Guide to infrared photography: tips, tricks, and tools.
Infrared photography captures what the naked eye cannot see. Using IR filters or film alongside specialist editing techniques, you can reproduce the effects of an otherwise invisible light spectrum with your photographs. Our infrared photography experts provide their insights on making the most of this incredible, hidden side of photography.
Infrared photography is used to capture wavelengths of light that aren’t visible to the human eye. Our eyes are pretty good at perceiving a wide range of contrasts and colours, but the rest of the light spectrum goes way, way further.
Visible light is a type of electromagnetic radiation; we can only see what has a wavelength of about 400-700 nanometres (nm). X-rays and radio waves operate below and above those respective limits. Infrared wavelengths range from around 700nm to 900nm.
Just as we use technology to harness and transmit other entries on the spectrum, like radio waves, we can do the same with infrared.
Infrared photography has its practical purposes – it’s used by dentists to detect decay and by doctors to trace varicose veins.
More generally, IR photography lends an ethereal, otherworldly atmosphere to what’s on our camera roll.
History of infrared photography.
Robert Wood published the first infrared images in 1910. His photos were shot on experimental film that required very long exposures. For that reason, most of his subjects were landscapes.
Infrared photos proved invaluable in aerial photography during the First World War. The images could capture the toxic gas that polluted the air. Troops were better able to determine differences between buildings, vegetation, and water, to gather crucial intel.
In the 1930s, Kodak and other camera manufacturers commercially released infrared film to the general public. Then, during the Second World War, the military continued its research into IR photography. It became a vital tool for modern warfare.
In the 1960s, recording artists like Jimi Hendrix and the Grateful Dead further popularised the technique. They released album covers with infrared images that were popular due to their unusual multicoloured look.
Infrared astronomy photography also took off during this period, as trained physicists began to use the technique to capture the heavens beyond what the human eye can pick up. The effect makes certain stars and other constellations pop.
Today, the genre no longer requires special film to capture the images. Modern cameras and filters have made digital infrared photography more accessible than ever.
Camera settings for infrared photography.
You’ll likely need to use an infrared camera filter to obtain the best results – more on those later. This also means you shouldn’t expect instant results – get ready for long exposures to filter out as much noise as you can, because point-and-shoot won’t be an option.
But before we get into the camera settings, first you need to find out if the camera you intend to use is a good candidate. There’s a simple test you can do to see if your camera can pick up infrared light.
Testing your camera for infrared light pickup.
Everyday remote controls use infrared light to transmit to devices like your TV or home stereo setup. Grab a remote control and point the front towards your camera, then press a button. Check the live view on your camera (or take a few snaps if you’re using a DSLR) as you press buttons on your remote.
If your camera picks up a bright white flash coming from the small bulb on the front of your remote control, it means the camera can pick up IR. The brighter and whiter, the better. If the result is a darker purple or red, your camera might not be up to the task.
Best camera settings for infrared photography.
Similar to other long exposure photography methods like landscape photography, infrared photography requires attention to detail when it comes to your settings.
- Wide angles will help to achieve a better depth of field. Keep your ISO as low as it will go to reduce noise and pixelation – especially in the edit.
- Manually correct your focus. Autofocus may not work correctly when dealing with infrared light.
- Shoot your images in RAW mode to account for motion blur when mounted on a tripod. This will allow for more flexibility on corrective edits.
- Customise your white balance. You will not be able to gauge colour well through your viewfinder once you put the filter on, so adjust your white balance ahead of time.
Infrared film. This original method was the only way to shoot infrared for a long time. IR film rolls are generally affordable, but this medium is used less now due to digital infrared photography’s ease of use. IR film is a great way to explore the world of IR light. You will record visible light as well as the infrared spectrum when using infrared film, so you will also need an IR filter to record pure IR images. You’ll also need a specialist lab to develop those pictures, which could be harder to track down (and more expensive to use).
Infrared filter. The most inexpensive way to experiment with IR photography, IR filters are similar to other camera filters. You attach them directly to your normal camera lens to capture the IR spectrum. An IR filter blocks out visible light, allowing only IR light to hit your camera sensor. Results will be different with different filters, so you may need to experiment with more than one to get the colours and contrast range you want. Infrared photography uses slower shutter speeds and longer exposures to capture images, so you will need a tripod to shoot effectively with an infrared filter.
Camera conversion. The hardwired solution for infrared photography – and a more expensive method – camera conversion puts a filter into your camera that lets infrared light through. A converted camera will produce sharper IR images that aren’t bound to a lens filter’s equipment requirements. Infrared conversion also removes the need for long exposures and external filters, but at a cost: you will not be able to capture non-IR photos any more with your camera.
As mentioned earlier, shooting long exposures requires a steady shot – and an extremely steady hand. Failing that, you’ll need to mount your camera on a tripod so you can be sure of reducing motion blur and getting the best shot possible.
Sourcing the right camera lens for IR photography can be tricky. A top-of-the-line lens could be next to useless if you’re expressly not looking to capture visible light. This strange proposition means you’ll need to do your homework on different types of lenses. Things to watch out for when you test your lens include:
- A hot spot in the centre of the image comprised of slightly different colours and exposure than its surroundings. Lenses are built to drink in visible light – the hot spot is a side effect of the way they’re constructed.
- A flare effect. Unlike the typical lens flare effect, which you can take steps to avoid during a shoot, an IR flare won’t register as you won’t be able to see the signs.
Some manufacturers do test their lenses for infrared photography, and as a result there are now options catering to those who’d like to give this method a try.
How to do infrared photography: tips from the experts.
With the best editing software in the world, your images are unlikely to come out the way you want unless you’re confident of getting the best shots possible – and vice versa. Here are some suggestions for getting the most out of your photography at both the shooting and editing stages.
How to take infrared images.
The brighter, the better.
Normal photography steers clear of harsh shadows or sunny days. Infrared photography runs toward it. Not only does more light give the photographer more infrared for imaging, it also makes shutter speeds more manageable and raises the intensity of the refracted IR light within the scene. This can deliver stunning effects.
“I only shoot during bright, sunny weather or minimally overcast days, so you get that bright infrared light. It doesn’t work as well if you have a cloudy day.”
Infrared Photographer Kaitlin Kelly
Stick to still life.
Long exposures can hamper your creativity when it comes to choosing a shot. It may mean shying away from snapping people, animals, and traffic – at least while you’re still getting to grips with the technique.
But the real beauty of infrared photography is discovering the otherworldliness in your compositions, which means just about anything is still up for grabs. Buildings and other landscapes are prime candidates for delivering those unsettling effects.
Contrast in composition.
Infrared photography shares some of the same core considerations as shooting in black and white – at least when it comes to choosing your subjects. Remember that the final image is more about the contrasts than the richness of colours, and factor this into your shot schedule. Frame a shot that contains careful mixes of light and dark, smooth, and rough.
Experiment, experiment, experiment.
Infrared photography is easy to begin, but tough to master. It can take years of dedication and patience to fully apply the technique. Don’t be afraid to just start shooting. “It’s not straightforward photography. Experimentation, playing around, and figuring out the look you want is fun because you can determine that for yourself,” says Kelly. Take notes on what you like and what’s not working to craft your unique infrared
How to edit infrared images.
At the editing stage it may be difficult to give your photos a different treatment than you’d expect to as you’re breaking out your copy of Adobe Photoshop Lightroom. But these images deserve to be seen from a new angle.
“Infrared photography reveals an unseen light, but at the same time, it challenges people to think about what reality is in a photograph.”
Photographer Richard Binhammer
Binhammer calls it “seeing the unseen” – and there are many ways to make this adjusted reality even more surreal using Adobe Photoshop Lightroom.
Purists may show concerns about the authenticity of channel swapping, but considering what we’re dealing with isn’t visible to the naked eye to begin with, you’ll appreciate that what goes through the edit is merely done to accentuate what the eye can’t see.
To that end, colours will still appear unnatural – haunting even – once you’ve done your thing. For example, a blue sky will still contain darker blue elements because the Earth’s atmosphere absorbs a lot of IR radiation, creating a darker look. Swap the red and blue channels with the channel mixer to make your false-colour landscapes more psychedelic.
As we’ve established during the storied history of IR photography, it removes the hazy effects which the eye (and camera lens) would pick up under normal circumstances. It means images appear sharper. One way to really turn the contrasts up to 11 is to turn the colours all the way down.
Black and white infrared photography gives your images a clear, crisp quality – particularly in nature. Waters and skies appear darker, while trees and bushes are whiter – as are clouds. These contrasts stand out clear as day (and night) when you filter out the rest of the spectrum.
Removing the IR hot spot.
One unfortunate side effect of shooting with regular old equipment converted for IR is the hot spot which may appear in the centre of your shots. Some lenses are more likely to produce the effect than others, so prevention would be better than the cure if you do your research in advance of a shoot.
If your images are still plagued by the hot spot – a bright circle in the centre – it is possible to apply some small fixes to reduce the effect, if not eliminate it entirely.
Use the Radial Filter tool in its Invert Mask setting in Lightroom to select the affected area. Then make adjustments to Exposure, Clarity and White Balance to correct the off-putting effects of a hot spot.
Adobe’s infrared photography partners.
The following expert photographers contributed to this infrared photography guide.
- Kaitlin Kelly is a Los Angeles-based photographer specialising in portraiture, landscape, and digital infrared photography. See Kaitlin’s work.
- Richard Binhammer is a self-taught Virginia-based photographer who has exhibited works across the United States. See Richard’s work.
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