Most mainstream photography follows the principle of using visible light to express a certain message. That can be to market a product or idea, for example. It might be to express a creative thought or to preserve memories. Or, oftentimes, just to play with fun visuals.
But what about the idea of photographing something we can’t actually see? That is the subject of infrared photography, an experimental and highly exciting niche that maintains a loyal base of followers today.
In this guide, I will introduce you to the basics of infrared photography and show you everything you need to know to incorporate it into your work.
Without further ado, let’s take a look at the world in IR!
What is Infrared Photography, exactly?
The idea behind infrared photography is the same as conventional photography.
You use a camera, including a lens, to capture light and guide it toward a sensor. That can be a digital CMOS, CCD, or film of course.
The key difference here is that infrared light, unlike the visible light spectrum, can’t really be seen. At least not with human eyes, that is.
What’s the point of IR photography then, you may ask? Why capture something that’s invisible?
The answer is simple. While we can’t see in infrared, our sensors can. We can simply take the IR image they produce and display it in visible colors.
The difference between a “real” infrared photograph and any other false-color photograph is that the infrared spectrum contains light information that doesn’t exist anywhere else.
This is especially evident when photographing plants, which often display certain patterns and colors that only exist in the IR (and sometimes in the UV) light spectrum.
Contrasts will be completely different in an IR photograph, as will textures of certain materials and more.
This is what gives the medium its well-deserved reputation for creating a “surreal” look.
In other words, infrared photography makes us rethink everything we take for granted about the functions of light and color in our images. That is what makes it so special!
The History of Infrared Photography
The quest to take pictures beyond visible light is an old one. And through changes in technology and taste, infrared photography has evolved a lot.
This is why, even for us in 2022, it can be helpful to understand where the genre came from.
The Discovery of Infrared Light
The story of infrared photography begins all the way back in the year 1800 with William Herschel, a German astronomer, and polymath who studied the spectrum of light intensely.
He was the first to recognize that not only do different wavelengths of sunlight (different “colors”) conduct heat differently but that the hottest sunlight is actually invisible. Since it lies just beyond the deepest red that the human eye can see, the name infrared stuck. Easy to remember, no?
Infrared Photography And Its Beginnings
Generations later, the first infrared photographs in the modern sense were taken by an American scientist, Robert W. Wood. He achieved his (very long) exposures using sheet film that he coated himself with a homemade emulsion.
The military saw an asset in the technology. It found great success in World War One to take photographs through the thick clouds of fog, mustard gas, and fumes that permeated the air of No Man’s Land.
To this day, IR photography carries huge importance in the military field. Aircraft often use IR imaging for targeting systems to make camouflaged ground forces more visible, for instance.
However, the popularity of infrared photography with the general public has always remained on the fringes. First produced en masse in the 1930s by Kodak, IR film never became a big seller. Most film stock for infrared imaging stopped production near the turn of the millennium.
The Rise of IR and Digital Proliferation
Since then, digital infrared has garnered a lot of interest. Especially in fields like medicine and forensics, where it can reveal details otherwise hidden to the naked eye, it’s proven itself as a vital tool.
Thanks to digital cameras, infrared photography is increasingly available and accessible to the individual photographer too. In fact, for the first time in its history, IR photography is exhibiting something approaching mass popularity.
With more photography courses worldwide featuring it in their curriculums and more curious photogs deciding every year to take the plunge and try it out, IR has a bright future ahead.
What Gear Do You Need for Infrared Photography?
Unlike compositional rules, infrared photography is about more than just technique. It requires its own set of hardware, too. And to get the most out of taking shots in IR, you would do good to invest in the appropriate equipment before you get started.
Because there are great fundamental differences between creating IR photographs on digital versus film-based camera systems, I have divided this chapter into two sections.
Whether your home base lies with 120 film or you’re an early adopter of the latest stacked CMOS-equipped mirrorless digital camera, you’ll find a neat overview of the gear required for infrared photography below.
Basic Requirements for Infrared Film Photography
For a long time, film was the only means of capturing infrared light, and it continues to have a loyal following.
The principle is simple on paper. Just as there is film that is sensitive to all visible light (panchromatic) and film that lacks sensitivity to visible reds (orthochromatic), there is also an infrared film that picks up infrared light.
In other words, to take IR photos with your film camera, all you need to do is find some IR film lying around, pop it in, and shoot it as normal.
In theory, the choice of film format does not play any role. However, you might have more trouble finding available IR film for some formats than others.
Most commercially available IR film these days is exclusively 35mm. Still, there are a few options for 120 and 4×5 large formats as well – you just need to be patient and shop around.
If you’re feeling especially daring, consider expired film, too!
The Basics of Digital Infrared Photography
Unlike an analog medium like film, a digital camera’s sensor is fixed. You can’t just swap yours out for one that is specifically calibrated to detect only infrared light, unfortunately.
While there is such a thing as a dedicated infrared camera body, it’s not nearly as easy to get your hands on one compared to a garden variety DSLR.
The only current model that comes to my mind is the Fujifilm GFX100 IR.
A digital medium format beast, the regular GFX100 already comes in at a mouth-watering $10,000 price tag. But the IR version is so exclusive that Fujifilm does not even offer it for sale to the general public!
It’s purely a special-purpose model marketed towards government clients and those in the medical field, not private individuals.
So what’s the alternative for us mere mortals?
One option is to send in your camera body to have an IR filter installed just ahead of the sensor. As the name implies, the filter makes sure that only light in the IR spectrum makes it to the final exposure, essentially “converting” your camera to an IR-capable device.
The pros of this procedure are that it is relatively foolproof and that nearly any digital camera is compatible. The quality of the photos from a converted camera is also top-notch, really capturing as much of the infrared spectrum (and as little of anything else) as possible.
On the other hand, it’s not for everyone. Infrared camera conversions are still quite costly, and on top of that, you will lose the ability to create visible light photography with your camera.
Fortunately, there is a perfectly non-invasive method for converting nearly any digital camera to an infrared-capable image-making system. This is by using lens filters, or rather one special type called an infrared lens filter.
How to Use an Infrared Filter
Lens filters for infrared photography come in all the standard threads that you will recognize from other types of modern lens filters. Using them is just as simple, as well.
Just screw the filter into the thread on the front element as you would any other. All you need to watch out for is that the sizes match.
With an IR filter on your lens, most of the visible light spectrum will not reach the sensor. Take it off, and all that visible light can travel straight through the lens once more.
This makes these kinds of filters the perfect non-invasive digital camera conversion for infrared photography!
Most IR filters do allow for stacking with other effects filters. For example, some people choose to use polarizers on top of their infrared lens filters, which makes for sometimes bizarre, sometimes awe-inspiring landscape photographs.
However, the results from such filter combos are often very tricky to predict. I would suggest familiarizing yourself with your combination of infrared filter, camera body, and lens first before adding other variables.
How Do You Make Infrared Photos Look Their Best?
As you can see, the technical requirements for infrared photography can be quite manageable, depending on your existing gear.
This definitely sets the entry bar low for adventurously-minded photographers. But what about the creative side of the process?
That is exactly what this chapter is going to focus on. Let’s take a close look at all the camera settings, exposure tweaks, and elements of composition that you need to be aware of to master IR photography right off the bat.
Exposure Values for Infrared Photography
The biggest hurdle many aspiring infrared photographers face at first is not the initial setup of their gear to make it IR-capable but rather adjusting to the different and unfamiliar rules governing exposure.
Don’t worry: IR won’t make you rethink everything from scratch. The basic laws of the exposure triangle still apply, and a solid foundation in these ground rules will serve you well in any genre of photography, no matter what.
However, infrared photography does ask for a different approach compared to genres utilizing visible light. This mostly has to do with the amount of infrared light you can capture with your camera.
IR filters, whether lens-mounted or installed at the sensor level, have a high filter factor. This means that they block out a lot of light, only letting a comparatively small amount pass through. This makes sense, given that infrared is only a minor fraction of the total light spectrum.
However, it also means that infrared photography demands long shutter speeds in most circumstances. Nearly all of the infrared photographs showcased in this article were shot on a tripod, and for just that reason!
Of course, handheld infrared photography is not an impossibility. With generously high ISOs and favorable environmental conditions, it is very doable. Just remember that it will be a lot harder to create these conditions than what you might be used to!
Monochrome Infrared Photography – a Primer
With infrared film as well as infrared filters on digital cameras, you have the choice between color or monochromatic images, as per usual.
However, newcomers to IR often face confusion about the differences between the two, so let us dig a little bit deeper into this topic and clear things up.
Black and white infrared film can often look similar to its visible light brethren at first glance. However, it is in the contrasts and exposure that the image mainly differs.
As you can see, foliage can stick out brilliantly while the sky is greatly contrasted. You can play with this change in contrasts to create a variety of cool effects that are hard to reproduce otherwise.
The Unique Characteristics of Color Infrared Photography
Compared to black and white infrared film or digital photography, using color in infrared pulls out all the stops and makes for a much more extravagant, surrealist result.
Trees reflect odd bright reds and pinks while water glistens in shades of green, and the skin takes on extreme light or dark tones with unusually prominent veins and birthmarks.
If you recognize this look as distinctly psychedelic, that’s because it very much is.
The color infrared film look was popularized in the public consciousness by a string of album covers in the late 60s from acts such as Jimi Hendrix and the Grateful Dead.
To this day, many connect infrared color photography to the mood and feel of that time period. For those looking for a “retro” effect, it can often be just what the doctor ordered.
What to Watch Out For When Trying Color Infrared Film
In principle, every rule in this guide applies equally to color and monochromatic infrared photography. There are few differences between them in purely technical, non-stylistic terms.
However, one area deserves special attention, which is the use of color filters.
As counterintuitive as it may seem, you should always remember to keep the color filter that you use for monochrome work on your lens when shooting in IR.
Without color filters, color IR film will not display any of its unique visual effects. On the one hand, that makes exposure a bit trickier since you need to account not just for the slow speed of the IR film, but also for the filter factor!
On the other hand, it allows you to experiment with colors and results much more wildly by swapping out different filters as you please.
Just like with black and white film, the most common color is medium yellow. However, your imagination is the limit, and you’re free to experiment with whatever color filters you have available to you!
The Effects of Exposure Latitude in Infrared Photography
Compared to available light, infrared (whether shot on film or digitally) exhibits a much narrower exposure latitude. That is to say, the gamut between the maximum exposure value (totally white) and the minimum (pitch black) doesn’t run as wide as you might be used to.
This is because the infrared spectrum represents an inherently small cross-section of all the light that surrounds us. By only exposing infrared, you are working with a very narrow range of colors.
This makes for some unique pitfalls that often face inexperienced infrared photographers at first. For instance, it is much easier to overexpose the sky in a daytime infrared photograph accidentally!
Over time, you will develop an intuitive sense for the correct exposure in infrared, just as most photographers eventually do in available light.
The most important thing is to experiment frequently so that you can acquaint yourself with the different exposure characteristics.
Gauging Exposure for Punchy Infrared Photos
About those common pitfalls I mentioned – one of them concerns your light meter.
Whether built into your camera, your phone, or as a standalone device, a light meter can be a reliable companion for all genres of photography. Many photographers swear by their meters and trust them no matter the weather, lighting, or other conditions.
All that flies out the window when it comes to infrared photography. Light meters try to calculate your desired exposure by measuring the light they’re pointed at. The visible light, that is.
In other words, nearly all commercially available photographic light meters (especially the ones built into cameras) are useless for infrared photography.
Time to brush up on your Sunny Sixteen skills!
That’s right. If you’ve never metered “with your eyes” before, now is the time to learn. As esoteric as it might sound to someone who has only ever relied on light meters, it is very much an achievable skill to master. All it takes is a basic framework and lots of practice!
Achieving Focus in Infrared
Here’s another curveball to throw your way: you can’t even trust your lens to be in proper focus in an infrared exposure!
Focus works differently when photographing the infrared spectrum, and you will need to compensate accordingly.
Yes, that means that autofocus systems will not function reliably either. Going manual is your only option.
Some lenses, especially pro-grade manual focus primes, have an infrared focus marker next to the usual indicator for focus. This often takes the form of a prominent red dot or line.
You can use the marker to easily determine the focus for infrared photography. Just set your focus on the lens scale as normal, and then adjust to the left or right by the amount indicated by the IR marker.
Since this feature is rare on consumer lenses made since about the mid-1980s, many infrared photographers tend to go for vintage lenses to be able to focus accurately in their medium of choice.
How Time of Day Affects Infrared Exposures
In regular color photography, the time of day affects the mood and exposure settings of your image to a great deal. For example, sunrise and the so-called golden hour are specific time frames that have been popular with photographers for generations and come with their own set of appropriate techniques and skills to master.
In infrared photography, the same holds true.
However, the distinct effects of changing hours on exposure are totally different and sometimes even contradictory to what you would expect from visible light photography.
For example, the kind of direct sunlight you get during the hours surrounding high noon can completely ruin your shot in general photography. In IR, however, noon can often actually be the best time to go out and shoot!
This is because the concentration of available infrared is at its peak during this time frame, which can help attain a reasonable exposure time (and even allow for hand-held shooting if you’re lucky).
The usual problems with washed-out subjects and lack of contrasts and shadows also don’t exist in IR at this time. Or rather, they do exist, just in different ways!
Other times of day, such as late evening or even nighttime, will yield very different results, greatly affecting color rendition with color IR film (or digital sensors).
The amount of infrared exposure you get, and how it varies over time, will also change depending on where you live.
Different climates experience different radiation levels (in addition to the differences in seasons and sunshine hours that are relevant to every kind of photography in general).
The best way to wrap your head around all these variables is to go out and try different perspectives and light levels at different times of day for yourself!
The world of photography in the infrared spectrum is a strange one, full of wonder and unusual, even contradictory logic that can be hard to get used to.
This applies to seasoned pros just as much as it does to the total newcomer! Just as with photography in the visible light spectrum, it takes time and lots of practice to develop the kind of “sixth sense” you need to reliably make solid, consistent exposures by yourself.
And just as with all else in photography, that road is one worth taking! The reward of practicing and slowly mastering the ins and outs of IR photography is indescribable.
The most important thing that you can do now that you have reached the end of this practical guide is to immerse yourself in the genre and keep working on your infrared photography chops regularly.
While infrared photography can indeed feel like starting all over from zero again, re-learning basics of exposure and composition from scratch, that really should not discourage you. The tips in this guide alone are more than enough to get you started. The rest is all up to you! Good luck!