red text would have come through the filter. But actually I got a photo void of any text at all. The red printed text didn’t reflect infrared any more than the rest of the ball and therefore disappeared from the photo.

    So the output is that of a scene which follows the characteristics of infrared light. It outpus neat images but to me the biggest joy is putting the infrared side by side with the full spectrum photo. To me that’s where the magic really is!

  • BlackEternity

    Thank you so much for that comparison shot.
    THAT was something I was looking for.
    I get the principle of the picture-taking. Again – I disassembled a fair amount of webcams along my hobby-path to purposfully remove said filters to capture that light specifically and blocking out everything else. But that is just for tracking stuff – like a Kinect and so on.
    And I understand the beauty of the pictures but from the article it looks “bland” – like I get a pink picture and have to post-process it to get something “art-styled”.
    Don’t get me wrong – I like the style and I would never dare to say that it’s not a form of photography or so.

    With your comparison shots and your explanation that you like the side by side what you usually see and what is only visible with IR & UV makes it stand out to me. This was something I wanted to see all along.
    Things I can’t physically see or look for. Like Macro-Shots give me the ability to see detail I could barely see with my naked eye. Or polarized pictures where you can see stress-points in parts. And this was something I was missing with posts about Infrared.

    Thank you so much for this.

  • box box

    I’ll see if I can find my tennis ball photos as well just for kicks. But you’re right, when you only see the infrared shot you don’t always realize what the image is truly accomplishing. Not so easy for a hobbyist to build but similarly check out the other end of the spectrum where a guy made a near-UV camera: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o9BqrSAHbTc

  • Linda Bon

    Great article. Thank you. One thing I would like to know before I convert either of my cameras is once you do it, will ALL of your pictures look like IR or would that only happen if/when you use a filter on your lens? In other words, will I still be able to take normal colored pictures if I have my camera converted?

  • jhsvdm

    The near infrared spectrum stretches from about 700 nm to approximately 900. The pictures you take within that spectrum are from reflected infrared sunlight of which there is plenty available midday on a sunny day as Adam has indicated. Thermal cameras record emitted infrared which has a much longer wavelength. Infrared is differently reflected and absorbed from visible spectrum. Water absorbs it and green foliage best reflects it. I do mostly black and white photography and post 2 images to illustrate this effect. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/e47f5d4ec6edb9c7c9db76387354cec14ffd37652d4f8cb93d0f01fe48693f96.jpg https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/52fca10cf02180fbdd634972433307fa3674fd14fb848790bc344d97943090c1.jpg

  • Wayne

    Nice article. I had an older digital camera converted a few years ago, and I enjoy going out every once in awhile to use it. You are so right about the white balance. It is absolutely crucial to get the correct balance, preferably before shooting. I always use custom balance each time the light changes! Here are a few I took recently at Bok Tower in Lake Wales, Florida.

  • Wayne

    Once you convert a camera, it will only shoot IR. An older camera that you don’t use much any more would be ideal for conversion. It can be addictive!

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