A beginner's guide to infrared - 7 tips to get you started

A beginner's guide to infrared - 7 tips to get you started

Image by James Paterson

Learn how to capture infrared light and create photos with an otherworldly beauty

Infrared light is all around us, yet it’s invisible to the human eye. Thankfully, with the right kit and a few simple skills our cameras are capable of capturing this elusive light, and it can lead to stunning photos…

1 What is infrared?

Infrared offers a glimpse into an unseen world where there are different rules of colour and contrast. Photo by Kristine - f/8 | ISO 200 | 1/200s

The colour spectrum of light that we see - from violet to blue to cyan to green to yellow to orange to red - is just a narrow band of electromagnetic wavelengths called visible light. Other wavelengths exist outside the visible spectrum. Ultraviolet light, for instance, is invisible to the naked eye beyond the shorter wavelengths on the violet side of the colour spectrum. At the other end  - beyond the longer red wavelengths - is infrared radiation. Although invisible it has many practical uses, from night vision devices to astrology to missile guidance systems. Sunlight is just over half infrared, so there’s plenty of it around for us photographers to make use of.

2 Why use infrared light in photography?

Trees and foliage take on a captivating glow in infrared photography because they’re strongly reflective of infrared light. Photo by big_potate - f/5.6 | ISO 160 | 1/400s

Infrared light is so captivating for photography because everyday scenes take on a dreamy, ethereal beauty. In particular, trees, plants and foliage will have a striking glow, as leaves are strongly reflective of infrared light. It helps if the trees are in bright sunlight, as this makes the colours more saturated which in turn will intensify the infrared light and the contrast between the colours in the scene.

Blue skies can also look wonderful in infrared photography, especially if there are a few fluffy white clouds. In contrast (literally) to green foliage, blue skies do not reflect IR light, so they will go intensely dark and clouds will contrast with the blue. IR photography also eliminates atmospheric haze, so a hazy scene can come out much crisper if you record the infrared light.

3 How to capture infrared light

The left image shows the scene captured with a normal camera. In the centre is the same view captured with a infrared filter attached to the lens (you can see how the branches are blurred because -due to the dense filter - a 0.5 second shutter speed was necessary). The right image was taken with a converted IR camera, with much crisper results.

Traditionally, a film camera could be loaded with infrared film that was sensitive to the infrared light. You can still buy infrared film from specialists, but for most of us, using digital infrared is more practical. We have two options here. We can either use a lens-mounted IR filter, or have a digital camera converted to capture infrared by sending it to a specialist, which is an irreversible process. Lens mounted IR filters are very dense, so you usually need to use a long exposure and shoot with a tripod. As such they’re not suitable for moving subjects. Quality can also vary depending on the combination of lens filters, the camera and the white balance settings you use. IR filters are fun to try if you’re just getting started with infrared, but converted cameras produce the best results.

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4 Convert a camera for infrared

A Nikon D3S converted for infrared.

If you’re serious about infrared photography then it’s worth investing in a camera conversion. This is ideal if you have an old spare camera body, as you can send it off to a specialist company to be converted for IR light (a permanent alteration). A conversion typically costs around £200-300. Converted cameras don’t have the problem of long exposures that you get with lens mounted IR filters, so you can shoot at faster shutter speeds and capture moving subjects. They also tend to produce crisper, bolder photos.

5 Infrared portraiture

Infrared light can have a strange effect on skin and eyes in portraits. Photo by Le-McKernan Images - f/2.8 | ISO 640 | 1/160s

Infrared isn’t typically associated with portraiture, but if want to experiment with people photos it can lead to unusual results. Skin tends to blow out to near-white while eyes can go unsettlingly dark. You can combat the dead-eye effect somewhat by using a ring-flash.

6 Get creative with colours

With infrared images you can experiment with all kinds of creative colour effects. Photo by The Infrared Motel - f/2.2 | ISO 25 | 1/380s

While images taken with an infrared camera or filter can initially look red or pink, it’s not because infrared is a red colour. Technically, as it’s outside the visible spectrum, infrared light doesn’t have any colour to it at all. When we open an infrared image, what we’re seeing is simply how the camera and software interpret the infrared. Our sensor has to display the captured light as red, green or blue, so what we get is just one interpretation of the scene. As such, there’s no right or wrong when it comes to processing or altering the initial colours that you see.

7 Get the classic colour infrared look

Use the Channel Mixer in Photoshop to swap colour channels.

Images captured using a lens-mounted infrared filter or a modified DSLR will usually have a strong red colour cast. The starting reddish tones can look interesting, but often a more pleasing result can be achieved by swapping colour channels so that leaves and foliage glow with the characteristic white light while skies turn deeply blue.

The Channel Mixer Adjustment Layer in Photoshop or Affinity Photo is ideal for this. First use the dropdown in the Channel Mixer settings to target the Red channel, the set Red 0, Blue +100. Next target the Blue channel then set Blue 0, Red+100. This effectively swaps the red and blue channels. It’s worth saving the setting as a preset to apply quickly to your other infrared photos.