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Tutorial: Digital Infrared and Hand Coloring for Portraits

200611bc_handfinishlg Give your portrait an infrared look with delicate digital hand painting (includes downloadable Photoshop action and Flash tutorial)

By Gavin Phillips

I've always been intrigued by the melancholy beauty of certain photographs shot with infrared. The only issue is you either have to convert a digital camera to shoot infrared or use infrared film. This is both cumbersome and costly. Enter Photoshop.

Whilst researching infrared techniques in Photoshop, I found many that worked well replicating infrared for landscapes, but not with portraits. After much experimentation, I created an action that has the speed of an 'action' along with the ability to customize crucial steps, so photographers can tweak it to suit their own photographs.

Photos ©Peter Roberts

Infrared Tutorial (see the process in a Flash movie - 12.6MB)

Download the action. (Mac users with Safari browser: ctrl-click or right-click and select Save Linked File to the Desktop to download, and then remove the .txt from the file name, making it infrared.atn, which Photoshop will recognize. You can store your actions in your Photoshop application folder inside Presets > Photoshop Actions.)

Load the action

If your Actions palette is not already open, click on Window > Actions to bring it up.

In the Actions palette, click the button with the triangle on the right.


A drop-down list will appear. Please click on Load Actions… and navigate on your hard-drive to where you downloaded my action. Select the action and click Load.

Open your photograph.


Duplicate it (Image > Duplicate…); never work on an original.

Infrared will appear as a folder in your Actions palette. Select the infrared action inside the folder and press Play.


I use Calculations (Image > Calculations…) to make the initial black-and-white conversion. My action stops at the Calculations dialogue box to customize the black-and-white conversion for your photo.

There are four areas to focus on in the Calculations dialogue box: two Channels, the Blending mode and Opacity settings.


I usually stay with the default channels of Red and Green. The Screen blending mode will give you the romantic high-key look you want for infrared.

You will need to alter the opacity setting to suit your photograph. Using your own judgment and experimentation, you can set it anywhere between 30-100%.

After your adjustments, please click OK and my action will finish playing.


After my ‘action’ finishes, you will have four layers in your layers palette.


First, you will make an alteration to the Curves adjustment layer. Double-click on the Curves layer icon and the Curves dialog will pop up.


Customize the curve for your photo. I usually add a shallow S curve.


Next, I customize the more glow layer. Increase or decrease the opacity of this layer to get the right look for your photograph.


Adding Grain

To add grain, click on the grain layer. On the top menu bar, go to Filter > Noise > Add Noise…


You can overdo the amount here, because after you click OK, you can then fine tune it by altering the opacity of the grain layer.


Hand Coloring (see the process in a Flash movie - 6MB)

Start where we left off in the infrared tutorial.


Convert to RGB (Image > Mode > RGB Color).


Flatten your document.


Duplicate the background layer (Command/Control + J).

Add a new layer by clicking on the Create a new layer icon at the bottom of your Layers palette.


Change the empty layer’s blending mode to Color.

Change the opacity of the Color layer to 50%.

Select the Brush tool on your Tools palette or press B on your keyboard.


Click on the foreground color square in the Tool palette and pick a color.


Use a soft brush with opacity set at less than 10%. Mine is set at 7%.


Zoom in on the flower and painted with red on the color layer.


Click on the Foreground Color square again, choose a green, and paint on the same layer to paint in the leaves and stem.


If the color is too faint, you can always enhance it by increasing the opacity of the color layer.

Finally, add a Levels adjustment layer so that you can lighten or darken the midtones if desired and adjust the opacity of the color layer to show the amount of color you want.


Gavin Phillips is a Photoshop trainer based near Chicago. In answer to photographers' needs regarding post-processing, he has created several training curriculums specifically designed for working photographers.

He covers three main areas: supercharging your workflow, professional photographers' techniques, and being business creative. The term, "business creative" means that you will be able to create elegant imagery in less than 5 minutes using my custom actions and short tutorials.