New: Color Infrared Photography for Surreal Effects

IR photo processed as black and white image

I’ve always been intrigued by infrared (IR) photography because of its ethereal transformation of landscapes. The images are easily recognized with the snow white appearance of leaves. IR photography is usually processed as black and white photos. With digital photography, some color can be mixed with the IR spectrum to create surreal effects in post processing. There are a lot of options to consider when converting a digital camera to IR and I won’t go over them here. The key thing to understand is that IR is not visible light but it can be detected by the camera sensor.

Click on slides to view larger pics

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A variety of filter options can be selected to determine how much visible light is mixed with the IR to get the desired image. The specific mix determines the options available for special color effects in post processing. There has to be some visible light spectrum (color) to work with or you end up with traditional IR black and white photos.

Infrared image straight from the camera without any post processing

I converted my old Canon 5D Mk II camera to an infrared camera. The images in this post were created using the newly converted camera. It took quite a while to figure out how to post process the IR images and how to see like an IR camera. The first lesson I’ve learned is that IR works best in bright sunny conditions; conditions usually not conducive to making good photos. With traditional photography, I’m always chasing the light looking for long shadows or the golden hour where the light is not so harsh. With IR, there is little if any “light” in the shadows and what is there is very low contrast. So this makes IR photography a great option for shooting between the golden hours of early morning and late afternoon. Another lesson about IR photography is that light metering doesn’t work so well. The in-camera light meter is reading visible light which tends to be brighter than the IR spectrum that is being recorded by the sensor. In my recent experimentation, I discovered that it is best to over expose from one to two f-stops.

Reviewing images on the camera can be difficult. The camera records the picture as a greenish tinted, dark tone image which is difficult to see on the camera in bright sunlight. I found it important to view the histogram to fine tune the exposures. As seen in the picture above, the image has some interesting characteristics but it is fairly boring with its dull appearance. This is the point where camera arts end and post processing creativity begins.

This IR image has a yellow tint which is not suitable for color processing

Certainly some adjustments to contrast and brightness would be a big improvement but that’s just the beginning. The first step is to find an appropriate “white point” which spreads the color spectrum as wide as possible. This is done using special software to create a camera profile. Once the profile is created, all the images from the camera can be automatically adjusted in the computer to set the desired white point.

This IR image has been adjusted for a balanced white point

The next step is to swap the red and blue spectrum (“channels”), meaning red light is converted to blue light and blue light is converted to red light. This is done primarily to turn red skies to blue so the images have somewhat of a natural appearance.

This IR image has the red and blue channels swapped

Once the IR image has been imported from the camera, adjusted for brightness and contrast, adjusted for the white point, and had the red/blue channels swapped it is ready for color manipulation using filters and special digital effects. The image below has been manipulated using cross process color and soft focus to create the “Dreamland” colorized effect used in this and other images in the slideshow at the top.

This IR image has been fully post processed to create a surreal scene

I’m headed to Southeast Asia in January and am very excited about the possibilities of IR on this trip. I’ll be traveling with three camera bodies and several lenses to be sure I catch amazing images. Stay tuned as I debut these images in 2019.