Digital Imaging Beyond the Visible
Shooting Infrared Photographs with Your Digital Camera
by Chris Maher and Larry Berman
Featured in the February 2002 issue of Shutterbug Magazine
*Chris got the Shutterbug cover*

This article is expanded to include example images on our companion web site:

Including a mini review of the the Sony DSC-F707

Shooting Infrared with the CoolPix 5000
Sony DSC-F707 Infrared Gallery

copyright chris maher
Mouse over this image to see it in infrared

Years ago I used to love to shoot Kodak High Speed Infrared Film. You never knew exactly what you would get until after it was processed. But, oh what amazing images could be made! Green foliage glowed white, people’s skin could change to an ethereal complexion, and sunny skies could range from jet black to a rich silvery gray. But exposure and composition was all guesswork. How much IR was in any given scene? Your camera’s light meter didn’t know. Even focus was a guess, as IR wavelengths focus at a different point than visible light. And the really effective filters blocked all visible light – a severe handicap for SLR cameras.

All that has changed with the advent of digital cameras. Most have CCDs that are sensitive to the part of the spectrum known as “near infrared”. Put the right filter in front of the lens to block visible light, and the camera will automatically adjust its focus and exposure, showing you the resulting infrared image on your cameras LCD in real time. For those who have worked with infrared films in the past this is nothing short of a miracle.

What is Infrared Light
and Why Do Plants Seem to Glow with it?

Technically, the part of the spectrum that most digital cameras can see is called near infrared. It is composed of the frequencies just below visible red light, starting at a wavelength of around 700 nm (nanometers). These longer wavelengths often are absorbed or reflected quite differently than visible light. Most noticeable is the way that the internal structure of leaves strongly refracts near IR. The resulting brightness is dependant on the type of leaf and it’s health. Other things, such as still water or a deep blue sky will absorb IR, and thus appear very dark.

Can My Camera Do This?

Most CCDs are sensitive to more than the visible light spectrum. Manufactures often compensate for this by including a “hot mirror” to block infrared light, and thus maintain a true color balance.

Testing for infrared sensitivity

The simple way to tell if your camera is going to see IR is to take a TV or VCR infrared remote control and point it at your camera. Push a button on it and look on the LCD for a spot of light. You should be able to see a point of light. If you do, you will be able to shoot IR images with your camera.

Next, you will need to buy a filter that will block all visible light, but allow infrared radiation to pass. Different filters block varying amounts of shorter wavelength light. In increasing degree of strength are the Wratten #89B, Wratten #88A, Wratten #87, and Wratten #87C filters. I have had great results with an inexpensive 88A filter from Harrison and Harrison (1835 Thunderbolt Drive Unit E, Porterville, CA 93257-9300 phone 559-782-0121)

If your camera has no thread for a screw in filter, you can buy gelatin filters and cut them down to fit over your lens, and tape them in place. I find gelatin filters especially helpful for supplemental lenses like Nikon’s fisheye. I just cut a small circle the size of the rear element of the lens, and place it between the camera and fisheye before I screw it in place.

Shooting Technique

When you place a sharp cut IR filter in front of your digital camera's lens, you are granted entry to an invisible world. Surreal landscapes unfold with unexpected graphic elements, such as inky black skies or open luminous shadow areas.

To compose really strong images in this netherworld requires close examination of your cameras LCD. This presents a problem since LCD screens are very hard to see in bright outdoor light. One solution is to use a LCD screen hood and magnifier like the Xtend-a-View™. This clever device fits over your camera’s LCD, blocking all extraneous light, and magnifies your screen by a factor of 2x. Or just use a camera with an electronic viewfinder, like the Canon Pro90 IS.

When I go looking for infrared images, I'll often walk with one eye to the LCD viewfinder and the other open to see what's around me. I shoot lots of images, as there are no expensive film and processing costs to deal with.

Depending on your cameras sensitivity, exposures can be fairly long, even in direct sun. The Nikon CoolPix 990 may need up to a 15 second exposure. I usually shoot at around 1/15 of a second with the more sensitive CoolPix 950, and 1/8 of a second with the Canon Pro90 IS. If your camera allows you to increase the apparent ISO, that will help a bit. Features such as the CoolPix “Best Shot Selector” or the internal Image Stabilizer in the Canon Pro 90 IS really help with long exposures. Each is so effective that I find I rarely need a tripod.

A tripod can be very useful, however, as it will allow you capture intriguing pairs of color and infrared images. Just shoot with the filter, then remove it and take a second shot. The two images will be in perfect register, and will allow you to experiment with mixing colors with your infrared image using a program like Photoshop or Paint Shop Pro.

Choosing your Subjects

Plants are quite spectacular in the way they glow. Healthy leaves can go almost white, while dead and dying vegetation is often quite a bit darker. The bark of trees can range from a rich black to a birch like white.

People’s skin can glow with a soft light, and occasionally a latticework of small veins can be seen just beneath the surface. Eyes can be quite spooky, as the iris can absorb or transmit infrared in unexpected ways.

Bodies of water can reflect IR if the surface is in motion, but will tend to absorb it if it is still. Shallow water is often quite transparent.

The sky will range from a light gray to black, depending on the angle you are shooting relative to the sun, and the kind of atmospheric particles causing backscatter. Clouds are often brilliant white, becoming strong visual elements.

Cityscapes can be richly varied, as buildings reflect and absorb different amounts of IR, and overall image clarity is often dramatic, as atmospheric scattering of near IR wavelengths is generally quite low.

Post Processing the Image

Your infrared images may have some strange color and tonal balance to them right out of the camera. Some may go quite red; others may have a cyan sheen. Rarely will they have a full tonal range.

Adjusting curves and levels in a program like Photoshop will allow you to clean up the image. I like to convert my RGB images into true grayscale before I print them. Sometimes I’ll simply desaturate the image, other times I find there is less noise in the image if I converted to LAB mode first, choose the lightness channel, and then convert to grayscale.

Photoshop also provides the means to produce other classic infrared film effects. Kodak High Speed Infrared Film was quite grainy, and had no anti-halation backing. This caused the highlights to flare and glow with a soft, dreamlike effect. You can add both these effects to your digital images using Photoshop’s Diffuse Glow filter.

Printing Your Images

Inkjet printers can do a marvelous job of creating black and white prints. I’ve been pleased with the new Canon S800, a six-color printer that uses individual ink cartridges. My black and white infrared prints have rich, deep blacks, and sparking highlights. With a simple color adjustment I can choose between printing sepia tone or neutral toned prints.

For anyone who has any experience with infrared film, shooting digital infrared will seem like a dream come true. Being able to preview the results in real time is critical to composing the most effective images. For wedding photographers thinking of offering IR shots as an added feature, digital allows instant results as well as the ability to shoot color with the simple change of filter.

To see more of our own digital infrared work, and see a list of IR resources, please check out www.InfraRedDreams.com

Is the Sony DSC-F707 Cyber-shot the ultimate IR camera?

Imagine a 5 megapixel digital camera with a simple switch that moves the IR blocking “hot glass” out of the optical path, a camera with an excellent electronic viewfinder, and even a pair of built in infrared emitters to illuminate your subject in total darkness. Sound like the ultimate IR camera? In low light conditions, the Sony DSC-F707 IR abilities are phenomenal. Unfortunately, Sony has intentionally limited its ability to work in normal daylight. Stung by sensationalist reports in the media about how it’s infrared capable video cameras could see through clothing, (some kinds of material, especially wet bathing suits, tend to be somewhat translucent to IR light), Sony has limited the Cyber-shot’s exposure range. When in “NightShot” (IR) mode, the camera will not adjust it’s exposure to be shorter than 1/60 of a second at f2.0, thus greatly overexposing in daylight. Combining an 88a infrared filter with neutral density filters can compensate for this limitation, but it’s a shame that this artificial restraint exists at all. Overall, this camera is a joy to work with, opening up a whole world of nighttime infrared possibilities.

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