Infrared Photography - Getting Started and What You Need to Know
Hello! I’m Matthew Stuart Piper, Cokin’s Infrared Ambassador, and this will be the first of a number of blogs on infrared photography. I’ll be starting out with basics and working up to more advanced content, so if the first few blogs are too rudimentary for you, just hang in there!
Why Shoot IR?
The magic! Let me admit the obvious at the outset; I’m obsessed with infrared (IR) photography. It’s almost all I’ve shot since 2001. When I started my IR career, I only knew one other IR shooter but in the wake of the digital revolution, shooting IR is easier than ever, with more people discovering the magic everyday. It's an addiction that's hard to kick once you learn how it works and when it's best to use it.
So why do I love IR? Like all artists, the reason is simple: infrared photography is the perfect medium to express my vision of the world. I like to call it “dreamscapes” or “magical realism.” It opens the door to a surreal world with unique hues and tonality I can not capture using traditional photo techniques and equipment. Infrared photography is great for people who love experimenting and want to create real-world compositions with that special touch of magic.
Let’s take a look at a few examples.
“Olympus” is a traditional-looking IR photograph. It was shot with a true IR filter which blocks all visible light, letting only IR light pass through to the sensor. People sometimes think that it’s a snowy scene taken at night; in fact, it was taken in Maui in the middle of the morning.
“Vacationing” is a modern-looking infrared photograph, combining realistic skies with the IR glow of the leaves. It’s probably fair to say that the majority of IR photos are shot and edited to look along these lines today.
“Aspire” shows a strong IR glow as well, but was shot with a red filter, producing a yellow sky and turned the stones red. Although mid afternoon in the summer isn’t normally a good time to take traditional photographs, the extra sunlight (IR radiation) actually helps the IR photographer!
Finally, “Victorian Expedition” is another example of what can be done in post-processing with color IR photography. To me, rich, false color renditions are even more striking than true color and more conservative IR color photography.
That’s just a taste of what's possible with IR photography. Now let's get into how IR photography works.
How IR Photography Works
Every standard digital camera comes with an internal IR blocker (i.e., IR cut-off filter) to guarantee accurate color capture of the visible light spectrum (figure 1). So there are two basic options for shooting infrared: (1) remove the internal IR blocker or (2) put an external infrared filter on a normal, unmodified camera.
Option (2) is the simplest and least expensive, and thankfully Cokin’s 720-89B filter (figure 2) makes it easy to start shooting IR with minimal cost. You can find a link here.
Figure 2. Cokin 007 Infrared Filter - Available in 3 Sizes
Using the Camera You Own Right Now
So, what can you expect with this filter? Fun and surprises! If you haven’t tried IR, this is a perfect way to dive right in! As mentioned above, shooting midday isn’t a problem with this method since you’ll get more IR effect and have more light to work with. Why is that important? As I explained before modern digital cameras use an IR blocking filter in front of the sensor to keep infrared light from contaminating the colors being recorded by the camera. This is good for traditional photography and bad for IR.
The Cokin 007 filter passes all available IR light and a tiny bit of visible light through the lens. Then that light encounters the camera's internal IR blocking filter that stops most of it but allows enough for us to create some very interesting IR images. Like with all compromises, in this case lower cost, there are consequences.
- Focusing and composition must be done prior to placing the filter in front of the lens. The filter is opaque so you will not be able to see anything once the filter is attached.
- Very long exposures are required in order to expose the sensor to the remaining IR light as it passes the camera's IR blocking filter. This is great on a windless day where clouds are drifting across the sky but could be frustrating on windy days where trees and leaves are moving too.
None of these are deal breakers but they require a little more patience. And, for the cost of a filter and a tripod you can be out shooting images like the one below. I love the long exposure required to create "Lifespan" (below). The motion blur in the sky caused by the long exposure adds drama and depth.
Using a Camera with IR Blocking Filter Removed
It is possible to have a camera "converted" to a highly sensitive infrared camera by having the IR blocking filter removed. This provides some very distinct advantages over the option described above.
- You can capture IR light at much faster shutter speeds similar to traditional photography. Handholding is not a problem.
- Focusing is much easier using your camera's LCD screen or LCD viewfinder. IR light focuses a bit differently than visible light, with the IR blocking filter removed you can accurately focus your lens on the subject. I have some tips and tricks I will share in a future article.
- Motion Blur is controlled the same way you do with an unconverted camera; Neutral Density filters.
So, what's the catch. Converting a camera can be expensive. And, once the IR blocking filter is removed it cannot be put back. That camera is forever an IR camera. There are lot's of options available, which I will cover in a future article, but if you're ready now contact me through my website and I will send you to a couple conversion companies I use and I might be able to save a few bucks too.
Above, you saw some examples of what’s possible with IR photography. Before closing, let me summarize three of those wonderful effects.
- Experiments show that healthy, hydrated vegetation provide a reflectance spike in the NIR spectrum, creating an infrared glow that is commonly called the “Wood Effect,” after Robert Wood’s pioneering photography.
- Combining visible and invisible sources of light – as occurs during color infrared photography – allows for hue possibilities that can’t otherwise be generated.
- IR photography enjoys enhanced contrast because the longer wavelengths are less susceptible to atmospheric light scattering. This unique combination of tonal, hue and contrast possibilities helps explain why infrared is so captivating and such a wonderful creative outlet.
This is meant to be a brief introduction to Digital Infrared Photography with more detailed "How-to" articles coming soon. Until then feel free to contact me with questions or comments through my website. If you are looking for inspiration you can visit my gallery at www.matthewstuartpiper.com or follow me on Instagram @matthew_stuart_piper.
Till next time – all the best!
Matthew Stuart Piper