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What is Infrared Photography?

What is Infrared Photography?

Infrared photography is a look into the invisible world. The human eye can see wavelengths from  about 400nm-700nm (from purple to red); infrared is the light beyond 700nm. IR photography can be done with either infrared film, or a digital camera, and typically involves near infrared light in the 700nm to 1200nm range. This is different than thermal infrared, which images far into the infrared spectrum.

Infrared photography produces some very distinct effects which make them aesthetically pleasing. The most striking difference is the “Wood Effect”, an effect where leaves reflect light giving them a bright white look. This effect is named after the photographer Robert W. Wood, who is considered the father of infrared photography. This effect is utilized for landscape photography where it can be used to produce surreal color landscapes or high contrast B+W photographs.

What are the uses of IR Photography

Infrared photography has a strong appeal for fine art photography. It looks very surreal and otherworldly, with trees taking on a bright white or yellow hue, and skies a red or blue hue. Leaves appear frozen over and skies take on dramatic colors in both black and white and color photography. Take a look at our Gallery page for examples taken with our cameras.

IR photography is also a very useful tool for a wedding or portrait photographer. Skin looks much softer and most blemishes disappear.

Besides the appeal of fine art photography, infrared and full spectrum photography are used in other fields. Many materials and dyes do not look the same in visible light and infrared light. This can be used to spot camouflage, spot counterfeit money, and see through spills for document recovery.

Full spectrum photography is popular in the field of physics for taking pictures of the stars as some stars are only visible when viewed in the IR or UV spectrum.
There are also countless other applications for full spectrum photography including agricultural or ecological plant analysis, medical applications, forensics, greater light sensitivity for low light shooting, game hunting, as well as many others.

How is IR photography done?

There are three general ways to do IR photography.

  1. Infrared film: This was the first method developed and for a long time this was the only way to shoot infrared. This required specialized film, the use of an infrared filter over the lens, and specialized developing. This can still be done today, but the film is hard to find. Pros: Nostalgia, and learning to overcome challenges. Cons: Hard to find the film, hard to keep the film from fogging, exposure and focus bracketing required.
  2. Digital camera with an infrared lens filter: This is possible because modern digital sensors are (luckily!) sensitive to wavelengths between 300 and 1200nm.  To preserve the color fidelity for normal photography, manufacturers have integrated “IR Cut filters” over the sensors to block UV and IR. These filters are not perfect, so by placing a 720 IR filter on the lens and taking a long exposure, you can take infrared photos on some cameras. Pros: The cheapest way to try infrared. Cons: Long exposures require a tripod, motion blur, exposure and focus bracketing, less filter options.
  3. Infrared converted camera: By removing the IR cut filter that is over the sensor and replacing it with an IR pass filter, the camera becomes fully sensitive to infrared. This infrared conversion removes the need for long exposures and lens filters. Pros: Normal exposure times, using the camera like normal, more filter options, sharper results. Cons: Pricier than a filter.



4 Responses

  1. This is a great article talking about some of the major difference between digital and film infrared. I was wondering if you have a few more details on shooting portraits with infrared film and not a digital camera converted to full spectrum. Thanks again for the great article.

  2. I just started doing infra red using a modified Nikon D-7000 and the results are stunning. I find old buildings are an excellent subject as well as landscapes. It has been my experience so far that setting my camera for a dark
    exposure gives me better results and more contrast. Your article has helped me to understand the entire process better.

  3. Really enjoyed this article, who is the photographer for the image? Also, I cant seem to wrap my head around the filter process. If the sensor has its own “block IR filter” and we place an IR filter on the lens are we breaking up the IR rays so that the sensor thinks the IR rays are something in the visible arena? Also on a side note purple is the combination of red and blue- blue being at 400nm.

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