Exploring Infrared Photography with the IR Queen

The "IR Queen," Deborah Sandidge, taught me some cool techniques in Virginia.
The “IR Queen,” Deborah Sandidge, taught me some cool techniques in Virginia. Here she is, captured in all her IR glory!

I had the chance to play around with an infrared DSLR while teaching a workshop in Virginia. I’ve never used IR before, and I’m glad that the “IR Queen,” Deborah Sandidge was there to show me the ropes.

In the past, IR photography was something most people really didn’t do. Options for IR before digital came along were to either use IR-sensitive film or an IR cut filter on the lens. Neither of these options were particularly ideal. IR sensitive film was a real pain because it had to be kept cold and had to be loaded in complete darkness to avoid clouding it. IR cut filters, which only allow infrared wavelengths to pass, make shooting tough because they block all visible light… meaning you can’t see through the camera with one attached to your lens. Moreover, exposures with IR filters needed to be on the order of minutes to capture anything.

With digital, the game has changed. You can send your old DSLR or even a point and shoot camera in to a company and have the optical low-pass filter removed and replaced with one that blocks most visible light. Depending on your ambitions, there are several “flavors” of conversions, including some that allow certain visible wavelengths to pass through in addition to the IR ones. Once you’ve converted your camera, you’ll need to explore the art of processing IR images.

The first challenge with IR is getting white balance right. Usually, the conversion company will dial in a special custom WB setting to use. When converting RAW files captured with an IR camera, it can be especially useful to use your manufacturer’s RAW converter to get the as-shot WB perfectly dialed in. For example, Nikon users might wish to use Capture NX2 to get the WB right and then export a TIFF to Photoshop or another editor for further processing. Lightroom/ACR users can create a custom Camera Calibration Profile using Adobe’s DNG Profile editor. Doing so will allow you to use the WB eyedropper in ACR or Lightroom and get a reasonable WB setting. With IR, green foliage should look gray or white.

When setting the WB in an infrared image, foliage should look gray or even white.
When setting the WB in an infrared image, foliage should look gray or even white. I used Capture NX2’s custom WB tool to set the WB and then exported a TIFF to Photoshop.

Once you’ve set WB, then the next step is to figure out what to do with the weird colors from an IR file. The easiest way to work with IR files is to convert them to monochrome using something like Silver Efex Pro 2. However, if you want color in your IR, I recommend using Photoshop and the Channel Mixer to play with the colors until you get something you like. One trick in Photoshop is to “swap” the Red and Blue channels. Doing so will give you a blue sky instead of a pink one.

When you're starting out with infrared, you're best bet is to convert to monochrome. I used Silver Efex Pro 2 on this image to get a nice conversion and control tones.
When you’re starting out with infrared, you’re best bet is to convert to monochrome. I used Silver Efex Pro 2 on this image to get a nice conversion and control tones.
I used Photoshop to "Swap" the red and blue channels to make the sky look blue in this shot.
I used Photoshop to “Swap” the red and blue channels to make the sky look blue in this shot.

If you are using Photoshop, you can of course continue to use additional creative techniques, like Texture Blending or plug-ins to create even more interesting effects.

Governor's mansion, Colonial Williamsburg. Captured with a Super-color converted Nikon D700 and processed in Photoshop CS6.
Governor’s mansion, Colonial Williamsburg. Captured with a Super-color converted Nikon D700 and processed in Photoshop CS6.

Resources for Digital Infrared Photography

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