How to do Surreal Digital Infrared Photography Without Expensive Gear or Camera Conversions

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Photos made with invisible infrared light, rather than visible light, yield wildly strange and eerie photographs that always have the “WOW Factor.”  For landscapes or scenic imagery, infrared (IR) photography is highly regarded as fine art. But back in the days of film photography, shooting infrared was complicated, expensive and the results were often not great. For those with determination though, that one image that did ‘work” was always worth the trouble.

But now the complexity of capturing infrared photos has changed – digital cameras have made the technique almost foolproof, inexpensive, and a lot of fun! All you’ll need is a tripod, a special infrared filter, and any camera that is sensitive to infrared light. With a few easy steps you’ll be shooting infrared photos in no time at all.

But before I get into the process, it’s not my intention in this article to delve into the physics of infrared light, and all the scientific mumbo jumbo that goes along with understanding WHY infrared light creates amazing images, but rather to give you some simple steps to get you started in this super creative technique.

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Visible Light Black and White Image

Just know that anything that is alive will reflect a greater amount of infrared light than inanimate objects. Leaves, foliage, and grass, along with skin, reflect the greatest amounts of infrared light, and so will be the whitest objects in your image. Stones, concrete, mountains, water and sky tend to absorb infrared light and so appear as darker objects in your images.  The tonality is very different from that of visible light black and white photography though. Notice how the tones of the leaves, seeds and sky are quite different in the infrared image below.

Digital Infrared Image

Digital Infrared Image

Okay, are you ready to give this a try? Here are the simple steps you need to follow so your images will turn out into hauntingly beautiful, surreal infrared photographs. The first steps deal with equipment and settings, and the last steps are all about how to best capture beautiful infrared light.

Step 1: Test your Camera

Before you go out and buy an infrared filter test your camera to make sure it’s sensitive to infrared light.  Not all digital camera sensors are able to “see” infrared light. In fact the newer the camera, the less sensitive to infrared light it may be. Try this simple test to see if your camera will give you good results.

Testing your camera for infrared sensitivity.

Testing your camera for infrared sensitivity.

Hunt down a TV, VCR or DVD player remote control. Look at the end that points to the TV (or VCR etc), and you’ll see a little bulb or flat back plastic window. This is the transmitter that sends the signal from the remote to your device. That signal usually uses infrared light. You can see that it is invisible light – i.e. when you look at the remote with your eye, you can’t see anything when you press the buttons. But just wait until you do this looking through your camera! You’ll be able to see invisible light – the infrared spectrum that makes such cool photos.

If you have a point & shoot camera look through your LCD viewer while pressing any button on the remote. If you see the bulb light up, your camera can see infrared light.  If you have a DSLR you’ll have to take a photo to see the results, or if you camera has a live view feature, you will be able to see the the results on your LCD as well.

The whiter and brighter the light you see from the remote, the more sensitive your camera is to infrared. If the light is more purple or red your camera may not be a good candidate for shooting infrared photos.

Step 2: Equipment

If your camera passed the sensitivity test, you’ll need two more pieces of equipment before you can shoot infrared photos, a tripod and an infrared filter. The tripod will help you take a sharp shot, as your exposure times will be quite long. The filter will  block most of the visible light from reaching your camera sensor, but will allow the beautiful infrared light to pass through.

When I first started shooting infrared images, I used  a Hoya R72 screw-on infrared filter. B+W, Tiffen and other manufacturers also have equivalent infrared filters.  If you are using a slide in filter system, such as Cokin or Lee, they also make infrared filters to work with their holders. If this is the filter you’ll be using, make sure to slide it into the slot closest to the camera to prevent unwanted visible light from sneaking in. The R72 refers to the amount and type of infrared light that passes through to your sensor and I recommend using this to start. It allows some visible light to pass to the sensor so it will allow you do to all sorts of creative post processing with your images.

Infrared Image with creative post processing.

Infrared Image with creative post-processing

Step 3: Camera settings

Because the infrared filter blocks out most of the visible light, your exposures will be quite long. You’ll have to adjust your camera settings to ensure you get a good exposure, while keeping noise to a minimum.  Set up your camera on your tripod and make these adjustments:

  1. Set your ISO between 200 and 400, keep it as low as you can
  2. Set your Long Exposure noise reduction to ON
  3. Set your camera to shoot in RAW mode
  4. Set your camera to Aperture Priority (Av mode on a Canon), and your aperture to around f/8 for maximum sharpness
  5. If your camera does auto bracketing (refer to your owner’s manual), set your bracketing to +/-1 EV.  Your series should be -1 EV, 0 EV, good exposure, and + 1 EV. You can also bracket manually.

Shooting in RAW will give you a bit more latitude for processing and adjusting.  Bracketing will help you find the sweet spot for exposure at your preferred aperture and ISO.

I’m not going to go deep into the White Balance setting, as this could be an entire article on its own. But for now set your White Balance to the Sunny or Daylight preset.

Step 4: Composition

Just as in regular light photography, composition is a critical component of infrared photography. However there are a few additional considerations to keep foremost in your mind when planning your infrared composition.

A variety of textures make the image more dynamic.

A variety of textures make the image more dynamic.

Infrared photography is similar to black and white photography, in that you are dealing with a limited number of tones. To add more dynamism and energy to your infrared shots, add contrasting elements. By this I mean using dark and light objects in close proximity to each other. But also use smooth and textured objects together. You can mix and match for artistic composition and design.

 COLUMN 1  COLUMN 2
  • light
  • white
  • smooth
  • large patterns
  • light with fine textures
  • light with large textures
  • dark
  • black
  • textured
  • small patterns
  • dark with fine textures
  • dark with large textures

In every infrared shot you make, include at least one element from Column 1 with the corresponding one from Column 2. You can add as many elements as you want, but it’s best to keep your composition simple. You can use light and small patterns, with dark and large patterns and so on. Foliage and clouds will always be a light element in your image; the sky, stones, bark, water  and concrete will be darker. Leaves from a distance are a rough texture, with many small elements appearing rough and textured; while human skin is very smooth.  This should give you a great starting point for infrared compositional considerations.

Step 5: Shooting Infrared

There is only one critical thing to remember when shooting infrared – you must shoot when there is lots of sunshine, and in the summer when there is lots of deciduous foliage. Overcast days won’t give you great results, and because living things reflect the most infrared light, snowy winter days are usually devoid of anything that reflects infrared.  If there are clouds in the sky these can add an element of interest, but don’t make your capture until the sun is out, and shining on your subject.

Find a great place to shoot and adjust the settings on your camera. I like graveyards, parks, and old abandoned buildings. The contrast between the stones, the pathways, the old wood and leaves and grass provides outstanding tonality for infrared images. If you can get a few wisps of cloud in your sky all the better.

Put your camera on your tripod, and compose your image. Place the infrared filter on your camera, and use your autofocus as usual. Yes, it works just fine for infrared photos! Your light meter will work too but be sure to bracket on either end to make sure you have at least one usable exposure. Then click the shutter.  You’ve just made an infrared photograph.

Skin looks like alabaster when shot using infrared light.

Skin looks like alabaster when shot using infrared light

For techniques and ideas for post-processing our infrared images, watch for my article on post processing infrared photos coming soon!

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials 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.

  • dantefrizzoli

    Your photos are awesome. I’m going to try and get the filter and try this out. Thank you!

  • thenaturephotog

    Thank you dantefrizzoli. I think you’ll enjoy infrared – it’s always a bit of a surprise as to what you’ll see.

  • Chris Anderson

    I haven’t tried this, so I’m skeptical, but does this REALLY pick up infrared? Go out into a pitch black field, take a picture of your friend standing in front of your camera and see if you get an image or not… no flash, no lighting, just pure infrared detection… can someone try this out?

    My money is on nothing shows up, but I’d like someone to prove me wrong.

  • thenaturephotog

    Hi Chris,

    I mention in the article you need full sunlight to capture this wavelength of the infrared spectrum. We’re dealing with what scientists call the “near infrared” spectrum, not to be confused with far infrared or thermal infrared which is what you may be thinking about.

  • CB

    The answer should also be clear from the point of view that a filter TAKES OUT light. Think about not adding the filter and taking the picture of your friend in the pitch black field. Will you see anything? No.

  • Chris Anderson

    Thanks CB and Alex for the replies and clarification of how this is actually working.

  • Craig Minielly

    Fabulous info and very well presented – great stuff!

  • Pat Murphy

    Can you give us some examples of digital cameras which are good for IR images and capable of bracketing, etc.? Which camera did you use for the images above?

  • BucMac

    I’ve taken pictures with the IR filter and everything comes out red. Do I need to be shooting in b&w or is the red removed during post processing?

  • thenaturephotog

    Hi BucMac,

    Yes, this is normal. There are some easy post-processing techniques that will resolve that for you. There is a special post -processing for IR article coming soon.

  • Alami Alami

    Very interesting articles, Thanks a lot

  • Kathleen Mekailek

    Just checked my camera- it didn’t pick up the light πŸ™ Birthday coming, may need to upgrade.

  • Richard Wagenaar

    I remember there used to be a problem focussing with infra red in the analoge days. The focalpoint used to be a bit closer or further away. Did that change?

  • inQuadrato

    hardly.. newer the camera, better the IR filter should be. For 300$ it is possible to have your camera converted for IR photography.

  • inQuadrato

    As a beginner who just received today his Hoya IR 72 screw filter, I would like to share something I learnt from researching the topic. The possibility to use modern digital cameras for IR photography apparently does not only depend on how good (or bad in the best case scenario) the built-in camera IR filter is, i.e. if your camera can “see” infrared. There is the problem of the so called Hot Spot: modern lenses are coated to improve their performance for the visible light and in the IR part of the spectra, the lens coating can generate a Hot Spot in your photo, usually in the center. Some lenses performs better than others so, before invest in the filter, do your home works. Alex, can you confirm I’m not saying something wrong here? Am I correct? BTW, great article. I started to consider IR photography because having had a baby, the best moments to shoot in visible light are, for now, not available to me anymore. During the dead middle day, though, I’ll have more time.

  • Dennis Falk

    One piece of advice I think you neglected to write is to cap the eyepiece! Due to the long exposures on an unmodified camera, stray light does make its way from the viewfinder. When I started out experimenting with IR on my then-unmodified Nikon D3100, that was one of the first things I had to learn from trial & error, since that piece of advice was often forgotten. Thankfully, Nikon supplied a cap, which was just as well- Never could stand optical viewfinders, and hard to work with when I must wear glasses. Live View is a godsend! πŸ™‚

    d.m.f.

  • Dennis Falk

    This is still an issue. Fortunately, many lenses still have the red line to aid in focusing in IR.

    d.m.f.

  • Dennis Falk

    And worth every penny! πŸ™‚ Even on my budget, it’s worth the expense to have a shop take out the internal filter professionally, and either place in an internal IR filter (which dedicates the camera solely to IR) or a clear filter, so you can work both visible and IR. I went for the clear filter. Fortunately, there are a few places (such as Kolari Vision) that sell an external cyan-coloured “hot mirror” filter that work well to replace the now-removed original internal filter.

    d.m.f.

  • Dennis Falk

    A common myth about IR photography is that infrared = heat. This isn’t the case. The infrared spectrum is much, much larger than the visible spectrum, and thermal infrared only accounts for the bottom third of that spectrum, about 100,000nm-300,000nm. Near infrared, or as I prefer to call it, optical infrared, is from about 700nm-1200nm, and is just below optical red. Cisible light is only between 400nm (violet) down to 700nm (red), but a camera, if the internal filter is removed, is sensitive from about 300nm (ultraviolet) down to 1200nm (infrared)- Both ends are only in the near, or optical, portions of their respective spectra. Beyond these points, common lens refraction and mirror reflection become ineffective, anyway, so one needs very specialised gear for imaging beyond these ranges.

    d.m.f.

  • mr.pjnnk

    mua b? l?c nΓ y ? ?Γ’u b?n?

  • TedCrunch

    I appreciate the information. I had a R72 filter for my Nikon D80 and never seemed to have much success with infrared. Eventually I bought a Nikon D5100 and had the D80 converted to infrared. It was expensive and after taking a lot of photos with it, I eventually laid the camera up. I didn’t care for it just sitting around and not being used so I had it ‘unconverted’ back to original. I prefer the idea of having two cameras with me, with me, one with a telephoto zoom, and the other a wide angle lens. So now I dug out my old R72 filter and did the tests you indicated with a remote control. My D80 shows a white light, while the D5100 shows a purple light. My little Nikon point and shoot also shows a white light but it won’t be much good for taking infrared photos.

  • thenaturephotog

    There can be some issues with hotspots on some lesnes, but generally these only show up when you are facing the sun, even if the sun isn’t in the frame. But hotspots aren’t lens flare.

    Because of the way Infrared is processed in Photoshop or your favorite image editor it’s usually not a big problem.

    The kit lens on the Nikon d70, 18-70 is one of my favorites for infrared.

  • thenaturephotog

    I have never found this to be an issue actually. A digital sensor reacts differently than film to infrared light which may be the reason. But in 8 years of shooting infrared, with a varietly of lenses and my Nikon D70 that has never come into play- I have tack sharp images every time – with a tripod of course πŸ™‚

  • thenaturephotog

    Yes, I do love my converted camera, but no point making a big investment in conversion until you know you like the technique. This way, with a simple filter, you can try it out and experiment with some post processing before committing to a converted camera.

  • thenaturephotog

    Newer cameras block out more infrared light since it is an unwanted artifact in visible light photography. Try finding an older refurbished camera on ebay, I know the Nikon D70 is a good bet – it’s one of the cameras I use for infrared. And if you like shooting infrared, you can always have it converted to a dedicated digital camera later. But there are also older cameras that are even more sensitive to IR.

    If you have an old point & shoot camera laying around, try the test. if it can see white light, then it’s easy to buy a step up ring to accommodate the screw on filter.

  • inQuadrato

    Thank you. for the answer.

  • inQuadrato

    I just tried out my mirror less Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF2 with the 14mm f/2.5 kit lens. The IR light coming from a remote control is very bright, so the built-in filter to cut IR seems to be a joke (at least for the near IR of the remote). I just came back from snapping few photograph at a nearby channel and I think my gear performs very good for IR (http://500px.com/photo/74276093/%5Bir-photography%5D-the-invisible-light-by-andrea-minoia ). Kathleen, could this be a good “downgrade” for your coming up birthday?

  • inQuadrato

    I agree, and impress by the results of the filter. It works every single penny.

  • thenaturephotog

    Beautiful image and good info to know about the Lumix. I believe they also have a converted point & shoot camera dedicated to shooting infrared. Thanks for sharing this information πŸ™‚

  • inQuadrato

    As I commented below, my Panasonic DMC-GF2 is good to go as it comes out from the box, minus the IR filter, of course πŸ™‚ It is a mirror less m43 format camera (crop factor 2x). can bracket, shoot raw, is small, is light, no hot spot with kit lenses using the IR filter, and pass the remote control test with flying colours.

  • inQuadrato

    Another question: I reread your article and I’m confused about your interpretation of the results of the remote control test. You say white light is good, purple is bad. But should not be, rather than the colour, the brightness of the beam what it matter? White balance seems to be a critical point in the way the camera sees the colours so why the color should be the important bit? I’m asking because the Lumix shows a very bright, but purple light coming from the remote. So, is it bad or good?

  • Cacique Ocds

    Tried the DPSTKS discount coupon and it does not work..:(

  • thenaturephotog

    Generally speaking, the brightness will mean your sensor is sensitive to infrared. On most remotes brightness equates to whiteness. It’s true that this “whiteness” doesn’t relate to your white balance when capturing a frame.

  • thenaturephotog

    Sorry you’re having problems, can you tell me what’s happening? Three others today had no problems – perhaps email me and I’d be happy to get it sorted out with you.

  • thenaturephotog

    Can you give it another try – it’s working when I tried it just now.

  • Cacique Ocds

    Got it now, but the extras I am not able to open…

  • inQuadrato

    I discovered that the hot spot (a brighter and less contrasted circular zone in the centre of the image) is present in my panasonic lens 14mm f/2.5 . It varies in size and intensity with the aperture (seems to be more evident stepping down from 5.6 or 6.3). But I found it is more evident when producing a colour IR photography switching the red and blue channel in PS, but even there, importing the tiff in LightRoom I was able to reduce it by using the adjustment brush and playing with temperature and tint. So yes, it is not a systematic issue, but more an annoyance.

  • owswitch

    Note for DPS: it would be great if you would date the articles. Thanks.

  • Camila

    I’m sorry to comment on such an old entry, but I’ve found the article fascinating!! The photos are great and I was thrilled to know there you don’t need that much gear to start with this technique.
    It was very dissapointing, though the price of the IR filters! One (and not the more expensive one) may cost more than the nifty fifty I’ve wanted for so long.

    So here is my question: I found a Polaroid IR filter which costs 1/10 of the others. Is it worth it? I’m an amateur. I bought some Polaroid “macro filters”, because I like taking close-up photos, and I know that they add some distortion and everything, but I’m fine with that, as long as they cost much less than other options. It would be the same for the kind of filter?

    Thank you for the article! It was really interesting!

  • thenaturephotog

    Hi Camilla,
    Don’t worry about the age of the post πŸ™‚ I just happy you found it and enjoyed it, and are keen on exploring IR as a result.

    For the filters, if you’re only testing IR, as long as the filter is an r72 equivalent (it filters out all light not in a certain range of light waves, in this case an R72 or equivalent only lets light-waves in the near IR rage of 720 namometers through to your sensor) you should be ok. You don’t even have to know that or remember it but do remember r72 or equivalent when you’re shopping for filters.

    If the filter has some minor flaws or the image quality is not terrific you can still use it to learn the techniques, and make IR images. If you find you do enjoy infrared photography, you will probably want to invest in a converted IR camera which makes the filters unnecessary.

    Let me know how you do and post some of your images here. and if you have any more questions don’t hesitate to ask πŸ™‚

  • Camila

    Thank you very much for the tips! I will try IR photography as soon as I can get a filter (I’m from Chile and I usually buy my gear in the US, so it takes some time to arrive).
    I’ll show you the results.

  • Hi Alex, I have the Hoya R72 filter and shoot with a Canon 6d with 24 lens. I custom the WB by taking a pic of something very green. That ends up making everything else a violet/blue hue with the green intact. When i take the pic, EVERYTHING is bright red. I understand there should be some red, but post-processing is killing me. i switch the channels and everything is now violet. I know I’m doing something wrong while taking the picture, but I have no idea what it is. Can you please help?

  • Charlie Aap-Stone

    One point this article did not mention is that if you really get into IR photography, you can have a camera converted to only shoot in IR. Your exposure times will drop back down to nearly ‘normal’ thus making hand held shots easy. I had my T3i done by LifePixel.com – reasonably priced and great folks to deal with.

  • Interesting and helpful guide, but there’s one point I disagree with. It’s not necessary to shoot with a lot of green plant life around. True, you won’t get that particular glowing vegetation look, but that’s becoming a little clichΓ©d, and you will surprised at how certain subtle details emerge when not overshadowed by greenery. I like to shoot IR in winter for that reason.

  • The omd em5 does pretty well with a little experimenting
    http://www.workhardandstarve.net/infrared-study/

  • Sandeep Godkhindi

    Good info. Can I use a 720 IR filter on a Nikon D60 for taking IR photo?

  • Bobbi Johnson

    There are some questions that I have, but first I used my Canon T2i and did the remote test and the two pictures that I took showed a white light coming from the remote so it appears that my camera passed that test. Now I have 4 IR filters and the one I used is was my 720nm which is red in color, following the instructions I went outside and took three photographs using my 18-55mm lens and my 720nm filter the photos did not turn out they were all black.
    I did have my UV filter on my lens, do I need to take it off?, am I using the right type of IR filter? do I shoot in B & W or in color.

  • Margos_0

    It would be great to hear of the exact filters and lens you used with your unconverted Nikon D3100. I teach High School and must find inexpensive ways to open the world to the kids.

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