Light, Heat And Life: Infrared Photography In A Digital Age

Infrared photography is an enigma—something that isn't as it first appears. It plays with the viewer's emotions and often brings out the whimsical side or the eerie, dark shadows in everyone's hearts.
 

A majestic great egret, its black beak and legs contrasted against the body‚’s bright white plumage. While the feathers remain a bright white, when going infrared, the beak and legs become a stark black. A majestic great egret, its black beak and legs contrasted against the body‚’s bright white plumage. While the feathers remain a bright white, when going infrared, the beak and legs become a stark black

I love to have fun with my photography, and infrared is no exception. When George Lepp lent me his Canon EOS D60 that had been converted to infrared, I went wild. I spent the afternoon trying everything—hot white agave reflecting the sun, brooding copses with weedy branches in the shade and the still water of a swimming pool surrounded by the exotic filigree of coconut palms and ferns. Later, I created startling images in Photoshop that would challenge the viewer to see again, asking the audience to confront reflected light and see beyond the red end of the visible spectrum.

The Digital Age

Years ago, I tried infrared photography with film. I gave up trying because it was expensive and difficult to get right. But I loved the results—sparkling whites, dense darks and delicate shadings along a broad spectrum of grays. Today, it’s easier. With a digital camera converted to infrared, it’s possible to experiment and see light in a way that you never imagined.

You can play outdoors in the mid-day sun because infrared is best in sunlight. But foggy moments in low light can also work well. The key is structure; "cold" nonreflective darks give arrangement and composition to "hot" life, as chords give structure to a melody. There’s no limit to the types of infrared photography you can try. Landscapes, flowers, birds, mammals, reptiles, travel photography and people are but a few subjects to explore.

I’ve used lenses from a 16mm fish-eye to a 600mm telephoto and traveled to locations from Hawaii to Alaska, Mexico to Europe and all over the continental United States. On my left shoulder sits my Canon EOS 5D, but on my right shoulder the infrared Canon EOS D60 waits for its moment, ready to stoke my imagination and uncover the serene beauty of undiscovered scenes.

The Eye Of The Beholder

You have to "see" differently for infrared. You must learn to visualize reflected light and heat, as well as shade and cold in different ways. First, the importance of finding structure, design and shape is paramount to your composition.

Cold objects in infrared abound. Tree trunks, patterns of shade, fences, rocks, ridges, still water, the legs and beaks of birds, and crevices in reptiles are prime examples. Even blue sky turns black because there’s no reflected light.

After you find structure, you add life—literally. Life is hot and white in the world of infrared.

Photosynthesis is hot. Leaves reflect sunlight and appear white, unless cooled by the shade. Palm fronds are delicate arrangements of pure, white-hot life against the backdrop of a clear blue (think black) sky. Clouds are shapes and shades of gray and white arranged on that same backdrop.

 

Left to Right: A surreal coconut palm grove on Molokai, Hawaii, stretches upward; The structure of a plumeria flower glows stark white as it opens in the sunlight; Bald cypress trees at Corkscrew, some approaching 600 years in age and reaching heights of 130 feet, reflected in a lake.

 


 

Light, Heat And Life: Infrared Photography In A Digital AgeThe fog-bound view of farmland, absorbing light against the mountains in the distance.

Still water is cold and dark, so it’s perfect for adding shape. Flowing water is light, a trill on the structure of a rock or the shore. Reflections can be silvery or lacy—even ominous. It’s your choice, in the camera or in Photoshop.

Thinking outside the box often works wonders. Fog, which is cool and absorbs light, is often dramatic against views of mountain ridges. Sometimes fog is rendered soft and pulls you into a diaphanous world of imagined wonders.

Experimenting is the key. Not only will you find a delightful new way of seeing light, but you also may sharpen your ability to "see" color for your color photography. Remember to think outside the box, and you’ll produce moving images—the kind of images that make people stop, look and think about the message you’ve created.

Technical Requirements

I converted an old Canon EOS D60 to record only infrared images, but a number of Canon, Nikon and Fujifilm cameras can be converted. When converted, the camera will operate like its unmodified version with these exceptions:

1. You must use only the Custom White Balance that was preset to neutralize the image, but instructions are given to reset it should you need to.

2. Because your camera records visible light, it won’t correspond to the proper infrared exposure, so you should generally shoot at ISO 200, ƒ/11 or above and about 1/30 to 1/60 sec., but experimentation will show you what works best in different situations.

3. Shoot in the RAW mode, and render as 16-bit TIFFs for your sharpest images and best printing results.

4. Be extremely careful with your sensor, and remove dust with a bulb and syringe only.

Dark, cold water flows beneath rocks on a beach to create a silvery texture to the frame. The prominence of a dolphin‚’s eye becomes hypnotic through the infrared image composed with the converted Canon EOS D60. A dead fish on the beach creates interesting structure amid the sand.
Left to Right: Dark, cold water flows beneath rocks on a beach to create a silvery texture to the frame; The prominence of a dolphin’s eye becomes hypnotic through the infrared image composed with the converted Canon EOS D60; A dead fish on the beach creates interesting structure amid the sand.

Adobe Photoshop doesn’t recognize the Custom White Balance in the camera, so downloads will look sickly red in RAW, but in JPEG, they’ll look black-and-white. If working in RAW, you’ll have three steps:

1. Set Saturation to 0.

2. Adjust Shadows until the left side of the histogram just touches the edge.

3. Adjust Exposure until the right side of the histogram is near the right edge. Sometimes I’ll also brighten a little at this point. In Photoshop, you’ll need to do a Levels adjustment as well. You also may want to crop, dodge or burn, or remove spots, but little else. When you’re done and ready to save the image file, go to Image > Mode > Grayscale to remove the color information.

To view more of Connie Bransilver’s photography, visit her website at www.conniebransilver.com.

Resources
Digital Photography For What It’s Worth
www.dpfwiw.com/ir.htm
Eric Cheng: Digital Infrared Photography
www.echeng.com/photo/infrared
InfraRed Dreams
www.infrareddreams.com
IRDigital Inc.
www.irdigital.net
Life Pixel Infrared Conversion
www.lifepixel.com

 

 

 

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