Trent Chau | Photographer and Instructor

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An Introduction to Infrared Photography

Infrared Photo of Atlanta’s Historical Oakland Cemetery – Canon 40d with 720nm IR filter Mod

The world as you see it is not how you see it – Welcome to the world of Infrared Photography

Infrared photography is an interesting thing.  It requires a lot of trial and error, a lot of guessing and praying, and finally when you do get it right in camera it still isn’t full ready yet.  So for all that trouble with infrared photography, why is it so worth it?  Simply put…it’s the ooh factor.   Infrared photos produce this otherworld, ethereal, and absorbing look that just draws the viewer in.  From my experience unlike HDR, which can be polarizing, a well done infrared shot doesn’t seem like a post processing trick but rather something both natural and more.

So what is infrared photography?  I’m not going to get much into the mumbo jumbo of science and stuff, but here’s a quick review of something we learned back in our grade school days.  Remember the electromagnetic spectrum?  It’s the range of frequency including radio, microwave, ultraviolet, xray, infrared, and what we see called visible light.  Well the human eye sees visible light, and that’s how we get our colors from red, blue, green, and more.  To duplicate what we see with our eyes we made our cameras film and digital sensors capture that same light, because well what we see as yellow should be yellow right?  Well the thing is machinery doesn’t have the same limitations our eyes do, and it does in fact capture a visible image with the various other wave lengths on the spectrum.  So this is where infrared photography comes in.  Instead of capturing how visible light is reflected from a surface, infrared photography is based on how infrared waves are bounced off a surface.   Since we can’t see with our eyes how infrared is reflected, sometimes the results from infrared can be startling.  What normally seems to be neutral can be radiant white, while something else the same color can become the darkest of blacks.  Color of the item doesn’t matter in infrared, it’s the materials ability to either absorb or reflect infrared.  The more it reflects, the lighter the image.  In essence infrared photography is what you see in front of you, but not exactly how you see it….the effect is truly awesome.

This article is a quick introduction on what you need to know about infrared photography, how to start doing it, tips and tricks for more successful infrared photos, and lastly getting the most of your image with some post processing tricks.

Disclosure :
There is a great photography rental company in Atlanta called Aperturent.  Oscar, the owner of Aperturent, is a really awesome guy and a huge supporter of the Atlanta photography community.  His company supplied the infrared modified Canon 40D used for this article.  Infrared photography is best done with a fully modified camera, and it could be pretty expensive to get one modified (it requires not only a fee for the modification that starts at $250, but also a camera body itself).  So if you are really interested in infrared photography, please consider renting Aperturent’s modified camera.  You will get the same great results while spending hundreds to almost thousands less to get it.

How to get started with Infrared Photography

IR photography using a HOYA RM-72 Filter on a Canon 5d Mark II

Back during the film days capturing infrared (IR) required the use of IR film.  With digital sensors, as mentioned further above, infrared light can be captured.  The key word in that statement is can.  If IR was allowed to pass through it does affect your photography visually, shifting colors and other mischievous things like that.  Because we can’t see IR and to combat all that IR mischievousness, camera companies place a filter in front of our cameras digital sensor to lessen the amount of infrared light that comes in.  This is all fine and dandy unless of course now you want to capture IR, and then that filter becomes a little annoying.  Before you go removing the filter, there’s a few options you can take that will produce IR images.

Option 1 : Using a Infrared Pass Lens Filter
The issue with IR photography is your camera is designed to capture available light.  A infrared filter addresses that by blocking a lot of available light from passing through and only letting in infrared light.  There are various types of infrared filter s with several different ratings that allow either more or less visible or infrared light in.  The most basic infrared filter is a 720nm filter, which has several different names from filter companies.  This filter allows wavelengths of 720nm or more to pass through while blocking a majority of visible light.

So we have an issue already here for anyone taking note.  Your camera company placed a filter that blocks IR waves from getting in, but let’s visible waves get in.  You are placing a filter that blocks visible waves from getting in, but let’s in IR.  Isn’t that negating both?  The answer is yes, but it’s not completely removing everything.  The infrared filter wins by letting in a lot less visible light than the in camera filters prevents IR waves from getting in.  What you get is a slowly building trickle of IR waves coming into the camera.  A slow trickle translates into EXTREMELY long exposures.  So be sure to have a tripod handy if you use an infrared pass filter.

Filters can produce pretty good results; the exposures just take quite a while, even in full day light.  Remember your filter fits on your lens, so it should match the thread size of your lens.  Look at the back of your lens cap if you don’t know what your thread size is, you will find your number there.

Infrared pass lens filters are the cheapest solution to get into infrared photography.

Rent a 720nm Filter from Aperturent – Click Here
Purchase a 720nm Filter from B&H Photovideo – Click Here

Option 2: Modify your camera and remove the IR filter.
Option 2 for IR photography is a little more extreme.  If something prevents you from doing what you want to do, sometimes the best option is to get rid of that something.  In this case that something is a filter and it’s deeply embedded in your camera.  Check out this internet post from years ago showing someone removing the filter from their camera and you can understand what it takes to do.

Fortunately for those who aren’t as electronics savvy, you can hire companies such as LifePixel to remove the filter for you.

When the filter is removed the camera is now accepting both Visual and IR waves, so if you use the Infrared Pass filter mentioned above you now get all that IR goodness in buckets rather than trickles.  You can now hand hold your camera instead of having to hold a tripod. Of course not all is fine and dandy.  Since we use visual light to focus and compose you won’t be able to look your camera to compose as the viewfinder will appear completely dark.  Welcome to the ever frustrating world of IR Photography.
A way to get pass this is after removing the IR Blocking filter on the cameras digital sensor, you place a IR passing filter in front of it, they are like a small version of the Infrared Pass filters from above.  Since the sensor is passed your mirror assembly, you can look through your cameras view finder and compose while the camera only captures IR light.  It’s time consuming to remove and add the filters, so this solution tends to make a converted IR camera permanently meant for IR.  What you get though is a camera that feels and works like your normal camera, but captures IR waves. This is the BEST way to experience Infrared Photography.

Something neat is there are different types of IR pass filters that can be placed.  Like above 720nm filters are you default type.  You can also get filters that do allow some visible light in.  This allows you to achieve some coloring in your photographs.  By default IR photography is monochromatic and the end result is Black and White, by using these these different filters you can achieve more color in an image or on the reverse end a extremely high contrast range of black and white.  Lifepixel has a very good article that showcase the visual difference of various IR Pass filters, you can see that here :

Option 3: Post Process a current image into infrared

The cheapest and fastest option to do infrared photography is to emulate it with post production.  There are some pretty neat and very thorough articles out there on how to emulate the the look of IR (like this one here), but it’s NO WHERE close to actually shooting IR.  Remember you are working of a physical objects ability to absorb or reflect infrared spectrum, the more it reflects the lighter the visual appearance.  This is a physical trait that varies from object to object and can only be emulated if you know exactly how much IR light a certain material reflects back.  When you are emulating you are just shifting the brightness of a color to something that’s completely off.  The effect still provides an alien feel to a landscape, but does not do any justice to true infrared photography.

The Infrared Photography Process

North Georgia – IR Converted Canon 10D with color processing pull in Photoshop

Now that you can begin to capture IR, here are things that are helpful to know right off the bat.

  • IR cuts through Haze like a hot knife through butter.   IR skies can be very clear.
  • Clear skies hardly bounce IR and appears pretty epicly dark, while clouds do bounce IR.
  • IR is great to shoot during high noon.  Unlike visible light for many people.
  • People look funky in IR up close, explained later.
  • IR Photography requires a lot of Post Processing attention!
  • Lenses behave differently in IR photography, explained in detail below.

Because of it’s otherworldly and ethereal affect, and also the fact that trees don’t get as offended as people, IR photography tends to be used more for landscapes and still objects.  A lot of the positive features of IR is showcased in landscape photography.  Leaves and green foliage radiate a lot of IR waves, and appear white.  For many people this creates a sense of serene calm because it reminds them of snow, I’ve had tons of people say how cool and snowy an IR landscape looks.  I’ve personally found that haze doesn’t reflect IR particularly well, and so an IR camera really sees a very clear scene even during a hazy day.  Clear skies also doesn’t reflect IR at all and appear a very dark, which makes clouds look that much more contrasty and majestic.  It really is stunning when you are standing at this beautiful place, and then you capture it even more beautifully.  It’s crazy and amazing.

There’s a good chance if you try infrared photography you will try landscapes, but there’s also a lot of other potential stuff you can do.  This section is to help you with some of the hurdles you may encounter with IR photography.

Lenses and Infrared Photography

Canon 10D IR Converted using a 16-35 2.8L – Notice the odd discoloration in the center, this is attributed to lens hot spotting.

Not all lenses can handle infrared photography.  Since lenses are designed more for the visual spectrum they aren’t designed for any flaws that may show up in IR photography.  Even extremely expensive lenses show flaws when taking infrared photography, for example the picture above was taken with a professional Canon 16-35 2.8L lens that showed a visual fault known as a hot spot.  The good people at DPanswers have created a pretty awesome list of lenses that work well for IR, you can find that here –

For the manual focus people out there who uses your distance chart on your lens, look for a red IR marking on your lens.  IR doesn’t focus at the same point that visible light does and is slightly off.  This is another reason why it’s more popular to see IR for landscapes, it’s easier to create a larger DOF when focusing on further away objects.

Personally on the 40D I find my 24-70 2.8L at around 5.6 to create very sharp IR photos.  The photo all the way up top in the Oakland Cemetery was taken with that combination.

Infrared and Portraiture

This is a hybrid of a normal photo on the left, and a IR photo on the right. The left photo is a Canon 5d Mark II and the one on the right is the Canon 40D IR.  Thank you to Maryn for modelling.

Portraiture for Infrared is a very strange and  unique beast.  It’s not our skin that starts reflecting IR more than a little underneath our skin, so you have this translucent ghostly looking image.  Worst yet our eyes really absorb IR so our pupils are dark and oily looking.  It really is wicked looking and kinda scary.  While writing this article several of my facebook friends were quick to say how close up portraits with infrared were both very neat yet very scary looking at the same time.  I have to agree with that assessment.  Eyes tend to look very soul sucking, and the ghastly, glowy, and ghostly (yay 3 points for alliteration) complexion of the model really pushes that point.  Its not something I would use everyday for close up portraiture, but it does supply a very interesting look.

Here’s an example of Diana taken with a 5d Mark II and the Canon 40D IR.  The 5d Mark II had a 135 F2 at F8, the Canon 40D IR has a 85 1.2l II at f8 on it.

Canon 5d Mark II with Studio lights and a Canon 135 F2L @ F8

Canon 40D IR with Canon 85 1.2L II @ F8

Something I do love about IR photography for portraits is using it or environmental portraits.  The IR effect is pretty dramatic. Here  are some samples of IR environmental portraiture using Kim as a model.  The effect is very dreamy and sometimes pretty exotic looking.

Kim at McDaniels Farm park – Canon 40d IR with Canon 35 1.4

Kim on the rail – Canon 40D with 35 1.4L

Infrared Post Processing

IR photography requires a lot of post production. These are the three steps of IR photography. The red left is a raw file straight from the 40d. The middle part is a black and white file created by the camera with some sharpness and contrast added, this helps viewing images on preview with the camera. Lastly the image on the right is the final product ran through lightroom to adjust exposure, contrast, and sharpness.

Even if a photographer gets everything done correctly on their camera, IR photography still requires a bit of post production to finalize the files.  Files straight from the camera tend to be a little dull in contrast.  If you are shooting raw, the files are probably blood red in color and requires processing to black and white.  If you are using a filter that allows in some visual light, the colors maybe a little or a lot off and require you to really desaturate a certain channel.  Long story short a image editing program is part of the Infrared process.

While shooting IR, I had the camera create a Raw and  Jpg file with each exposure.  I modified the Canon 40d to make the jpgs Monochrome, add contrast, and add sharpness.  This made the file a little bit better (and also made previews a lot better as I wasn’t seeing blood red all the time) but the files still weren’t 100% ready.  When I brought the files into light room I adjusted exposure, contrast, shadows, whites, and clarity to achieve a file more to my taste.  It didn’t take long to make a file that really made me happy, but it did require a lot more post than my normal photos took.  I was extremely happy with the results though.

Working on a IR photo in Lightroom 4.1. By adjusting the exposure, contrast, clarity, and shadow/light detail you really can make your IR photos pop. IR photos almost always require some post processing after the snap, so be prepared to edit your photos a little bit.  Click the image to see the settings used to get this IR photo.

Infrared Photography Conclusion

Infrared photography is amazing, just to be blunt.  It requires a bit of technical know how on almost every aspect of photography including post production, but the end results create an image that can be extremely unique.  Like macro photography, IR photography really helps you see the world in front of you differently.  Even the most boring of street corners can look epic in IR.  I highly recommend everyone try IR photography once in their life, it really is fun.  Here’s some closing notes though.

  • IR photography is expensive if you decide to do everything from scratch.  Getting a camera converted is a couple hundred dollars, but it also means having an old camera.  If you have an old camera to spare and a few hundred dollars go for it, but remember that camera can only be used for IR now.
  • If you don’t have several hundred to spend, rental is a very good option.  The 40D from Aperturent can be located here : 40D IR Aperturent. I suggest shooting raw+jpg, and using the monochrome setting on the camera, and remember that post production is required.  Also make sure to rent a lens that works well with it or you may get hotspots.
  • The filter way is doable, but requires a lot of time and a tripod and can be very annoying.  I suggest avoiding it, but at least do it that way before you fake IR in photoshop.
  • IR photography is amazing for landscapes.  You can waste a whole day traveling and shooting with a IR camera.  Make sure to have a tripod and some time, and you will love your photos.
  • IR sometimes is one of those “At the moments” like HDR and Fisheye lenses, thus why it’s best to rent.  Thankfully though IR doesn’t suffer as much from the “The equipment did that, not the photographer” critiques that HDR and Fisheye lenses get.

Hope this inspired you guys to check out IR photography, and would love to see your IR images if you start taking some.  Please feel free to comment with a link to your IR images.  Thanks guys, and catch you on the next photography introduction article.

Here are a few IR photos taken from the last few years, enjoy.

Atlanta’s Historical Oakland Cemetery – Canon 40D IR Converted

Canon 10D IR Converted – Color Adjusted in Photoshop

Lake Lanier Shore – Canon 10D IR Converted,

Diana – Canon 40D IR Converted, with Studio Strobes

McDaniels Farm Park – Canon 10D, Desatured in Photoshop

North Georgia Landscape – Canon 10D Infrared Modified

Maryn in Studio with the Canon 40D IR

Diana – Canon 40D IR – Straight from Camera with no edits

Would you like to mess with some raw IR files?  Here’s a couple for you to mess with.

Maryn – Headshot – Infrared
Diana – Headshot – Infrared

About trentchau

Photographer, videographer, and photography instructor in Atlanta. Born in New Orleans. I love food more than photography, but do love photography quite a bit.

7 comments on “An Introduction to Infrared Photography

  1. Pingback: Atlanta Oakland Cemetery - Infrared B/W

  2. Pingback: I'll stick with landscapes for infrared

  3. jamez007bond
    August 14, 2012

    Interesting article. IR is one of those things for me that I just haven’t had the chance to delve into. One of these days though…

    Thanks for sharing this with us, Trent.

  4. Richard Smith
    November 4, 2012

    Thank you very much for the very wonderful and interesting story about IR photography. I am very excited to have this kind of photos. I’m an amateur using D5000 Nikon with an 18-55 kit lens and R72 IR filter. Do you think my photos will become successful?? Thanks

  5. Latesha
    May 23, 2013

    I was curious if you ever thought of changing the layout of your
    website? Its very well written; I love what youve got to say.

    But maybe you could a little more in the way of
    content so people could connect with it better.
    Youve got an awful lot of text for only having 1 or 2 pictures.
    Maybe you could space it out better?

    • trentchau
      May 23, 2013

      What a great critique, never even noticed. that. There should be several photos up for this one. Do you mean on other post? I count over 11~12 images for this one.

  6. P1nc
    July 24, 2013

    I wonder why most of your shots are so much over exposed … such a shame, I think you shoot RAW like you say… if you use DIGITITAL CAMERA PRO from CANON you can get correct white balance, export it as a TIFF into photoshop. Or open RAW in photoshop with custom ACR profile. And fix the highlights… simple.

    While shooting IR, I had the camera create a Raw and Jpg file with each exposure. I modified the Canon 40d to make the jpgs Monochrome, add contrast, and add sharpness. This made the file a little bit better (and also made previews a lot better as I wasn’t seeing blood red all the time) but the files still weren’t 100% ready.

    … do you really mean what you write ??? coz this has NOTHING to do with what you say ! I can get a good preview either way, all you need to do is set a correct WHITE BALANCE ! And every preview in camera is a JPEG conversion even if you just shoot RAW.

    Nice article. hope you fix the misinfo.


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This entry was posted on August 13, 2012 by in Personal Photography Projects, Techniques for photography and tagged .

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