Photograph the Invisible

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In the film era, shooting infrared photos required special film and a trial-and-error approach to calculating the correct exposure. Digital IR photography, however, is surprisingly easy.

What You’ll Need

To test your digital camera’s infrared sensitivity, you’ll need a handheld electronic infrared-emitting device—better known as a TV remote control. Turn on your camera as though you were preparing to take a picture, and point the remote at its lens. As you watch the camera’s LCD, press any button on the remote. If you can see a pulsing white light, your camera should be able to capture IR photographs. (If you have a camera that can’t preview shots on its LCD—such as Canon’s Digital Rebel—you’ll need to take a picture while pressing the remote’s button. Then review the photo to see whether a white light appears in it.)

You’ll also need a way to block out visible light so the camera’s imaging sensor (the CCD) can pick up the scene’s infrared rays. To do this, attach an IR filter to your camera’s lens. The lens barrels on most midrange and high-end digital cameras offer threads for attaching filters. For my Sony Cyber-shot DSC-F828 camera, I used a 58mm Hoya Infrared Filter R72, which you can purchase from most photo dealers for around $50.

If your camera can detect infrared light but can’t accept screw-on filters, you can still shoot in IR—just hold an IR filter tightly against the lens when you shoot. To avoid shaking the camera, consider using the $10 Cokin Digi-Holder ( .html), which screws into your camera’s tripod mount and holds a filter in front of your lens.

Taking the Shot

There are a few things to keep in mind when you’re setting up an IR photo shoot.

Keep It Steady Because an IR filter is almost completely opaque, your photo will require a long exposure—a half second or more, even on a sunny day. To ensure sharp shots, mount your camera on a tripod.

If you don’t have a tripod, that’s OK. Here’s a workaround I use: Turn on your camera’s self-timer mode—the same mode you use to include yourself in a picture. Next, set your camera on a rigid surface and compose your shot. Press the shutter release and carefully pull your hands away from the camera. Because you won’t be touching the camera when the timer trips the shutter, you won’t risk shaking the camera.

Kill the Flash To compensate for the dark filter in front of the lens, your camera will want to use its automatic flash. To prevent this, turn off your camera’s flash before shooting. On most cameras, you do this by cycling through your flash modes until you find one represented by a crossed-out lightning bolt.

Choosing Your Subject

Once you’ve set up your camera, you’re ready to start shooting. Here are a few subjects that look especially good in IR light.

Foliage Chlorophyll strongly reflects IR light, giving deciduous trees, ferns, and other bright-green plants a beautiful, silvery glow. Conifers, however, don’t look quite as dramatic.

Clouds Bright skies turn dark in IR photos, and they create a striking contrast with billowing cumulus clouds. Puffing smokestacks—while not typically a favored photographic subject—also make for dramatic shots, and water appears nearly black.

Loved Ones Skin takes on a smooth glow in IR photos, and blemishes all but disappear. On the downside, pupils have a tendency to disappear, and lips may look too pale. Not everyone loves the results of IR portraits, but people definitely won’t mistake these images for ordinary snapshots.

Processing Your Shot

When you first view your IR photos, you may be disappointed with their appearance. The photos will probably be dark, and they may have a strong purple or red tint. But these problems are easily corrected in just about any image editor.

The first thing you’ll want to do is strip out the tint and give your photos that classic black-and-white look. If you use Apple’s iPhoto ($49 as part of the iLife Suite;, open the photo in Edit mode and click on the B&W button. If you use Adobe Photoshop Elements ($99;, open the photo and go to Enhance: Adjust Color: Remove Color.

Next, you’ll want to add visual drama by adjusting the photo’s brightness and contrast. To do this in iPhoto, use the Edit window’s Brightness/Contrast sliders. But you’ll have more control—and get better results—with the Levels command in Photoshop Elements (Enhance: Adjust Brightness/Contrast: Levels).

In the Levels dialog box, drag the black- and white-point markers (the small triangles located beneath the histogram) to the outer edges of the histogram, where the image data begins (see “On the Level”). Then click on the gray triangle, which represents the image’s midtones, and drag it to the left or the right as necessary to add punch to the image.

A quicker—but less precise—option is to use Auto Levels (Command-shift-L), which automatically adjusts these values according to Photoshop’s own calculations.

Beyond Infrared

Here’s another project you can try with IR photography: combine a full-color photo and an IR photo to create a beautiful, hand-tinted look.

First, mount your camera on a tripod and take two photos of a scene—one with the IR filter in place, and one with it removed. Be careful not to bump or move the camera between shots.

Next, open the two shots in Photoshop Elements or Photoshop CS and optimize the IR photo as described previously.

Switch to the full-color image, and make sure the Layers palette is visible on the right side of the screen. (If it isn’t, drag it from the toolbar’s Palette Well.) Press the shift key, and drag the Background layer from the color image’s Layers palette into the window containing your IR image. This step aligns the two images in one window.

Examine the Layers palette in the combined document. Layer 1—which contains the newly imported color image—should be highlighted. Open the Filter menu and choose Blur: Gaussian Blur. To create a heavy blur, use a Radius setting of around 20 pixels and click on OK. Press Command-U to open the Hue/Saturation dialog box, and then drag the Saturation slider about 40 units to the right to exaggerate the image’s colors.

Finally, return to the Layers palette, verify that Layer 1 is still selected, and drag the Opacity slider (in the top right corner of the palette) to the left until the IR layer begins to show through. Your finished photo will look as though you’d spent hours hand-coloring it.

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