Photography

What Exactly is Infrared Photography?

Here’s guessing that if you’ve had a chance to browse through these galleries, and don’t already consider photography as one of your passions or even hobbies, you are probably wondering what this Infrared Photography is all about.  I’m also betting there are more than a few photographers out there who are new to it as well, just as I was a little more than a year ago.  Maybe you’re wondering how it all works – how do you take a photo of a forest in the middle of a seasonal summer afternoon and at first glance have it appear as if it was taken on the frostiest of winter mornings?  Photoshop, right?  Well no, not really.  OK, so here’s the deal.

Radiation 101

In case you were sick that day in 6th grade science class when Mr. Crabtree explained to you the electromagnetic spectrum, here are the cliff notes.  All of the light you and I see is between about 390nm on the violet end of the color spectrum and 750nm on the red end.  But the radiation that reaches us from the Sun is from around 250nm to over 2000nm.  To make a long story short, although our eyes have only evolved to pick up light in the visible range, there is also plenty of infrared light (750nm to 1mm) as well as ultraviolet light (10nm to 390nm) illuminating the world around us.  We just can’t see it.  But many animals, for example some snakes, fish and even mosquitoes, rely on seeing the world illuminated in infrared light to survive.  So what might that look like?

Digital Infrared Conversion

Infrared photography has been around for a long time, about 100 years actually.  But only until recently, until the wonderful world of digital SLR’s came along, has it become what you see here.  Before that infrared photography required tripods, filters, special film, very long exposures, Jedi-like intuition when it came to focusing, and a ton of patience.  But because digital camera sensors happen to actually be very sensitive to infrared light, when you buy a camera the manufacturer actually has to mount a piece of special optic glass in front of the camera’s sensor just to block out infrared light, so it doesn’t ruin all your pictures.  The trick here, is that you “simply” have to replace this piece of glass with the opposite, a piece of glass that blocks out all visible light and instead only lets in infrared light.

Of course it’s not that simple.  The idea of cracking open an expensive and extremely delicate device like a digital camera, at once voiding its warranty, is one that will surely make you take a moment to consider the soundness of that decision.  There are a few companies popping up that offer both conversion services as well as outright sales of IR converted cameras, most notably LifePixel.  They do the conversion in a dust free lab, recalibrate your autofocus, and are presumably practiced enough at it that they don’t have to resort to beating it with a hammer when it all doesn’t fit back together again.  It is a wise choice if you ever want to get into it.

How NOT to do it

But I’m not that smart and I decided to do it on my own.  I found an optics lab where I could buy a piece of glass that blocks everything smaller than 715nm, took it to a glass shop and had it cut to the right size.  Then at home one night, I performed the surgery.  Crack open the camera’s casing, say a few Hail Mary’s, disconnect all the fragile looking cables and connectors, unscrew those virtually microscopic screws, take out all the circuit boards, try not to electrocute yourself on the flash’s capacitor.  Then, like a high-stakes game of Operation, ever-so-carefully remove the hot mirror from the camera’s sensor and replace it with the IR glass after dusting it off with considerable devotion and diligence.  One speck of dust, smaller than your eye can perceive, trapped between the glass and the sensor – and you get to do it all over again.  No thank you.

But after about 2 hours of assembling, disassembling and re-assembling (because I couldn’t get a proper fit with the circuit board cables and their connectors) I was able to take a test shot.  Success!  No trapped dust particles, no damaged sensor pixels, all camera functions working properly and even no need to re-calibrate my autofocus.  But I’m smart enough to realize it was likely a little thing called beginner’s luck.  Next time I’ll go to LifePixel.

Exploration at 720nm

Now that you have a converted infrared digital camera, it’s time to start thinking about how the world around us appears when it’s exposed to infrared light.  Certain materials might absorb certain wavelength ranges in visible light, but behave completely different with infrared light.  That’s the case with vegetation.  Green grass, leaves and other types of vegetation are highly reflective under infrared light.  This is what provides the “Wood Effect”, or the bright white appearance of lush, green vegetation.  Bright blue skies appear dark and atmospheric haze often disappears.  Yet my favorite thing about IR photography is how we ourselves appear in infrared light.  These light waves penetrate the skin more deeply than normal light.  As a result, skin tones take on a soft porcelain look, almost glowing.  Any surface blemishes or imperfections, even freckles, disappear.  Tattoos become much more vivid and defined and even veins under the skin sometimes become very prominent in the images (especially if they are a bit underexposed).  Hair takes on a shade of blue that can vary from person to person, but always provides an otherworldly appearance.

Post-Processing Possibilities

There are a few things you can do with an infrared image as far as post-processing is concerned.  Perhaps the most common process is to switch the color channels in an appropriate image editing software.  This is often done with landscapes that have a clear sky.  The result is that you can mimic the natural blue sky in your infrared images.  This is called a “false-color IR image”.  The other thing I often do with my infrared images in my “digital darkroom” is to simply convert them to black and white.  This is a great way to take a super-far-out IR photo and make it more acceptable to our natural senses (or to the liking of people with more traditional tastes) yet still keeping some of the more desirable properties like radiant and smooth skin tones, or for landscapes – dark skies with high contrast clouds that nearly pop right out at you.

Give it a Shot!

For me, infrared photography is appealing not only because it captures my imagination, but because it gives me the means to explore and see the world around me in a way that has always been there, but has simply been hidden.  I hope that while looking through my photos, it also captures your imagination in a similar way.  If you have any questions or would like advice about your own conversion project or how to get started, please don’t hesitate to contact me.

3 Comments

  • Angela Robbins

    1

    Scott, All your photos are gorgeous. I thoroughly enjoyed your blog entries. I can relate to NOT being a morning person--lol. Also I got a good laugh at the humorous lesson above on how to and not to make an infared camera. Thank-you so much again, for offering your beautiful photos and awesome talents to my new website. Can't wait to see what's in store!

  • Kristy DeAnda

    2

    Love your photos, Scott. Just read about IR photography. I am so glad that you are doing this to showcase your art. I just sent you a skype request because I reset my phone and lost all my settings. Hope to chat with you soon.

  • Photo of the Month Competition: Krakow Post

    3

    [...] photo is an infrared shot of Wawel Castle from the banks of the Wisla river.  This is an example of an infrared photo [...]

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