Digital Infrared Photography – a post processing example

Introduction

If you’ve read through my blog or looked at my photostream on Flickr, you’ll already know that I enjoy black and white photography and occasionally post B&W images. Removing color from a scene abstracts reality – and emphasizes shapes, composition, and texture. The image becomes a bit unreal, but since we’re used to B&W  – not too unreal.  This makes B&W a great way to make your images stand out.

Another way to make your images stand out is by using infrared (IR) film or an IR modified camera:

  • IR captures a portion of the spectrum of light that’s different from what your eyes can see.
  • The spectral response makes blue sky look dark and foliage bright.  This reverses a normal daylight scene’s brightness values, helps tame contrast, and allows you to shoot even when the sun is high in the sky.
  • You can interpret this alternate version of reality by processing your IR photo as B&W or various types of false color images.
  • IR can sometimes also capture details that aren’t seen with visible light.
  • If you use a modified digital camera, you may see improved detail in your photos, since the conversion process removes the anti-aliasing filter that most digital cameras use to slightly blur the image during capture (and remove Moire patterns and other aliasing artifacts).

I’ve gotten some questions about my infra-red images.  And I haven’t written anything about technique recently, so in this post, I’ll go into detail about a recent IR image I made.  I’m relatively inexperienced at this, but as a IR n00b I’ve learned a few things that may come in handy if you want to try it.

Messy knees

Messy knees:  Cypress trees on the south shore of Lake Jessup.  Cypress trees and their roots are good subjects, especially along the water where they’re usually found. The light hitting these tree trunks and the Spanish Moss also caught my eye.  I’m still playing around with infra-red. There’s a range of post processing options available. I was hoping that this false color version looks just alien enough to make people take a second look.  Click here to view a larger version of this photo on Flickr.

Camera

I use an Olympus E-PL1 modified for IR by http://www.lifepixel.com/ and I’m very pleased with the result.

Using a micro 4/3 camera has advantages for IR:

  • Older models like the E-PL1 are relatively inexpensive;
  • They have a large sensor (compared with compact cameras) which helps image quality;
  • They use the sensor for contrast type focusing so there are no focus calibration issues that can occur in a DSLR
  • Most have RAW format capture available

Settings

I shoot in RAW, not jpeg.  For IR, it would be tough to get all the settings perfect in camera.  Plus, there are a lot of post processing options which you’d give up if you only capture jpeg.

White balance is one thing that you should set.  If you shoot in RAW, white balance can be adjusted in post processing.  But setting a white balance in camera is important since it lets you judge your shots on the LCD screen as you take them.  Unless you set a custom (preset) white balance all IR images would look very red. On my E-PL1 I use a temperature setting of 2000K which is as low as it will go.  This camera has no tint adjustment, so photos still look blue, but it’s good enough for judging exposure.

Workflow

Here are 7 versions of this photo that show the processing steps I went through along the way.  Don’t be alarmed – this is quicker and easier than it sounds.

This is the RAW photo straight out of the camera. My custom white balance adjustment isn’t able to completely correct the IR spectrum so there’s a pronounced bluish tint.

 

This is the image after white balance and levels adjustment in Photoshop. Other initial adjustments in LR or Photoshop may include a bit of noise reduction, lens corrections (if available), cropping / straightening, and spot removal.

 

In this version, I’ve used several copies of the same scene (shot from a tripod) to smooth the water’s surface and make the trees / knees stand out more.

 

This version has a Channel Mixer preset adjustment layer (red and blue colors swapped).  Debra Sandige’s IR page (listed in the references below) has  detailed steps on how to do this in Photoshop.

 

A Hue / Saturation / Brightness adjustment layer was used to modify the Hue in the cyan and blue channels so it looks a bit more natural.

 

This is after final adjustments in Lightroom: clarity(+47), vibrance (+24), medium contrast tone curve, sharpening with edge mask.  (note: this is the same image as at top of post).

For comparison, a black and white conversion of the final false color image.  I like the false color version better.

References

You can find out more about Infrared photography at these places:

  1. This Wikipedia article has some background information on infrared photography – especially film techniques.
  2. I had my camera converted by LifePixel and was extremely pleased with the result.  They have a huge amount of IR information including tutorials, FAQs, and a blog on their website.
  3. I read and enjoyed Debra Sandige’s recent book about IR photography. She’s very creative and presents a lot of good information.  She has a page on her website with IR information.
  4. Lloyd Chambers also has an intro to infra-red on his site and offers a paid site with more info.
  5. The Khromagery website has several good articles on IR cameras and processing.  They also offer an IR Photoshop action as a free download.

Conclusions?

So, is IR an infatuation? Will I use it for a while and then let it fade away? Will I only bring it out for special photo ops as inspiration? Will it take over my photo life to the exclusion of all other approaches? Who can say? You’ll just have to keep reading my blog and see what happens. Along with me.

You can visit my IR set on Flickr to see more examples of what I’ve done.  What do you think?  Is IR photography something you’d like to explore?

Thanks for stopping by and reading my blog. Now – go make some IR photos!
©2012, Ed Rosack. All rights reserved

[Additional info, added 1/24/2014]:

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