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What is infrared photography and how is it done?

I have put together a short Q & A for all of you who want to know what exactly infrared photography is and what types of cameras I use.

 

What is infrared photography and what fascinates you about it?

Infrared is a type of light or radiation that is invisible to human beings. Converted digital cameras can record this radiation. Infrared photography is fantastic, surreal and extraordinary. You get pictures that could come from a dream or from a distant planet.

I like the surprise effect, because often I do not know what will come out when I look through the viewfinder. The reason is this: vegetation, clouds or rocks reflect infrared differently than the visible light. Plants throw back infrared radiation particularly strong, which is why plants often appear white on IR photos.

I also like that infrared photography is hardly used by photographers. IR is frowned upon by many, because the photos can look cheesy. And it’s not that easy to produce IR photos. You need modified cameras, special filters and also editing programs like Photoshop, because, in most cases, the picture is not ready when you load it from the memory card to the laptop. It needs a little post-processing.

 

What kind of cameras do you use?

These are normal SLR cameras that have the infrared blocker removed. I suppose that every camera has this blocker built in, so that the photos show scenes as they are perceived by humans: Without infrared influence.

I bought most of my cameras already remodeled, all on the internet. There are a number of sellers, for example in Australia or the US, who professionally convert normal cameras into IR cameras. I now own a Nikon D70, a Nikon D3200 and a Sigma SD1 Merrill. The Sigma is the only camera that can easily be converted into an IR-capable camera within seconds.

 

Can you see in the dark with such cameras?

No, this requires special equipment, so-called night vision / residual light amplifier or thermal imaging cameras. In low light amplifiers, weak light present and part of the IR range is amplified and converted by a special technology. With thermal imaging cameras, so-called far infrared and thus heat radiation is made visible.

These tools aren’t suitable for my photography. In addition, such devices are extremely expensive. But an Irish photographer and artist named Richard Mosse has recently used such technologies for a journalistic art project (link).

 

Back to normal infrared photography. What is needed? Is a converted camera enough to get typical IR photos with white trees? Or do you need additional filters?

It depends on whether an IR filter has already been installed internally instead of the blocker or not. If you remove only the blocker, you get a so-called full-spectrum camera, which images the entire spectrum of light, from ultraviolet light (UV) through visible light to infrared light.

Full-spectrum gives interesting shots, but it does not show the typical IR effects like white vegetation or black sky. In order to obtain these features, one additionally requires an IR filter, which determines how much visible light can pass in addition to the IR light. This is, as I said, either installed internally or screwed on the lens in the form of a conventional filter.

Various manufacturers such as Hoya or Tiffen have IR filters on offer. The typical digital IR effect is obtained with a filter in the range around 750 nanometers. This allows light to pass from 750 nanometers. The nanometer value indicates the frequency of the wavelength. Blue light, for example, has a wavelength around 400 nanometers, red around 600. Infrared starts in the range of around 800 nanometers.

750 nanometers means that only a small part of the visible light reaches the sensor. The higher the value, the smaller the color gamut and the stronger the contrasts. You can also buy 570nm, 630nm or 850nm filters. 570nm corresponds to an orange filter, 630 to a deep red filter and the 850nm filter is black and allows only infrared light to pass through, resulting in the photos being monochrome.

 

Which filter can you recommend?

I can only say what I personally like best. I like the 760nm look the most. I like the white trees, the multi-layered and accentuated clouds, the deep blue to black skies in combination with the small color gamut. 760nm filters can be bought from Hoya, Tiffen or B + W. My second favourite look is Aerochrome, which you can only achieve digitally with a Sigma camera.

 

Aerochrome?

This is a photographic film, which is unfortunately no longer produced today, and remaining stock is traded at high prices. It is known for the rich magenta and red tones in the vegetation and the dark blue, often cyan skies.

The film was originally developed by Kodak for the US military in the 1940s. The jets flew over forested enemy land and shot photos with such cameras. Apparently camouflaged enemy positions in the undergrowth became visible because the artificial structures stood out in the midst of the strongly radiating environment.

During the hippie era, the infrared film also enjoyed great popularity among artists. For example, there are albums by Jimi Hendrix or Black Sabbath, whose cover pictures were made with Aerochrome.

Recently, this film has regained some popularity, especially due to Richard Mosse, who has documented the Congo conflict by means of Aerochrome.

 

But you can copy it digitally?

Not just me. Aerochrome has long been something like the holy grail for IR fans. Many wanted to create a digital Aerochrome, but nobody succeeded. I remember several forums on the Internet, such as Flickr, where possible techniques were discussed in detail. A smart guy named Gary Radford finally discovered that the effect can be achieved easily with most Sigma cameras.

It works because Sigma cameras contain a special sensor that maps the light differently than the competition’s sensors. The application is then very simple: you just have to remove the IR blocker, which can be done by hand within seconds, and then set the white balance manually with a gray card. Depending on the camera model (for example, the SD14), you also need to attach a green filter to the lens.

With very minimal adjustments in Photoshop, the photo is then virtually indistinguishable from the original Aerochrome.

 

And the effect can only be achieved with Sigma cameras?

Yes and no. Basically, you can achieve red vegetation with a 570nm filter and adjustments in Photoshop.

In 2017, I found another variant that is simpler. This requires a strong cyan filter, such as those made by Cokin, as well as a polarizing filter. The vegetation then comes out reddish, straight out of the camera. I shoot videos with this filter and slightly increase saturation in Adobe Premiere.

I find the result quite convincing (link), although the color variety does not reach Aerochrome or the Sigma emulation. The big disadvantage of the Sigma cameras is that you can’t record video with them, and what would be cooler than video in Aerochrome style, only digital?

 

What can you recommend to photographers who want to get into infrared photography?

It depends on the budget. Generally, I can recommend a Nikon D70 full-spectrum. In my opinion, it is still one of the best IR cameras. They are available on Ebay for 300 dollars or so. Together with a Nikon 50mm f / 1.8D (about 100 dollars) it creates wonderful IR photos with strong effects. Then you need filters that you can also buy relatively cheap on Ebay.

I like the easy handling of the D70, that it fits well in the hand, and that the images, especially those created with the 50mm lens, give a cool retro look with strong saturation and grain. Praiseworthy is also that its battery lasts long – unlike the Nikon D3200, which I currently use the most.

Main advantages of the D3200 is the larger megapixel count and that you have live view. Live view is almost mandatory, if you want to use very dark filters (from 700nm), because you won’t see anything through the viewfinder when you use such filters. In addition, you can also take video with the D3200. As an allround lens to the D3200 I would recommend the Nikon 16-85mm VR. If you are looking for cheap filters, I can recommend the brand Zomei.

If you only like the Aerochrome look, you just need a Sigma, preferably the relatively cheap SD14. Oh yes, a polarizing filter should be standard, always. It gives the photos more contrast and color and the sky more blackness.

 

What is UV photography? Do you do that too?

It was not until 2018 that I started experimenting with UV photography. I am fascinated by it, but the execution is a bit more difficult than with IR. You need a full-spectrum camera and, instead of an IR filter, a UV transmitting filter. The exposure times are much longer than with IR, which is why you always need a tripod.

The look is completely different from IR, you could call it the opposite: Vegetation is blackish and the sky is very bright and foggy.

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