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Adventures in Infrared Imaging

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Every adventure begins with a first step and so it is with the creative world of digital infrared (IR) imaging. That first step is to have a basic understanding of infrared light.

Technically speaking, in IR digital photography, infrared light (invisible wavelengths to our eyes) is recorded, as opposed to visible light (the light that we normally see and the light our cameras normally record). The name infrared comes from the combination of the Latin word “infra,” which means below, and red (which has the longest wavelength visible to our eyes). The IR wavelength is below that of red.

In IR photography, some of the reality is removed from the scene, giving us a more creative and artistic image. Green grass, foliage, and trees look white—having an ethereal glow. An IR picture can also look like a dramatic black-and-white image, with a black sky punctuated by brilliant white clouds. We can even create an IR image that shows part of the image in black-and-white and part of it in color, as we see in the opening picture for this article, which I took at Bodie State Historic Park (a real ghost town) in California. What more could a creative digital photographer ask for?

Making the change

For creative digital photographers, there’s a very easy way to get into IR imaging. Life Pixel (www.lifepixel.com) and IRdigital (www.irdigital.net) convert compact and SLR Canon and Nikon digital cameras to IR-only cameras. They do this by removing the filter that’s normally over the image sensor and replacing it with a filter that filters out visible light, leaving only IR light to fall on the sensor.

Even with the original filter removed, however, IR images need some Photoshop help with color, contrast, and brightness. The opening image for this article is one of my favorite IR images. I shot it with my IR-converted Canon SD800 compact camera. As you can see, the sky is blue but the landscape is black-and-white—a popular IR effect that’s easy to create in Photoshop.

The technique

In landscape photography, my technique is to expose for the highlights so that they’re not washed out and overexposed. When shooting with my IR camera on automatic mode, that usually means setting the exposure compensation to –1. Then, in Photoshop, I use the Shadow/Highlight adjustment (Image>Adjustments>Shadow/Highlight) to open up the shadows. Those techniques make shooting into the sun relatively easy.

Okay, here’s how to create the popular blue-sky effect, no matter what camera you have converted. (Hey, it’s only one technique, one that works for me.)

STEP ONE:
Set the IR-converted camera to Manual and choose Custom as the white balance setting. Now, fill the frame with green grass and set the Custom white balance for the grass. Now all the green tones in your image will look white.


Out-of-the camera image with custom white balance

STEP TWO:
Create a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer (Layer>New Adjustment Layer>Hue/Saturation). In the New Layer dialog, choose Color as the Mode, then in the Hue/Saturation dialog, move the Hue slider completely to the left and click OK.

At this point, the greens will look white, but the other parts of the image will have an ethereal blue tint. Now, flatten the layers (Layer>Flatten Image).


Image adjusted with Hue/Saturation

STEP THREE:
Create a duplicate layer (Layer>Duplicate Layer). You now have two identical layers, one on top of the other, both with a bluish tint. Click on the bottom layer in the Layers panel. Go to Image>Adjustments>Hue/Saturation and completely desaturate that layer (drag the Saturation slider to –100).

You’re almost done! Click on the top layer. Select the Eraser tool (E) from the Toolbox and erase the area you want to be black-and-white. As with most digital files, you can create a more dramatic image by adjusting Curves, Levels, or Brightness/Contrast. I’ve found this to be especially true with IR images. So play around with these adjustments to see how you can create more dramatic images.


Blue sky and black-and-white landscape

Variations on a theme

I share the following examples, illustrating different techniques and results, because different photographers like different IR effects.

Grayscale IR: Want an IR image with the look of IR film (basically a grayscale image) like this image that I took in Yosemite National Park? That’s easy with an IR-converted camera. Leave the white balance on Auto then when you open your image in Photoshop, simply desaturate it using a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer. In Auto mode, however, the blue-sky effect will not be an option. What’s more, on your camera’s LCD monitor, your picture will have a reddish tint, as opposed to looking more like a black-and-white image when you manually set the white balance.


Yosemite National Park

Pseudo IR effect: Creating a pseudo IR effect from an RGB image in Photoshop is easy, which is what I did here from a color file of the church at Bodie. I admit it doesn’t look exactly like an IR photo. (That’s why I call it a pseudo effect.) First, convert your color file to a black-and-white image (Image>Mode>Grayscale). Next, apply the Diffuse Glow filter (Filter>Distort>Diffuse Glow). For different effects, play around with the fade filter command (Edit>Fade Diffuse Glow) and the contrast of the image (Image>Adjustments>Brightness/Contrast).


Pseudo IR effect

Ethereal blue tint: As mentioned at the beginning of this article, IR images can look more artistic and creative than color images. Shooting in IR can also make you see and picture the world more creatively. These two images, taken at the same location—the ruins of a 1930s country club not far from my home in Croton-on-Hudson, NY—vividly illustrate that point.

The IR image has a blue tint, created using the technique described above. The unworldly image gave me the idea to use a “mirror” effect to create a pond (that isn’t there) for an even more creative image. (The frame was created using a Brush frame from PhotoFrame Pro 3 [www.ononesoftware.com].)

For this and all my IR images, I set the exposure compensation on my camera to –1 so as not to blow out (overexpose) the highlights in a scene. That’s because my camera only shoots JPEG files. If you shoot RAW files, you can rescue up to one stop of overexposed areas in Adobe Camera Raw. Still, be on the lookout for overexposed areas on your camera’s LCD monitor when you’re shooting, because sometimes with IR photography, the white subjects can be much brighter than the rest of the scene.

So, if you’re stuck creatively, try your hand at IR photography. I think you’ll enjoy the creative opportunity it offers. What’s more, once you get into IR photography, you may start to “see the world in IR,” as I now do when I travel with my IR camera.

P.S. I always like to give credit where credit is due, so I’d like to thank Deborah Sandidge (www.deborahsandidge.com) for inspiring me to work in IR photography. I’d known about IR imaging for years, but it wasn’t until I saw her work at a photography event that I decided to give it a whirl.

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