Infrared photography is a great style to try out – it’s fun, different, and inexpensive. That’s a rare combination in photography, and you get something really unique for it.
So, what is it? Here are two examples.
Only the colorblind would not notice that something is very different about this image. Clearly, the colors are strongly affected. This is how the image looks right from the camera – with funky red and purple tints. But the color isn’t the only thing that’s changed – pay close attention to brightness (white and black colors). To make it easier, here’s an example the way you’ll frequently see infrared photos – processed to be black and white.
Notice anything? Let’s start with this:
- The sky is getting darker as it gets higher. Looking at the shadows, you’ll see that this was in the early afternoon. The sky doesn’t get darker blue as you get higher in the sky; you couldn’t get this effect normally.
- The image was a long exposure, which is why vegetation has been blurred by the wind’s movement. Look closely at other details and you’ll see that there wasn’t an issue with focus or camera movement. (Actually, I used a tripod.) This kind of blur is from motion, over the four second exposure.
- Something about the black and white just seems different. You may not notice it at first, but look at the plants. Lots of vegetation that is normally very dark will come out in infrared photographs as light or even bright white.
So, what’s going on here?
First of all, infrared photography is easiest to do by just purchasing an infrared filter that fits your lens. (Learn about filters for photography.)
What we can see is called the “visible spectrum” of light. There happen to be more types of energy that we don’t see – for example, x-rays, ultraviolet light, radio waves, or infrared light. We can’t see infrared light. But your camera can!
Many camera sensors have filters on them to try to remove infrared light. This is because most people want the cameras to see like we see – that way, the pictures look like what we saw. But you can get around this by blocking out normal visible light, and keeping the infrared spectrum. The infrared filter on your camera is actually a bit of a misnomer – it is filtering out everything except infrared light. That way, your camera is only “seeing” in infrared, and you get an infrared photo.
Keep in mind that infrared is a small part of the light that exists. When you filter out so much light, you have very little light left to make an image. Light is the blood of photography. Just like taking pictures at night, you need to compensate for that lack of light with long exposures, high ISOs, or large apertures. Normally, so much light is being filtered out that you will require a long exposure and a tripod. Be aware that you can’t easily take infrared photos of things that are moving – or you can make the movement part of the image, like the black and white example above.
How is it different?
Well, to start, there’s long exposures (typically).
Also, things that give off more infrared light will appear brighter. This isn’t always the same as what looks bright to our human eyes. For example, lots of plants will give off infrared light. Dark-colored plants look freaky in infrared images, because in normal black-and-white photography we expect them to be dark.
The sky is another thing that changes. For reasons due to Science, there’s not much infrared light coming straight at you from the atmosphere. (At least, not compared to what’s closer to you on Earth.) This means that the high sky is very dark, but the close horizon will be almost normally bright. Check the black and white image again for an example.
Most people convert the images to black and white. You don’t have to.
In the end, the easiest way to put it is that infrared photographs end up like black and white photos, but without the same things being black and white. Because it’s different than what we expect, the images can be surprising and beautiful.
Take pictures that involve vegetation or other subjects that look different in infrared photography. These differences from our expectations is what makes infrared photography look ghostly or otherworldly. It’s that faint sense that something is off, something is different but in a subtle and hard to notice way. This is also the easiest way to identify when a black and white photo was an infrared image.
Think black and white is for the 50’s? One cool way to make this even more interesting is by using split toning. You can get very un-earthly tones that make quite an impression.
Clever readers may have noticed that I mentioned that image sensors in cameras have an infrared filter. “Can’t you just remove that filter,” they ask? Well, clever reader, yes you can. But that is difficult, requires nearly complete disassembly of the camera, and purchase of a different kind of cover / filter for the sensor. This is called an “infrared conversion” of the camera, and essentially makes the camera only useful for infrared photography. Try the simple screw-on filters first, but if you want to get serious, then I’d recommend either using infrared film or going all-out for a digital conversion (on a second camera body!).