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Digital Infrared Photography
All You Need is a Camera and a Remote Control
by Joe Farace
The simplest and best reason for shooting infrared images is that the technique has the power to transform the mundane into the unforgettable. Everyday scenes you might walk right by and never think of photographing, take on a more dramatic look when seen as infrared. Infrared images are fun because they capture parts of the invisible spectrum allowing you to see things that may only register as heat with the result being the creation of otherworldly images. The creative potential of infrared is virtually limitless, but shooting infrared film, while rewarding, entails a number of technical limitations that make it tricky (such as loading your camera and developing the film in total darkness). Fortunately, digital capture allows you to shoot infrared with a lot less hassle, and as you can see by perusing the images I’ve shot, the results can be gratifying.
Venues with interesting architecture and landscaping always make interesting infrared photography subjects. Using an IR-sensitive camera is only half the equation; the other half is having a lens with a versatile range of focal lengths to provide creative freedom. For this photograph made at the Arvada Center for the Arts, Tamron’s AF18-200mm F/3.5-6.3 XR Di II lens was attached to a Canon EOS D30 specially modified (www.irdigital.net) to capture infrared images. This lens, used here at 47mm, is designed for digital cameras with smaller-size imagers and with the D30’s 1.6x multiplication factor produces the equivalent of 75mm. Exposure at ISO 400 was 1/100th of a second at f/16 in Aperture Preferred mode. After viewing the previous image’s histogram, a plus one-third stop exposure compensation was applied to brighten the clouds for this final photograph. Note how the IR effect is more pronounced on deciduous trees, rather then the evergreens in the center and right of the photograph. This is a typical effect in all—film or digital—infrared photography.
When shooting IR images with film cameras, you needed to use special film that was not always easily obtainable and handle it in total darkness. Special filters are also required during exposure with IR film and you must either process the film yourself or find a vendor from an ever-dwindling pool of specialty labs to do it for you. On the other hand, the imaging chips in most digital cameras are fitted with infrared cut-off filer that is designed to reduce IR contamination, but many, but not all, consumer digicams let enough IR through to allow what persnickety techies would call near infrared photography, that is photography in the IR range closest to the visible spectrum.
Whenever I get a new digital camera, I run down to the family room and give it the remote control test. What's the “TV remote” test? One of the easiest ways to check if your particular digital camera is infrared capable is to point a TV remote control at the lens and take a picture of it, or look at the image on the LCD panel. If you see a point of light, you’re ready to make IR digital images. If your digicam passes the TV remote test and has a black and white mode, you’ll be able to see the infrared effect right before your eyes.
If your camera is IR capable, here are some filter suggestions to get
One of the first things you have to do when shooting digital IR images is forget practically everything you know or ever learned about lighting. To give foilage that glorious infrared "glow"; you need to shoot at time of day when there's more sun illuminating your subjects than not; this puts you shooting at mid-day! Experienced shooters know that this is hardly the best time to make conventional images, but that's 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.
My IR shooting technique is simple; so simple you might call it point-and-shoot infrared. No matter what kind of IR filter you decide to use, they are all dark (that is, they have very high filter factors and handheld shots are out of the question. You’re definitely going to need a sturdy tripod and I use either a classic Tiltall or a mid-size Manfrotto. When shooting on a support, I pick exposure modes based on environmental conditions. Windy days call for Shutter Speed Preferred (Tv) mode. On a nice, relatively windless day, I just use Programmed mode but if it’s shiftable I like to shoot at small apertures to obtain greater depth-of-field.
After composing the image, I generally place the filter in front of the lens and wait for the image to settle down to compensate for the effect of the filter. If your camera has an EVF (Electronic View Finder) you will see the IR effect directly. Let the camera focus through the filter; if you focus first then use the filter nothing usually happens. Most of the time I shoot in black-and-white mode so I can preview the final image, but sometimes I shoot RAW which means the image is in color and must be converted later using Adobe Photoshop but you can use whatever your favorite imaging program may be.
When shooting infrared film it’s more click and hope, but with infrared-capable digital cameras, black and white IR images can be made in the camera and with EVF’s you’ll even be able to see the results before you snap the shutter. Digital SLRs like the Fuji S3Pro have the obvious advantage of interchangeable lenses, but their optical viewfinders don’t let you preview the effect before you shoot. So-called ZLRs (digital cameras with non-interchangeable zoom lenses) have electronic viewfinders (EVF) which do let you see pretty much what you’ll get when shooting IR. Which is best? As they say, it depends on your priorities.
One of the most intriguing aspects of digital IR photography is its ability to add elements of mystery and wonder to ordinary scenes you might otherwise walk by without noticing. Using a wide-angle lens on a digital SLR with a smaller APS-sized chip open more creative possibilities for the infrared photographer too. For this image, a Tamron AF18-200mm F/3.5-6.3 XR Di II lens was used with a Canon EOS D30 modified to capture infrared images. This house sits unnoticed across the street from a local shopping mall, but in digital IR, especially with the Tamron AF18-200mm set t 18mm, it looks, well, different. Exposure was 1/160 th of a second at f/11 in Program mode at ISO 800.