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Infrared Photography: How to Get Started (Beginner’s Guide)

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The post Infrared Photography: How to Get Started (Beginner’s Guide) appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by Nisha Ramroop.

infrared photography how to get started

Do you want to capture haunting infrared pictures like the ones featured above?

Well, you can – and it’s not even hard. Infrared photography is an easy technique that can give you breathtaking, otherworldly results, and it only requires a simple filter (plus a little technical know-how).

In this article, I’m going to share everything you need to know to get started, including:

  • IR photography gear (for both beginners and advanced photographers)
  • Key camera settings for IR pictures
  • Simple post-processing techniques to get your photos looking great

Sound good? Then let’s get started with a simple overview of infrared imaging…

What is infrared photography?

Infrared photography uses infrared light to expose photos, a form of electromagnetic radiation that lies below the visible spectrum. Humans cannot see infrared light, but camera sensors can, and this IR sensitivity can be used to create images.

That said, cameras aren’t well-equipped to capture infrared wavelengths – after all, they’re designed to use visible light, not IR light! – so infrared imaging requires special filters or adjusted camera sensors.

When you capture an infrared photo, the result usually looks like this:

unprocessed infrared photography

It’s interesting, but not what most photographers are after. However, with a little post-processing, you can achieve a beautiful infrared look:

branches against the sky infrared

If you’ve encountered infrared images, you’ll immediately notice that the look stands out – and while some find it rather eerie, others are intrigued by the way the IR look can transform the ordinary.

Infrared photography gear

To shoot infrared photos, you’ll need standard photography equipment – a camera and a lens – but you’ll also need to create the infrared effect, which you can do in one of three ways:

  1. With an infrared filter
  2. With a professionally converted infrared camera
  3. With infrared film

Let’s take a look at each option in turn:

Infrared filters

If you are just starting to explore infrared photography, an IR filter is the cheap and convenient way to go. Simply place it in front of your lens, and it’ll allow infrared light to hit your camera’s sensor while blocking out all visible light. The results can be very nice; here’s an image I shot with an infrared filter:

river with white trees in infrared

There are plenty of options out there, ranging from screw-on to slide-in filter systems. The Hoya RM-72 is a popular screw-on infrared filter, and is a great introductory option to the world of infrared.

Note that different filters render color differently, depending on the specific IR and visible light ranges they filter in and out, so the results are inconsistent from filter to filter; this can be frustrating if you want your IR photos to look like everyone else’s, but the silver lining is that you can experiment with different filters until you find one that suits your vision.

infrared landscape

Converted infrared camera

If you are truly committed to infrared photography, then you should consider purchasing a dedicated infrared camera body.

As far as I’m aware, no DSLR or mirrorless manufacturers produce infrared cameras, but you can send off a camera body to be converted by third-party companies. Alternatively, you can buy an already-converted IR camera used on eBay or from an IR-conversion dealer.

When a visible-light camera is converted to capture infrared, the infrared-blocking filter (which sits in front of the sensor) is removed. It’s certainly more expensive than purchasing a $75 filter, but the benefits include convenience and consistency.

Note: Once a camera has been converted, its sole use is infrared photography; you cannot take regular images. So buying a dedicated infrared body involves purchasing a second camera body (unless, of course, you want to fully dedicate yourself to infrared!).

ocean with lighthouse in infrared

Infrared film

Infrared film is readily available and relatively cheap, too – so you might consider purchasing an inexpensive SLR, grabbing some IR film, and testing the infrared waters.

Unfortunately, developing infrared film is tough. For one, not all labs can handle infrared film, and it generally costs more, too, so you’ll need to do a careful cost-benefit analysis before grabbing an infrared film setup.

ocean with tree in infrared

Infrared camera settings

Selecting the perfect IR camera settings involves a lot of trial and error, and while nothing beats proper experimentation, here are some guidelines to get you started.

RAW and JPEG

When you’re starting out, shoot both RAW and JPEG files. You won’t be capturing thousands of shots, so space shouldn’t be an issue, and RAWs and JPEGs each offer valuable benefits.

On the one hand, RAW files give you the most scope when processing (and infrared photos do require significant edits). A RAW file will let you recover blown out highlights and clipped shadows, which is essential for infrared photography, as the right exposure settings can be tough to nail down (more on that later!).

On the other hand, JPEGs are easily viewable, so you can see the results of your infrared photos on your computer screen without any processing.

It’s important to emphasize, though: Straight-out-of-camera infrared photos look horrible. At first, you’ll probably be turned off by their flat, pink appearance – but over time, you’ll get used to it, and you’ll soon develop the skills to identify a good IR image from a bad IR image at a glance.

buildings in the countryside infrared photography

Exposure

When you’re exposing for infrared photos, all common wisdom goes out the window. You can’t trust your camera’s meter, you can’t trust handheld meters, and you’ll simply need to take some test shots, preview the results on your LCD, and keep going until you get a good result.

(I’d recommend you take careful notes; that way, as you progress, you’ll start to figure out the right settings for the look you’re after.)

Infrared filters require extremely long exposure times; they block out visible light but don’t let any extra infrared light through, so on a bright sunny day, you’ll often work with exposure times between 30 and 120 seconds (assuming you’re shooting at f/8). Here, a tripod is essential.

If your camera is infrared converted, your settings will be much more standard. On sunny days, you might shoot at f/8 and 1/125s, though the settings will vary depending on the light.

Whether you use a filter or an IR-converted body, review your photos constantly, especially in the beginning. As soon as you’ve taken a shot, check the LCD and view the image histogram. You might consider bracketing your photos to increase your chances of capturing a nice exposure.

3 Things You Need to Know to Get Started with Infrared Photography

Infrared post-processing

As previously mentioned, when you shoot RAW infrared images, you’ll get a dull pinkish-red image, like this:

3 Things You Need to Know to Get Started with Infrared Photography

Infrared RAW image straight out of the camera.

Not such a great look, right? Fortunately, processing an IR file is pretty easy. Here’s what I recommend:

Step 1: Start with Auto Tone

This is a common way to handle infrared images. Simply import your file into Photoshop and apply Auto Tone (hit Image>Auto Tone).

Photoshop will analyze your image, then it will make a series of adjustments for the best results (at least, the “best results” according to Photoshop!). Often, this looks pretty good. Here’s what Auto Tone gave me when I processed the file shown above:

3 Things You Need to Know to Get Started with Infrared Photography

At this point, I could continue processing my infrared photo like a normal image – that is, I could proceed with a normal editing workflow – or I could proceed with the next step:

Step 2: Do a channel swap

To get natural blue skies, you’ll need to channel swap your colors. Here, the goal is to take one channel (e.g., red) and convert it completely to another channel (e.g., blue), which is simple to do; create a new Channel Mixer layer (Layer>New Adjustment Layer>Channel Mixer), then adjust the Red, Green, and Blue channels until you get the result you’re after.

But while channel swapping is an essential part of infrared photography processing, photographers disagree over which channels to swap to what values, and there’s no one “right” answer, because it’s all about looks and personal preference.

Here are a few common channel-swap values. Experiment until you find the one that works for you:

Changing the Red and Blue channels only:

  • Red channel: Red=0, Green=0, Blue=100
  • Blue channel: Red=100, Green=0, Blue=0

Changing all the channels:

  • Red channel: Red=0, Green=0, Blue=100
  • Blue channel: Red=100, Green=0, Blue=0
  • Green channel: Red=0, Green=100, Blue=0

Another creative option:

  • Red channel: Red=0, Green=0, Blue=100
  • Blue channel: Red=100, Green=100, Blue=-100
  • Green channel: Red=0, Green=0, Blue=100

Here’s my image after a bit of channel swapping:

3 Things You Need to Know to Get Started with Infrared Photography

As you can see, the sky looks more natural, and the trees – while still pale pink – feel more grounded.

Step 3: Do any final edits

At this point, we’ve finished all specialized infrared post-processing, but feel free to add final touches like you would to any image.

For instance, you might consider cropping, adjusting the saturation, dodging and burning, adding a vignette, or even converting your photo to black and white. It really all comes down to your personal taste, and as always: experiment, experiment, experiment!

3 Things You Need to Know to Get Started with Infrared Photography

Infrared photography: final words

Infrared photography is a growing photography niche, and it’s a great way to capture creative images, get out of a photographic rut, and just have a lot of fun.

I’d recommend you start off simple with filters, then – if you still enjoy IR photos – graduate to a dedicated infrared camera body.

Now over to you:

Have you tried infrared photography? Do you think you’ll purchase IR filters or an IR camera? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below!

An Introduction to Infrared Photography

The post Infrared Photography: How to Get Started (Beginner’s Guide) appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by Nisha Ramroop.