Professional Photographer Magazine Web Exclusives

Digital Infrared Travel Photography

Photograph the sights using invisible light

By Joe Farace

Travel photography is an ever-expanding genre. Once it was enough to just be there and take a photograph. Then you were expected to deliver that image in color. Now your image should capture an impression of that faraway place. I’d like to add another tool to your travel shooters toolkit: digital infrared photography. To be sure, there’s nothing new about black-and-white travel photography, but you deliver something special when you capture some of your next travel images with invisible light.

The World of Invisible Light

Every photographer knows about how visible light is used to capture photographic images but there are other kinds of light that we can’t see. Light with wavelengths from 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.

Back in the bad old days of shooting infrared film, you had to use special film, and load and unload your camera in total darkness to reduce the damage of 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. Shooting infrared film it more click-and-hope than a sure thing, but digital IR images can be made in-camera, and you’ll see the results immediately on the LCD screen.


200704we_irfuerte

Caption: The star-shaped Fuerte de San Diego in Acapulco is named for a viceroy of New Spain, Diego Fernández de Córdoba. This is one of its gateways and was originally photographed as a monochrome infrared image with my converted Canon EOS D60. Exposure was 1/60 second at f/11, ISO 400, with +1-stop exposure compensation. Color was added to the original uncorrected image file using Brad Buskey’s InfraRed Adjustment Action. Like all tweaks, the more color you start with, the more color you end up with, but I liked the subtle hand-colored effect. ©2006 Joe Farace

200704we_irfuerte2 Caption: As part of its defenses, Acapulco’s Fuerte de San Diego is surrounded it a dry pit that serves as a medieval moat sans aqua. While a monochrome image by its nature adds a bit of a Nicephore Niepce effect to modern digital images, digital IR capture adds another layer by making it look like the real deal. Exposure was 1/45 second at f/8, ISO 400, with +1-stop exposure compensation. To add even more atmosphere, I used oneOne Software’s PhotoFrame Pro 3 to add border and edge effects to the finished image. ©2006 Joe Farace

Infrared photography is fun because it captures part of the invisible spectrum, allowing you to see some things that only register as heat, creating otherworldly images. One of the biggest advantages of  infrared capture is that the it has the power to transform mundane subject matter into unforgettable images. Everyday scenes that you might walk by and never think of photographing can look fantastically dramatic in infrared.

200704we_irgate Caption: I encountered this gate while walking down the hill from La Paz Chapel (Chapel of Peace) that stands at 1,250 feet overlooking Acapulco harbor. This is a perfect example of what IR brings to travel photography. This might be totally forgettable in visible light; there’s lots of green foilage and a wrought iron gate. In IR, the white foliage with the still-black gate provide contrast and enhance the shape of the flora and fauna surrounding it. Exposure was 1/45 second at f/9.5, ISO 400, +1/2-stop exposure compensation. Monochrome doesn’t mean black and white, so I digitally toned the final image with PixelGenius PhotoKit using the Platinum tone. ©2006 Joe Farace

Palm trees, the uibiquitous tropical cliché, look like white feathers in IR, adding an exotic look to an already exotic location. Green tree leaves photograph as white. This effect is commonly produced by deciduous trees and grass because they reflect the sun’s infrared energy instead of absorbing it. Deciduous trees are those with leaves that go through a yearly growth cycle and drop from the tree in autumn. Coniferous trees, a.k.a. evergreens, have small waxy leaves or needles that hang around all year and have a less intense but still visually interesting response in infrared photographs.

200704we_ircolor

200704we_ircolortoir
Caption: While not shot for direct comparison, these two images made with two different Canon EOS DSLRs, one modified for IR capture, provide a thumbnail sketch of the differences between photographing with visible or invisible light. Both were made after breakfast on a slightly hazy day with bald headed skies, not typically the best environment for any kind of photography. Aside from the trademark white foilage, the differences are striking particually in the reflections in the water. There are faint reflections in the color version and pronounced, detailed reflections in the IR version. Exposure for the color version (EOS 5D) was 1/200 second at f/10, ISO 200 with -1/3-stop exposure compensation. Exposure for the  IR version (EOS D60) was 1/45 second at f/9.5, ISO 400, with +2-stop exposure compensation. ©2006 Joe Farace

One of the first things you have to do when shooting IR images is forget everything you know about lighting and the best time of day to capture images. To give foliage that famed infrared glow, you need to shoot at a time of day when there’s more sun on the scene than not: mid-day! Not the best time to capture conventional photographs, but these are the “golden hours” for infrared. If you need a rule of thumb, try this one: The best time of day to shoot IR is when it’s the worst time of day to shoot “normal” images. So instead of being stuck in paradise at noon with only boring, harsh lighting for color photographs, shoot infrared!

200704we_irhands
Caption: La Paz Chapel was completed in 1970 as a tribute to the sons of Mr. And Mrs. Trouyet, who died in air accident in 1967. In addition to a large cross, there is this sculpture, which can be seen to be praying or serve as a Rorschach test of interpretation for the viewer. The dark hands and white foilage produced by IR capture provide a stark contrast that makes IR capture the perfect media for this kind of image. Exposure was 1/90 second at f/13, ISO 400, +1-stop exposure compensation. ©2006 Joe Farace

Infrared Filters and Holders

Because the imaging sensors used in digital cameras are sensitive to more than visible light, some manufacturers place an infrared cut-off filter in front of the chip to block IR light and prevent color balance problems. This filter’s effectiveness varies from model to model, but some digital cameras allow enough IR through to pass though to permit what's called near-infrared photography when an appropriate filter is placed in front of the lens.

One way to check if your digicam is capable of infrared capture 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 probably able to make IR digital images. This test is not infallible, and there’s some empirical data to substantiate that assumption. The only bullet-proof digital infrared test is to stick an IR filter in front of your lens and make a test shot. Which IR filter?

For most of my filtered digital IR images, I use Hoya’s 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. Cokin offers a 007 filter that’s a modular implementation of the 87B infrared filter that was previously only available as a gel. It’s available in A, P, X-Pro and Z-Pro (100mm sizes). The price difference between the smaller A and a supersized X-Pro Cokin filter is similar to Hoya’s, albeit not as extreme.

Some IR cognoscenti have disdain for the 87B, feeling it lets too much visible light in, contaminating the IR image—but not me. My biggest concern when using Cokin filters in the modular holder is the chance that visible light can leak in from the sides and pollute the IR image. Instead of a holder I use my fingers and hold the filter flat against the front of the lens. This isn’t all that hard to do since the camera will be on a tripod anyway; the optical density of all IR filters requires long exposure times.

Fans of premium filters from B+W and Heliopan will have to spend a little more, but not too much more, because 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 1100 nanometers. Price for a 52mm filter is $160 and is well worth it if you are serious about capturing digital IR images.

200704we_irjardin
Caption: Acapulco’s Botanical Garden is located in the Southern Sierra Madre Mountains that surround Acapulco at an altitude of between 660 and 1,300 feet above sea level, which means there are lots of steps. Exposure was 1/60 second at f/9.5, ISO 400, +1/2-stop exposure compensation. ©2006 Joe Farace

Convert Your Camera

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 by removing its internal infrared filter. The IR Guy, LifePixel, MaxMax, and Australia’s Khromagery, among others, convert digital SLRs into IR-only cameras. There are several companies that covert point-and-shoot cameras for digital IR capture. Let Google be your guide. If you’re handy with small tools, Amherst Media’s “Digital Infrared Photography” by Patrick Rice (ISBN 1-58428-149-9) includes a one-page tutorial on how to modify a Nikon Coolpix 990 or 950 for infrared photography.

The cost of retrofitting the camera can be expensive and after it’s converted, the camera will only be able to record reflected IR radiation. The resulting photographs will look similar to images shot with Kodak’s HIS (High Speed Infrared) film using a #87 filter but without any grain. Best of all, there is no need to place an IR filter in front of the lens, leaving the viewfinder clear and bright and making hand-held capture possibile, something film IR photographers only dream about.

200704we_irtractor
Caption: I was in a van negotiating the narrow tight streets heading to Acapulco’s Botanical Garden when I yelled, "Alto!" My fellow passengers acted as if I had lost my mind while I photographed this abandoned tractor, and they didn’t even know I was photographing it in infrared! Exposure with a modified Canon EOS D60 was 1/90 second at f/11, ISO 400, +1-stop exposure compensation. I digitally “toned” the final image with PixelGenius PhotoKit, using the Platinum tone, which slightly warms up the image without the kind of orange tint most in-camera sepia techniques produce.

200704we_irrawacr
Caption: I usually capture IR images in RAW format and use Adobe Camera RAW to process the files. I start by opening the file, which usually looks mostly magenta, and use 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 in Adobe Photoshop CS2 and perform additional tweaks. ©2006 Joe Farace

SIDEBAR: Adding Color to Your Images

You can add color to your infrared travel photographs at the time of capture or afterward in the digital darkroom. The easiest way is to do it in-camera. Cameras that offer a built-in black-and-white mode which allows you to directly capture monochrome IR images, often also have a sepia mode. On your computer, you can add color using digital toning filters found in Pixel GeniusPhotoKit or using layers to add hand-coloring effects. Brad Buskey’s InfraRed Adjustment Action adds subtle color to digital infrared files and works best before you’ve converted the file to monochrome. Like all tweaks, the more color you start with, the more color you end up with. David Burren created a Photoshop Action for adding color to IR files (.zip file). The action applies all its changes via adjustment layers, allowing you to undo or tweak each of the changes.

200704we_irfilter
Caption: The Olympus E-300, like many other digicams, offers monochrome modes in addition to black and white, so I decided to see what a sepia-toned digital IR image looked like. Exposure for this IR shot in Program mode was 1/6 second at f/5.1, ISO 100, +1-stop exposure compensation. This photograph was not manipulated in postproduction in any way; this is what it looked like directly off the memory card. © 2005 Joe Farace

Joe Farace is the author of the new book called “The Complete Guide to Infrared Photography,” published by Lark Books (ISBN 1579907725). It’s available in fine bookstores, including Denver’s Tattered Cover, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon.com.