Digital Infrared Photography; Imaging With Invisible Light

Every photographer knows about visible light being used to capture photographic images digitally or with film, but there are other kinds of light that we can't see. Light with wavelengths from approximately 700 and 900nm (nanometers) is called infrared light. Interestingly, this band of infrared light is a thousand times wider than that of visible light, but is invisible to our eyes.

Shooting infrared has the power to transform mundane subject matter into unforgettable images. Everyday scenes that you might walk by and never think of photographing take on a more dramatic look when seen in infrared. Back in the bad old days of IR film, you needed to use special film stock and load and unload your camera in total darkness to reduce the damage of infrared fogging. To shoot IR film you also needed special--that part hasn't changed--filters and either process the film yourself or find an ever-dwindling pool of specialty labs to do it for you. When shooting infrared film it's more click and hope, but digital IR images can be made in camera and you'll immediately see the results on the LCD screen.

Mary and I were hiking in Arches National Park when I saw this dramatic cloud formation that I knew would produce a dramatic IR effect. Image was captured with a modified Canon EOS D30 and Tamron's SP AF11-18mm F/4.5-5.6 Di II LD Aspherical (IF) lens because the EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM does not work with older Canon digital SLRs. Image was captured at 1/125 sec at f/14 with a +2 stop overexposure compensation at ISO 400.
All Photos © 2006, Joe Farace, All Rights Reserved

Are You Ready To Rumble...Er, Infrared?
Because the imaging sensors used in digital cameras are sensitive to more than visible light, some manufacturers place an infrared cutoff filter in front of the chip to block infrared light from striking it and causing color balance problems. This filter's effectiveness varies from model to model, but some consumer digicams allow enough IR to pass through to permit, what techies would call, near infrared photography when an appropriate filter is placed in front of the lens or when they have the internal filter removed by a trained technician. (Near infrared light is the closest wavelength to visible light and far infrared is closer to the microwaves in the electromagnetic spectrum.)

IR capture illuminates the deciduous trees found all over Zion National Park. Image was captured with a modified Canon EOS D30 and Tamron's SP AF11-18mm F/4.5-5.6 Di II LD Aspherical (IF) lens. Exposure was 1/125 sec at f/8 with a +2 stop overexposure compensation at ISO 200. Subtle toning was applied using PixelGenius' ( PhotoKit Photoshop compatible plug-in.

When I get a new digital camera I give it the "remote control" test. One of the easiest ways to check if your digicam is capable of infrared capture by using filters is to point a TV remote control at the lens and take a picture or look at the image on the LCD panel. If you see a point of light, you're ready to make IR digital images. All you need is the right filter to get started. If your digicam passes the TV remote control test and has a Black and White mode, you'll be able see the infrared effect right before your eyes.

Sometimes I leave the captured file as a magenta-colored image and apply David Burren's ( free FalseColour Photoshop Action to achieve this look. (Burren also offers IR camera conversions and the people I know who have had them done by him say it's worth sending the camera to Australia.) The classic Allard sports car was photographed with a modified Canon EOS D30 with a manual focus MC Zenitar 16mm f/2.8 fisheye lens set at its hyperfocal distance. I put the camera in Aperture Priority mode (1/160 sec at f/16) and it's just point-and-shoot. ISO was set at 200.

Filters And Holders
For all of my early filtered digital IR images, I use HOYA's (www.thk Infrared (R72) filter because it is affordable and works great. In smaller sizes, such as 52mm, the HOYA R72 costs less than $40, making it a bargain for digital infrared photography. On the other hand, if you need a 72mm filter, expect to shell out almost $265.

Hiking along Arches National Park, I liked the way this lone pine stood out from the background. It was captured as a raw file with a modified Canon EOS D30 and Tamron's SP AF11-18mm F/4.5-5.6 Di II LD Aspherical (IF) lens at 18mm. Exposure was 1/160 sec at f/16 with a +1 2/3 stop overexposure compensation at ISO 400.

Cokin ( introduced a 007 filter that's available in A, P, X-PRO, and Z-PRO (100mm sizes). This is a modular implementation of the 89B infrared filter that was previously only available as a gel. The price difference between the smaller A size and supersized X-PRO Cokin filters is similar to HOYA's, albeit not as extreme. Some IR cognoscenti have disdain for the 89B, feeling it lets too much visible light in and contaminating the IR image, but not me. My biggest concern when using the Cokin filter in the filter holder is that visible light can leak in from the sides and can pollute the IR image. So, instead of a holder I use my fingers and hold the filter flat against the front of the lens. The camera will be on a tripod anyway because the optical density of all IR filters produces long exposure times.

One of my favorite techniques--backlighting--works just as well with IR as it does conventional in capture. Image was made with modified Canon EOS D30 and Tamron's SP AF11-18mm F/4.5-5.6 Di II LD Aspherical (IF) lens at 11mm. Exposure was 1/80 sec at f/11 with a +2 stop overexposure compensation at ISO 400.

Fans of premium filters from B+W ( and Heliopan ( will have to spend a little more but not too much more because most IR filters are by their nature expensive. One of the most interesting of the currently available premium IR filters is the Singh-Ray ( I-Ray Infrared Filter. This totally opaque filter eliminates all visible light and transmits more than 90 percent of the near-infrared electromagnetic wavelengths between 700 and 1100nm. Price for a 52mm filter is $160 and is well worth it if you are serious about shooting digital IR images.

This was just one of a few images I was able to make before the wind picked up and wiped the reflection from the lake. Photo was made with a Pentax K100D and smc P-DA 50-200mm f/4.0-5.6 ED lens at 80mm. Exposure was .5 seconds at f/9.5 in Manual mode at ISO 800. Filter used was the opaque Singh-Ray I-Ray Infrared Filter.

Before I showed them this photograph, Pentax Imaging U.S.A. didn't even know that the new K100D digital SLR was capable of infrared photography. This image was made in the early afternoon near the entrance to Arches National Park. The trees are coniferous pines so the (film or digital) IR effect on the trees is not as great as it might have been, but I like the look nevertheless. Exposure was .7 seconds at f/9.5 in Manual mode. Filter used was Singh-Ray's totally opaque I-Ray Infrared Filter.

Camera Conversions
If your digital camera is not IR sensitive or if you decide to get really serious about digital infrared photography, you might want to have your camera converted to IR-only operation. The IR Guy ( converts digital SLRs such as the Canon EOS D30, D60, 1D, Digital Rebel and Nikon D100 into IR-only cameras. If your camera is not listed check his site to see what conversions are currently available. He is not the only person doing this conversion but the only one with whom I've had personal experience. After modification your camera becomes a dedicated black and white IR camera and you will never be able to shoot conventional images again.

I usually capture IR images in raw format and use Adobe's Camera Raw (ACR) to process the files. I start by opening the file, which usually ends up looking mostly magenta, and using the Saturation slider to remove all color from the image. Sometimes I adjust the image using the ACR's Contrast slider but more often than not, I just open the now-monochrome photo into Adobe's Photoshop CS2 and perform additional tweaks there.


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