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Shoot What You Can’t See: Infrared Photography Tutorial

Infrared Photography a Smart Tutorial for Beginners

“What is essential is invisible to the eyes”, said the fox in Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince. Maybe that’s the reason why infrared photography is so hot right now. Infrared (or IR) refers to radiations that humans can feel as heat, but visually can’t grasp. While you may not be able to see it – your camera can. This might sound a bit crazy, or even magical (how can you possibly shoot something  you can’t see?), but it actually works. And it works really well, based on the images you can admire on various photography websites. Shooting in infrared gives photographs a surreal and somewhat eerie demeanor that never go unnoticed. A technique that is worth adding to your own set of skills, especially since digital cameras and computer editing has made it easier and more affordable than ever before.

In this article, we’ll discover what infrared photography is, which kind of situations it’s most recommended, and even how to give it a try with this tutorial for beginners. You’ll soon be able to capture things that you can’t see. A walk in your neighborhood park could look like an exploration of the moon. After all, maybe the great adventures are indeed in our own backyards?

What is infrared photography?

Believe it or not, the light that we see is only a tiny portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. The human eye can perceive colors on a wavelength scale from 400 to 700 nanometers (from violet to red). Everything that is below or above that scale will simply not impress our retina. This is the case with gamma rays, ultraviolet, radio waves… and infrared (700 nanometers to 300 GHz). The latter is used by many animals like snakes to move and spot their prey. It’s also employed by technological devices, such as thermal imaging, or your TV remote to signal your screen that you had enough of your daily dose of Keeping Up with the Kardashians.

Although your eyes can’t see infrared, most cameras can. Which means that you can take pictures using a light that you can’t actually see! For this purpose, you simply need to add a filter that will block the other lights out from hiding the IR. The infrared radiation will affect your lens in such a unique way, that the items on your photo will appear in colors and contrasts that you can hardly obtain with any other technique. You’ve certainly seen infrared photos on the Internet, without knowing what they were. They’re characterized by their particular reddish colors (before editing), or the white unearthly shade of the vegetation (after editing).

From physics to Jimi Hendrix

Infrared photography emerged in the early 20th century. Before then, it was technically impossible to shoot in IR because silver halide emulsions were not sensitive to wavelengths longer than the blue light. In its first period, infrared photography was seen more as a scientific breakthrough, rather than a means of creative expression. As a matter of fact, the first infrared photographs were published in 1910, in the Century Magazine and in the Royal Photographic Society Journal, to illustrate scholar papers by Robert W. Wood, considered “the father of both infrared and ultraviolet photography”.

Infrared became more common in the 1930s when suitable film was introduced to the market. Newspapers like The Time started featuring photos using this technique. It was then widely used in the 1960s, thanks to the spurge of psychedelic aesthetics. Artists like Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa or the Grateful Dead started putting IR pictures on their album covers. Today, thanks to computers, infrared is widely spread and used by many photographers as a way of diversifying their set of techniques.

Album covers shot in infrared photography

What to shoot in infrared?

We hate reminding you about your high school physics lessons, but there is one rule you need to know when it comes to shooting in infrared: living items reflect a greater amount of IR light than inanimate objects. Which means that a picture with a lot of vegetation (trees, grass, flowers, etc.) will always look much more compelling. On your photos, foliage will have this clear white, “ghostly” appearance and that, fellow photographers, is the signature of infrared images. On the contrary, stones, water and skies tend to absorb infrared light, and will thus appear as dark objects in your shots.

Beautiful Infrared Photography of Trees by Wix Photographer Nathan Hayag
A truly eerie environment, by Wix photographer Nathan Hayag. Look how the inanimate water becomes deep dark on an IR picture.

Due to the optimal reflection of IR by foliage, landscapes are the natural choice for this kind of photography. On top of this, infrared photos require a very long exposure, making it efficient to shoot inanimate sceneries as opposed to moving objects. Moreover, since you’re looking for infrared lights, it’s always preferable to shoot in the middle of the day, when the sun is high and shining bright.

Lastly, IR photography is similar to black and white in the sense that you’ll be dealing with a limited number of tones. Thus, to add more ‘energy’ into your photos, focus on contrasting elements: dark objects close to light ones, smooth close to textured, etc.

Infrared photography: a beginner’s tutorial

We put together a simple guide to get you started. You’ll need to know four things: gear requirements, recommended camera settings, a few tips on how to shoot, and then how to process your photos. You can be as playful and carefree as you’d like about this. There are of course more advanced techniques if you become obsessed with this experiment and want to create more complex images. For now, we’ll stick to simplicity for the sake of getting out there and trying something new.

The gear:

First, here is the equipment you’ll need to get started:

  • A digital camera. Make sure yours doesn’t have a built-in filter that blocks the IR light from reaching the sensor. To check, you can Google the model of your camera. Second option: put your camera in ‘live view’, point a TV remote control at the lens and press a few buttons. If you notice a flashing red tinted light on your camera’s screen, that means that your gear can “see” IR light.

  • An infrared filter. You can purchase this online or at a professional camera store. Decent filters can be found for $20-30, with the most sophisticated options ranging up to $80-100.

  • A tripod. As we’ve mentioned, infrared photography requires long exposure, so you want to make sure that your gear is fully stabilized when taking the shot.

If you’re the proud owner of a film camera, you can also go infrared. You’ll simply have to buy a 35mm infrared film (from $10 to $25) to start shooting.

The settings:

Great, you’ve got your gear and are ready to roll. Start by finding the right focus for your photo, because it can be very hard to focus once the IR filter is mounted. Then put your filter on your DSLR camera. It’s time to get into your camera’s settings. First, make sure you’re shooting RAW only, because you’ll need some flexibility to edit the shots afterwards. Secondly, choose an ISO that is as low as possible, in order to minimize ‘noise’. Keep in mind that IR photos involve extra-exposure, so go for a ISO 800 maximum for shots under 1 minute, and ISO 400 for shots over 1 minute. Lastly, it’s recommended to choose a narrow aperture, as it will give you a larger depth of field (ideal for a landscape) and minimize focusing issues.

The shots:

Since IR photography is limited by certain rules that we’ve mentioned above (‘What to shoot in infrared?’), it’s a must to position your camera on a tripod and meticulously work your focus before hitting the shutter button. Some shots may require up to 6 minutes of exposure, so you’d better be patient and take a remote shutter with you. When the photo is shot, it will look red and muddy on your digital display. Don’t freak out: that’s exactly what it should look like. This is where processing comes in.

Editing infrared images:

If you opt to use film to shoot infrared, you’ll need to find a lab that is experienced in this particular processing. If you have your own darkroom, you can still do the developing  yourself. Simply keep in mind that IR film is extremely light sensitive, and go over a thorough infrared film developing tutorial to make sure you don’t forget a single step.

If you shot with a digital camera, infrared photos will always need some editing to look their best. What’s the process? We choose to edit first in Lightroom for white balance, and then Photoshop for color correction. Here is a tutorial we really like that will show you the right way:

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