Time for some spooky stuff!  Also, prepare to gain a new addiction – you might want to Google 12-step programs before proceeding (or not, your call).

Because infrared (a.k.a. IR) photography, can and has become for me a major addiction, sometimes to the exclusion of color, as I’ll describe below.

So to tell this story properly, I’ll use a small vignette for you – namely, my recent trip to Bodie, CA.  For those of you unfamiliar with it, Bodie is a ghost town about 45 minutes north of Mono Lake, northeast of Yosemite and south of Reno.  In its day, it was a big mining town (cue stereotypes, including more saloons and brothels than you can shake a stick at, pun very much intended).

I find that infrared really lends itself to subject like this – things that are lost, forgotten, old, and abandoned.  Properly processed (which absolutely needs doing!) this method of photography can yield truly haunting images, as if you’re looking into another realm.

But first, a bit of science.  We homo sapiens are able to perceive electromagnetic radiation between 390 to 700 nm in wavelength, a.k.a. the visible spectrum.  This is the blue, green, and all the  rest you see in a rainbow and everywhere else.  Infrared is the part of this spectrum from 700 to 1000 nm, i.e. just beyond human visibility into the red zone, and no – this is not a reference to, nor do I wish to be sued by, the kind folks at the NFL (though I might trade a few things for the 49ers not to be pathetic in 2015).

Taking photos in this range is obviously a bit unorthodox.  In fact, it is the case that most camera film or sensors is specifically designed to block IR wavelengths, so that the resulting images look “normal” to the eye.

You have two basic methods to get around this fact:

1) Filters.  These are ultra-dark-red, almost to the point of appearing black, that fit over your lens.  They often cause a loss of 6-8 stops of light (so on a Nikon that’s 18-24 clicks of your shutter speed wheel), which in turn means you WILL be chained to a tripod while shooting.  And have to set up a shot, then install filter, then shoot at a wicked long exposure time.  And turn off your AF after setting up the shot or you’ll regret it, trust me.

2) Converted camera or IR film.  In olden days you could buy film to take IR photos, but it was very expensive and had to be developed in near or total darkness, as a traditional darkroom would ruin it.  Digital has given the advent of companies that will take your camera and remove the IR cutoff filter from it and ship it back to you.  This can be middling expensive (a few hundred bucks per camera) but beware it will almost universally void your warranty and is non-reversible.

Side note #1 … don’t trust your exposure meter in the camera.  It’s best to experiment and find the “fudge factor” of how much differential you’ll need to get a proper histogram before shooting for real in the field.

Side note #2 … white balance.  Best to use is generally incandescent+3, or its equivalent on your camera.  Again play around if using a filter, especially so you know beforehand if you end up having it converted.  You can also adjust this as needed in Photoshop or Adobe Camera Raw- in which case, base it on something in the frame you know to be bright green (which translates to white in IR).

Final side note:  you’ll get more blue sky at 45 degree angle from the sun using a polarizer, too.

The above in mind, the usual tack – and the one I took – is to buy a filter and use it, and if you get addicted, send off your old camera for conversion when you eventually upgrade.  I’d recommend LifePixel, they did a fine job for me.  Their turnaround is fast, unless you’re a knucklehead like me who orders right after they have a plug in Outdoor Photography magazine.  I blame Uncle Sam for timing my tax refund wrong, durn guv’mint.

So now you have the equipment and know to shoot this whacko type of photography.  And you end up with an image on your LCD screen or computer that looks almost all magenta and boring, like this one:

RAW IR Building in Bodie
RAW IR Building in Bodie

Yawn-worthy, no?

Here the fun, and above all the ART, begins.  Because no matter how many IR pics I process the process is never 100% guaranteed.  The basics are

  • Set white balance properly.
  • Auto curve, tone, and color as needed.
  • Swap red and blue layers (Layer –> New Adjustment Layer –> Channel Mixer). Do one where you pick red, move red to 0 and blue to 100.  Then do the same again inverting blue and red.  You’ll end up with a purplish image.
  • Flatten the image.
  • Adjust tone/curve/color/tone again.
  • Adjust hue: I find magenta to around 90-100 increased hue yields a good white/orange, and green to 100+ yields a great blue sky.
  • Further adjustments as needed.

And you get:

Finished IR Building in Bodie
Finished IR Building in Bodie

By way of another example.  Raw:

RAW IR Gas Pump in Bodie
RAW IR Gas Pump in Bodie


Finished IR Gas Pump in Bodie
Finished IR Gas Pump in Bodie

And finally, by the way – watch out for snow.  When I got to Bodie it was snowing lightly and all over the ground about 1-2 inches deep.  Which makes getting white balance right in post-processing a serious SOB let me tell you. 

Have fun, and don’t swear too much at Photoshop – after all, you’re putting a square peg in a round hole on this one!  More of Bodie to come.

Also, for more IR, see that section on my website:


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