Capturing the Unseen: An Introduction to Infrared Photography

If you’re a photographer who is looking for an interesting way to capture your viewer’s attention, consider trying your hand at infrared photography. While it will require some technical skill on your part, the result is a weird and wonderful way to get someone to stop and take a second look at your image.

This guide is an introduction to infrared photography. We’ll explain what gear you need; what camera settings; how to edit infrared photos; and we’ll give you several tips to get you started. 

infrared photography
Photo by Andrii Ganzevych on Unsplash

What is infrared photography?

The human eye cannot see infrared, or IR light but with certain equipment, like special filters or film, our cameras can capture it. The result is an image with surreal colors and unique textures. 

Infrared images can vary from being just slightly unusual enough that the viewer will pause on the image and think, “something isn’t quite what I’m used to seeing here.” Or the image may look like it was shot on an alien planet! That’s all in how you post-process your image.

History of infrared photography

The first infrared images were published in 1910 by Robert Wood. He shot them on experimental film that required extremely long exposures. The “Wood Effect” in IR photography is named after him, and that’s the common result in which foliage in images looks white and skies are unusual colors. 

the Wood Effect
Infrared landscape image taken by Robert Wood (1910)

During the first World War, infrared photography became extremely valuable. IR photographs aren’t affected by the haze in the atmosphere like regular images. Additionally, they are able to show high contrast between buildings, waterways, and vegetation. So, the military used IR imagery to better identify potential enemy targets. The technology became a vital tool for warfare.

Decades later, rock musicians like Jimi Hendrix and the Grateful Dead popularized IR photography when they used it on their psychedelic album covers.

What’s the best camera for infrared photography?

While it isn’t new, infrared photography isn’t very common nowadays. That may be because modern digital cameras actually block a lot of infrared light. So, the process of shooting IR can be more technical (or require more specialized equipment) than it used to in the days of film.

There are three different ways you can approach shooting infrared photos:

Infrared film

The original way of shooting IR photography was with a film camera and special infrared film. This method isn’t used as often anymore due to the switch to digital, but it’s still an option. When shooting with IR film, you will also capture visible light unless you also use an infrared filter.

Infrared filter

This is the most common and convenient option for shooting IR photography. Infrared filters work like other camera filters in that they screw onto the front of your lens. They filter out the visible light spectrum, only allowing the IR light to pass through your lens.

The problem with using an IR filter with many modern DSLRs, however, is that a large number of them have built-in IR blocking filters that allow very little (or no) infrared light to reach your sensor. The combination of an infrared filter on your lens with a built-in IR blocker in your camera will result in an all-black image. So first, you will need to verify that your camera does not have an IR-blocking filter. 

Then, even if your camera is able to see infrared light, the IR filter is very dark. With this in mind, you have to focus before you attach the filter to your lens and you will need to use a tripod due to very long exposure times.

IR Camera conversion

Converting a camera for infrared photography is the most expensive option, but also produces the sharpest, most reliable results that don’t require long exposures. The process involves sending your digital camera to a conversion company that removes the IR blocking filter from inside your camera and substitutes it for an IR filter that only allows infrared light to come through. The result is a dedicated infrared camera that you can use just like a regular camera, with normal exposure values and shutter speeds.

IR photograph
Photo by The Lensemen on Unsplash

What is the best lens for infrared photography?

Throw away what you know about lenses when it comes to infrared photography. When it comes to IR, sometimes the very best performing, most expensive lenses could be complete duds for shooting infrared! You may find that a cheap kit lens performs better.

The biggest problems with lenses and IR is hotspots and lens flares. Hotspots, bright or differently toned spots in the center of your image, and lens flares – just like in regular photography – are difficult to correct in post-processing. So be sure to constantly check your camera to see if you’re capturing either of these problems. Remember, you cannot see infrared light, so you can’t trust your eyes. You have to rely on your camera’s LCD. 

There’s a ton of information about which lenses are great – but not much out there about which lenses are great for shooting infrared. But keep in mind, the technology built into pricey lenses is all meant to capture visible light. For that reason, older, cheaper, manual lenses are often much better suited for capturing that invisible infrared light.

Other infrared photography gear

The other gear you’ll need depends on the method you use to shoot. If you’ve chosen to use a converted camera, you’re golden and can just grab and go. However, if you are shooting with an infrared filter, you will need a tripod because you’ll be shooting very long exposures. Of course, don’t forget extra batteries and memory cards, too.

infrared photography
Photo by Wolfgang Hasselmann on Unsplash

Camera settings for infrared photography

As we mentioned above, if you choose to go with an infrared camera conversion, you can use it just as you would use a regular camera. In that case, you would set your exposure settings according to the scene you’re shooting.

However, when using an IR filter, your settings will be quite different because you’ll require a long exposure:

  • Set your ISO as low as possible to reduce the amount of noise. Start with 200 to 400;
  • Keep long exposure noise reduction ON;
  • Shoot in RAW mode to preserve the most information for post-processing;
  • Set your aperture to around f/8 for maximum sharpness and a reasonable depth of field;
  • If your camera has an auto-bracketing option, set it to +/-1 EV. This will help ensure you get a properly exposed image since it can be a guessing game with infrared;
  • Set a custom white balance or choose the Sunny or Daylight preset white balance.

Tips for infrared photography

The brighter the light, the better

While most photographers look forward to the golden hour, the blue hour, sunrise, and sunset, that’s not the best time to shoot infrared photos. Because you’re filtering out so much light, when it comes to shooting IR, the brighter it is outside, the better. Now you can grab your gear and head out at high noon in full sun! 

The bright light gives you more intense infrared light and more manageable shutter speeds.

IR photo
Photo by Renee Zernitsky on Unsplash

Look for contrast

With infrared photography, you have a limited number of tones. So, to make your images more dynamic, make sure you have contrasting elements in close proximity to one another. Light next to dark, smooth next to textured, large next to small, and so on. 

With infrared, a general rule of thumb is that things that are alive will be light in your image and other objects will generally appear dark. So foliage and clouds will always be light. The sky, buildings, and water will be dark. Human skin always appears very smooth, while leaves and bark are very textured. These are things to consider when looking for contrast.

contrast in infrared
Photo by Matt Palmer on Unsplash

Remember composition

Composition is just as critical in infrared photography as it is when shooting any other genre of photography. Remember the rule of thirds, the golden ratio, negative space, and other rules of composition to make your image visually interesting.

Experiment, experiment, experiment

Infrared photography is tough to master. It takes a lot of dedication, practice, and trial & error to get the look you want. Have fun challenging yourself and pushing your creativity. Infrared photography is most often seen with landscapes, but don’t be afraid to shoot other subjects, like macro, architecture, still life, or even portraits.

macro infrared
Photo by Wolfgang Hasselmann on Unsplash

Editing infrared photos

Editing your infrared images will take a bit more work than a typical photo. The process will depend on the final look you want — black and white or false color. An infrared photo straight out of RAW (SOOR) will be overwhelmingly red or pink in color with low contrast. It’s when you take the image into Lightroom or Photoshop that the magic happens.

Black and White Infrared

Black and white infrared edits are easier and less “weird” but no less interesting than their false color counterparts. At first glance, a black and white infrared photo may look normal, but you begin to notice something is not quite right and have to get a closer look to figure out what it is. The giveaway is the white foliage.

To do it, simply use Lightroom or Photoshop to convert the raw IR image to black and white.

black and white infrared photography
Photo by Matt Palmer on Unsplash

False Color Infrared

A false color infrared image looks like a snapshot from someone’s dreamland. There are no rules here, and many different ways to achieve the fantastic colors you’re going for. 

  • Play around with the white balance;
  • Swap the blue and red channels using the channel mixer in Photoshop to restore the blue color to your sky.
false color infrared
Photo by Jr Korpa on Unsplash

Final thoughts

If you’re feeling like your own photography is lacking creativity or are just looking for something fun, I hope you’ve been inspired to give infrared photography a try! It’s a genre that’s been around for a long time but it’s still a very small niche. Why not use infrared photography to show people the unseen beauty that exists all around them?

Brooke Arnold

Brooke Arnold is a writer and award-winning photographer specializing in cat portraits. She is an advocate for rescue animals and is best known for dressing up her cats as famous people like Bob Ross and Evel Knievel. Her biggest claim to fame, however, is being child #2 in an orange juice ad that hung in a mall in Miami at age 8.

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