Infrared Digital Photography: An Introduction

Infrared photography allows us to see the world in a way that our naked eyes (and traditional cameras) can not. The infrared spectrum exists beyond the spectrum of visible light, but it is always present and can have a very dramatic effect on your images when properly captured.

The Gear
Modern digital camera sensors are already capable of photographing in the infrared spectrum. Camera manufacturers use a special filter on the sensor to block most (but not all) IR light in order to improve the quality of the visible light being recorded. Despite this, there are several options available for capturing images in infrared:

  • Use a camera that includes a “night vision” mode. These cameras generally include an infrared light to help illuminate objects in the dark and the normal IR filter can be removed from the camera’s sensor with the flip of a switch. Though they are generally limited to monochrome images, the results can still be very pleasing. An example of this type of camera is the Sony DSC-H9 which has been out of production for about a year but had very good monochrome IR capabilities.
  • Purchase an infrared filter for your camera. This is probably the easiest way to try infrared photography as it doesn't require a particular type of camera or expensive modifications. Despite the IR-blocking filters put in place by camera manufacturers, some infrared light still comes through. Attaching an IR filter (such as the Hoya RM-72 to your camera will block out all visible light so that only the infrared image is visible. The downside of this technique is that it typically requires lengthy exposures (10 seconds or more) and thus a tripod (and some patience) is required.
  • Purchase or modify a camera to natively shoot infrared. There are a number of companies that sell modified cameras (both compacts and DSLR’s) that have had the infrared filter permanently removed. Additionally, many of these companies will perform the modifications to an existing camera that you already own. These modified cameras are capable of photographing infrared images as easily as most cameras capture visible light… no lengthy exposures or special filters required. Cameras modified for infrared photography are no longer capable of taking traditional photos though.

Color vs. Monochrome
As previously mentioned, cameras using a “night vision” mode are typically only capable of monochrome infrared images. Using traditional post-processing techniques, these photos can be converted to a variety of tones and contrasts… much like typical B&W image conversion.

Cameras using an IR filter or that have been specially modified to exclusively shoot in infrared are capable of recording different wavelengths within the IR spectrum which is interpreted as colors by the camera sensor. These colors don’t typically have as much variety or saturation as visible light, but the effect can still be very interesting. Here is an example of an IR image right out of the camera, with the normally blue skies shown as a deep red:

Using software like Photoshop, the red and blue channels can be flipped so that the colors are a little closer to what we are traditionally used to seeing while still retaining some of the other-worldly effects.

Subject matter
What makes for a good infrared photograph? There are no set rules… a favorite aspect of IR is the unexpected quality it brings to images. You are never quite sure how things will look when captured in the infrared spectrum. Typically though, the biggest differences happen with organic material. Grass, trees, people… they all appear much differently in infrared and can be particularly fun to photograph.

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