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Digital Infrared Photography – A Brave New World For Me

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“We are not interested in the unusual, but in the usual seen unusually”
— Beaumont Newhall

It has been a while since a posted, but I have been extremely busy.  I have now decided to publish one issue of my blog each month as this will fit better with my hectic schedule, which will be even more hectic in 2014 as I am currently planning about five different photography trips.  I also plan to write a blog issue about each one, so that I can share my experiences with you.  I thank you all for your patience and I promise to be more attentive to this publication in the coming months.

A number of years ago, when film was king, I took a side-trip into shooting infrared black and white film.  For me, it was an experiment.  I shot a couple of rolls of infrared film and then went back to shooting colour slides – my favourite medium at the time.  I mean, who wanted to shoot only black and white and strange looking black and white at that.  Little did I know what was to come.

Last June while I was in South Dakota, attending a workshop in the Badlands, I was re-introduced to infrared photography through the medium of the digital camera.  One of the leaders of the workshop was Deb Sandidge, a practitioner of the art of IR photography and an author on the subject as well.  She had brought along, to the workshop, a couple of cameras that had been converted to capture light in the IR part of the spectrum (more about this aspect later) and she was kind enough to lend me one for half a day to “try it out”.  I eagerly downloaded the images that night and I was hooked.  Thus began my journey into the dark side – I mean you can’t see infrared light, but I am getting ahead of myself.

Let us start at the beginning.  Digital cameras today are fit with a filter in front of the sensor, often called a hot filter, that excludes most, if not all infrared light.  So, there are two ways to capture infrared light and the associated imagery – place an IR filter over the lens and hope that your camera will allow enough IR light through to the sensor, or, replace the hot filter with one that only lets selected IR light through.  I chose the latter.  It just so happened that I also had an extra digital camera in my closet, my old Canon Digital Rebel Xt.  It had been accumulating dust for about 5 years and I decide that I would convert it to shoot infrared imagery.  Wasn’t the best choice, as the recommendation is that you should convert a camera that has Live view as this makes it easier to focus in the IR spectrum, but the camera didn’t cost me anything at this time as it had been paid for years ago.  The only expense was the conversion.

To give you some background and insight as to exactly what infrared photography is, a short over view is perhaps appropriate.  Those looking for more can investigate the material on the web, starting with sites such as http://www.lifepixel.com/introduction and http://www.spencerscamera.com/.  There a multitude of others and some forums as well – http://irphotocom.proboards.com/.

The infrared light that I am talking about here involves light in the wavelengths from 700 to 1200 nm.  Nm, is the abbreviation for nanometer(s), a unit of measure in the Metric system equal to one billionth of a metre.  Don’t worry too much about that, just remember that it is a very, very, very, very small amount.  To put it in perspective, visible light ranges from about 400 to 700 nm.

There are four basic wavelengths that you can either buy filters for your camera and place on the lens, or have the camera converted to capture the IR light of one of these filters.  There are other types of conversions that you can buy, such as ultraviolet and full spectrum, but I will not go into these here.  If you are interested, then Google is your friend.

  1. At the shortest infrared wavelength is the 590nm filter.  It produces what could be called a colour IR image, as it allows a certain amount of the visible light spectrum to be captured, along with the entire IR spectrum.
  2. The next longest IR wavelength available is the 665nm filter.  It allows all of the IR spectrum to be captured, along with a small  amount of the colour spectrum.
  3. Known as the Standard IR Filter, the 720nm filter allows the capture of all of the IR spectrum and a very small amount of the visible light spectrum
  4. The other available filter is the 830nm filter.  This is a true IR filter, as it allows only infrared light to pass to the sensor.

If you are contemplating some IR photography, then I would recommend that you look at the detail analysis of each filter given by Life Pixel on their web page – http://www.lifepixel.com/infrared-filters-choices, or the discussion on the Spencer’s Camera page referenced previously. In my case, I chose the 590nm filter as I felt it gave me the most choices for post-processing.

As far as processing the IR images that come from the camera, there are a number of choices depending on the filter that is used.  My choice of the 590nm filter opened up a number of possibilities:  leave it as it came out of the camera, or convert it to black and white using one of the many ways of doing this conversion, including Lightroom or Photoshop, or one of the many plugins available for these software packages.  I have done some using Lightroom alone and Nik Software’s Silver Efex Pro 2.  There is, however, one type of processing that can be done only in Photoshop and that is the swapping of the red and blue colour channels.  This is done using the Channel Mixer to create what is often referred to as the “blue-sky” effect.  Life Pixel’s site shows the effect of this mixing process on the final image for the four filters described previously.  This effect is most pronounced for the 590nm filter and a little less for the 659nm filter.  This is because these filters retain a certain amount of the red end of the visible colour spectrum.  This give the photographer a bit more freedom in exercising their creative side in arriving at the final image.

If you are interested in pursuing infrared photography, then I strongly urge you to do your homework.  Try to find someone in your part of the world who may have made the move into IR imagery and talk to them about their experiences.  Review as much of the material on the web as you can find – there is a lot of it.  Get ahold of a good book.  Deb’s is the most recent publication in this field.  If you do not have an old digital camera to convert, then consider buying a filter for your current camera.  They are available in all four wavelengths  Take a number of images of various subjects, particularly the types of subject that you like to shoot and compare them to a digital image of the same subject.  If you do decide to invest in a camera solely for the purpose of IR imagery, then you may want to purchase a slightly used DSLR that has Live View. (This will be my next purchase should I decide to pursue this form of imagery in a big way.)

To give you some ideas as to what can happen, I have chosen two images from my initial venture in IR photography during the South Dakota Badlands journey.  The first image is one of the badlands topography and the second is one of a wagon wheel that was resting beside the road in a small deserted town that we found during our travels.  In each case, I show the original image in full digital colour and in the infrared spectrum using the 665nm filter on the camera that Deb Sandidge loaned me.  I then show the results of a black and white conversion using Nik’s Silver Efex Pro 2 plugin for Lightroom.  These images are just examples to show what sort of things to expect.  I would note, however, that the potential for processing the infrared image is only limited by your imagination and creativity.   I would urge you to review a number of images on the web on the Spencer’s Camera and Life Pixel sites and to review those images posted on the infrared forums referred to previously, to gain a full appreciation for the types of results that can be obtained.

Original colour image, Badlands topography at sunset.

Original colour image, Badlands topography at sunset.

Colour image converted to black and white.

Colour image converted to black and white.

Original infrared image, Badlands topography.

Original infrared image, Badlands topography.

Infrared image converted to black and white.

Infrared image converted to black and white.

Original wagon wheel colour image.

Original wagon wheel colour image.

Original colour converted to black and white

Original colour converted to black and white

Original wagon wheel infrared image

Original wagon wheel infrared image

Infrared converted to black and white

Infrared converted to black and white

So, if you are looking for something new to expand your photographic world and get those creative juices flowing, then to quote an old advertising phrase, “Try it, you’ll like it.”, just remember to do your homework.

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