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Simulating False-Color Infrared Photography in Photoshop

Simulating False-Color Infrared Photography in Photoshop Featured Image

Let’s get right down to it and say that today, things might get a little weird. The techniques we’re about to discuss aren’t for everyone or every photograph. With that said, I’m about to show you something extremely cool. You’re about to learn how to simulate color infrared photography in Photoshop.

More specifically, I’m going to show you how to approximate the looks of the legendary color infrared film stock, Kodak Aerochrome.

The best part is, this technique is infinitely customizable.

Infrared photography in Photoshop

Let’s dive in and enter the overtly surreal world of infrared color photography in Photoshop.

What is false-color infrared photography?

Simply put, infrared photography makes use of wavelengths of light which fall outside the visible spectrum. Specifically, those which range from about 700 nanometers to about 1mm.

Don’t worry, that’s about as deep as we’re going to go into science with this tutorial.

The important thing to note is that while infrared photography stems from this invisible form of light, we can still use it to form photographs – even in color.

This is where the “false-color” aspect comes into play. In particular, the Aerochrome “look.”

The Aerochrome Effect

Kodak Aerochrome is/was an infrared-sensitive, false-color reversal film.

It was specifically produced for practical uses in aerial photography applications for forestry and camouflage detection, as well as other scenarios where specific infrared reflectance photographs could be useful.

For our purposes, it produces some highly interesting effects as far as colors are concerned.

A waterfall of Infrared photography in Photoshop

Primarily, vegetation with high amounts of chlorophyll content appears as pinkish-red instead of the normal green color. This has led some notable photographers and filmmakers to make use of Aerochrome to produce stylistically creative images.

Luckily for us, we can come close to producing this effect with just a few quick tricks inside of Adobe Photoshop.

What images work best?

Naturally, seeing as the original color effects of the false-color Aerochrome worked best with green vegetation containing large amounts of chlorophyll, this is the main subject matter that will work best for our simulation.

However, it’s still fun to experiment with different images ranging from landscapes to portraits, street photography and still life. The results can range from the mundane to the aesthetically startling.

A resting deer in grass

That’s enough of the background. Let’s go through step-by-step and explain how you can produce a digital simulation of the false-color infrared photography effect right inside of Photoshop.

How to simulate false-color infrared photography

The basis of our digital, false-color infrared simulation, centers around switching around the color channels of our photo.

Photoshop allows us to accomplish this switch quite easily using color channels.

Not only that, but we can further tweak the look of our photo to achieve exactly the colorization effects we want. This arguably makes this method more convenient and controllable than its analog counterpart.

To get started, I’ve brought an image into Photoshop that contains a relatively large amount of greens.

Original photo before Infrared photography in Photoshop

The first step is to make a copy of the base layer. With this layer selected, use the keyboard shortcut ‘Ctrl+J’ (Cmnd+J for Mac) to copy the layer.

Infrared photography in Photoshop

Next, we’ll invert the layer we’ve just copied by using the keyboard shortcut ‘Ctrl+I’ (Cmnd+I for Mac).

Inverted layer for Infrared photography in Photoshop

Note the readily apparent psychedelic change. We have essentially converted the photo to a negative image.

From here, we’ll change the blend mode to ‘Color’. Alternatively, the ‘Hue’ blend mode will produce similar results.

Color blend layer selected

With the blend mode changed to ‘Color,’ much of the heavy lifting is already done for us. Next, we’ll need to switch around the color channels to make the false-color infrared effect become more apparent.

Remember, we’re looking for a reversal of certain colors; namely blue and red. This is easily done using the “Channel Mixer.”

Select the ‘Channel Mixer’ icon to add the mixer adjustment. This is where the magic happens. And it couldn’t be easier.

Channel mixer selected for Infrared photography in Photoshop

Select the red channel from the drop-down and set that slider value to ‘0.’ Next, set the blue slider to ‘100.’

Red channel swap for Infrared photography in Photoshop

From here, select the blue channel. Set the red slider to ‘100’ and blue slider to ‘0.’

Blue channel swap for Infrared photography in Photoshop

What we’ve done is ‘reversed’ the blue and red channels much the same way as false-color, infrared photography does with infrared color-reversal film.

Infrared photography in Photoshop

At this point, our core processing is completed. However, there are other ways to make the effect much more refined depending on your photo.

Fine adjustments of your false-color infrared photography

While we have finished the bulk of the false-color infrared conversion, we can go a bit further and adjust the hues and color temperature of our photo. After all, this effect is not born simply from Aerochrome film but also the filters used during shooting and the subject matter itself.

Hue and Saturation

The greatest control over the effect comes from adjusting the hue and saturation of the false-colors we’ve just created. We can adjust these by creating a ‘Hue and Saturation’ adjustment layer.

Infrared photography in Photoshop

Use the hue and saturation to dial in the exact look you like.

Color Temperature

When shooting with true infrared color-reversal film, such as Kodak Aerochrome, you must use lens filters.

Often times these are yellow and orange color filters which generally “cool” the tone of the colors within the image. We can simulate this by adding a “cooling” filter in Photoshop. This is optional, but I find it lends a much more authentic feel to the final photo.

Infrared photography in Photoshop with cooling filter applied

After adding the cooling filter, it’s a good practice to go back and adjust your hue and saturation layer to tweak the resulting balance of the individual colors a bit further.

Final mage after Infrared photography in Photoshop

Parting thoughts on false-color infrared photography

The advice that can be given when dipping your feet into simulating false-color infrared photography in Photoshop is to view true false-color infrared photos made with this type of film.

I suggest the images of Richard Mosse and his work in the Congo to give a great example of the effects of this sort of photography.

Of course, there are many other examples, and a quick Google search will help you immensely. As you move forward, here are a few tips that will aid your image selection and processing for your simulations:

  • The infrared effect is based on the reflectance of chlorophyll, so choose images that have healthy green vegetation for the best results.
  • When shooting, go for the brightest lighting conditions possible.
  • The bright, mid-day sun makes for the best lighting. After you make your base color swaps using the channel mixer, experiment with adjusting the hue and saturation of the individual colors within your photo.
  • Don’t forget the benefits of creating Photoshop Actions! You can save all the adjustments for easy one-click applications later.

Perhaps the best part of creating the false-color infrared effect is that it preserves the unique effects of this sort of analog film photography, which as of 2007, is no longer produced.

It’s a dying art that we can enjoy for years to come with our digital photography. Again, it’s not for everyone, but it is a great way for you to create stunningly-surreal color images that will stand out from anything else.

Also be sure to check out my very first experience using an infrared-converted DSLR here!

Try out this effect of simulating false-color infrared photography in Photoshop, and please share your resulting images with us in the comments section. We’d love to see them.

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Adam Welch
Adam Welch

is a full-time photomaker, author and adventurer. Find him over at aphotographist.com
and check out his brand new video eCourse on Adobe Lightroom Classic!