infrared photography guide

The Ultimate Infrared Photography Guide

The end to end Infrared Photography Guide demonstrates how to do infrared photography with DSLR or Mirrorless cameras. We’ll discuss camera conversion and technique as well as processing techniques using Lightroom, Photoshop and the Nik Collection.

Infrared Light

The light and colours that we can see, visible light, occurs on various wavelengths contained within a spectrum that includes light that the human eye cannot see. The colours we do see are reflected from the objects that a light source is illuminating.

The Electromagnetic Spectrum
The Electromagnetic Spectrum

In the diagram above, the wavelength is arranged left to right in increasing frequencies. i.e. the peaks are closer together. Wavelength is measured in Nanometers.

Visible light occurs between roughly 400 and 700 nanometers bounded by ultraviolet and infrared.

The wavelengths we are interested in for infrared photography are approximately 700 – 900 nanometers. i.e outside the visible spectrum

So how do we capture this light? More to the point, how do we exclude the visible light?

Infrared Filters

There are two approaches to using infrared filters.

On Lens Filters

The easiest way to exclude visible light is to fix an infrared filter to the front of the lens.

The Hoya 77mm Infrared R72 Screw-in Filter is an example of such a filter. It blocks all wavelengths up to 720 nanometers.

The problem with screw-in filters is that in combination with the existing hot mirror filter that is already installed in the DSLR, long exposures are necessary to create an image. This means using a tripod. Since you won’t be able to use a through the lens viewfinder, you’re hampered in terms of composition unless you know your camera and lens combination really well!

In-Camera Filters

This type of filter is mounted in front of the sensor in place of the hot mirror filter.

What is a Hot Mirror Filter

The hot mirror filter is used by camera manufacturers to block infrared light between 700 and 1200 nanometers. The rationale is that because we can’t see. this light it can only make it harder for the electronic sensor to record an image that reflects the reality we see.

Removing the hot mirror filter and installing an infrared filter is a job that requires a steady hand, the right tools and a good knowledge of the internals of the camera you are converting. Most people get this done professionally.

Converting a camera like this is a one-way trip. The camera cannot be used for any other type of photography afterwards. Most people repurpose an old camera. I had a Canon 550 D sitting on a shelf unused and sent it off to ProTech Photographic in Sussex to be converted.

Choosing the Filter

Different grades of filter allow more or less visible light into the sensor. These are the common options.

The Visible Spectrum
The Visible Spectrum
  • 590nm – For False Colour 
  • 665nm – For False Colour & Black & White
  • 720nm – Mainly Black & White
  • 830nm – Black & White 
  • Clear – Full Spectrum (Astro Photography)
  • Clear – Full Spectrum – UV

Each filter blocks the light at shorter wavelengths below the number allocated. For example, a 720nm filter allows light above 720nm. The 665nm allows more colour.

I had a 720nm filter fitted. I do a lot of black and white photography but was interested to experiment with false colour.

Custom White Balance in Camera

Once a filter is fitted, a custom white balance is set up – typically this will set the colour of grass to white. If the filter is fitted professionally, then the white balance will be set for you. Some people recommend that you set a custom white balance for every shoot as conditions vary.

Composition and Light

Because we’re dealing with infrared, a wavelength we can’t see, composition is not quite as straightforward as it is in say Landscape Photography. The textures we see may not be there at all in infrared, similarly, colours can be radically different. You will learn to ‘see’ in infrared in the same way a good black and white photographer can know what the finished image will look like.

A couple of pointers for shooting.

  • Leaves and skies look great in Infrared
  • Sunny days often make for better photos so midday is a great time to shoot infrared
  • Experiment like crazy – it’s the only way to produce great images.
  • Intentional Camera Movement can be interesting.
  • Portraits in infrared can be really interesting as tattoos and moles don’t reflect infrared light.

Infrared Processing

Untreated Infrared Photograph
Untreated Infrared Photograph

This untreated image is what the sensor has recorded with a custom white balance setting. You can see that the plants in the foreground are reflecting the most white light which is a result of the white balance being set green/white.

Unfortunately with Adobe tools, we cannot remove the red cast entirely without creating a custom camera profile. Adobe simply doesn’t have the range.

Infrared Image in Adobe Lightroom
Infrared Image in Adobe Lightroom

We need to extend Lightroom’s Capability so that we can get a usable image out of the one produced by the sensor. Note that Capture One can handle this step, but it can’t handle the photoshop manipulations we’re moving on to.

Generating Custom Camera Profile for Infrared Processing

To extend the range of Adobe Lightroom we need to generate a further custom profile.

Infrared Image with Custom Camera Profile
Infrared Image with Custom Camera Profile

You can see in the image above, that we have applied a custom camera profile – Canon EOS 550D Infrared and that I now have ample room in the Color Temperature slider to manipulate the image. The leaves are white which is as it should be.

Downloading the Adobe DNG Profile Editor

Download the DNG Profile editor from Adobe.

The latest version is 2012, v1.0.4 I’ve tested it on Mac OS Big Sur 11.2.3 and it works perfectly well. Once you have created the camera profile, save it and never let it go. Software that hasn’t been maintained since 2012 is obviously at risk of disappearing.

Once you have downloaded it, go to the downloads folder and copy it to your desktop. Then hold the control key down and double click to open. You’ll be prompted to confirm that you want to open it. Go ahead. This is what you’ll see.

Adobe DNG Profile Editor
Adobe DNG Profile Editor

Next, choose an untreated RAW image from your camera in Lightroom and export it as a DNG (This is a DNG Profile Editor, not a RAW Profile editor).

In the DNG Profile Editor choose File, Open DNG Image to open the image you just exported from Lightroom.

Colour Matrices in DNG Profile Editor
Colour Matrices in DNG Profile Editor

Navigate to the Color Matrices tab and drag the Temperature slider all the way to the left. Leave the other sliders at 0.

Next, select the Options tab and provide a name for the profile – remember that profiles are camera-specific so name it after your camera make and model. I called mine Canon EOS 550D Infrared.

Choose File, Export Profile and save the profile to a safe place.

Next, we import the new profile into Lightroom.

Importing a Camera Profile into Lightroom

Move the profile you just created to (Mac)

/Users/{username}/Library/Application Support/Adobe/Camera Raw/Camera Profiles/

or Windows

C:\Users\{username}\AppData\Roaming\Adobe\CameraRaw\CameraProfiles

On the Mac, navigate to your username directory, by default the Library directory is hidden – press cmd + shift + [.] to reveal it.

Back in Lightroom, go to the Basic pane on the right-hand side, click on the profile and choose Browse.

Profile Browser in Adobe Lightroom
Profile Browser in Adobe Lightroom

Scroll down to the bottom of the available profiles and choose the new profile you just imported.

You can also create a Black and White Profile by following the same steps but using these settings to remove the colour from the image. It may be slightly different for certain cameras but you need to find the most neutral position on the blue primary slider. Generally, it’s around -50, anything more introduces a green cast.

Black and White Profile Settings
Black and White Profile Settings

Optionally you can add contrast in the Tone Curve tab but some people prefer to do this in the processing stage.

Processing Infrared Images

There are a few different routes to go with processing. I’m going to cover Colour Processing first. This is what is referred to as False Colour in the filter list. What we are. doing is taking the colour the filter allowed in and manipulating it.

Preparing the Image for Channel Swap

First, in Lightroom, push the white slider to the point where it overexposes then pull it back a tad. Similarly with the blacks. You want your blacks to be black and your whites white. Then, saturate the oranges a little, (this is highly subjective). The settings here have a big effect on the next step so you’ll need to experiment to see what works best for you.

Swapping Channels in Photoshop

There is a very comprehensive post on Infrared Photography Processing that I wrote last year. These are the essentials.

In Lightroom, choose “Edit in Photoshop”. Once there, go to the channel mixer and for the output channel ‘Red’ change the values to Red 0, Blue +100. Then switch to the Blue output channel and set Blue  0 and Red +100. This will make your skies much bluer and your foliage slightly orange.

An alternative route is to go to the ‘Levels’ slider and pull the darks to the middle. Take the whites all the way down to the left and then move the darks from the middle, all the way to the right. Your picture will look like a negative. Change the blending mode to ‘Hue’.

I think this technique gives a slightly more natural shade of blue in the sky than the straightforward channel swapping technique.

False Colour Beyond Channel Swapping

With this technique, you can get away from the Blue/Orange effects I’ve described above and embrace more vibrant colours. The variety of colours does depend on the filter you have used i.e the amount of colour information your sensor has captured.

This is how it works.

Prepare your picture in the same way as before in Lightroom. Push the whites and blacks to get a good dynamic range.

Play around with the white balance to get a good separation between sky and foliage. Do this by clicking on the dropper in the White Balance screen and selecting various areas of the image to see what works. Clouds for example.

When you have a good separation, forcing most of the colour into the foliage, increase the clarity and vibrance and push the saturation until it looks too much. Leave it there, trust me, at this stage,  the more garish the better!

Then “Edit in Photoshop”. Go to the Hue/Saturation tool and leaving it on master, play around with the Hue slider. You’ll find a vast range of colour combinations, have a play, go with what feels right.

After I have the picture the way I want it in Photoshop I like to take the picture out to the Nik Collection’s Colour Efex Pro to give it a little more punch. I use the Colour Contrast Pro setting and Glow.

Black and White

For Black and White Processing I use the Nik Collection’s Silver Efex Pro. Often I’ll go through the same preparation steps in Lightroom to get a good separation/contrast before I go to Silver Efex.

Conclusion

That pretty much covers my infrared photography guide. I hope this is useful, when I started off on my infrared journey it took me days to get all of the information into one place. if it is useful to you or if you think something is missing, let me know in the comments!

Thanks for reading this post, if you’re interested in the more general aspects of photography try “What Makes a Good Photographer” on the blog.

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