(Last updated on August 5th, 2022)
Photography is based on light and how different rays hit your camera’s sensor. Traditional photography involves the visible light spectrum i.e. light rays that we can see with our naked eye. However, using different techniques and accessories, it is also possible to take photos of different parts of the light spectrum that we cannot see.
One such technique is infrared photography. This utilizes infrared light that is just beyond our range of visibility. The result is incredible photos that transform everyday landscapes into surreal and alien scenes complete with bizarre colors and lighting. If you want to widen your photographic knowledge and experiment with some new techniques, you will find this guide enlightening. Upon reading, you will discover everything you need to know about infrared photography including real examples, shooting methods, and tips!
- What is Infrared Photography?
- Why Take Infrared Photos?
- Infrared Photography Methods
- Infrared Photography Examples
- Exposure Compensation and Infrared Photography
- Infrared Photography Post Processing
- Frequently Asked Questions
Camera sensors are designed to capture visible light. This makes sense as it’s all we humans can see! However, infrared photography utilizes a different part of the light spectrum – infrared light.
Infrared or near-infrared light is slightly beyond the range of what we can see. Indeed, it sits on the spectrum between 700-1200 nanometers. The human eye can see between 380 to 700 nanometers in contrast.
Using different techniques and equipment, infrared photography allows us to capture images that we wouldn’t normally be able to see. As you can see from the below photo, the results are quite incredible.
Infrared photography is bold and the images stand out. They are immediately recognizable as the landscapes and features look familiar, but typically have completely different colors, tones, and contrast.
You now have a basic definition of infrared photography, but why might you want to use it?
Infrared photography actually has many scientific, medical, and botanical uses. For example, it is used in medical imaging to study veins, nerves, tumours, and burn damage due to its non-invasive radiation. Furthermore, scientists use infrared photography in the study of plants, fossils, and even astronomy. It is a multifaceted discipline that has incredible use in various fields.
Regardless of this, unless you are a specialist in one of these areas, you are most likely using infrared photography for artistic and creative purposes.
In terms of general photography and as a hobby, people take infrared photos due to the uniqueness and bizarre qualities these images produce. It offers something completely different to generic photography and is thus really interesting to try. Infrared photography is sometimes used as fine art due to the ethereal landscapes you can create. Alternatively, many people give it a go simply to expand their repertoire and experiment with new techniques.
It is important to understand that you cannot simply pick up your camera or smartphone and immediately create infrared photography. This is a specialist type of photography that needs additional processes and/or equipment. Below we look at the different methods to take infrared photos.
For retro film camera owners, you can buy specialist infrared film. This requires the least effort and it’s a simple case of inserting the special film into your camera and taking photos!
Infrared film is also readily available from various manufacturers and is not too expensive. Rollei, for example, is a popular option and they have options like the Infrared 400 B&W.
The difficult part is the development. Infrared photos require a special developing process and not every photo lab has the capabilities to do this. Furthermore, developing infrared film typically costs more so we advise researching this thoroughly before making a film camera commitment.
For digital cameras, the simplest method is to purchase an infrared filter. Specifically an IR pass filter. These filters are designed to allow infrared light to pass onto your camera’s sensor.
Popular manufacturers like Hoya, Urth, Kolari Vision, and ICE all have various IR pass filters. These are available in different sizes, and different levels. Hoya, for example, has IR filters ranging from 46mm to 95mm and the average cost is around $50.
An infrared filter typically screws onto the end of your camera lens and sits over the lens glass. It then alters the light entering the lens and camera and thus allows you to create infrared photos.
When selecting an infrared filter, be sure to check the thread size of your camera lens. This is measured in mm and if you get the wrong size, it won’t fit securely.
If you intend to specialize in infrared photography, you may want to get your camera converted. Most modern DSLRs and mirrorless cameras have an infrared blocking filter. This essentially removes the IR rays.
You can pay professionals to remove this blocker from the camera sensor, and thus be able to naturally take IR shots without the need for a filter. The average cost for this is around $300, however this varies depending on the model of camera.
Please bear in mind that this is a permanent solution though – once the blocker is removed, you will not be able to take standard photos with your camera. Therefore, we do not recommend this as your first option. Instead, start with a filter as this is a non-permanent option. You can get used to the process, improve your infrared knowledge, and then perhaps consider a conversion if you want to pursue this type of photography further.
It is also possible to take infrared photos with an iPhone. iPhones that have LiDaR technology can detect different rays along the light spectrum. However, you still need an infrared filter placed in front of the camera lenses too.
You can use a traditional threaded camera filter such as the 52mm R-72 from Hoya, or even an infrared filter sheet which is usually less expensive. Whichever you use, the filter must then be placed in front of the camera lenses – you could secure it in place with tape.
With the filter secured, you will then need to use the long exposure setting of the iPhone’s night mode. This is because much of the visible light is blocked out by the filter. As a result, a tripod is also a great idea to help keep your photos sharp.
The exposure time should be set to several seconds and this should produce some fantastic infrared photos. Please note that you will still need to edit the images in post-processing software too.
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You should now have a clear idea of what infrared photography is, and how to take these images. To further your knowledge, let’s dissect some impressive infrared examples below.
Infrared photography is a great way to turn what we know into something unusual. There is nothing different about the composition of objects and landscapes. What’s different is the colors, contrast, and tones. You can take a simple everyday scene and transform it into something that our brain doesn’t immediately process.
The example above shows this. It’s a simple photo of a ruined temple in Athens. The classic Greek architecture is recognizable in the columns and archway. However, we start to question this scene due to the bizarre colors of the surrounding landscape.
Due to the way infrared works and how different items attract it, you can use this type of photography to produce highly contrasting images. Things like skies and water will typically have a certain color, while other objects like trees and plants usually have a completely different tone.
We see this perfectly demonstrated in the image above. With ordinary photography, this would be a beautiful photo of a lake with some trees – the trees would look great, but they wouldn’t stand out too much.
In contrast, in an infrared photo, we get this amazing contrast that immediately draws your attention. The bold blues and greens of the lake look surreal on their own. However, the pinks of the trees form such a stark contrast that they are the undeniable focal point of this image. It looks like something out of Star Trek!
Infrared photography is superb when taking architectural photos, or images of clusters of buildings. The different highly-contrasting colors in the sky, buildings, and natural objects make for stark landscapes that really stand out.
The above photo is a simple shot of a small village. With traditional photography, this image would just be another standard shot. However, the infrared processing gives it an entirely new look and style. The sky looks foreboding and stormy and you can see epic mountains in the distance.
The unusual color buildings in the foreground meld with this to give the village a somber feel. This is completely contrasted by the incredibly yellow tones of the plant life, however. The trees and shrubs immediately catch your eye and turn the scene alien.
Infrared photography is also great for closeup and detail shots – not just landscapes. You can focus on smaller aspects of a scene and produce some incredible end results. This is great if you want to produce retro photos or aged shots of architecture.
The above photo demonstrates this perfectly. It is a tight-cropped photo of an old doorway in a stone building. The colors of the mold and grime around the stones together with the faded wood look superb. Also, the contrasting oranges of the leaves make this old doorway stand out more.
It’s important to consider exposure compensation for this type of photography too. For general photography, you can typically trust your camera’s exposure meter and it does a pretty good job. The result is balanced photos with even highlights and shadows.
However, infrared photography is completely different. The infrared light hitting the camera sensor causes all sorts of issues and thus your exposure meter becomes unreliable. Instead, we recommend simply taking test photos and adjusting your exposure compensation accordingly.
Moreover, due to the way that IR filters work, you typically have to use long exposure settings to get the right type of end result. It is not uncommon to use a long exposure of 30 seconds or more. Therefore, a tripod is often an essential item for infrared photography too.
With many types of photography, heavy post-processing isn’t required. Instead, you can make simple tweaks and still create magnificent shots. However, infrared photography is a little different.
Due to how infrared works, your RAW photos will look a little… strange… like the below example:
You will essentially see a mass of red and magenta tones and this doesn’t really create a pleasing image. It’s different for sure, but not the desired effect. Therefore, post-processing is usually required. I recommend more advanced photo editing software like Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Photoshop Lightroom Classic, ON1 Photo RAW 2022.5, or Capture One Pro.
To edit infrared photos effectively, there are two main processes to address the color balance before doing standard tweaks. These are white balance/tone adjustments, and channel swaps.
The first parameter to adjust is the white balance. With infrared photos, the white balance is skewed and this is why the photos look predominantly red. Use the temperature and tint sliders of editing software and bring them both down.
Typically the temperature will have a high number (which means it is warmer), while the tint has a positive number (which means the tint is reddish/pink). The aim is to change this so the photo is colder, and the tint is pushed more towards the green spectrum. Aiming for a temperature of around 2000, and a tint of -50 should create better results. However, simply use the sliders and adjust the parameter to give a more balanced photo that isn’t so red.
Using the above step should have produced a more balanced photo. Indeed, at this point, you could proceed to do standard edits. However, some aspects such as the sky could still look a little off.
Therefore, you can do a channel swap to bring out different colors. For example, oftentimes skies in infrared photos remain quite red. You could use a channel mixer layer and convert reds into blues.
How this exactly works depends on the editing software, but the above-mentioned programs all have this feature. It is a simple process of creating a new channel layer, and adjusting the red, green, and blue balance until you get an end result you are satisfied with.
After the two above steps, you can edit the photo traditionally as you would a standard photo. Think about the end look you want to achieve and adjust accordingly. For example, if you wanted to create a grungy style, you could increase the clarity and contrast.
It is also important that you shoot in a RAW photo mode. RAW photos are unprocessed and uncompressed and give you all the original sensor data to work with. This allows you to edit your infrared photography much better.
JPEG images in contrast have a little post-processing applied and are compressed. As a result, you may not be able to remove the red and magenta tint from your infrared images and create the effect you want.
I hope you now have a clear understanding of infrared photography including what it is, how to take photos, and post-processing techniques.
If you want a challenge, and to try something different, I recommend infrared photography. It requires a little more forethought and planning, but it is incredibly fun and challenging. In most instances, you can simply invest in an infrared filter too for a minimum expense.
You can then look at photography and landscapes in a different way. The surreal effects, strange color variations, and tones will offer excitement and intrigue, and give you a pleasant break from traditional photography.
Frequently Asked Questions
Primarily, infrared photography is used for scientific, medical, and biological studies. For example, it’s used in landscape surveys and medical imaging. However, it is also used for fine art, and as a means to create surreal and other-worldly landscapes in general photographic terms.
Yes! Depending on the camera’s sensor, you can use an infrared filter, or have the camera converted so that its IR blocking filter is removed and infrared light can enter the sensor.
You can, although a little prep is required. iPhones that have LiDaR technology are capable of detecting infrared rays. However, you need an infrared filter to place over the camera lenses. With this, you can then take photos and edit them using smartphone editing software.
Yes, if you have a film camera, you can buy either color or black and white infrared film that will result in the desired effect.
Without editing, infrared photos have a predominantly red and magenta tone due to the infrared rays. Once edited using post-processing software, the landscapes look ethereal, unreal, and other-worldly.
This depends on the sensor and if it has an IR blocking filter. If it does, you would need to pay for this to be professionally removed. Once this is done (or not done if it doesn’t have an IR blocking filter), you can then use an infrared filter attached to your camera lens.
Paul Skidmore is a freelance photography blogger and writer. He has a life-long passion for travel and photography that spans decades.
Paul took an interest in photography in the late 2000’s when he started solo traveling. His first camera was a Canon PowerShot SX220 HS which accompanied him to destinations like New York, Rome, and the Caribbean.
From these early adventures, Paul’s love of photography blossomed and it turned into a passion. His photographic expeditions have taken him to the corners of the globe including Antarctica, Svalbard, Thailand, Greenland, and Ushuaia.
He also has a love for literature and writing from an early age and used this together with his photography experience to become a freelance writer specializing in photography and travel.