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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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.