In this infrared photography tutorial we go beyond the visible colour spectrum to capture striking images. We’ll show you how to shoot infrared photography using a filter, how to shoot infrared with a converted DSLR and how to process your infrared images on the computer.
Infrared photography shows us the world illuminated by infrared light, a part of the colour spectrum we can’t normally see, and produces beautiful, ethereal images that couldn’t be captured in any other way.
Foliage and skies look especially good in infrared – blue skies will turn very dark, while green trees in direct sunlight will glow white.
Infrared light is invisible to the human eye. In order to capture it, we need to block all but the infrared light from hitting our camera’s sensor.
Most digital cameras have an infrared blocker that’s great for regular photography but obviously not for infrared work.
Removing the filter is a fairly complicated and expensive process, so don’t try to do it yourself. Luckily, there are two methods for blocking all but the infrared light from your sensor.
The first is to mount a special filter on your lens. These are very dark, and typically reduce the amount of light by up to 10 stops, so you’ll need to get set up to capture long exposures.
Specialist infrared filters, such as the Hoya Infrared R72, can work a treat. These screw into the front of the lens and cost from £35 ($57) depending on the thread size required.
The filter will block out most of the visible light, only allowing the infrared light to pass through. You’ll get pretty good results but will need to adapt the way you shoot, as the filter will be very dark and dense. Here’s what to do…
The second option requires making irreversible changes to a DSLR’s sensor, so it might be worth considering if you’ve got an old body lying around.
Normal DSLRs have a filter that removes infrared light, but this can be removed by specialists like ACS, who supplied the converted Nikon D3s we used here.
The conversion makes the camera just as sensitive to infrared light as it previously was to visible light, meaning you can use it as you would a normal DSLR. It also produces cleaner images than you can get with a lens-mounted filter.
How to shoot infrared photography with a filter
01 Take the long view
Infrared filters cut out a lot of light, so you’ll need to set up for a long exposure. Mount your camera on a tripod and work out your composition, then screw on the filter. If you’re shooting trees and foliage wait for the direct sunlight to hit them, as it’ll make the shot much more punchy.
02 Use Live View
Once the filter is attached to your lens your viewfinder will be useless, but you can still get a view of the scene if you switch to Live View and temporarily turn the mode dial to P. This will enable you to fine-tune your composition and zoom in to focus on your subject.
03 Set up your camera
Your metering won’t be accurate, so shoot in Manual mode and take test shots to work out your exposure (on a sunny day we used 20 secs at f/18, ISO400). To avoid shake, use a cable release or select Exposure Delay Mode, which locks up the mirror and delays the shutter by a second or two.
04 Choose an exposure
A long exposure means that any moving elements in your scene, such as clouds or rustling trees, will come out blurred. This can add to the dreamlike effect, but if it’s not what you want, open up the aperture or increase the ISO to give you a faster shutter speed.
How to shoot infrared photography with a converted DSLR
01 Shoot handheld
With a specially converted DSLR there’s no need for a long exposure, so you can hand-hold the camera and freeze motion. The cost of converting is around £250, but you’ll need to sacrifice a DSLR as the process is irreversible.
02 Find neutral
For accurate colours, try setting a custom white balance by shooting a patch of grass in direct sun. This is your neutral tone, so similar foliage will come out without a cast. Shoot RAW so you have the option to tweak the white balance later.
03 Focus in Live View
Focusing can be tricky for a converted DSLR, so it’s a good idea to focus in Live View so you can zoom in to check your subject is sharp. Metering can also be temperamental, so use Av mode and dial in exposure compensation if necessary.
How to process your digital infrared images
To process an image and remove any red casts, first open it in Camera Raw and fix the white balance by clicking on the foliage with the White Balance tool. Next, open the image in Photoshop, click the Create New Adjustment Layer button in the Layers panel and choose Channel Mixer.
Select the Red channel in the dropdown at the top and set Red to 0, Green to 0 and Blue to 100. Then select the Blue Channel and set Red to 100, Green to 0 and Blue to 0. You can then go on to boost contrast, dodge and burn and make any other changes you like to enhance the image.
01 Prepare to process
Straight out of the camera, your infrared images will be bright red and need to be processed in the digital darkroom. You can make a simple black-and-white conversion, or swap the Red and Blue channels for striking and surreal shades.
02 Convert colours
Go to Image > Adjustments > Channel Mixer, select the Red Output Channel and move the Red slider to 0 and the Blue slider to 100. Next, select the Blue Output Channel and set the Blue slider to 0 and the Red to 100. Go to Image > Adjustments and choose Auto Tone. This will give you a good starting point.
03 Go mono
Traditionally, infrared images are presented as black-and-white shots. Here, we’ve used a Black and White Adjustment Layer to make the conversion. Use a Curves Adjustment layer to tweak the contrast and darken the sky. To add to the ethereal glow, add a Gaussian Blur layer and set the Blend Mode to Soft Light.
Traditional infrared film shots can be quite grainy, and you can replicate this by adding digital noise from Photoshop’s Filter menu.
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