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Infrared digital photography

Taking digital pictures by infrared light.


Paul W. Faust entitled this infrared image
Paul W. Faust entitled this infrared image "Star barn," which he photographed near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Copyright Paul W. Faust.

HERE'S WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW TO TAKE A PICTURE ILLUMINATED BY INFRARED LIGHT

You must first be sure that your digital camera is capable of taking photographs by infrared light. There is a simple test you can perform, using a handheld TV remote controller.

In a very dark room, aim your camera's lens at the business end of the remote - at the remote's lens where the invisible infrared beam comes out. Look at the camera's viewfinder and press a button on the remote. That will cause the remote's infrared beam to emit. If you see it on your viewfinder, your camera can take pictures by infrared light. Prove it to yourself by actually taking a picture of the infrared light beam, as we did below.

If you see a light like the one on the right-hand side in your viewfinder after activating the TV remote, your digital camera can take infrared pictures.
If you see a light like the one on the right-hand side in your viewfinder after activating the TV remote, your digital camera can take infrared pictures.

Now that you (hopefully) know your digital camera is capable of infrared photography, what else do you need to know?

Most important is that you have to block all visible light from entering your lens, without blocking infrared light. There are special effect infrared filters you can use with a digital camera that will filter out and block visible light while permitting infrared light to pass through it for photography by infrared illumination. All such filters are known as IR, infrared or infrared-transmitting filters. But, when you take pictures using them, don't expect things to look the same.

Infrared filters basically differ one from another in the range of wavelengths of light each filters out and allows through. When using them:

  • Most of the IR light will get past a digital camera’s built-in infrared blocker to record an image on the sensor.
  • But it will generally need a long exposure because IR filters are so dark.
  • A wide aperture and a fast ISO sensitivity setting can help to reduce exposure time.
  • But, with all of these measures, you can expect some electronic noise in the image.
  • Keeping noise at a minimum is important to a good infrared picture, so go for your shortest possible exposure option at your fastest possible ISO setting.
  • Bracket your exposures, using different ISO settings, or different shutter speeds and apertures.
  • Experimentation will provide you with a variety of final images to choose from.
  • Prepare to be surprised by how different our world looks when illuminated only by infrared light.

Well-exposed infrared images can be quite dramatic, almost surreal. Image copyright Paul W. Faust.
Well-exposed infrared images can be quite dramatic, almost surreal. Image copyright Paul W. Faust.

Which one is the "right" filter for your infrared photography? It's hard to say. It depends upon your camera's sensitivity to infrared rays, and each filter will yield a different contrast level. It would be ideal if you could test each one before buying.

  • Heliopan makes five grades of filter that each block specific areas of the infrared spectrum.
  • Hoya makes the relatively-inexpensive and possibly the most popular R72 IR filter. And also the RM90 filter that needs longer exposure. These filters are said to be used in police, medical and scientific photography, but can also be used by you for special effects infrared photography.
  • Kodak produces several infrared transmission filters, including the Wratten 87, 87A, 87B, 87C, 88A and 89B.
  • The 87 and 88A are considered by many to be "standards" for general infrared photography.
  • Other filter manufacturers have their own versions.
  • But watch out. They can be expensive.

Some photographers experiment with an alternative to buying an IR filter. They make their own IR filter from unexposed but developed positive film (transparency or slide film) in a size large enough to fit over the front of their lens. It’s quite dark - enough to block visible light - but infrared light will pass through it, somewhat in the same manner as a commercial infrared filter. Sounds good in principle, doesn't it? Except that it's hardly scientific, and image quality will likely suffer. You may wish to give it a try anyway, as a fun alternative to buying an expensive infrared filter that you may only occasionally use.

Infrared photography requires bright light in order to keep exposure times as short as possible. This means you should be taking your first IR pictures in daylight, preferably bright sun or bright overcast conditions. Proper exposure can also be a matter of guesswork and experimenting, since your camera's light meter will not be reliable when very dark IR filters are attached to your lens.

Landscape photography is a good place to start. Landscapes photographed using infrared illumination can be dramatic and surreal. That green leaf won't look green when photographed in infrared light only; it will be white. You may think you have captured a brilliant blue sky in your picture, but depending on weather and the time of day, it may be quite dark, almost black even.

One word of caution. If the scene you are shooting includes a very hot object, whether large or small, like a campfire or even the glowing remnants of one, it could dramatically affect your exposure because hot things emit a lot of infrared light. Don't worry about humans or animals, though. Their body temperatures are not warm enough to impact most infrared photography using a normal digital camera.

A dark sky and white foliage are indicators of an infrared photograph. Image copyright Paul W. Faust.
A dark sky and white foliage are indicators of an infrared photograph. Image copyright Paul W. Faust.

MAKING AN INFRARED PICTURE WITH YOUR DIGITAL CAMERA

There is no one correct starting point for taking your first infrared picture because there are so many variables - camera models that react differently to IR light, different IR filters, scenes, lighting and so on. But, we have to start somewhere, so here goes.

In order to block out visible light so you are only capturing reflected infrared light, let's assume you have a Hoya R72 infrared filter, which has a good track record with many digital photographers. Kodak's Wratten 89b is an equivalent filter. The Hoya R72 typically requires 4 to 6 stops exposure correction. Be aware that it may allow a very small amount of red light to pass through. You can expect your color pictures to contain maroon-red and whitish-gray colors.

  • Select ISO 200 for your camera's sensitivity setting.
  • Place your camera firmly on a tripod.
  • With no filter attached, compose your picture and focus the lens.
  • Take an exposure reading of the scene.
  • Note the shutter speed and aperture required for proper exposure. Let's say they are 1/125 sec and f/11.
  • Now, attach the Hoya R72 infrared filter, ensuring that focusing remains unchanged.
  • With this very dark filter attached, you must increase exposure by 4 to 6 stops to make the photograph. Let's choose 5 stops as a starting point.
  • If we change only the 1/125 sec shutter speed by five stops, it would be 1/4 sec at f/11.
  • If we were to change only the aperture by five stops, it would become f/2 at 1/125 sec. You could handhold your camera at these settings; but depth of field would be very shallow.
  • Let's use 1/4 sec. and f/11 to take the picture. That will provide reasonably good depth of field and, since your camera is solidly supported by a tripod, there should be no blur from camera movement.

Now, have a look at the image you took using the camera's viewfinder. Does it seem to be properly exposed? Can you see detail in both highlight and shadow areas? Even if the image looks perfect to you, it's a good idea to photograph the same scene a few more times, changing your settings and bracketing your exposures by one or two stops each time. Later, when you download the images onto your computer, you will better be able to see which of the many you took is the best.

This scene was converted using a PhotoShop filter to simulate an infrared photograph.
This scene was converted using a PhotoShop filter to simulate an infrared photograph.

SIMULATING AN INFRARED PHOTOGRAPH

Image editing software can be used to convert a picture to simulate infrared photography.

The simplest, quickest method using Adobe Photoshop CS5, which was employed in altering the image above, is to click on Image on the menu bar. From the drop-down menu, select Adjustments, then Black & White... [Alt+Shift+Ctrl+B]. Finally, click on Presets and select Infrared. That's all there is to it. Choose a color image that has plenty of green foliage in it so that the infrared effect will be readily seen.

More of Paul W. Faust’s images can be seen at impressions-of-light.com.

 
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