Introduction to IR Photography

Photo by Steve Berardi

Photo by Steve Berardi

Infrared (IR) photography doesn’t get much attention, but it can be extremely useful for photographing landscapes in black and white. It’s known for capturing strong contrast between vegetation and the surrounding landscape.

So, here’s a brief introduction to IR photography and its effects:

Benefits and Effects of IR Photography

So, what’s so special about IR photography? Well, it produces some interesting effects, which you might be looking for in one of your images:

  • Creates dark skies. One of the things IR photography is best known for is producing very dark skies. When you convert your IR image to black and white, the sky will usually be completely black—which is great for images where you want to highlight a bright object against a dark sky, or you want a dark sky to make the landscape appear more intimidating or powerful.
  • Makes plants bright white. Any plants (such as trees, bushes, flowers, etc) in your IR image will show up very bright (usually white) after you convert it to black and white. This effect works really well with the dark sky effect, because it helps create strong contrast between the sky and plants—making the plants really stand out in your image.
  • Eliminates haze. One of the lesser known effects of IR photography is that it helps eliminate haze. Have you ever tried photographing distant mountains or a long canyon and ended up with a bunch of washed out images? It’s usually because of haze—the farther you get from a mountain, the more haze will become a problem. Sometimes this haze adds an interesting element to an image, but if you’re looking to get rid of it, then IR photography might be worth a try.

How to get started

The simplest way to get started with IR photography is to purchase an IR filter for your lenses. This is a special kind of filter that blocks out all visible light and only lets infrared light into your camera.

You’ll notice that there’s lots of different types of IR filters, which are usually marked with a range like 800-2000nm. This range refers to the wavelengths of light that the filter will allow to pass through. For reference, the human eye can see wavelengths ranging from 390-700nm. I’d recommend starting with a filter that begins somewhere between 700nm and 800nm—these actually let in a very small amount of visible light, which helps keep your exposure times down.

Since the IR filter blocks most of the visible light, and since your camera blocks most of the IR light, there’s actually very little light that makes it to your camera’s sensor when you have an IR filter on your lens. So, you’ll need much longer exposures than normal (usually around 20 seconds at f/11 in the mid-day sun).

With these longer exposures, you’ll definitely need to use a tripod to keep your camera steady. If the longer exposures create problems (e.g. if it’s really windy and the plants end up blurry in your image), then you can try increasing your ISO speed to get a shorter exposure.

Once you capture a photo with an IR filter, you’ll notice that the image has a red tint. Don’t worry, this is normal! Later in post-processing, simply convert the image to black and white.

Example: Smoke Tree

Smoke Tree / Photo by Steve Berardi

Smoke Tree / Photo by Steve Berardi

Personally, I love to use IR photography to photograph plants in the desert. I feel like the dark skies really help portray the harshness of the desert environment, and the bright white vegetation helps make those fascinating desert plants stand out.

For example, one of my favorite plants of the Sonoran Desert is the Smoke Tree. This tree got its name because it actually looks a lot like smoke. And, to emphasize how much it looks like smoke, I thought it’d be good to create some black and white images of them—particularly with IR. The image above shows a bright Smoke Tree in front of a dark sky.

What did I miss?

If you’ve experimented with IR photography, and have found another interesting effect or benefit, then please tell us about it by leaving a comment below. Thanks! :)

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steveb2About the Author: Steve Berardi is a naturalist, photographer, software engineer, and founder of PhotoNaturalist. You can usually find him hiking in the beautiful mountains and deserts of southern California.

Comments

  1. Steve, excellent idea, thank’s for the heads up on this lens! How does it perform under cloudy/ rainy/ overcast conditions?

  2. Hi Steve,
    Great introduction to IR. You may have already seen Debora Sandidge’s book ” Digital Infrared Photography” but thought I would share it with you. Ken

  3. Where do you buy an IR filter for digital cameras? What filter do you recommend?

  4. Steve,
    You missed some important points.
    1. best time of day to shoot IR photos (10:00am – 2:00pm) and weather conditions not suitable for IR
    2. water absorbs IR light and turns dark in the image
    3. not all plants reflect IR, especially in fall
    4. manmade materials may or may not reflect IR light
    5. use fill flash for IR
    6. how about some additional links to IR photography and
    7. converting digital cameras for IR photography

  5. Hi Steeve.
    With IR photography, the sky is very important. Rather than having an empty dark sky, I look for including high altitude clouds like cirrus or cirrostratus to my composition. These add dramatic and ethereal effects to the photograph, not possible with ordinary B&W photography. For examples on this, please look at my web IR gallery (http://www.natureinvisible.com/galleries/Infrarouge/)
    Regards, JP

  6. @Ani – I haven’t done any IR photography on cloudy days yet (we rarely see clouds here in southern California, hehe), but from a quick search, it looks like clouds generally stand out in IR photos too.

    @Ken – Thanks for the book recommendation, I haven’t heard of that one, but my interest in IR photography is growing so I’ll have to check it out. Thanks!!

    @Erin – You should be able find IR filters at any camera store. Personally, I like to buy from B&H and Adorama.

    @Dave – Great points, I’ll definitely have to talk about those in my next post on IR photography. I started writing a really long post with lots of details, but then I realized it was turning into a book, so this first post was really just meant as a brief intro :)

    @JP – Great point about photographing scenes with clouds! And, I love your IR shots — thanks for sharing!

  7. Hi Steve,

    I’ve done a little IR stuff but not with real success, partially because I was “just have a mess around” with a filter i picked up second hand. But, mainly because of the Post processing side of things. Are you intending doing a follow up article on that side of things? That would really help.
    Also do you not white balance from something green. I appreciate that may be problematic in some locations.

  8. Steve, any thoughts on using an IR filter versus doing a IR sensor conversion on an older DSLR?

  9. Angie Martin says:

    Hi STEVE,
    I AM A BEGINNER AND LATELY I HAVE ENTER ON COMPETIONS , I WOULD LIKE TO ORDER THE FILTER IR WERE CAN I FIND IT ,I HAVE A EOS REBEL T 3 I 600D CANON WHEN YOU MENTION THE FILTER , I WANT TO TRIED IT THANK YOU ANGIE

  10. @Pete – I definitely want to write more about IR, so keep an eye out for more posts :) Yeah, the post-processing part can be a little tricky. I’ll be sure to write a post about that in the future, but in Photoshop the color balance layer really helps.

    @Deb – I haven’t converted any of my older SLRs yet to better capture IR, but it’s something I’ve really wanted to try–especially now that I’ve got a really old Rebel gathering dust in my closet! When I convert it, I’ll be sure to write about my experience here on PN :)

    From the research I’ve done though, it seems like converting your camera is the way to go if you’re really serious about IR photography (or if you’re into astrophotography).

    @Angie – You should be able to find an IR filter at any camera store, including my personal favorite: B&H

  11. Great introduction to IR Steve, and thanks for the information about the filters!

  12. Can you get the IR look in post-processing if you did not use an IR filter? How?
    Thanks.

  13. @Carol – I’ve seen a few tutorials that show you how to “fake” the IR effect in Photoshop, but I wasn’t too satisfied with the results. The contrast isn’t usually as strong, and it creates a lot of noise. By far the best way to get a good quality IR image is to use an IR filter.

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