My Descent into Infrared Photography, Part 3: One Camera, Multiple Looks

Old building, Ashcroft mining town. Super-color infrared image processed to produce "deep black" style.
Old building, Ashcroft mining town. Super-color infrared image processed to produce “deep black” style. With the right tools, you can create many infrared styles from a super-color infrared conversion (590nm).

I’ve been taking lots of infrared images with my converted Nikon 1 V1 camera. It’s not just because I think infrared is cool, but there is a method to the madness. Any time you get a new piece of gear, whether it’s a lens, camera, or accessory, you need to learn it. That means spending some serious time to learn the strengths and weaknesses of your gear. With an infrared camera, I not only need to understand how the camera itself operates, but also how to best process images to get the creative results I desire.

Infrared Styles

With digital infrared images, there are a few distinct styles, most of which depend on the kind of conversion you get for your camera. Each style can be described in terms of the “as-shot” image, assuming you produced a JPEG from the camera.

  • The “traditional,” or standard, IR style (720nm) produces images with neutral to bright foliage tones and orange/red skies. Channel-swapping can produce a mild blue sky effect.
  • The “deep black” style (830nm) produces a nearly monochrome image with deep black skies and bright foliage. Channel-swapping has no effect on the image.
  • The Color IR styles (665 or 590nm conversions) produce orange skies and blue/cyan foliage. Channel-swapping produces a strong blue sky and yellow foliage.

There are other conversions, too, but these are the most popular. As I only have a single infrared camera (590nm), I wanted to explore how I could achieve each of these looks from a single RAW image. I discovered that I could do a pretty good job emulating each style by tweaking the white balance setting and using advanced monochrome conversion tools.

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The “as-shot” image from my 590nm IR Nikon 1 V1 using custom settings in Lightroom 5. Skies are orange and foliage is blue.

My “as-shot” images from my “super color” (590nm) Nikon 1 V1 look like this with my custom Camera Calibration settings in Lightroom 5:

A straight conversion to monochrome gives a rather bland result:

A straight conversion to monochrome from a 590nm infrared file is quite dull.
A straight conversion to monochrome from a 590nm infrared file is quite dull.

I can also do a red-blue channel swap in Photoshop to get a blue sky look:

Swapping the red and blue channels in Photoshop creates a strong blue-sky effect with yellow leaves.
Swapping the red and blue channels in Photoshop creates a strong blue-sky effect with yellow leaves.

Now, starting with this image I set out to create the other two styles, traditional and deep-black. If you have Silver Efex Pro 2, the deep-black look is fairly easy to create from a super-color IR image. The first thing I’ll do is tweak the WB a little more to the cool side, to make the foliage more blue than cyan. This will come in handy inside SEP2. Within SEP2, I’ll use the Blue Color Filter and then adjust the blue/yellow channel sensitivities to make the sky dark. I’ll also use the “Amplify Blacks” Slider to make the sky even darker. Finally, I really like using the Structure controls to add drama and texture to the image.

By using a blue filter and adjusting color sensitivity sliders in Silver Efex Pro 2, I created a "deep black" IR look.
By using a blue filter and adjusting color sensitivity sliders in Silver Efex Pro 2, I created a “deep black” IR look.

The traditional IR style is a little trickier to get to, but it’s still not too hard. In this style, we want to make the foliage neutral. Unfortunately, if you use the WB eyedropper on leaves, you get a middle-toned gray/green look. Instead, I keep my WB the same as before and I use the HSL controls in Lightroom 5 to desaturate the blues (-90) and also boost their luminance values (+40). These values may vary with each image, use your judgement. At this point, I have an image with an orange sky but minimal blue/cyan tones. I can bring this image into Photoshop if I want to channel-swap for the blue-sky effect.

To create a more traditional (720nm) look, desaturate the blues and boost their luminosity in Lightroom.
To create a more traditional (720nm) look, desaturate the blues and boost their luminosity in Lightroom.
Swapping the red and blue channels in Photoshop produces a blue sky and neutral to slightly yellow foliage.
Swapping the red and blue channels in Photoshop produces a blue sky and neutral to slightly yellow foliage.

Going Further with Plug-ins and Photoshop

Once you learn to create the basic infrared styles, there are lots of tools you can use to further enhance your images. Some of my favorites include Color Efex Pro 4 and Viveza 2. In Color Efex Pro 4, I find I get great results using the Glamour Glow, Pro Contrast, Sunlight, and Film Grain filters. I’ll use Viveza 2 to add Structure to color images. I’ll also use Silver Efex Pro 2 via a Photoshop layer set to Luminosity blending mode to add texture and contrast to  images while keeping the color from the original.

Conclusions

What makes the 590nm (super-color) infrared conversion so flexible is that you have color information in the original image. Without that information, you’d have a much harder time creating different infrared styles. I can modify specific areas of the image (foliage) without affecting other regions (midtones). While I love the look of deep-black IR for some shots, I much prefer to be able to control the various tones from the color-IR image. If you aren’t a fan of post-processing, then having a camera converted to match your style makes sense. Otherwise, by leveraging the power of RAW software and modifying your images based on the underlying color data, you can explore a wide range of styles from a single IR camera.

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