Have you ever seen photographs where the trees looked almost white and the sky almost black, or the colours a little other-worldly? Chances are it was an infrared image. Infrared photography offers a different view of the world from what we are able to see, covering the longer wavelengths that lie beyond the visible spectrum. For example, the chlorophyll in the plants reflect back the light resulting in the light foliage and dark skies that are characteristic of this type of photography. But it’s not just plants to benefit from the IR treatment: colours, textures, human skin, and so much more can reflect infrared light in unique and interesting ways to make crisp, stunning, sometimes surreal, images.
The medium dates back to early 20th century, where the first forays used special film plates. During WWI, it proved valuable – images using the infrared spectrum were not affected as much by atmospheric haze. They were also able to show stark distinctions between vegetation and buildings, better identifying potential enemy targets such as camouflaged munitions factories and other key sites. Rivers, streams, lakes, and other waterways were depicted in a very dark hue, making them much more obvious. You can see more about this history here..
There are two ways to achieve an infrared image with a digital camera: buy an infrared filter or have your camera’s sensor converted to infrared. Dedicated infrared fans opt for the latter, but buying a filter is a cheaper way to try out the medium before you commit. If you’re an analogue photographer you can still buy expired infrared film. Otherwise, Ilford’s SFX range is semi-infrared and you can add a red filter to achieve the same effect as full infrared.
Here are some things to know about infrared photography:
(1) Cloudy days and lots of greenery make ideal scenes for this type of photography but you need to make sure there is something in the image to balance out the green (dark tree trunks, sky, water or a stone wall, for example).
(2) If you’re using a filter, you’ll want to compose first then add the filter. The filters are very dark and you’ll struggle to see the image otherwise.
(3) You might need to adjust the focusing to compensate for the longer wavelengths in infrared
(4) Because infrared has a low colour temperature, you’ll need to adjust your white balance
(5) You might need to meter manually since the camera’s meter doesn’t always see the correct exposure
(6) You might like to slightly underexpose the image to get the best results. For digital users that means the histogram should be slightly biased to the blacks (to the left).
(7) You’ll need to tweak your images a little in editing software to give a good result. At the very least you’ll want to consider converting the image to black and white, desaturating it and increasing contrast.
You don’t need to wait for a sunny day to enjoy the benefits of infrared, so grab your camera and have fun!