My Descent into Infrared, Part 2: Choosing a Conversion Type

Afternoon clouds near Cañon City, Colorado. Super-color infrared image converted to monochrome using Silver Efex Pro 2.
Afternoon clouds near Cañon City, Colorado. Super-color infrared image converted to monochrome using Silver Efex Pro 2. If you have the right tools, a Super-Color infrared conversion is probably the most versatile choice for the creative photographer.

In my previous post, I mentioned that I selected a “Super Color” conversion for my Nikon 1 V1 camera. Today, I’ll dive a little deeper into my rationale for this conversion and provide some examples for why I think it was a good choice for what I do. Considering that most infrared conversions cost between $250-$325, you want to be sure you’re making a choice that you’ll be happy with. Your choice of conversion will determine what look or looks you’ll be able to get with your camera.

I based my rationale for choosing a “super color” conversion, which allows some visible light to reach the sensor, on two key points. First, I like the creative options afforded to me by having some color information. Second, I own Photoshop and Silver Efex Pro 2, and I’m fairly proficient with those products. Had I not owned those two programs, I may have chosen a different conversion style (likely standard IR).

Comparing Conversions: Super Color vs. Traditional IR

I wanted to compare my super-color camera with a more traditional conversion. Unfortunately, I only have the one camera. However, if you have a camera that lets visible light in, you can use a traditional IR filter to block the visible wavelengths. I did my comparison shots with the super-color camera with and without a Singh-Ray “I-Ray” filter. The I-Ray filter blocks nearly all visible light, and only lets IR wavelengths pass. By using the filter, I was able to convert my super-color camera into an IR-only one.

Here are two shots of the same scene, one in super-color, and one in IR only. Both RAW files were processed in Lightroom 5 using custom camera profiles to deal with IR white balance.

Super-color IR image with default Lightroom conversion
Super-color IR image with default Lightroom conversion
Image captured with a super-color camera and infrared filter on the lens (default conversion)
Image captured with a super-color camera and infrared filter on the lens (default conversion)

As you can easily see in the above images, the super-color image has both orange and cyan tones, while the image captured using the IR filter is pretty much monochrome (blue).

After performing a white-balance adjustment on the two images, I got the following results:

Super-color IR image after White Balance adjustment in Lightroom 5
Super-color IR image after White Balance adjustment in Lightroom 5
IR filtered image after WB adjustment in Lightroom 5
IR filtered image after WB adjustment in Lightroom 5

At this point, the super-color image has a distinct blue/orange look, while the image captured with the IR filter is practically black and white. In fact, it looks a lot like the kind of image you’d get with an 830nm (deep black) conversion. If you simply convert to black and white in Lightroom from this step, you get this:

Super-color IR image converted to monochrome in Lightroom (no adjustments)
Super-color IR image converted to monochrome in Lightroom (no adjustments)
Infrared filtered image converted to monochrome in Lightroom 5 (no adjustments)
Infrared filtered image converted to monochrome in Lightroom 5 (no adjustments)

Without any further adjustment, you can see how it’s very easy to get the rich black skies and dramatic clouds from the IR-filter. I didn’t make any additional adjustments on the sample images, but that’s something that I’d do if I were processing these files to completion in Lightroom.

Silver Efex Pro 2

When it comes to monochrome, I don’t usually limit myself to Lightroom’s onboard tools. I use Silver Efex Pro 2. With Silver Efex Pro 2, I’ve found a distinct advantage with super-color infrared files. That’s because SEP2 uses the color information in the original image to adjust tones and contrast. Images that lack color data are harder to adjust in Silver Efex Pro 2 than ones with some color. Moreover, the presence of color data makes using Control Points possible for local selections in Silver Efex Pro 2. I ran both images through Silver Efex Pro 2, and got the following result:

 

Super-color IR image processed in Silver Efex Pro 2.
Super-color IR image processed in Silver Efex Pro 2.
IR filtered image processed in Silver Efex Pro 2.
IR filtered image processed in Silver Efex Pro 2.

Both images have the deep black sky, but you can see that the foliage is actually brighter in the Super-Color image. This is because I was able to use the blue filter in SEP2 to brighten blue tones and darken reds/yellows. I was also able to use the Color Sensitivity Sliders in SEP2 to further adjust contrast. Both images benefitted from Structure adjustments. I should point out that I think both images look good, but from a processing standpoint, I have more control over the final look with the Super-Color IR image.

Conclusions on Monochrome Processing

Both Super-Color and Standard IR images look great in monochrome. If you know your war around RAW editing and also have Silver Efex Pro 2, you can actually get more creative control over the monochrome image from the Super-Color starting point. The traditional or deep-black IR conversions are much easier to work with if you don’t have Silver Efex Pro 2, as even a straight monochrome conversion looks pretty good with only minor tweaks.

Color Infrared Processing

Of course, the main reason to consider a Super-Color IR conversion is that you can get color images. Obviously, these images will require processing to look their best. In addition, there are certain looks that require additional software (outside of your RAW converter) to achieve.

Traditional Color IR

Here’s a Super-Color IR image that worked out just fine for me with only minor adjustments. The camera was able to capture the yellow flower petals, and I enhanced contrast and color slightly.

Beetle on Sunflower; super-color IR image captured with a Nikon 1 V1 camera.
Beetle on Sunflower; super-color IR image captured with a Nikon 1 V1 camera.

Advanced Techniques: Channel Swapping

Let’s go back to my original landscape image that I captured with both Super-Color and Enhanced IR (via filter). If you have Adobe Photoshop (pretty much any version will do), then you can do something called a red-blue channel swap. Channel-swapping isn’t possible in most RAW converters, including Lightroom and Aperture. If you do the channel-swap and then adjust hue, you can get a blue sky effect. Foliage becomes yellow or orange, depending on how you adjust the hue settings.

After swapping the red and blue channels of a Super-Color IR image in Photoshop, you get a blue-sky effect.
After swapping the red and blue channels of a Super-Color IR image in Photoshop, you get a blue-sky effect.
Channel-swapping the enhanced black IR image doesn't have any effect.
Channel-swapping the enhanced black IR image in Photoshop doesn’t have any effect.

Conclusions

For me, the Super-Color IR conversion was the best choice. It allows me to create everything from color to monochrome images and offers a tremendous degree of creative latitude. However, this creative latitude comes at the expense of simplicity. In order to gain the creative control I enjoy, I need to have additional software (Photoshop and Silver Efex Pro 2), and understand the workflow implications of those products (TIFF or PSD files). For converting infrared images to monochrome directly from your RAW converter, you might have an easier time with a standard or deep black conversion. If you have the other software products and are willing to take the time to learn them, I find you can have the best of both worlds with a Super-Color IR camera. One other thing to consider: with the super-color conversion you can still use an IR filter to effectively transform your Super-Color IR camera into an IR-only one.

Master Silver Efex Pro 2 with The Photographer’s Guide to Silver Efex Pro 2

6 thoughts on “My Descent into Infrared, Part 2: Choosing a Conversion Type”

  1. Hi Jason. I just read your two writings about your trip towards IR imagery. I went through a similar set of “thought processes” after the Badlands field trip and some e-mail exchanges with Deb. I also finalized on the 590nm filter and had it put on an older Canon Rebel Xt that had been languishing in the closet for a while. I will be interested to follow your journey in IR imagery. I just had my converted camera returned last week and so I am anxious to see how it performs on the various subjects of interest. I am off to the Galapagos in a couple of weeks and will take it with me. I will let you know how things go and I will continue to follow your blog and your IR photography.

  2. Excellent article on the thought process for choosing an IR conversion – and some of the options with mirrorless. I’m using a converted D600 witht eh Enhanced color conversion. I also have an 830nm filter for scenes where I want those dark skies or other high contrast situations. Mirrorless is particularly attractive since the electronic viewfinder shows the IR scene rather than a traditional opaque viewfinder.

  3. Hello Jason,
    As other have mentioned, I too went through a very similar thought process as you before deciding to have my D90 converted with a SuperColor filter.

    I do have a question for you. Have you tried NX2 for WB and compared the results to WB in Lightroom using a custom camera profile? I have tried the later, but find NX2 gives a better result more consistently. Specifically, it seems to me WB in NX2 preserves more subtle variations in color and contrast than the LR method. I have tried varying contrast, vibrance, and camera calibration settings in LR and for some images indeed get a very good result. However, some images may remain flat in LR WB while the NX2 WB will have some punch. I have not done rigorous testing, rather my observation is somewhat subjective.

    I would prefer to have the LR method work well and avoid generating the extra tif from the NX2 WB. However, the NX2 WB more often than not gives me a little better head start upstream of the open in PS and channel swap.

  4. Hi Bill-
    The CNX2 default tone curves are a little punchier than what you get in LR/ACR. As for WB, I find both products are adequate. Sometimes I’ll use a much bluer WB in LR when I want to perform channel-swapping. The as-shot WB in NX2 is good but keeps foliage very neutral. With a super-color conversion, that means you lose the bright “traditional” foliage effect.

    One thing you can do is to set LR as an “open with” application in NX2. Then you can send a TIFF image of the image directly to the LR catalog import module.

  5. HI!
    I bought today the ir replacement filter for my V1… Just a question: when you remove the original filter, the vibration motor for the dust is glued to the filter. Do you removed it or you glued to the new ir filter? Thanks

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

4 × five =