If you've studied and practised photography for long enough, you know that a great photo is one that gives the viewer a unique perspective on the world. That can be done in many different ways--by choosing a unique subject, by taking the photo from an unusual vantage point, by carefully selecting depth of field or shutter speed, or by experimenting with camera equipment such as filters and special lenses.
One way to almost guarantee a photo will make people stop and take notice is to try your hand at infrared photography. Now, if you've ever spent time watching scary movies you've probably already seen infrared in action - apparently that's one way to spot a ghost - but you may not be familiar with using infrared (IR) to capture less frightening scenes, such as landscapes. And you don't have to go shopping at the Catch-A-Ghost Emporium either, nor do you have to spend a truckload of money on high tech equipment. You can start capturing great IR photos, in fact, for around 100 bucks - with the understanding of course that if you get hooked on it you might want to make further investments.
[ Top image washington willow by Flickr user zachstern]
First a few basics
So what exactly is infrared light? Well simply put, infrared (or "near infrared", which is what you can capture with your camera) is light that exists just beyond the visible spectrum - that is, just outside of what your eyes are capable of seeing. Fortunately, we've got technology that can see IR light. The military, in fact, thought this was quite fortunate back in WWI when they started use IR technology to identify targets. It was useful for this in part because in an IR image there is a very stark contrast between vegetation and other objects such as man-made structures, which meant that your enemy couldn't use vegetation as easily to hide the location of a bunker, tank or other object the opposing side might be interested in blowing up.
Today we can all use IR technology, though a photographer's reasons are a lot more benign. Photographers like it because a skilfully composed and processed IR photo simply looks amazing. Once captured by your camera, IR light looks very different from the light we see with our eyes. Plant life looks white, and a blue sky can appear very dark, sometimes near-black. I could probably stop there and you'd already have a very clear picture of why we might want to capture IR images. The contrast alone is enough to create a truly stunning image.
pond by Flickr user zachstern
What you need
Back in the days of film, if you wanted to shoot IR you simply picked up a package of IR film, fired off 36 shots and then waited around to see whether or not the lab would screw them up. Today, most of us shoot in digital, so instead of special film you need a special filter. One of the most popular is the Hoya R72, which you can pick up online for relatively cheaply.
You will also need a sturdy tripod, because in addition to capturing IR light the Hoya R72 and similar filters do an excellent job of blocking all the rest of the light, which means you'll need to use long exposures, which also means of course that you will need a tripod.
Additionally, you will need a particular lens. Notice how I didn't say which lens. That's because the lenses that make for good IR images are difficult to predict. Some lenses will put a "hotspot" on every one of your photos. Much like a lens flare, a hotspot is a circular area of the photo that appears lighter than the rest of the image. Chances are the hotspot will inconveniently wind up on the part of your shot that you liked the best, because that's generally the way things work out. So use a source like this one to determine which lenses in your arsenal will make the best IR lenses.
Finally, you'll need Photoshop, or at the very least another decent post processing application that will let you tweak colors and channels.
Untitled by Flickr user josef.stuefer
How to do it
First set your camera to RAW - once you get the file into post-processing, you'll be glad you did. Now set up your tripod and mount your camera on it.
Shooting through an IR filter is tricky because you can't see anything through the viewfinder. So you will need to compose your shot before adding the IR filter - or you can just blindly trust in your autofocus. Both are fiddly options, but you'll need to muddle through this part of the experiment since upgrading from the IR filter to the IR camera is a big, expensive step - one you don't want to have to take until you are quite sure this is something you want to pursue.
You can't use your meter, either, because it's going to be painfully confused by that filter. So you will need to experiment with exposure times. Start with 45 seconds and then check your results. Go up and down from there depending on how well-exposed your image looks.
far south by Flickr user paul bica
THAT doesn't look like the photos in the article!
Now we've arrived at the reason why you need Photoshop. Those images are going to look pink or magenta when you open them up and look at them on your computer screen. To fix this, you will need to neutralize the white balance. After you've done that you can change the image to black and white, or if you prefer to keep some color you can go to the Channel Mixer and modify the different color channels until you get a mix that looks good. Keep in mind that there is no real formula for post processing an IR image - keep playing with it until you like the results. As with everything, the more you work at it the better you'll get at creating truly stunning photographs.
I really like this ... what now?
Disney Infrared by Flickr user Tom.Bricker
If you find yourself really hooked on IR photography, you might want to consider having a DSLR modified so that it can take IR photos without the filter. The advantage of doing this is that you will be able to take IR photos using your on-board meter and at shutter-speeds that will allow you to hand-hold your camera.
Now wait, before you decide to take this radical step, remember that you will no longer be able to use your camera for anything but IR, so don't send your beloved D700 off to the IR conversion lab unless you're very sure you will never again want to use it for day-to-day photography. Instead, purchase a used camera and have that one modified.
If stunning photos are your ultimate goal (and aren't they the ultimate goal for every photographer?) with enough practice IR is a great way to almost guarantee amazing images. It does take a little time and effort to figure out, but keep tweaking and eventually you'll have a shot that makes everyone go "wow".
For more infrared images, see the infrared photo gallery.
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