About Infrared Photography

August 18, 2023

Infrared photography uses invisible light to create surreal, sometimes fantastical images. Characterized by softly glowing foliage, heightened detail and unusual colors, infrared photographs literally show us the world in a new light.

A pink tree and silver grass catch the light beneath a passing storm cloud.
Prairie Storm
What is Infrared Light?

Infrared light is part of the electromagnetic spectrum – the spectrum being the full range of all types of light. Only a very small portion of the spectrum – the colors of the rainbow – is actually visible to the human eye. Infrared light sits just outside the visible range. Straight out of the camera, infrared images mostly appear as light and dark shades of red, the nearest visible color.

An illustration of the electromagnetic spectrum
The electromagnetic spectrum
How Does Infrared Photography Work?

Using special infrared-sensitive film, filters, and/or a modified digital camera, infrared light can be captured and interpreted as images.

In normal photography, infrared light is unwanted because it interferes with proper color rendition. Since digital cameras are highly sensitive to infrared, they must be manufactured with an internal filter that blocks infrared light from hitting the sensor. Modifying a digital camera for the purpose of infrared photography involves removing that filter. It's possible to then to capture infrared light, but then colors appear, shall we say, atypical.

Artistic Infrared Photography

How do we get that characteristic glow in infrared photographs? Easy: by choosing subjects that naturally reflect a lot of infrared light. Live plants, clouds, and skin are at the top of the list.

On the other hand, subjects that absorb a lot of infrared light, such as water and sky, can appear very dark. This combination of reflection and absorption – light and dark – provides deep contrast and tends to convey a sense of drama.

A black-and-white image of a hillside vineyard with fluffy clouds
The 'glow' of infrared light reflecting off of vineyard leaves
Color in Infrared Photography

Most infrared photography combines both infrared and visible light. Infrared light brings the glow and contrast, while visible light contributes sharpness and color. The mixed-light colors don’t come out of the camera entirely natural-looking – think sepia skies and blue grass – but they provide tremendous creative opportunity in the post-process editing stage. For me, these ‘false colors’ are where the magic happens.

A before-and-after comparison of infrared image processing
Straight from the camera vs post-edited IR image
Getting Started with Your own Infrared Photography

The quickest, least expensive path to your first infrared photo is with a regular digital camera and an infrared lens filter, such as the Hoya R72. With this method, you’ll be using a long exposure, so you’ll want a tripod to hold the camera steady, and a scene without too much movement (unless your creative intent includes some blur.)

  1. Set up your camera on the tripod and compose the image.

  2. Focus the camera, using the manual focus setting.

  3. Screw on the infrared lens filter. Looking through the viewfinder, you’ll notice it is almost totally dark. This is why you set the focus before attaching the filter.

  4. Adjust the exposure, using the live view on your rear camera view screen as a guide.

  5. Press the shutter button.

  6. Congratulations - you’ve made your first infrared photo!

An infrared photo of a dark lagoon with a fluffy, bright white willow tree
My first infrared photo

As mentioned earlier, it’s also possible to have your camera physically modified to shoot infrared. The immediate advantage of a converted camera is that you can compose and shoot normally, no dark filter or long exposure required. The downsides are the expense and the irreversible nature of the conversion. It will also absolutely void your camera warranty. Therefore, I recommend you try out the filter for a while, and decide whether you want to take it to the next level. Have fun!

A 13-century stone castle sits on an island surrounded by deep pink heather. Fog is creeping down the hills in the background.

Castle and Heather

Eilean Donan Castle, nestled into lush heather and set against the misty Coille na Totaig, shows us the playful side of ‘dark and stormy’. Coincidentally, this particular shade of deep pink is named Royal Heath. © Rain Hayes

Posted in Technical, How-To and tagged technical, how-to.