Infrared Photography Explained

It’s not This Pretty Coming out of the Camera

I’ve been asked, “How do you do that?” The quick answer is with a DSLR camera converted to infrared. The longer answer is… its not easy or pretty. There are several steps from camera skills to post processing that are required to get the result you see above. The picture above was created in several steps that transform invisible light into a dramatic and colorful scene. I selected the above image for this discussion, not because of its composition, but because it has a variety of surfaces that reflect infrared light differently (sky, clouds, foliage, wood).

There are a lot of different ways to process an infrared image and each method gives a very different resulting color pallet. If you’re a bit technical with Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop, follow along. If not, you can still appreciate the step by step (photos) transformation of the RAW file from the camera to the finished print image.

Camera Skills

The first thing to learn with infrared photography is how to previsualize what you can not see. The best way to learn this is to go out and photograph things, in different light, and just see what you get. After a while, you’ll learn that blue sky always exposes dark and clouds expose bright making a landscape with clouds very dramatic. Green foliage always has a beautiful glow. Other substances like rock and water reflect little infrared light and expose nearly black. Mid-day, high contrast light, which photographers generally hate, is great for infrared photography. I like having my infrared camera with me to shoot when the light gets too harsh for regular photography. Soft light and deep shadows can result in flat, unexciting infrared photos.

Infrared Hotspots

The above shot is an example of a hotspot and flare ruining a picture. The sun was not striking the lens but the 20mm lens was not a good lens for IR photography. The hotspot is at the lower right. You can get hotspots without a flare. Infrared hotspots will ruin the best of your shots unless you’re careful how you shoot. Its very important to understand how your lens processes infrared light. You can almost guarantee that there will be a hot spot in the center of your picture with most camera and lens combinations. You can not avoid a hotspot shooting into the sun (silhouettes), It can happen even with 90 degree side lit shots. A common error shooting IR is to stop down to increase the depth of field because infrared shots are naturally soft but that will increase the hotspot and its contrast. I like to shoot a 100mm lens with the sun to my back with the f/stop set at f/5.6. Kolari has a great site where you can check the suitability of your lens for IR photography.

Exposure for Infrared

The image above shows what you can expect to see in the back of your camera when shooting infrared. Its the camera’s best proxy for a good exposure and it looks much better than what is actually in the RAW file. (See below for the camera RAW image.) Light meters do not measure the infrared light properly. Your in-camera light meter will measure visible light as a proxy for infrared but it is rarely accurate enough for a good exposure. You will just have to shoot, then look at the histogram and the back of camera image to adjust your exposure. I usually have to adjust the exposure up or down by two f/stops. You can try setting your camera up for bracketed exposures but its not going to be perfect. Additionally, you may need to bracket high contrast images and combine them as an HDR in the computer.

Converting an Infrared Camera Raw Picture

If you shoot JPG only, your images will look like the image you see in your camera display but you’ll have lost all the colorimetric data to transform your image into something of your own creation. But, when you pull the infrared RAW file into Lightroom or Photoshop all you will see is this extremely red image, like above. No matter what you do you can not adjust the white balance to bring the image into the visible color spectrum. You’ll need to develop a custom white balance profile for your IR camera. Rob Shey has detail instructions on how to do this on his website. Once you follow his tutorial, you’ll have several custom profiles.

Color Mixer 100 Profile

Most people use a profile like the “Color Mixer -100 profile” that swaps the red and blue channel because they want to transform a red sky into a blue sky. With a little tinkering, you can pull some pink and amber out of the image. For me this profile still looks painfully unnatural.

Color Inversion Profile

I prefer to use the color inversion profile which creates a “color negative”. This profile preserves the small amount of full spectrum color in the RAW file while also creating a blue sky. You can see some of the pinks, greens and amber tones in the image but it still looks very flat and washed out. Those colors can be enhanced in Photoshop.

White Balanced Color Inversion Boost Profile

Depending on the desired look for a particular image, I may try several profile before landing on the one to further process in Photoshop; but, my go to profile is the White Balanced Color Inversion Boost profile. I have found that a custom white balance of 6500K works well for my camera. Once I create this profile, I process the IR image with the profile and adjust the intensity slider to 125% – 150% to boost the colors. Then I adjust all the other development sliders to get the exposure, contrast, sharpness, noise reduction, and structure to my liking.

With the camera RAW image optimally developed, I open it in Photoshop and apply a variety of filters and effects to complete the final image that you see at the top of this story. If you like the look of color infrared images, check out the new Utah Infrared Gallery.