(You can see larger versions of these infrared images on my Photoshelter portfolio.)
Question: What is all around us, forms more than half of the energy our planet receives from the sun and is critical to our continued existence yet remains invisible to us?
Answer: Magical, ethereal, otherworldly Infrared light.
Infrared light waves fall beyond the range the human eye can detect but those infrared waves are bouncing around wherever we are. However, whilst the naked eye cannot see infrared light waves, devices equipped with sensors capable of working at the right wavelengths can see and record that infrared light.
Your digital SLR camera can see infrared light but has a filter installed which blocks those wavelengths so that the camera records a range of light similar to that which our eyes can detect. Removing the filter will allow infrared light to reach the camera sensor and a previously invisible world is revealed.
Removing a filter sounds like a simple solution but, as I’ve discovered, there’s a lot more to it than that. Firstly, you pretty much have to sacrifice a camera in order to make it work with infrared as it’s not going to be much use for anything else. In my case, a second-hand Canon EOS 60D in perfect condition on the shelf of my local photographic “pusher” seemed to fit the bill. I’ve been keen to try infrared photography for a long time but have resisted the temptation as it’s not really a style of photography which fits with my more usual style of work.
However, good friend and fellow member of the Bangkok Photo Club, Daniel Paris, has been photographing with a camera converted for infrared for some time and my intrigue with his ability to see into a hidden world has grown and grown. I’ve been using my newly converted Infrared camera for just two days and whilst I’m certainly not disappointed, there’s been a steep learning curve. Here’s some random extracts from my infrared notes:
- Infrared light doesn’t focus at the same point as visible light so forget about auto-focussing through the viewfinder.
- A Live View preview measures focus from light falling on the sensor rather than on the focus gromit in the bottom of the camera and is (much) more accurate for Infrared light.
- “Infinity” on the focus ring of my lenses doesn’t actually mean “infinity” when it comes to infrared and I often seemed to need to focus “to infinity and beyond”
- Because infrared light is invisible to us, there’s no way of predicting what colours will render in the camera. Grass and leaves are white, blue skies are brown, brown leaves are blue.
- Throw out everything you think you know about White Balance. It doesn’t apply to infrared in the same way as with visible light.
- Forget about trying to use Adobe Lightroom or Camera Raw (Photoshop). The White Balance values don’t extend far enough to work with the custom white balance settings used with infrared.
After some extensive testing with the converted 60D on a tripod, I was able to compile a table listing all my lenses and the apertures at which they would work best with infrared. I picked up a Canon EF-S 10-22mm lens, expecting to use this with the 60D. That was my first mistake. At anything other than f/8, the lens produces hot spots of overexposure in the centre of the frame and blurry edges. At the 10mm end it’s fuzzier than a muppet’s fringe. At f/3.5 it couldn’t focus on a black cat wearing a stripy cardigan on a snowy day. Some of the lenses I thought would work well are all but redundant. My 24-70mm f/2.8 II works well up to f/8 and my 85mm f/1.2 II is better than expected. My 16-35mm f/2.8 II is fuzzier than a jockey’s britches at f/2.8 but passable at f/8 or f/11. I didn’t dare try my TS-E 24mm f/3.5 Tilt and Shift lens on the basis that more than one groovy effect at a time is just greedy.
So, after a crash-course in infrared capture and post-production, I ventured out shortly after sunrise this morning to record this previously invisible world. It was a LOT of fun. I ended up bumping into several lampposts and one unfortunate cyclist as it was hard to look away from the Live View screen as I walked around the park. The Live View LCD reveals the infrared world, showing only infrared light bouncing off everything. The large palm trees edging the lake were a particular and delightful surprise, appearing eerily devoid of colour and glowing white against a dark brown sky.
Determined to make use of the Canon EF-S 10-22mm lens, I persevered and all of the images in this post where shot with that lens, which I ended up locking to f/8 and 1/60th of a second at ISO100. Beyond that, I think it may be asking too much of a lens which isn’t designed to work at such extreme wavelengths.
For the post-production, I resorted to the cumbersome Digital Photo Professional software provided with Canon cameras and am very pleased that I don’t have to use it on a regular basis. However, it recognises the strange White Balance settings necessary for infrared photography and provides some basic exposure and contrast options. From DPP, I exported to Photoshop, where I’ve created an Action to swap the Red and Blue channels, which is what gives the blue tint to the skies. I made a few tweaks in Nik Software’s Viveza 2 and exported a Photoshop PSD file, which I picked up in Lightroom for captioning and keywording.
If you think that sounds like a lot of work, you’d be right. I’m sure that I’ll find ways to fine-tune the workflow although I’m not anticipating that Infrared will become a large part of my future work but I’m pleased to be getting to grips with it. There really is something quite enchanting about seeing into a world which was previously unreachable. Next step, I’m getting my eyes converted.